Originally created 09/24/01

Horticulturist strives to keep Aiken blooming



AIKEN - At least one spot in the town of Aiken, which is known for its azaleas, perennials and pines, could use some weeding or a flower bed or two.

That spot belongs to Tom Rapp, the man in charge of keeping Aiken beautiful and blooming.

"I don't spend the time I should. I try to make it presentable from the street. It is pretty much a get-by situation. I do work in it a little bit," Mr. Rapp said of his front yard.

Mr. Rapp's yard is suffering because this city's landscaped parkways and flower beds aren't.

Mr. Rapp is the city's horticulturist, and the front man for Tree City USA.

It's 2 p.m. and Mr. Rapp is sitting in his cluttered office at the city's public works department on Dupont Drive behind Aiken High School.

He's spent much of his day juggling crews between assignments. Something always comes up for the person trying to keep up the city's green reputation.

"It's pretty much nonstop from 7 a.m. till I quit," Mr. Rapp said.

The job wasn't always like this.

Ten years ago, when Mr. Rapp left the job as the city's first horticulturist, the city wasn't that interested in beautification. He's been back at the job for six years and visions have changed.

"Before you really struggled to stay busy for eight hours," the 49-year-old said. "Now if you can get it all done in eight hours, that's good."

These days, the city is always green, and Mr. Rapp is always planning projects. First it was the entrances to the city. Next it was downtown. Now it's Hampton Avenue with more to come.

Finding the right mix and location of greenery for the city can be hit-and-miss sometimes, Mr. Rapp said.

He says he just chooses plants with color and tries to match them with the with the right amount of shade and water, then just lets them grow.

It's a learning process. He says there is no way to know everything about what he does.

"It took me 10 years to get it down to a pretty good science," Mr. Rapp said. "When I started, I was bad. The (flower) beds were pitiful."

For Mr. Rapp, it all started with a vegetable garden in high school.

"I was the only kid in high school that had a vegetable garden," he said.

From his hometown of Orangeburg, Mr. Rapp went to Clemson University, got his degree, got married, had three kids and started a job he loves. Horticulture is exciting, he said. Seasons change before you know it.

"You get tired of the summer stuff and want to do the winter stuff and then you kind of get tired of the winter stuff. Never a dull moment," he said.

Busy as he is, there's still time for daydreams. What is the dream job for a horticulturist?

Disney World.

"But I'd probably get that job and say, 'What did I get myself into,"' Mr. Rapp said. "Man, that job is probably stressful."

Aiken is no Magic Kingdom. But it does have a golf course across the river in the Garden City that people always compare Aiken with. But Mr. Rapp doesn't mind.

"A councilman once told me that what I did was one of the more positive things the city did," he said.

When the work day ends, Mr. Rapp just wants to go home and find some time to piddle in the garden.

His garden, not the city's.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.