Adorning the grounds
By Jennifer Hannigan
Exquisite landscaping on campus doesn’t just happen.
It’s the result of the grounds beautification crew’s undeniable pride in their work. And it shows.
The University’s flower beds and greenery often provide the perfect backdrop for pictures, events and documenting different seasons. During Homecoming, bright orange leaves match the bright smiles of reunions with old friends while spring blooms are as colorful as Spring Sing costumes and contrast against the black robes of May graduation. However, while many see the campus grounds as a backdrop, Director of Grounds Beautification Johnny Ferguson thinks they are the stars of the show.
Having served as director for almost 23 years, Ferguson has spent most of his time outside, even before he was taking care of plant life on campus. “I always liked growing stuff when I was living in Mississippi,” he says. “I like seeing things grow, landscaping and making it look better.”
With the traditional office traded for one outdoors, Ferguson has the best view on campus. “I’ve learned to appreciate nature more and more,” he says. “It’s hard to describe how pretty a bloom is. It starts from a little stem and becomes a beautiful flower.”
Ferguson’s love for his job is apparent. He keeps a photo album of flower beds and landscaping around campus, showing each picture like a proud father. “If I was working at a factory or something like that, I probably wouldn’t have a picture of it. I feel really fortunate to have this job. When I retire, I can look back on these pictures and know that I did help this place or at least tried to. I’m proud of it.”
Ferguson and his seemingly small team of seven workers maintain every facet of the grounds, from mowing and weeding to landscaping in front of the University’s buildings. “When I come back from vacation and walk around campus, I can’t believe that we get all of this done with as few people as we have, and it looks so good.”
And, while most would think that advertising for the University is left to the admissions or public relations offices, Ferguson’s work makes a statement to passersby. “We like to put things like blooming flowers out on the streets where everyone can see them,” he says. “We call it the windshield effect. Bright colors make people look. We also try to have a lot of blooming plants, like azaleas, dogwoods and crepe myrtles around because, when they bloom, they really light up the place.”
His responsibilities change along with the seasons. During summer and winter months, many plants die from heat or cold and have to be replaced. Warm-weather plants are transferred into the greenhouse to be replanted next year.
Autumn’s falling leaves also keep his team busy. “As leaves fall, probably until the last of February, we’ll have to rake leaves every week because they’re steadily coming down. We chop them up for mulch in the flower beds.” Dead plants and tree limbs are also collected by the city of Searcy to be ground into mulch.
Before classes begin in August, Ferguson and his team plant or rework flower beds on campus and around the buildings. “When we get a new building, we do the landscaping and install the sprinklers almost every time. On a remodeled building, we have to go behind the construction workers because, by the time they get finished, they’ve just about destroyed everything there.”
The campus’ newest landscaping can be found in front of the Administration Auditorium, where some plants had been “35 years or maybe longer,” according to Ferguson. “The plants got out of hand and lanky. The building needed a new face. We did a lot of landscaping the last three or four years on main campus, and this blended it to complete that new look.”
The team’s hard work does not go unnoticed. For many, it is one of the first things remarked upon when visiting campus. For Searcy real estate agent and alumna Barbara Graham (’73) Duncan, the University’s landscaping adds to Searcy’s beauty as well. “The grounds crew does a great job maintaining campus,” says Duncan. “I take pride as a Realtor when I drive clients around Searcy and point out Harding. The University, I think, truly wants to add to the beauty of the hometown and not just the campus itself.”
For couples planning their wedding, one of the appeals of Cone Chapel is its view of the campus. In choosing a wedding location, Daniel (’07) and Erica Seawel (’08) Wade found the chapel a perfect venue. “The chapel needs very few decorations because of the gorgeous backdrop of the front lawn,” says Erica. “We have many fond memories on Harding’s campus, and it’s nice to have that same setting reflected in our wedding pictures. We are very thankful for all of the people who work hard to make campus a beautiful place.”
While proud of the work he and his crew accomplish around campus, Ferguson quickly points out that the grounds are not his own doing but that of the Lord. “My team and I have the knowledge to plant it out there, but it’s left up to the good Lord to make it bloom, turn it red when it should be red, and make the leaves fall off when they’re supposed to. We just try to take care of it a little bit for him.”