Life Is a Rose Garden

When a local newspaper published a feature spread on the best jobs in Chico, university grounds keeper ranked in the top ten. Today, several years later, two groundskeepers say it still may be the best job in town.

Gary Willis and Gary Shields have forty-five years' experience between them as caretakers of the campus's vast complex of lawns, gardens, and riparian refugia. Hearing them talk about caring for Chico's largest non-golf course garden, it does sound like a pretty nice way to make a living.

The pay is good by local standards, and if you're the outdoor type, the perks-sunshine, fresh air, exercise, freedom, and scenery-are unbeatable. As evident as the grass stains on their jeans and the Vina loam under their fingernails, a love of growing things pumps through the bloodstream of these two avid earthworkers. Both leave work to tend their own gardens at home.

Willis started in 1969 as a student assistant and stayed with the job after earning a bachelor's degree and teaching credential at Chico State. "Most of the grounds-keeping staff has a degree in one thing or another," he said. "Like me, many of them started as students and elected to stay on after graduation."

Shields, the former head grounds keeper for the Reed Union School District in Tiburon, north of San Francisco, was hired in 1980 to fill a rare advertised job opening. He also once worked at the Butte Creek Country Club, and has taken horticulture classes at Butte College and Indian Valley Community College in the Bay Area.

Shields is responsible for one of the most high-profile areas on the campus grounds-the George F. Petersen Rose Garden. The roses were donated to the University in 1957 by Petersen, a prominent member of the community and a life-long lover of roses.

Of the 380 roses in the garden, a splash of fragrant color located between Glenn and Trinity Halls, the vast majority are hybrid teas, mixed with a few floribundas and grandifloras. New roses are often donated by people from the community, some in memory of loved ones who have passed away. None are Petersen's originals. Up to a dozen are replaced every year.

In summer, the garden is one of Shield's most time-consuming responsibilities. The ground around the plants must be kept clear of organic debris that can attract insects and foster the spread of rust fungi and powdery mildew. Old blossoms must be snipped off before rose hips develop, so the roses will continue to bloom. Constant attention is rewarded by showy blooms from March to October.

"It's a lot of work," he said, "but it has to be done for the garden to look its best."

Come fall, he lets the roses go to seed to complete their life cycles. Then he cuts them back to within two or three feet of the ground. He removes the weaker canes entirely, keeping the best to carry blossoms the following season.

His favorite rose varieties are Double Delight and Abracadabra, both hybrid teas. He's currently introducing few polyanthas and shrub roses into the garden. "I like them all, really," he said. "I'm always experimenting with new varieties to see how they grow and how people like them."

People like them a lot, sometimes enough to risk the $50 fine for picking or cutting roses without authorization. Roses from the garden frequently are used in bouquets for celebrations and special occasions, but Shields is the only one allowed to do the cutting.

In addition to caring for his designated area, Willis oversees the installation, upkeep, and replacement of the annual flowers that appear each spring and fall in the many planters scattered across campus. He also coordinates yearly renovations of the University's lawns and assists in the maintenance of the athletic fields.

Picking up trash, replacing dead and dying trees and shrubs, trimming, and pruning round out the duties of the two Garys. Much of the time, they say they feel invisible as students, faculty, and fellow staff members go about their business.

The result of their years of dedication, however, flourishes in plain sight.

"The creek, lawns, and trees, I think, make Chico one of the nicer, if not the nicest, campus in the system," Willis said. "When people visit the University, it's one of the first things they notice and comment about."


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