Tim Woodward

As St. Luke’s keeps growing, who keeps it looking beautiful? He just goes by ‘gardener’

Anyone who visits or drives by the Downtown St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center knows things are a bit chaotic – closed roads, detours, mountains of dirt – all part of the hospital’s big expansion.

And the disruption isn’t limited to the hospital alone. A nearby clinic where one of my doctors works looks like the last thing standing at a bombing range.

Amid the turmoil of the hospital’s growth to surrounding streets and land, however, are islands of beauty and tranquility. The flower gardens surrounding St. Luke’s – thousands of tulips, pansies and hyacinths in spring, and marigolds, petunias and zinnias in summer – bring “oohs” and “ahs” from passers-by and are meant to help comfort those dealing with pain and loss. They’re East Boise institutions.

Lee Barnard, who grew up in the neighborhood and lives just half a block from the hospital, said he’s “always admired St. Luke’s commitment to the tulips and the other flowers. They’re gorgeous. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember.”

The grounds are beautiful even in winter. As a black-thumb gardener who has managed to kill everything but weeds, I’ve often wondered who it is that keeps them looking like something out of “Gardens Illustrated.”

That would be Jose de Jesus Garcia, himself an island of tranquility.

He isn’t the only gardener at St. Luke’s, but he’s tended the gardens there for 26 years – longer than anyone. Gentle and soft-spoken, he all but radiates kindness. Ask anyone at the hospital about him and the response invariably begins with, “Jose? He is just the nicest man.”

Lead grounds worker Pat Allen, who regularly works with Garcia, describes him as “dependable and friendly.”

Not to mention very good at his job.

Garcia grew up in a small town in Mexico, where his mother’s rose garden was locally famous, and he has loved flowers all his life.

“I like the way they look and the way they smell,” he said. “I like everything about them.”

His favorite thing about his job?

“Being outside. I worked in the laundry for a while when I first came here, but I’d rather be outside with the flowers,” he said. “And I enjoy meeting people. That’s the beauty of my job. It combines the two things, gardening and being with people and answering their questions. Most of time I reverse the questions. I find out they have more knowledge than I do.”

I doubt that. Still, it speaks to his intrinsic modesty. Asked his job title, he avoids overblown terms such as landscape specialist or senior grounds worker. He answers simply, “gardener.”

Diligent worker

His work days begin at 6 a.m, with the first few hours devoted to cleaning the grounds.

“We do a lot of entrance cleaning ... making it look sharp. About 9 a.m. we start doing the actual gardening,” he said. “This time of year it’s checking for dry spots and weeds and pulling out the spring flowers when they’re finished. Then we’ll start putting in the summer flowers.

“… Children have a tendency to pick the flowers, but we don’t see much of that anymore because parents tell them not to do that. We don’t like to say anything. We keep our mouths shut. But the parents tell them for us. They want to keep it looking sharp, too.”

It might seem odd, but the gardens are a source of accolades for the hospital. Sarah Jackson, who supervises the employees at the lobby’s information desk, says workers there “are frequently reminded by patrons of how beautiful our courtyard, the route up to the circle drive and the flowering planters are … I often see oncology patients in the courtyard, relaxing and enjoying the quiet, peaceful setting.”

Garcia’s part in creating all that was considered significant enough that last year he earned a St. Luke’s President’s Award. Dr. Jim Souza, the hospital’s chief medical officer and the person who nominated him, noted that he “is routinely the first groundskeeper on site during bad weather. In the particularly bad winter we just had (2016-17’s “Snowmageddon”), there were lots of opportunities to see Jose and his work. His long hours and commitment to getting it right made our campus safer for everyone.

“He always did it with a smile and a pleasant attitude, which is what made it really stand out. Patients, staff members, runners and walkers … Nearly everyone in Boise has at one time or another been moved by Jose’s meticulous flower beds, brilliant spring tulips and the fall foliage he has nurtured.”

Garcia’s reaction to receiving the award?

“I was overwhelmed.”

Now 60, he came to the U.S. in 1979.

“There were some Americans in the town where I grew up. From the time I was a little boy, I loved listening to them speak English. I thought it sounded really cool and wanted to be where I could learn that beautiful language,” he said.

He worked as a gardener at naval stations in California for nine years before moving to Boise.

“I came here with a friend and liked the slower pace,” he said. “I thought it would be a great place for my wife and me to raise our children (a son and a daughter, now grown). Four months later, I was here.”

Patient input

I was surprised to learn that patients and visitors have a say in what’s planted on the hospital grounds.

“We used to have daffodils, but a lot more people told us they liked the tulips, so now we have tulips instead,” Garcia said. “People tell me which colors they like the most, what they think is beautiful. They comment about certain plants, and little by little we start cultivating those kinds of plants.”

And not just flowers. Ornamental cabbage and kale in the winter, trees, ornamental grasses, shrubs …

Pansies, tulip bulbs, and ornamental cabbage and kale are planted in the fall. When the tulips fade, they’re replaced with profusion zinnias and marigolds, among other things.

“Profusions are easy to grow, they’re tolerant to mildew and they cover the ground well so they don’t allow weeds to pop up,” Allen said. “We try to keep everything as low maintenance as possible.”

Low maintenance, high public approval.

“Every day 10 to 15 people stop to talk about the flowers or take pictures of them,” Garcia said. “Pat jokes that we should charge $5 a picture.”

The construction has taken a toll on the grounds, though. Several flower beds, including the prominent one at Broadway Avenue and Idaho Street, have been lost.

“That one will be replaced and will be triple its size,” Allen said. “As the construction progresses, we’ll put in some other areas to make up for what we’ve lost.”

No one is is looking forward to that more than Garcia. He takes pride in the grounds looking their best. He grows flowers and vegetables at home, and volunteers to do gardening work at his church. When he and his wife want to relax, they take a picnic lunch to a park and enjoy that setting.

One of the best parts of his job, he says, is making blossomy interludes available to those who need them most. You have to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

“I like knowing that this is here for the people who have loved ones in the hospital. They can come outside and enjoy the colors,” he said. “They don’t have to go somewhere else to find beauty.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears monthly. Know someone whose story or job would make an interesting column? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.