It could quite possibly be one of the most visited gardens in the area, a few hundred people walking its grounds each day for most of the year.
Black bamboo outlines a pond where lily pads lazily float, sheltering minnows and perhaps a frog or two. Another part of the grounds houses the fragrant flowers of a dwarf magnolia tree and sizable bunches of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other garden vegetables, which hang heavily from their vines in early summer.
With hundreds of species of plants and even the occasional rabbit, it’s not hard to see why these grounds are a welcome distraction for its frequent visitors — even if they’re hurriedly traveling to their next class as they walk through.
Landscaping projects at CrossRoads Middle School are one of the reasons it’s a winner of this year’s Lexington-Richland 5’s Good School-Keeping Award. School officials say much of the work on the grounds is credited to facilities supervisor Arturo Romero and his staff. Romero often works late into the afternoon, donates some of the materials and takes initiative to go beyond the requirements of maintaining the school grounds to create areas that add beauty and outdoor learning opportunities for students.
“When I started working here in 1991 … we didn’t have any plants, flowers or anything around,” Romero said. “So, we asked the PTO to give us money to do some improvements, and this is what we have now.”
An Asian-inspired sand garden, two-tiered fountain made of mostly repurposed materials, vegetable garden and many planted trees are just a few of the landscaping additions that Romero has overseen in his more than 20 years at the school. Some of the garden plans he sketches in advance. Others he creates out of necessity like the hillside of junipers he planted to stop a soil run-off problem. A moment of inspiration can turn into a project too, like a wisteria-covered pergola he built out of wood collected from a relative’s property, which now offers shade to students.
School upkeep is a constant undertaking, he says. This summer Romero and his team will trim and prune dozens of plants and trees, inspect and repair some structures, and plan for future projects in addition to their work to maintain the inside of the school.
Despite the expertly executed work and his ability to name each plant and tell when it was first planted, Romero says he and his workers are not gardeners – just part of a staff contributing in their own way to make CrossRoads Middle a great school. “I don’t consider myself a gardener. I didn’t have any formal training and couldn’t even cut grass with a lawnmower when I moved from El Salvador many years ago,” said Romero, who read books and studied professional gardens to gain his skills. “I don’t ever want to be one of those people who can’t wait to leave work. I just enjoy what I do. And so far … the students, teachers and staff, they enjoy it, too.”