Highland News Leader

O’Fallon horticulturist has the city blooming

Sarah Burton
Sarah Burton For the Progress

Sarah Burton inherited her grandparents’ green thumbs, and O’Fallon is more beautiful because of it.

Sarah is the city’s first horticulturist. This is her fourth spring in which to oversee making things bloom at the city’s parks, green spaces and public places.

Sarah and her seasonal staff are about to get very busy as annuals and perennials arrive for planting this week and next, and a large project at Rock Springs Park begins.

“We are taking out the rock and putting in all native planting,” she said. “The prairie grass restoration is going to be quite a process at Rock Springs. It will take some time, but in the end, it will be worth it.”

She would like to develop more native plant beds in the parks, and devise another plan for downtown.

“Re-landscaping downtown is my ultimate goal,” she said.

“The scale of what we take care of — how much and what we have to do — is huge. There is a lot of acreage in the parks. The Family Sports Park has 200 acres alone,” she said.

Originally from Mount Auburn, a small town near Taylorville, Ill., Sarah grew up on a family farm.

“My great-grandfather had an amazing green thumb. His lawn and landscape were immaculate. Not a blade of grass was out of place,” she said.

“My paternal grandparents were farmers and had a very large vegetable garden. We grew everything imaginable. I grew up with livestock — horses, cattle, sheep and hogs. That’s just how I grew up. It was a perfect childhood.”

Intent on a double-major in animal science and horticulture at Iowa State University, she later decided to concentrate only on the plant side.

After graduation, she worked as a landscape designer for a retail company, TimberPine Nursery near West Des Moines.

“I think I’ve come full circle. I understand how important it is,” she said.

Her boss, Parks and Grounds Superintendent Jamie Frank, said she has been a valuable addition.

“Her expertise and creativity is aptly displayed in the planters and ornamental beds she designs that beautify the city of O’Fallon. She is certainly one of the most capable landscape designers I have had the opportunity to work with over the course of my career,” he said.

Sarah said she takes before, during and after photos to document progress in projects, and it’s exciting to see things grow and flourish.

“Design affects the whole community,” she said.

There is some outside help in keeping the city beautiful. The roundabout at State Street and Obernuefemann Road is taken care of by the O’Fallon Garden Club, who also designed the landscaping.

“It looks really nice. I would like to see more landscaping at the other roundabouts,” she said. “There is no landscaping in the roundabout on Seven Hills Road, only turf grass.”

O’Fallon employs four full-time maintenance workers in the grounds department, along with Michael Siebert, the park maintenance supervisor, Frank and Burton. The remainder are seasonal.

“At our peak in the summer, the grounds department, horticulture crews included, will employ approximately 30 to 40 seasonal employees,” she said. “We have good seasonal workers. We lose some to college, so that’s a challenge, but they’re good people. They’re young and pursuing their education, their dreams.”

The challenges in O’Fallon are mostly weather-related, she said. But she is familiar with that: “Farmers live and die by the weather.”

“It’s been crazy lately. This year, it was so warm all winter, but then it got cold, again. It was frustrating. I was scared we were going to have a late frost. We don’t have our seasonal workers until March. If we’re fighting a rainy spring, it’s challenging,” she said. “We work in all kinds of weather. Now, if there is a storm, we wait it out, but we usually keep working in the rain. We can’t stop if it’s hot. Now, if it’s over 100 degrees, we do a heat schedule — 50 minutes’ work with 10 minutes in the shade each hour, and we have water breaks.”

While planting takes center stage in the spring, there is maintenance, such a pruning shrubs, cutting back perennials, weeding, lawn care, and other chores to do.

Her dedication is obvious. In spring and summer, she likes to arrive at 6:30 a.m., to get a start on the day ahead, which is typically 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

At home, she pursues outdoor activities. “We’re always busy doing something. I’m really just a rural person,” she said.

Sarah and her husband Mark, who married last September, live in Woodlawn, Ill., which is in Jefferson County. Mark is from nearby Boyd.

Their two Weimaraner dogs, Jager and Kaiser, keep them company.

“Because they are a German breed of dog, I chose German names. Jager means hunter in German and Kaiser means emperor. Their personalities are exactly opposite of their names. Kaiser is a good hunter, and Jager thinks he’s the emperor of our household. It’s quite interesting,” she said.

The couple enjoys hunting and fishing. She is fond of hunting whitetail deer and turkey, and sometimes, pheasants and quail.

They have a pond on their land, and like to go boating at Rend Lake.

“We have a garden. I take care of that. I still can — I grew up canning,” she said.

They also split their own wood.

Her favorite season is autumn. “I like the colors. It’s cooler. The air is different. Harvest has always been my favorite time of fall,” she said.

She also likes visiting National Parks. A trip to the Smoky Mountains is in the works this year, and Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier parks are on her bucket list.

“I have been lucky to travel in my life. I was on a livestock judging team in college,” she said.

She is impressed with what amenities O’Fallon residents can enjoy.

“O’Fallon parks are really good — there are nature trails, walking tracks, kids can play sports. There are many things to do. They offer a lot,” she said.

As for her job, she likes the flexibility of being outdoors and the team attitude.

“Just having the ability to design what I want, and have the support of Jamie and Mary Jeanne (Hutchinson, director of parks and recreation) is great,” she said. “Jamie is definitely the best boss I ever had.”

During her career, she has learned an important lesson. “Mother Nature can be absolutely cruel. You have the juxtaposition of gorgeous things, then it can be brutal. There is no mercy. You have to be able to adapt and adjust,” she said.

O’Fallon was named as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for the 19th consecutive year in 2016.

Sarah is pleased that the city has focused on nature’s benefits.

“People are noticing the changes,” she said.

Q: Do you have words to live by?

A: I am a collector of quotes and motivational pieces, and I fall back on these as a collective when needed. There isn’t one particular quote, phrase or words that I live by.

Q: Whom do you most admire?

A: There isn’t one person that I admire the most. I am lucky enough to come from a solid family with several people that I look up to for various reasons.

I have also been blessed to have a lot of interesting and admirable people cross my paths through life, people that have taught me lessons and helped me create the path I have taken. I would rather admire a collective group of people than one person, because you can take all the little pieces from a group and learn from each piece.

Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?

A: Ketch Secor from the band, “Old Crow Medicine Show.”

Q: What is the last book that you read?

A: “Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation” by Jim Ehle.

Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?

A: Hunt, fish, hike, exercise and visit with friends.

Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?

A: Organized chaos.

Q: What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?

A: I wanted to be a veterinarian or a farmer.

Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?

A: Work ethic.

Q: What irritates you most?

A: That I cannot control the weather.

Q: What type of music do you listen to?

A: I listen to almost everything, except rap and hip-hop, but I gravitate most heavily toward Americana, bluegrass, and ’60s / ’70s rock.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: The opportunity to add beauty and aesthetic pleasure to our community and parks areas.

Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?

A: I would own a company that bought old and historic structures and properties, revitalize them and sell or donate them to individuals or communities.

I would spend a lot of the time hunting and fishing with my husband and friends across the U.S. and Canada.

I would visit as many National Parks as possible.

Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?

A: I have no idea. We rarely watch TV or movies, so I am not very familiar with actresses.

Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?

A: 1. Hatchet; 2. Tent; 3. Water; 4. Matches; 5. Rifle