Using the city as her canvas and colorful floral designs as her medium, Lisa Phillips has made Columbia part of an ongoing art project.
Her work is showcased throughout the city: in the beautifully designed flower beds of its parks, in vibrant floral boxes downtown and in freshly cut green patches around roadway intersections.
As a horticulturist for the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, Phillips has the daunting task of overseeing city landscaping. To Phillips, landscaping does more than provide a flashy face for the city. Aesthetic value, she said, affects individuals, too.
“I think it makes people feel good — it makes the community a more attractive place to live,” she said, “and I really think that, even if people don’t realize it, that it makes them feel better to be in beautiful surroundings.”
Park services manager Mike Griggs said of landscaping: “It adds color ... it jazzes things up. It allows you to be in a natural environment without having to travel great distances.”
It’s a dirty job …
Phillips and fellow groundskeeper Rhea Rostine operate under the parks department’s Natural Resources Division, supervised by Brett O’Brien. The crew manages the landscaping and maintenance of 68 areas, many of which have multiple beds. This adds up to nearly 1 million square feet of landscaped areas, including more than 175,000 square feet of ornamental turf, which must be delicately maintained.
Phillips’ primary area of expertise, however, is the work done in the greenhouse. This year alone, she has raised about 15,000 annuals to be planted throughout the city later this spring. Those are in addition to the 6,000 spring tulip bulbs that were planted in the fall that are now in full bloom.
Among other responsibilities, Phillips designs gardens throughout city parks, cultivates flowers and plants in a greenhouse, mows ornamental turf and maintains flower beds through watering, weeding, pruning and mulching.
Griggs said he is impressed with the work of the horticulture staff, which is made up of Phillips and Rostine as the two full-time groundskeepers and eight seasonal workers.
“We do a lot with few people. Together they work very well — they get a lot of things done,” he said.
While no two days on the job are exactly the same, Phillips said a typical day in the greenhouse includes watering, fertilizing and spacing plants to provide adequate room for growth. She also tends to seedlings — the tiniest of plants — on a light table, a sort of metal shelving system that provides constant warmth and light.
Throughout the day, she may busy herself by spraying beds for weeds or mixing pesticides. Most recently, the horticulture crew has been moving soil to prepare Stephens Lake Island to be planted. Each nine-hour day is chock full of things to do.
“You don’t get bored,” she said. “You might get really tired and dirty, but you don’t get bored.”
The job is so tiring, in fact, that Phillips lacks the energy to maintain a garden at home. She gave that up years ago.
“I’ll just do my gardening at work,” she said with a chuckle.
… but someone has to do it
The horticulture staff will begin transplanting plants out of the greenhouse within the next several days. Phillips said she had anticipated starting May 1, but she might start earlier. The plants ultimately determine her deadline.
“Those are saying ‘plant me right now,’ “ she said, noting a table of yellow zinnias bursting out of their pots. “They’re ready.”
Over the two- to three-week period that follows, Phillips and staff will paint the city with a kaleidoscope of petunias, flowering maple, begonias, million bells, cleomes and dozens of other species. Overall, Phillips has cultivated about 46 varieties of annuals this year.
Phillips chooses plants based on how well they’ll survive and thrive in Columbia’s climate.
“(If) it’s got interesting foliage, interesting flowers, it’s dependable, it’s fragrant,” she said. “If it’s a healthy plant, then to me that’s beautiful.” She added that she is partial to blue.
The crew operates according to a budget laid out by the City Council, which last year allotted $234,672 for horticulture. The bulk of this amount was used in city parks, and the rest was distributed between downtown planters, parking lots, public streets, and buildings and grounds.
Phillips said the city supports the department’s efforts to beautify Columbia.
“Columbia is a great place to work if you’re in a ‘green industry’ because they’re so environmentally conscious and so supportive of horticulture in general,” she said. “I think for a city this size that the citizens are really getting their money’s worth out of this department.”
MU law student Michael Brown appreciates Phillips’ efforts to make Columbia more pleasing to the eye. Brown, an avid bicyclist who uses city trails regularly, compared landscaping to the concept of “dressing for success.”
“It does a lot for the quality,” he said. “If a city looks good, then people are gonna take more pride in it.”
Phillips has been in the business for 20 years. She developed an interest in gardening during her junior year as a business major at MU, and soon her green thumb got the best of her. She worked for a commercial greenhouse for four years before being hired by the city. Today, she, too, has a hand in helping students realize their own potential.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of kids that have worked with us that have made that their major — landscape design,” she said.
Phillips is proud to have appeared in 16 “Leisure Times” instructional videos and is preparing to record a 17th. The videos, which have included tips about choosing annuals, designing landscaping and planting, are shown on Channel 13, Mediacom’s city government access channel, as a service of the Parks and Recreation Department.
Griggs said that Phillips’ experience makes her an integral part of the department.
“What makes Lisa a value to us is her knowledge of all the various landscape practices, and her knowledge of the park system. ... That’s invaluable.”