By Janese Heavin
Every spring, Grounds Supervisor Jim Innes and his crew tend to 12,000 tulips on and along the edges of the Columbia College campus. The brightly colored bulbs attract not only students but also visitors, many of whom come with cameras every year.
“People enjoy the tulips—I know I do,” he said. “People will stop me in the store and tell me they’ve taken their annual pilgrimage to campus in the spring to see the tulips. That’s nice to hear. But I really like seeing students enjoy the landscaping. We work for them—the students.”
Innes has been taking care of Columbia College students for more than two decades, working diligently behind the scenes to make sure campus is immaculate. He’ll retire from his position as grounds supervisor in February, leaving the college immeasurably better than he found it.
When Innes accepted the job in 1997, Columbia College wasn’t a destination spot for those wanting picture-perfect tulips. In fact, there were few flowers around; rather, gravel was the low-maintenance decoration of choice. When Innes started, college administrators set a new—and rather high—bar.
“They said they wanted to aspire to be like Shelter Gardens,” Innes said, referring to the award-winning five-acre garden behind Shelter Insurance’s headquarters in Columbia. “We’re getting there.”
Today, there are dozens of flower beds in bloom across the campus’s 10 acres of green space. Each is placed carefully with students in mind.
“He and his staff always put students first,” said Cliff Jarvis, executive director of plant and facilities. “He plans landscape projects and irrigation patterns to minimize the impact to students’ trek across campus and from building to building.”
Innes calls several of the flower beds his “favorites,” and it’s obvious he appreciates each plant’s unique characteristics. The sun impatiens that add splashes of color. The purple vinca that withstands Missouri droughts. The lantana that serves as a subtle accessory in the entryway between St. Clair and Launer.
There’s a garden he created with a group of students, too. Last year, students asked for an area near Brouder Science Center to plant a pollinator garden. Innes carved out not only the planting bed, but also time to work with the students.
“Jim met with the students several times to discuss the project,” Jarvis said. “He researched appropriate plants for Missouri, contacted local greenhouses to confirm availability, picked up the plants and assisted with installation. That’s truly a demonstration of his dedication to the students and Columbia College.”
Most of the flower beds on campus are comprised of annuals, requiring new blooms each year. Those, too, are his favorite, Innes said, because they can be changed.
“I’m always looking for something new,” he said.
When selecting plants for the year, Innes considers location—whether the plant prefers sun or shade—the ability to water it and the color of the petals. He said he specifically selects colors that complement nearby buildings.
In trees, he looks for survivors. A white swamp oak planted in the middle of the Christian College garden—created in 2016—is expected to last centuries.
“We’re planting trees for longevity now instead of decorative trees with 15- to 20-year life spans,” he said, noting that tree trends have changed over the years.
While Innes adores working with plants, it’s the people he will miss most when he retires just shy of his 22nd year. In addition to students, he appreciates his colleagues and campus leaders.
“We have a great team,” he said. “They’re very good at what they do, and they enjoy it as much as I do. And the administration really knows what it takes for us to do what we do. They take care of us and make sure we have what we need. It’s a team effort, really. It takes everyone.”
Innes plans to spend his retirement working on his farm in Boonville, where he raises Angus cattle. And he’s already making plans to take his own annual pilgrimage.
“I’ll make an annual trip—probably more than annual—to campus,” he said. “I love spring here. I love the tulips.”