Back in Nebraska, Lucinda Mays wasn’t sure she could find a job in public horticulture until a conversation with Chadron State College led her to the role of grounds supervisor.
Mays grew up in Kearney, where she attended Kearney State, now the University of Nebraska Kearney (UNK), majoring in science education. She then moved to South Carolina in the 1980s, then to Georgia to work in various botanical gardens.
“I worked at Calloway Gardens, a 2,000-acre botanical garden in the Atlanta area,” Mays said. “I have a background in public horticulture, which means I have worked in botanical gardens and the nature of my work has always been the intersection of people and plants.”
Roger, Mays’ husband, received an offer to teach acting at Chadron State College. They took the opportunity to return home. Now she just needed to find a job.
“My husband taught acting at CSC and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get a job in public horticulture in northwest Nebraska, but the college was open to the idea,” he said. she declared. “I was doing my master’s and I had this training in public horticulture and I saw the need for it on campus. Campus administrators also saw the need at that time.
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After several conversations, the college created a Grounds Supervisor position that met some of the college’s needs for design, continuous plantings, and horticultural maintenance of over 250 acres.
“It’s fascinating work,” said Mays, reflecting on her 15 years of work at CSC. “The campus is over 100 years old, so it’s a combination of old plantings from then and new plantings every time we build a new building or have a new facility.”
However, she soon realized that the floors she was used to in Kearney weren’t the same in the Panhandle.
“It was a real eye-opener to move to northwest Nebraska,” she said. “I thought I was moving to topsoil country.”
She quickly discovered the value of having a range management program on campus to help identify soils and learn how various plants respond to grazing.
“I learned because we have alkaline soils here, I choose plants that are known to thrive in alkaline soil conditions,” Mays said. “For example, people always want to plant maple trees, but maple trees do better in acidic soils, so choose a maple native to that part of the world, the Canadian maple.”
Mays uses tissue paper and photographs to illustrate her designs while adhering to state university guidelines for maintaining foliage on campus.
“I take a lot of photos and I put tissues on those photos and I design the new installation over the photos,” Mays said. “That way I can show people who maybe don’t read the designs, here’s what we have and here’s what we could have.”
Mays added that the guidelines require her to replace a tree when a tree is lost on campus.
“It’s the rule and it’s a very good rule,” she said. “It’s the whole state college system. Basically, they want to make sure the tree canopy is maintained. It doesn’t have to be the same tree in the same place. It just has to be a tree on campus.
The other tool she uses is an aerial photograph of the campus. The photo is enlarged and placed on a foam core so it can keep track of any plants that need to be replaced and need to be removed. Based on the college’s 10-year plan for building renovations, determines how Mays takes care of the factories in that area.
“For example, right now we’re getting a big new addition to the math and science building,” Mays said. “Since we knew this was coming, I didn’t plant anything on that side of the building where this addition was going to go. It completely took over the landscape around it. It’s just construction for you. The trees that we could protect with fences, we did.The landscape will be replanted this spring.We had to cut down mature trees, which for me was not really a loss as they were in decline anyway.
She is currently working on a new design for the area after construction.
While developing the new plant arrangement, Mays ponders how it will contribute to an educational collection. The college has several teaching collections on campus to educate students and the public about types of plants and soils.
“Each facility on campus is a teachable collection either for a classroom or for a horticultural topic that the community might be interested in,” she said. “We have an educational collection of Sandhills plants and that has been specifically designed for the Range Management program – students will go to see grasses and shrubs to understand Sandhills plants.”
The statue of Mari Sandoz in front of the Sandoz Center is also surrounded by an educational collection. The large bed that surrounds the statue features Sandhills plants that were collected from Mari Sandoz’s grave, Mays said. Even soil was collected from the Sandhills.
Reflecting on her career at CSC, Mays said she enjoys balancing gardening and horticulture work with educational and community outreach.
“I think teaching about collections is one of the best ways to master plant communities to see them grow together,” she said. “I feel like we do a good job for our students when we develop teachable collections and it’s a good thing for our community and region when we develop horticultural collections for people to enjoy.”
As any agricultural person will attest, there are challenges in growing grasses or crops.
“The challenges of design in northwest Nebraska are the same as any agricultural person, whether you’re growing grass for livestock or trying to grow sugar beets or dry beans – the weather, the soils, the variability of storms – all of these things are essential to being able to develop a successful landscape, whether for food, ornamental value or an educational collection.
Whether students, faculty, or the community come to campus to learn about the diverse plants that grow in dune soils, to escape the stresses of the day, or for a campus event, the environment at Chadron State College is a vision carved on tissue paper that is becoming a reality with the help of the field crew and Mays.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than garden,” she says. “I’m one of those lucky people who can do what they love to do for a living. It’s a wonderful thing for me.