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Offbeat Occupations: Flower power planner

March 11, 2013

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Crystal Miles, who manages the city’s horticulture and forestry department, looks at some pansies, just some of the 31,000 flowers and bulbs that will adorn the city’s flower beds.

Crystal Miles, who manages the city’s horticulture and forestry department, looks at some pansies, just some of the 31,000 flowers and bulbs that will adorn the city’s flower beds.

In 2013, the city of Lawrence will plant 31,000 flowers and bulbs and take care of about 30,000 trees. And someone has to oversee it all.

Enter Crystal Miles, the city’s horticulture and forestry manager.

Miles is the woman behind the curtain when it comes to maintaining the city’s plants.

She decides what flowers the city will plant. She negotiates contracts with various plant growers. She organizes the labor and logistics to get the work done. And she even does a bit of gardening herself.

“It’s a balance between science and art,” she said about her job.

She should know — she’s been doing it for 32 years.

The science part of her job comes from her constant research and experimentation. She is always looking for the most insect- and disease-resistant plants to fill the medians, pots and flower beds dotting Lawrence. If the plants are going to survive in the summer, they have to be tough.

“We try to grow things in hot parking lots that get 150 degrees in the summer time,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

When plants aren’t doing well, she must solve the problem. Healthy plants are good plants. They take less labor to maintain or replace.

The artistic aspect of her job comes from creating the “color shows,” which means planning what, when and where different types of flowers will be planted in the city. This organizing is a big project and usually begins six months before any planting is done.

Miles gets together with other city horticulturists to plan summer planting. This year, much of the city will have pansies, followed by summer flowers and finished off with mums. They then plot their line-up to the minute details — flower color coordination, height, timing — using a computer program.

Miles then simplifies the final list so the city can get the most “bang for its buck,” about $23,000 when it comes to flowers and bulbs for next year.

Miles said she usually negotiates orders with about five different growers within 100 miles of Lawrence. The city places an order in October and the growers supply them with plants, sometimes grown locally, sometimes shipped to the U.S. from as far away as El Salvador and Africa.

When she isn’t planning, she is trying to keep on top of logistics.

“You have to be prepared for the season, whether it’s hiring enough workers willing to be hot and dirty, or being prepared with the plants and what vendors grow the best plants, and just rebuilding some things that get torn up by the public,” she said

She has to make sure the eight other people working in the horticulture and forestry department, plus seasonal staff, are keeping the trees, plants and flowers watered and well taken care of.

Miles has always had a green thumb. She became interested in forestry while participating in 4-H Club in Leavenworth County. She went to Kansas State University and studied horticulture and forestry. She started working for the city off and on since the late 1970s.

And after nearly three decades, she said the job has been a great fit for her.

“You’re allowed to be creative; the staff’s allowed to be creative,” she said. “It’s hard work, too. They enjoy that they can see their efforts. I can see my efforts. It makes it really rewarding.”

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