It’s still a few minutes before dawn on a windy, raw early January morning when Libby McGill kicks the tires of her John Deere tractor parked outside the Grounds building and hops aboard for a ride around the UC Davis Arboretum.
Following a stretch from Mrak Hall west and south to Putah Creek Lodge and the Highway 113 on-ramp, she bounds off and on her truck to pick up trash and downed branches and scours the area for other needed landscaping work – all before most students and employees get to campus.
Each day through driving rain or blistering heat, wind or cold, at times when no visitors will brave the elements, McGill and her fellow arboretum groundskeepers, Mary Rumsey and Duane Goosen, repeat the routine as Mike Brown, who drives heavy equipment for major maintenance and landscaping projects, assists the trio in its work.
"It’s an all-weather job. That’s why you have the rain gear," said McGill, a petite but visibly strong woman as she points to the yellow slicker in the back of her truck. "You kind of seal yourself in. It makes you appreciate the good days."
Despite the conditions, McGill, a wildlife enthusiast and a former volunteer UC Master Gardener, said she now couldn’t imagine doing any other work. After her early morning routine, her work is quite diverse.
Later in the morning after her rounds, McGill might prune branches, plant wildflower seeds, weed, or on drier days, irrigate by hand the arboretum’s varied vegetation. Occasionally there are unpleasant tasks, such as scooping up dead fish from the arboretum waterway or squirrels and rats on the ground. McGill takes her breaks in a small tool shed near Putah Creek Lodge that’s equipped with two easy chairs and a microwave.
"I don’t have a phone, computer or e-mail, which I like," McGill said. "I get to work on my own, and I get to watch migratory bird patterns."
Though she’s worked in landscaping on and off throughout her life, McGill got her start in UC Davis employment 17 years ago with a decidedly indoor job. The former art history major at Sonoma State took a job running the art department’s slide library. In 1990 she headed outside one final time by taking a job with Grounds, first working around the student dorms. Seven years ago a spot on the arboretum crew opened up for McGill.
Since then, she’s been a model groundskeeper, said her supervisor, Robert Bohn. "Libby is really the quintessential employee," he said. "She is knowledgeable, hardworking and dedicated. She knows her job and does it with remarkable consistency."
Because of McGill’s strong belief in natural gardening techniques, the grounds crew decided to minimize its use of chemical herbicides in the section of the arboretum she covers. Using methods such as mulching, "she controls the weeds in other means," Bohn said.
Arboretum director Kathleen Socolofsky said she appreciates the groundskeepers’ willingness to learn details of the outdoor museum’s collections. Only two arboretum employees assist with planting and maintenance on a regular basis.
The rest is up to the grounds crew. Each year crew members take a tour of their area with arboretum superintendent Warren Roberts to learn about each plant’s individual care.
"The arboretum has thousands of different plants. It takes great expertise to know all of them," Socolofsky said. "Each one is a specimen. It makes the job particularly challenging."
Despite the praise from supervisors, McGill and her co-workers toil in relative anonymity as they go about their jobs each day. Arboretum regulars, who jog or walk their dogs in the arboretum each day, usually say hi, but for the most part, the groundskeepers’ jobs and responsibilities are hidden ones to visitors.
When a passerby does pipe up with a word of praise for McGill’s careful pruning or weeding, it’s appreciated.
"It sounds kind of corny," McGill said. "But it’s nice."
Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, email@example.com