Green Thumb Operator Adds Gardens to Treatment Plant

Beauty is in the details at a Pennsylvania treatment plant where Jim Lehman uses his passion for gardening to improve the facility's aesthetics
Green Thumb Operator Adds Gardens to Treatment Plant
Operator Jim Lehman has created several flower beds at the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Region Water Pollution Control Facility.

Jim Lehman has been in the wastewater field for more than a decade. But each day the operator at the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Region Water Pollution Control Facility also gets a taste of a different occupation: horticulture.

Treating wastewater might be priority No. 1, but when Lehman has a spare moment he tends to the various flower beds and other plantings he has put in around the facility. It’s a nod back to a lifelong passion, which also happens to have been Lehman’s livelihood for many years. He started working for a fruit tree nursery at around age 12 and remained in the horticulture arena until a job layoff forced him to search for other opportunities. That’s when he discovered wastewater treatment. He says he enjoys being able to combine one of his passions with his wastewater career.

“I like the wastewater field,” he says. “There are so many positives about it. And then to have this on top? That’s like having your ice cream and then adding all the toppings. It just makes it that much better. It’s just always been in my blood, to grow things.

“At a wastewater treatment plant, you have a lot of little areas where grass or weeds grow, such as in front of buildings or along fence rows,” he adds. “It makes sense to do a little landscaping in those areas instead because aesthetics are a big part of the wastewater field. Maybe it’s not exactly a negative thought, but I think if you ask the common person about a wastewater plant, they might turn their nose up. So to come in and see something that’s appealing, it just lifts you up a bit.”

At the Carlisle plant, Lehman helps with grounds maintenance and also applies years of gardening experience. Lehman says he takes into account how much sunlight an area will get when he’s determining what to plant, as well as factors like when a specific type of flower will bloom or how tall it will grow.

“You try to stage things based on height and when they’ll bloom,” Lehman says. “I try to get things blooming from spring through fall. This time of year, a lot of annuals are going by the wayside, but there are perennials like chrysanthemums and aster that are blooming, and they’ll carry you through the season.”

Lehman even dabbled in a bit of equipment reuse recently to create a garden ornament.

“We had some big presses that were antiquated and being scrapped. I took some of the panels and cut out 3-D stars, painted them up and hung them from a tree. It’s just something else to look at.”

The plant has received some positive feedback from plant visitors. But mostly, the gardens are just a treat for the Carlisle plant employees to enjoy.

“There are people who make deliveries,” he says. “We have a college in town and I know those people will come down occasionally. And one of our supervisors gives three or four tours a year to different school groups. We get a good response from those who have come in, but it’s myself and the other employees who get to enjoy it the most. We spend a third of our day here, so we might as well make it appealing.”

Lehman says he did the same thing at his first treatment plant job in York Springs before coming to Carlisle about two years ago. When he grew comfortable in his new post, he inquired about allotting a bit of the budget toward enhancement projects.

“We have a supervisor who was on board with it right away, so that has helped a lot. It doesn’t take much time. Once you get your chores done for the day, there’s always a little time to spend on whatever you need to do — trimming or watering a bit when things get really dry.”

When it comes to gardening, Lehman is fairly adept at finding some time. When he’s not taking care of the flowers at the treatment plant, he’s helping out at a local greenhouse or tending to his gardens at home.

“At my home, I plant just about everything you can think of: sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, an acre of sweet corn. This year I grew a lot of field pumpkins and gourds. Big watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, cabbage. I like planting a little bit of everything all season long. It might sound like work to some people, but at the end of the day to do some gardening — that brings me joy.”


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