Grounds supervisor Mary Nolan keeps campus color-coordinated for all seasons

L.A. Cicero Nolan

Mary Nolan, a grounds-crew supervisor for the university’s academic areas, looks over a recent shipment of cylcamen destined to be planted outside Hoover Tower. This month, the Irish native and her crew of 22 groundskeepers are swapping out flowers around campus as part of the fall-winter replanting.

Mary Nolan is putting away the bright summer colors and bringing out tones that are better suited for the fall and winter, but she isn’t a fashion slave.

Her work attire consists of a wide-brimmed hat, fly-eyed sunglasses, shorts and hiking boots. She is a grounds-crew supervisor for the university’s academic areas, which means just about everything inside Campus Drive loop.

This month, she and her crew of 22 groundskeepers are swapping out pink, purple and lavender flowers around campus for blue, white and red ones as part of the annual fall-winter replanting.

“It’s a little bit of seasonal color,” Nolan said. “It’s almost like putting up Christmas decorations for the holidays.”

Her accent tells you that she is Irish, born and raised on a farm. Now the Farm where she toils away is rich with scholars and Nobel Laureates, instead of cows and cabbages.

A typical day for Nolan might begin with an early-morning run to the nursery for some potted flowers, and then a walk around the Cantor Arts Center to make sure that the grass and gravel do not look disheveled.

Pebbles constantly get kicked onto the pavement when visitors crunch around the Rodin sculptures, and when it’s warm, big crowds can trample the rear lawn several times a month because of frequent outdoor events.

But with the arrival of autumn, Nolan and her crew spent this week swapping out the potted impatiens in front of Hoover Tower for primroses and cyclamen, both of which fare better in the winter.

Spring-and-summer flowers return in April, according to a landscaping schedule that head groundskeeper Herb Fong says is planned out months—and sometimes years—in advance.

Construction, marauding mountain bikers and other horticultural hazards occasionally require Nolan to reprioritize tasks and juggle planting projects—all while keeping the groves and gardens looking the same as they have for decades. And that takes talent, Fong said.

“She coordinates all the major maintenance services,” Fong said. “She’s got her finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on around campus.”

Fong recruited Nolan in 1996, two years after she had completed an internship at the Filoli Gardens in Woodside. When she got the call from Stanford, Nolan was working for a landscaping contractor. She had earned a degree in landscape horticulture from University College Dublin and worked in England for several years in the garden nursery business before coming to the United States.

“I was delighted to get on staff here,” said Nolan, who wowed friends and family back home with the news of her hiring. “Everyone all over the world has heard of Stanford.”

Fong said Nolan’s farming roots played just as big a role as her internship when he considered her for the job. “It was acres of potatoes and cabbages,” she reminisced during one of her regular rounds last month. “We were probably self-sufficient for nine months out of the year.”

In her eight years at Stanford, Nolan has gone from gardener to supervisor, a noteworthy ascension considering that some members of her team have worked at the university four and five times longer than she has.

That goes a long way in keeping the look of landscaping around campus consistent from year to year, and to that end, Nolan credits her crew. She adds that Fong also gives them the freedom to take some risks and be creative.

Nolan and her peers say they are inspired by a sincere passion for plant life. The Facilities Operations homepage links to a website with ongoing updates from Grounds Services ( that give extensive reports on seasonal replantings, suggested wildflower walks, plant pictures and descriptions and even gardening tips for the home.

Nolan fancies the foothills by the Dish, as well as the New Guinea Sculpture Garden on Lomita Drive. Her favorite spot is the Main Quad, although the small fountain behind Memorial Church and a hidden set of wavy stone benches in a garden next to the Cantor Center also make her list.

When her parents and siblings paid their first visit to Stanford in July, she gave them the grand tour. But she generally won’t walk around campus if she’s off the clock, lest she notice a fallen branch or a yellowing patch of lawn.

“I just see things I have to remember to do,” said the 34-year-old South San Francisco resident. “I can’t come here on the weekend with friends.”

With construction projects occurring throughout campus, she has to make sure that dump trucks aren’t endangering memorial trees and groves. She also has to monitor new plants and sprinkler systems around just-erected buildings.

She is a relationship builder as well. She talks to student, staff and alumni groups about their grounds needs for major events, such as New Student Orientation, Reunion Homecoming and Commencement. And she does the same for facilities managers for high-profile buildings such as the Law School and Hoover Institution.

Craig Snarr, Hoover’s facilities manager, recalled a notable improvement in the appearance around the tower and buildings upon Nolan’s arrival. Planters that often went dry started getting water every day, and Snarr no longer had to bend over backward to get a groundskeeper’s attention.

“They have a crew that practically comes every day because there’s no automatic sprinklers for those planters,” Snarr said. “They truly care to make it look good.”

Snarr, who has been with Hoover for 25 years, said he still doesn’t know the names of any of the flowers. His main concern is that the grounds look immaculate for all the influential fellows, visitors and events there.

“There’s a high expectation of how everything should look,” Snarr said. “It makes a huge difference with people’s perception when they go on campus.”