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Across Our State

Olympia has more to offer than just stately buildings

by Jerri Honeyford

Would you like to be responsible for 12,000 annual flowers? Or for the largest English Oak tree in the United States? Or for 210 acres of grounds including lawns to mow? Or for a fleet of hired bugs? Or for a conservatory that is visited by people from all over the world?

Mark Robb, the technical support supervisor of the grounds at the State Capital in Olympia, has that job.

Mark came to the Olympia campus from a private landscape nursery as one of the gardeners and has worked up to this position in his 20 years here.

The grounds operation has16 gardeners, a mechanic, and an irrigation specialist that do the work on the grounds and equipment that they use. The 210 acres are divided into eight maintenance zones with two/three gardeners per zone. Each zone is an individual area with flowers and trees and lawns cared for by its gardeners. The gardeners do all the mowing, edging, weeding, planting, and pruning for their area. Mark provides quality control and technical expertise to the supervisor of each zone.

An irrigation specialist is needed even here on the "wet side" as there isn't enough rain to sustain growth and beauty. No watering is done in the daytime because of all the visitors, so the specialist plans for each zone to be alternately done at night. The flower beds are planted twice a year, around May 15 for the annuals and Oct. 15 for the bulbs and winter pansies. In 2004, 26,600 bulbs and winter pansies of various varieties were planted. All tulip bulbs are replaced each year.

The conservatory has been in operation since 1939. It was built by the Public Works Administration to provide a preservation place for rare and unusual plants and to propagate plants for the Capitol grounds. Cut flowers used to decorate official functions and events. Also, the Governor's office or mansion may call to see what is blooming and use plants and flowers from the conservatory.

The conservatory uses biological controls, or HIRED BUGS, such as Praying Mantis, Green Lacewing, and Ladybugs. These beneficial bugs dine on soft-bodied insects which include Aphids,Mealybugs, and Scale. Rare, historic and unusual plants are still cared for in the conservatory. The collection includes orchids, cacti, and tropical plants. The oldest plant there is a Christmas cactus that is 115 years old.

Just across the road from the conservatory is the sunken garden. I remember seeing this when it was lined with roses. Unfortunately, deer came and chewed them up a few years ago. There are a few left, but the garden is still a beautiful and peaceful place to stroll through.

There are many beautiful trees to see here. Some of them have special stories like an American white elm across from the GA building parking garage. This elm comes from a cutting of the famous elm in Cambridge, Mass. under which George Washington took command of the Continental Army. The original cutting was sent to Professor Edmund Meany at the University of Washington in 1896 by a UW alumnus doing graduate work. After the completion of the first three buildings on the Capitol campus, a cutting of the elm was planted on Feb. 18, 1932 during the 200th anniversary of President Washington's birth.

Just west of the historic Elm tree looms the largest English Oak tree in the United States. Its trunk is almost four feet thick and its crown is 102 feet tall.

East of the Legislative building are the Kwanzan flowering cherry trees that bloom every spring in light pink clouds over the sidewalks to the office buildings. I know they are often photographed because I'm among those each spring with my camera. It is truly a beautiful sight.

There is a pamplet called "Trees of the Washington State Capitol Campus" to help you identify the location and gives the story of the special trees here. Pick one up at the Visitor's Center when you come.

There is more to see than the amazing buildings across the state. Come see the plants, the trees and the flower beds. I am always amazed that the gardeners can get all the tulips to grow evenly and bloom at the same time!

Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), offers her Across our State column as a means to update local readers on what is currently happening in Olympia.

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