Upon their retirement, two longtime horticulturists leave the city with a legacy of beauty

photo by: Mike Yoder

Horticulture and Forestry Manager Crystal Miles is pictured at South Park on Sept. 9, 2021.

As two longtime city horticulture employees embark on their retirements, they leave a bounty of colorful blooms, green landscapes and trees in their wake.

Horticulture and Forestry Manager Crystal Miles and Horticulture Field Supervisor John McDonald are both retiring this month, ending 40- and 36-year careers with the City of Lawrence. After decades of adding to the city’s landscapes, they hand over the care of more than 70 flowerbeds, 120 landscape areas and 34,000 street trees in the city right-of-way, plus additional trees on city and park property.

Miles, who grew up on a farm near Lawrence and attended Lawrence schools, said she’d always enjoyed being outdoors and had an interest in natural resources. Eventually, that would lead her to her position with the city.

“Being a farm kid, you’re outside a lot and it’s interesting to know your surroundings,” Miles said.

In a time when Miles said there were very few women in landscaping, she took biology and landscaping classes at Lawrence High School and after graduating began working as a seasonal employee for the Parks and Recreation Department. She returned to the job in the summers while she studied horticulture at Kansas State University. After working out of state and then at Pence’s Garden Center on 15th Street, she was hired as supervisor for the Parks and Rec horticulture division in 1981 before ultimately becoming the manager.

Horticulture and Forestry Manager Crystal Miles, then Crystal Wiley, is pictured at South Park in this Journal-World photo from Aug. 8, 1973.

As a manager for the city’s horticulture and forestry division, her various duties include dealing with contracts, code enforcement and subdivision ordinances that relate to trees and landscaping. That includes the city’s ordinances that require new subdivisions and developments to include a certain number of trees. Miles said some of her favorite parts of her job have been working with the horticulture team to design flowerbeds and get trees planted.

“I love planting trees, and we’ve planted a lot of them over the years,” Miles said. “It’s just such a beneficial aspect for the community to be able plant something that’s going to help clean the air and provide wildlife habitat.”

Over the span of their careers, Miles and McDonald and other city staff in the division have planted more than 20,000 trees in Lawrence, according to a city news release. Thanks to those and other efforts, Lawrence has been named a Tree City USA every Arbor Day for 43 consecutive years. One requirement of the award is public education, and McDonald has taught hundreds of kids how to plant trees through scout groups, school celebrations of Arbor Day and volunteer groups.

Referencing the Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax,” McDonald said in the release that the division’s employees “speak for the trees.”

“Engineers speak for the roads or the bridges, and we speak for the trees,” McDonald said.

City Of Lawrence employees Myra Greenberg, left, and John McDonald plant a new tree at the arboretum next to the Youth Sports Inc. fields.

McDonald, originally from McPherson, followed a path similar to Miles’, according to the release. He attended Kansas State University and also worked at Pence’s Garden Center before joining the horticulture division in 1985.

Far more than just planting trees, the city’s horticulture and forestry division is in charge of trimming, replacing and watering trees, as well as dealing with pests such as the invasive emerald ash borer. Recent decades have also seen the number of flowerbeds and landscaped areas in town increase, as more flowers were added to downtown Lawrence, city parks, city entrances and other city green spaces.

photo by: Nick Krug

David Hann, Lawrence, standing, works the dirt in a planter at the corner of Ninth and Massachusetts streets with city horticulturist John McDonald, during a volunteer effort to beautify downtown.

Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Mark Hecker said some people don’t realize all the work that goes into planting and tending to the city’s green spaces. He said the abundance of trees and flowers is not just happenstance, but the result of priorities set by city leaders. He said those priorities are passed down to those in the field who help do the work, like Miles and McDonald. Hecker said a lot of the landscaping throughout the city today didn’t exist before they started their careers.

“To me, what they do is just general appearance of the city,” Hecker said. “It’s just total beautification.”

City ordinances related to the planting and care of street trees go back decades, and Miles said the city started planting more flowerbeds about 20 years ago. Miles said planning those gardens included both form and function. Sitting on a bench overlooking the garden in front of the South Park gazebo, she noted that consideration was given to complementary colors, overall design and placement of native plants for pollinators. With help from Monarch Watch, Miles said native plants are spaced in a way that accommodates the flight patterns of butterflies.

photo by: Richard Gwin

This file photo from 2008 shows the Union Pacific Depot, 402 E. Second St.

In their many years with the city, Miles and McDonald were involved in the creation of some of the city’s most striking gardens. That includes the Japanese Friendship Garden in downtown Lawrence and the French-style garden — which Miles explained means that the garden is a mirror image of itself — at Lawrence’s Union Pacific Depot. The city now also has six pollinator gardens, including gardens on the west side of South Park and near the Lawrence Public Library.

Hecker said that while the city would continue the work, the dedication of Miles and McDonald, their combined 76 years of experience and their familiarity with the city’s landscaping and urban forest would be missed.

“We’re not going to replace that,” Hecker said. “We’re going to do the best we can — we have some great staff that are going to continue on with that legacy.”


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