Ole Miss landscaping director aims for 'wow' factor

OXFORD – The eye appeal that grabs visitors to the University of Mississippi campus is more than a nicety: It’s vital to every aspect of the institution’s aspirations.
“There was a study … that showed if a student had not already made his decision about where to go to school, he’s usually going to make it in the first 15 minutes of the visit,” said Jeff McManus, director of landscaping services at Ole Miss. “It’s based on two things – the landscaping and the way the buildings look.”
McManus said the same approach extends to the university’s every endeavor. Whether the beautiful campus helps bring to Ole Miss a researcher who eventually finds a cure for a dreaded disease or a major event like the 2008 Presidential Debate, the intangible rewards are similar.
“We’re trying to attract the brightest minds that we can,” McManus said. “If they come here because of what we do, we had a small part in what the future looks like. You’re not just here to pull weeds or cut grass; you’re here to recruit the best.”
McManus studied horticulture at Auburn and continued his training at five-star resorts in Florida. When the husband and father of four sons decided he missed sweet tea and biscuits and “had to move north to get back to the South,” he came to Ole Miss in 2000.
He and Chancellor Robert Khayat agreed the campus needed to set landscaping standards for not only Mississippi, but for SEC campuses and beyond.
“It’s important to Chancellor Khayat and Chancellor (Dan) Jones and our people who work here every day,” McManus said. “When you have an environment like this to work in, you’re more creative, you’re happier. You’re more about wanting to come to work and be part of a special team.”
Along with the “Wow!” factor, the department emphasizes efficiencies: Curving borders enhance eye appeal and minimize backing up for mowers. New equipment – including an 11-foot mower – frees up crew members to do more detail work.
Ole Miss uses far fewer one-season flowering plants than McManus’ resort employers did. Instead, the campus landscape emphasizes perennial color and strong definition for eye appeal.
“Even if you’ve got a place you can’t grow grass, if you just put down a nice mulch of pinestraw, it looks neat, it looks clean, it looks like someone takes care of it,” McManus said. “You don’t have to put a ton of plants in there.”
Training also is a growing emphasis in everything from equipment use to plant identification. As team members earn new certifications, they also receive recognitions and modest pay raises.
Other innovations include the use of biodiesel from recycled cooking oil and a system for instant reporting of irrigation-system leaks and McManus’ own community-service website.
During McManus’ tenure at Ole Miss, Landscape Services has won the Professional Grounds Maintenance Society’s Green Star Award for Best Maintained University and the Urban Forestry and Green Development Award for Scenic Community of Mississippi. Frequent attention from national media also is a bonus to the Landscaping Services team members who do jobs from mowing in 100-degree heat to picking up 10 tons of garbage after football games.
“How many places can you work in a lifetime where the world shows up and brags about what you do?” McManus said. “ESPN doesn’t show up and brag about how well we did in the office, but they brag on these guys. These guys get a pat on the back every time the media show up.”
“As (Atlanta-area pastor) Andy Stanley says, people leak,” McManus said. “You’ve got to remind them frequently what we’re doing this for.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal