Sowing the seeds of excellence
Health System landscapers win local and national awards
|Roger L. Conner, the Buildings and Grounds supervisor for the Health System landscape and labor crews, considers the beautification certificate from the local Council of Garden Clubs as important as the national awards he and his staff have won, because it signifies that area residents recognize the improvements.
By Matt Kelly
Roger L. Conner wants the Medical Center grounds to mirror the excellence of the hospital and School of Medicine.
“The exterior should reflect what the interior is doing,” said Conner, the buildings and Grounds supervisor for the Health System landscape and labor crews.
That’s a lofty goal, considering the hospital is rated among the top 100 hospitals in the country, and the Medical School is ranked 25th in the country in the U.S. News rankings. But Conner and his crew have met their objective by winning the top prize in their field this year, the Green Star Grand Award from the Professional Grounds Management Society, an international association of landscape professionals.
Conner accepted the award from the society in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 6. He and his crew won the society’s second highest trophy last year.
Closer to home, the Council of Garden Clubs in Albemarle and Charlottesville also honored Conner’s crew for its work with a Beautification Certificate of Appreciation, to reward businesses that take steps to improve their landscaping.
“That one meant as much if not more” than the Green Star Award, Conner said, because “local people have seen what the grounds used to look like” and appreciate the improvements.
The Medical Center grounds were recommended for the award by several people who work at the hospital, said Nancy Bartoes, executive director of the Council of Garden Clubs. Conner’s crews do their own work and “make the areas pleasant” for visitors and patients, she said, noting that the committee was impressed with the variety of gardens and how well they are maintained.
In his four years at the Medical Center, Conner has wrought extensive changes in its landscaping. One of the most notable is at the main
entrance of the hospital, where he scrapped crab apple trees that obscured the entry at eye level and replaced them with ground cover and flowering plants around a flagpole.
Conner has tried to “bring the grounds up so that they make the patient feel comfortable” through balancing color, incorporating appropriate ground cover, maintaining straight bed lines and keeping the mulch beds clean. “If people stop to look at the flowers, they are not thinking of why they are at the hospital,” he said.
His plan also includes changing the annual beds every six months, replacing plant material and introducing new flowers such as violas and pansies in the winter. Conner favors annual flowers, but incorporates lemon cucumbers, herbs, garlic chives and cherry tomatoes in some gardens, as well as medicinal plants, such as St. John’s Wort. He plans eventually to install a true medicinal garden in the Medical Center’s landscape.
“I think he’s done an outstanding job, and I’m not the only one,” said William E. “Nick” Carter, chief of Health System network relations and facilities planning. “He adds a real personal touch and is creative. He makes the place look more finished.”
Conner does much of the landscape design work, which is then reviewed by members of his crew, including senior Grounds worker Fred W. Averill, who has a horticulture degree from the University of Maryland. His crew can be harsh critics, but the award-winning success belongs to them, Conner said.
The call of the soil goes back a long way for Conner. Raised on a farm in Ohio, he moved to Virginia in 1977 when his parents took over a 38-acre parcel in North Garden. He received his business degree at Randolph Macon College. But the outdoors called to him. He went to work in a nursery in Maryland as a laborer, and learned about plants, design and pest management at a nearby community college. In 1997, he came to work at U.Va., managing part of North Grounds. He took over the Medical Center grounds in 2000, with responsibility for landscaping at the main hospital, Northridge and the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center — 108 acres broken into small parcels.
These factors create a challenge when competing with other institutions that may have more open space, Conner said. “We have to work in details to get the ‘wow’ factor.”
Conner also is diligent about being organic. During his first year he tried to check the soil in the annual beds, but it was so hard “you could not get the probe into the ground,” he said. Heavy compost and mulch treatments have improved the soil remarkably.
“It has gone from red clay to pretty good soil,” he said. “During the drought, [the] Lee Street [beds] never browned out.”
As defending champions, under Professional Grounds Management Society rules, Conner and his crew have to sit out of next year’s Green Star Award competition, but he wants to be back in it the following season. “We did well” this year, he said. “But do we have a perfect landscape? Not by a long shot.”