Making the grass a little greener

By Maria Jose Subiria


While passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport may have the friendly skies on their minds, Abra Lee's work keeps her close to the ground.

With the help of her 40 landscaping employees, Lee, the landscape manager for Hartsfield-Jackson, maintains the greener areas of the world's busiest airport. She has been at Hartsfield-Jackson for two years, though she said she has been in the industry for 10 years.

"It's like a commercial property, like a mall or a park, times 1,000," Lee said of Hartsfield-Jackson. "Also, there is no break. There is not much down time, because the airport never closes. There is always landscape work going on around the clock, twenty-four seven."

According to Lee, synthetic fertilizers will no longer be applied to plants at Hartsfield-Jackson. Instead, this year, the airport has switched to organic fertilizers. She said the organic fertilizers are better for the soil and stormwater.

Since February, landscaping employees have attended classes on horticulture and sustainable landscape, Lee explained, and they will take plant-identification courses along with courses on proper landscape practices.

"We are letting the employees on the landscape team become more involved in the decision-making process, using things that they have learned or ideas that they want to try," said Lee. "The people on the team are very creative and we are tapping into everyone's talent this year to stay fresh."

Lee said she keeps up with newest trends in the horticultural world by reading books and magazines on the subject, and attending planting courses once a week.

"There is always something new to be learned," she said. "I get to take risks and try ideas, and most importantly being around plants teaches you patience."

Lee said she will be attending a series of classes at the Bartow County Cooperative Extension Service in Cartersville, Ga., through the end of May. The class covers subjects such as tree health and pruning, tree identification, and tree biology, she said.

"We usually sit through a PowerPoint lecture in the morning, and then, go out and physically do what we've learned," said Lee. "Things change, and we always are focusing on continuing education. We never know it all, and always apply what we learn on the job."

Lee said her inspiration arises from research, and her artistic vision begins with a single plant.

"Besides color I can be attracted to the shape, texture, and smell of the plant," Lee said.

Lee said the most difficult part of landscaping is scheduling projects or maintenance during the travel season at Hartsfield-Jackson. During the busy times, an increasing number of replacements may be necessary each day, because passengers might crush plants, or pour liquids such as cola or milkshakes on the plants.

"It might attract pests, so we need to replace it so the other plants will survive," said Lee.

Insects are not the only pests Lee protects the plants from. Fungal diseases and the avian community can be a disturbance to the landscape, she said.

"I love birds, but at the airport they can be considered pests, because we have to think about possible bird strikes," she said. "In the future we are working to re-design the landscape so it is less attractive to birds."

According to Lee, who was born in southwest Atlanta, she attended Auburn University where she was part of the HortForum Club, and the American Landscape Contractor's Association. She said she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture in 2002.

Lee said she has worked for companies such as Post Landscape Operations, Pike Family Nursery, Russell Landscape Group and Initial Tropical Plants.

"It's universal," Lee said of landscaping. "The same plants are found and used in so many different places, in so many different ways, all over the world."