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Oct. 14, 2010 Volume 32, No. 8

Landscape artistry on a campus canvas


KEEPER OF THE GREEN Among her duties as groundskeeper with MU’s Campus Landscape Services, Katrina Monning maintains the “triangle gardens” on the north side of Jesse Hall. “I like being around people,” says Monning, who joined the Landscape Services crew in 1999. “I hate snakes.” Shane Epping photo


Katrina Monning has zero tolerance for weeds

If you get about campus, you’ve seen Katrina Monnig, a groundskeeper who oversees the care of plants in some of Mizzou’s prettiest spots. 

Hose in hand and hair held back in a thick, blonde ponytail, Monnig copes with the scorching heat, high humidity, occasional downpours and insects that accompany working outside in Missouri’s summers.

Even with allergies to mold, grass and other growing things, Monnig can’t imagine being confined to an office.

“It’s a great job,” she says.

Weekly medical shots temper the sniffles and sneezes induced by working in an allergenic environment. And Monnig has acclimated so well to the sweltering summer temperatures that an air-conditioned room at 78 degrees seems uncomfortably chilly to her.

She is one of five female groundskeepers and designers on the 40-person staff of the award-winning Campus Facilities Landscape Services crew.

Three to five groundskeepers maintain Mizzou’s gardens of annual and perennial plants that draw fields of admirers. Visitors and parents in tour groups offer compliments; strolling professors and staff members pose questions; and students nod or smile as they walk to classes.

“I like being around people,” Monnig says of those daily interactions, which often center on questions about plant care. Most frequently asked: What’s the best time to prune/ fertilize plants?

Assistant Superintendant Charles Paxton of Landscape Services compliments Monnig’s “zero tolerance” for weeds and calls her a “wonderful ambassador” for campus.

Monnig’s work zone on Francis Quadrangle includes two “triangle gardens” on the north side of Jesse Hall, where variegated green and white grasses stand tall behind masses of coleus the color of Jesse bricks. Mounds of golden mums front the stunning, weed-free display.

A woman stops briefly with a question about the coleus: “What are these plants? Are they hard to keep alive?” Monnig identifies the plants and assures her the deep burgundy beauties require minimum care.

“Beautiful, as usual,” another walker calls out with a wave as he passes. She recognizes him as a frequent commenter on the colorful displays.

Administrative Associate Linda Garrison of Art History and Classical Archaeology has admired Monnig’s green thumb for years and stops often to chat and thank her. “I appreciate everything she does,” Garrison says. “The campus is beautiful. We’re so lucky to have that.” 

Every job has its drawbacks, but can you imagine these? There’s heavy work, plant disease, insects, critters and other complications behind the picture-perfect beds of plants. 

Such perfection requires endless weeding. Monnig shuns gloves for the chore, preferring to work by feel. With bare hands, she reaches into plants, checks the woodiness of stems and knows what plant material to pull. Of course, the possibility of running a sliver up a fingernail lurks as a painful side effect.  

Other aches and pains come and go with the seasons. Mulching results in sore arms, and planting, which runs from spring through November, stresses the back. In addition to perennials, the groundskeepers plant several thousand annual flowers each year for summer and fall color. Then they mulch tens of thousands of square feet.   

Rain is just an inconvenience, not a showstopper. Groundskeepers typically work through showers. Storms, however, drive them into Greenhouse 1 by Schlundt Hall to pot and prune the tender species being prepared for winter vacations.

Those coddled “tropicals”  — ferns, bromeliads, colorful crotons, elephant ears, banana and palm trees — thrive in the steam heat and emerge as larger versions of themselves for summer residence in container gardens near Memorial Union, Jesse Hall, Ellis Library and Speakers Circle. 

But there’s no vacation for Monnig and colleagues at summer’s end. “You’d be surprised how hard Katrina works in winter,” Paxton says. Pruning chores amp up for trees, shrubs and perennials, and the inevitable storms require 12-hour shifts for snow and ice removal, starting at 5 a.m. The hardest part, Monnig says, is the cold.

For her own sake, Monnig fights mosquitoes and heavy doses of sun, and watches for aphids, white flies, mold and rust on plants. She’s always alert for snakes.

Although snakes are relatively rare on the grounds, an encounter with a copperhead one day at Providence Point rendered Monnig speechless as it crawled over her boot.  Less threatening are the harmless bull snakes that lunge at her as a territorial warning.  

“I hate snakes,” she says.

Small armies of moths fly out from mounds of mums as Monnig sprays fertilizer. They’re no big deal even when they land on her face, but she stays a healthy distance from hibiscus plants, known for drawing ants. She learned the nesting habits of ants the hard way after the tiny pests once nearly covered her. 

Because naughty squirrels nibble on the rubber irrigation lines, Monnig carries splices to make repairs. Like the rest of the Landscape Services crew, she ignores the big groundhog that lives in Peace Park, the oldest undisturbed land on the main campus.

Monnig joined Landscape Services in 1999 — the year MU’s campus became the Mizzou Botanic Garden. She had earned an award of achievement and an advanced award after completing horticulture course requirements at State Technical Institute at Memphis, Tenn.

She attributes her plant passion to an aunt who was a superintendant at Shelter Gardens, where Monnig worked as a volunteer after finishing high school.

Monnig and her husband, Jason, a carpenter with MU maintenance, met at work when Katrina was dead-heading pansies in the Eighth Street Circle bed, and now they commute together from the house they built near Fayette.

Their new home includes an expansive lawn and nearly two acres of vegetable gardens. Soon they hope to install flowerbeds, which are on hold while Monnig finishes landscape designs for private clients.

Her other interests keep her indoors. She teaches piano lessons weekly and works monthly at a pet store and as assistant to a caterer. As a volunteer, she serves on MU’s Staff Advisory Council and is president of an area chapter of the Missouri Federation of Music Clubs.

— Nancy Moen 

Reprinted with permission of MizzouWire