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Caring for Plants an ‘Obsession’ for Alston Award Winner Coffey

Lander University Assistant Grounds Manager Karla Coffey works in one of the pollinator gardens she established on the Lander campus. Photo by Jeff Lagrone

The newest recipient of Lander University’s Mary Frances Poole Alston Award is Assistant Grounds Manager Karla Coffey.

The award was established by Rowland P. Alston, host of the SCETV gardening show, “Making It Grow,” to honor his grandmother, a 1914 graduate of Lander.

The award recognizes a faculty or staff member who has made an impact on the campus community, and Coffey’s impact can be easily seen. She selected most of the flowers blooming extravagantly across campus, starting many of them from seeds.

“I was raised in the garden. My mom is a big gardener, so I grew up with it,” said Coffey, who is from Maryland.

When her family moved to South Carolina in 2015, she volunteered to work on topiaries for the City of Greenwood. That led to a part-time job that became a full-time job when she graduated from Lander in 2019 with an environmental science degree.

“That’s how I got involved in horticulture and learned about growing things in a greenhouse. I worked on the topiaries all day long,” she said.

Coffey approaches horticulture “from an environmental lens,” and that is reflected in the pollinator gardens she has established on campus, which serve as magnets for butterflies, birds and bees.

“I try to plant only pollinator-friendly plants, with an emphasis on natives,” she said, but she is open to incorporating non-native plants into the landscape “if they’re good pollinator plants, or if they’re so beautiful or smell so good that they improve the human experience.”

Coffey, who has appeared on “Making It Grow” and taught master gardener classes, described the pollinator gardens on campus as “a work in progress. Gardens don’t really get perfect until their third year, and of course I keep moving things around. Three years is really when something is established,” she said.

Caring for plants is not only her job, she said, but her “obsession. I come in on weekends just to check on things.”

Coffey was contacted by Mike Worley, vice president for University Advancement, and told that she had won the Alston Award.

“It was a great surprise. I’m extremely honored,” she said.

Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Andrew Schwendemann, one of several faculty members who nominated Coffey, called her “passionate about her work. Karla puts a lot of thought into the plants on campus.”

He praised her for “spreading a positive image of Lander.”