- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

For many visitors to Washington, the first impression isn’t the White House, the Washington Monument or the Capitol.

It is Richard Beard’s showy begonias.

The lead gardener at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport takes pride in his role as a horticultural ambassador for the nation’s capital.

“This great big airport is my yard and I’ve got to maintain it,” he said. “So, if I don’t want a plant looking bad in my yard, I’m sure the visitors here don’t want it looking that way either.”

While flowers and scrubs typically don’t come to mind when thinking about airports, Mr. Beard is responsible for maintaining 1.1 million square feet of landscaped green space at Reagan Airport.

His domain includes more than 1,750 trees, 23,000 shrubs and tens of thousands of flowers — from petunias in the summer to pansies in the winter and spring.

The airport grounds also feature several stately deodar cedar trees. The cedars, which typically prefer milder climates than Washington, are rare sights in the Washington area. But the Potomac River adjacent to Reagan Airport keeps the airport grounds a few degrees warmer in winter than the surrounding area, enabling the trees to thrive.

“A lot of people think there’s nothing out here but planes, but the airport takes landscaping seriously,” said Mr. Beard, 50, who lives in Temple Hills.

The airport assigned grass-cutting duties to outside landscapers a few years ago, giving Mr. Beard more time to focus on flowers, plants, trees and shrubs.

As a child he would tend to his grandmother’s yard. But gardening never crossed his mind while growing up.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a professional sports fisherman,” he said.

Instead, he joined the Army after high school to become a medic. But it was while working for Uncle Sam he began taking landscaping seriously.

“Let’s just say I got into a little [disciplinary] situation where they made me rake leaves for awhile,” laughed Mr. Beard. “I was raking leaves for like 20 days straight.”

After serving his country, he embarked on a series of maintenance and landscaping jobs before going to work as a landscaper at Reagan Airport in 1990.

It’s a decision he has never regretted.

“It’s just so nice to see your stuff grow — especially when you start from scratch,” he said. “I would go crazy if I had to change jobs now, and I would lose it upstairs if I had to work indoors.”

But gardening and landscaping isn’t all dirt and sweat. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Reagan Airport, regularly sends Mr. Beard and his crew to classes across the country to brush up on the latest irrigation, pesticidal or horticultural techniques.

“I’m thinking about landscaping 24/7,” he said.

Occasionally, though, other priorities pull Mr. Beard from his landscaping duties, like pressure washing buildings, snow removal and even setting up conference rooms at the airport.

“We stay busy here — there’s something different to do every day,” he said.

He said he holds a special interest for tending the grounds outside the airport’s headquarters at 1 Aviation Circle.

“If you want to look good, make sure the bosses looks are good,” he said.

Mr. Beard said sometimes the airport visitors stop him to identifya flower or ask him for gardening tips.

“But mostly, when they just want to know where to park,” he said.

Mr. Beard said his favorite part of his job is getting compliments from visitors and airport staff.

“When people come off the plane, see your work and give you a pat on the back, it makes you feel good,” he said. “I look forward coming to work every day — there aren’t too many jobs where you can say that.”

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