Garden Notebook: Airport

Tough love from airport landscaper Abra Lee

Photograph by Jamey Guy

Abra Lee can only wish people would tiptoe through the tulips—instead of crushing them with suitcases, rooting among them to stash liquor bottles, and driving tractor trailers over whole beds of them. As landscape manager at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the relentlessly upbeat Lee sees to it that hundreds of acres of decorative gardens and greensward look fresh, interesting, and welcoming year-round for the 88 million passengers coming through annually—some 240,000 a day.
A fifth-generation Atlantan, Lee sees creative challenges where others might see adversity. And as a city employee overseeing a twenty-person staff, she accomplishes much on a municipal budget well below $1 million. “There is always something new,” she says. “A season change, a new plant, a new idea, a new gardener to talk to—there is always that next thing to do in the garden. It never ends, and it is always rewarding.”
Now in her fourth year on the job, the thirty-two-year-old Auburn University graduate relies on nonstop research and networking. With responsibility for the airport’s perimeter green­space and for beds and planters, she seeks out plants as hardy as they are handsome, such as camellias, creeping jenny, and ‘Becky’ daisies. And she tells them right away who’s boss.
“I have a pep talk with our plants when they come off the truck, and let them know that if they want to make it out here, they have to be tough or get tough,” Lee admits. “Most of them listen.
“We don’t babysit anything. We are definitely willing to meet the initial basic needs of each plant. We will plant the right plant in the right place and care for it per guidelines. However, if it starts to get fussy and too demanding or aggressive, it’s off to the compost pile.”
Under Lee’s guidance, the landscape plan is transitioning from annuals toward more bulbs, perennials, and shrubs with notable blooms or unusual foliage. She loves Japanese maples and, for 2011, topiaries, since they look attractive even in dim, nighttime lighting.
“No one is reinventing the wheel. We just try to create a memorable look for people to enjoy.”
> “If a plant dies, plant a new plant. There are trillions of plants in the universe. One will work for you.”

> Make friends with older gardeners. “My mom, my Aunt Nita, my Aunt Lois—[they] run circles around me as a gardener. Senior gardeners will simplify everything for you and give you the best planting and design advice. Period.”

> Learn to compost on the spot and save on bagging and trips to the dump. Break trimmed limbs into small pieces and hide them behind hedges. Pull up weeds and tuck them under nearby mulch. “All of that is organic and will break down and feed the soil.”

> Go for yard art. “If you are a serial plant killer, get texture and color by buying colored pots or buying little statues from the thrift store. Gardening is more than just the plants.”

> Easy to love, hard to kill, and good-looking for summer planting: succulent plants, Southern shield ferns (they like full sun), dragon wing begonias, and caladium bulbs.

> Showcase something new in the garden during each of Atlanta’s four seasons. Aim for pale shades in spring, “color chaos” in summer, earth-tone blooms in fall, texture and greenery in winter.

This article originally appeared in our April 2011 issue.