The Seeds of Change: Saddleback Horticulture and Landscape Design Student Mitchell Inokuchi Student Spotlight

October 26, 2021

Mitchell Inokuchi is a self-described “plant geek” but turning his passion into a profession wasn’t as easy as planting a seed and watering it. It took nurturing, hard work, and a chance connection with Saddleback College’s Horticulture and Landscape Design professor and department co-chair Ken Lee.

Mitchell, who earned his bachelor’s degree in communication from San Diego State University, came to Saddleback College in 2014 after spending five years teaching English in Japan. When he returned to Orange County, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do – but he knew he enjoyed working on his grandfather’s Japanese garden. His grandfather passed away when he was a young child and the garden needed some extra attention. 

“I brought it back to life,” Mitchell said. “It was a labor of love.”

Inspired by his experience, Mitchell began working at a nursery where one day he ran into Saddleback College professor Ken Lee. After agreeing to meet for coffee, Lee and Mitchell’s initial chat turned into a two hour discussion about Saddleback’s Sustainable Horticulture program.

“He got so excited and said, ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for.’ So, I said, ‘Follow your heart,’ and the next thing I realized was that he was in my class,” says Lee.

Founded in 1975, Saddleback’s Horticulture and Landscape Design program is special for three reasons: a focus on sustainability; curriculum that keeps up with current trends; instructors who are leaders in the horticulture industry; and an internship program that often leads to jobs for students who participate. 

Saddleback’s offerings include three occupational skills awards in General Horticulture, Plant Identification, and Landscape Design, all of which require only 3 classes to complete. Two certificates are available in Sustainable Horticulture and Sustainable Landscape Design, as is an Associate in Science degree. 

Students range from those like Mitchell looking to enter a new career to those interested in learning more about plants, landscaping and design. The program teaches the foundational skills of landscape design, basic landscape construction and maintenance, and how to grow and identify plant materials. 

Of all the things that make Saddleback’s program exceptional, it was the faculty that stood out to Mitchell. “They have a passion and a love for the industry,” says Mitchell. “They have so much knowledge that they want to provide you.” 

Another highlight of his time at Saddleback was obtaining an internship at BrightView Landscape Services.

“It was truly instrumental,” he said. “The knowledge I gained in classes helped me understand what was going on in the field. You learn the business side of making sure you’re staying within the budget for the site.” 

According to Lee, five or six internships are offered each semester, all of them with well-known companies that he’s grown to know over his 35 years in the horticulture industry. Students apply for the internships as if they were applying for a job, which also helps them learn the skills they’ll need to present themselves to prospective employers when they graduate. 

Since earning two different associate degrees in Landscape Design and Sustainable Horticulture in 2016, Mitchell has become a senior designer in the maintenance division of Gothic Landscape where he is responsible for renovating and updating landscapes for the company’s current clients who are located everywhere from San Diego to northern California, and even Las Vegas.  In light of California’s ongoing drought and the effects of climate change, Mitchell’s position has him focusing more and more on sustainability, a key part of his Saddleback education.

“What can we do to really be stewards of the Earth?” he asked. “We take it seriously in the sense that we want to provide designs and plant material that will stand the test of time. It’s not just the plants or the trees, but everything that they encompass to create a benefit on a bigger scale.” 

Eventually, Mitchell hopes to obtain a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture so that he can become an instructor at Saddleback College. He said he knows he’s found a field that he loves.

“I’m a plant geek,” he said. “There are so many plants that are so beautiful. I get to see the product of my work. It’s a product where you can create the design and see it grow throughout the year.”