Maureen O’Brien has seen some very personal moments in the Founders Memorial Garden off Lumpkin Street. She has seen couples start new relationships or new lives together in the intimacy of the historic greens.
“There are many people who started dating in this garden. I’ve seen people asking each other to get married, and I’ve seen people come back and celebrate anniversaries in the garden, and then introduce their children to this special place,” said O’Brien, the facilities manager and horticulturalist for the garden.
For the past six years, O’Brien has been responsible for the 2.2 acres and more than 700 plants that originally were proposed in 1939 by Hubert Owens, then-dean of landscape architect. O’Brien calls the garden a “living museum” because of the historic plants and buildings that fill the property.
“Pretty much the bones of what you see in the garden are the same as what was here in 1939,” she said. “We do trade plant material out. As things die, decisions are made about what gets put back or replaced.”
With the help of two landscape architecture students, O’Brien maintains the grounds and makes sure the facilities, including the 157-year-old house, are ready for special events such as weddings, receptions or parties. O’Brien also teaches classes for the College of Environment and Design.
After greeting the garden cat and tending to the fish in the ponds, O’Brien and her students inspect the paths to make sure there was no damage or items left during the night. They also do some pruning, weeding and work on the edges of the garden almost every day.
“There’s always something to do,” O’Brien said. “Because we have rich soils in the garden that have been maintained for a really long time, the plants we put in here usually thrive, but so do the weeds.”
O’Brien got hooked on plants after a neighbor told her about a job opening at Hastings Garden Center while she was in high school in Decatur. During college, O’Brien spent a summer in Nantucket working for a woman who owned a landscaping business. After that, she transferred to UGA to get a horticulture degree. She went on to get a master’s degree in landscape architecture.
After working for the State Botanical Garden and then having a landscape architecture business, O’Brien determined she wanted to do something a little different.
“I mainly did residential work when I had my own business, and that’s when I realized I really did love doing garden work for the public more so than individuals,” she said. “Then when this position opened up; it was a great way to use both of my skills. It’s really a job that I feel is tailor made for me.”
Outside of work, O’Brien retains her passion for plants and nature. She has an “intensive” vegetable garden, and just enough grass on which to play croquet. O’Brien and her husband, George Wright, also enjoy going hiking, camping and traveling.
During 2014, as the garden celebrates its 75th anniversary, O’Brien may not have as much time for those weekend getaways and hiking trips.
As part of its anniversary observance, the garden will be the site of a variety of events throughout the year, including a high tea, gala and public performance events every Friday in September.
“With this combination of events, we are trying to have something for everybody in Athens so that those who haven’t seen the garden can come visit and those who have been get to come back to something special,” O’Brien said. “Many, many people don’t even realize the garden is here and open 24/7 or that it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a great resource for our campus.
“All we ask in return is that people come and enjoy it respectfully and leave their dogs, Frisbees and such at home,” she also said.