Floyds Fork can be a temperamental sort, languid, bubbly, nicely shaded and canoe-friendly most of the time, boiling over with liquid anger following sudden, heavy rains.
Like about six to eight pelting inches.
So it went in early April 2015 when a two-day deluge quickly shoved the river up out of its banks and across the lowlands of The Parklands of Floyds Fork, temporarily washing away part of walking trails, fresh plantings, fences and a whole lot of mulch, while keeping park users out for a time.
No one familiar with Floyds Fork was surprised by this, least of all Karen Mann, Parklands Head Gardener. As scenic and user-friendly as the river can be, it was flooding long before it defined the nation’s newest large-scale park system, and will continue to do so by its more remote, and thus appealing, nature.
The occasional flooding is inevitable; it comes with the river’s narrow channel and adjacent lowlands turf. The good news is the water recedes just as quickly as it rises.
Mann is part of a broader Parklands crew that when not planting, trimming, fertilizing and mulching plants will work with trail team members and volunteers to repair such flood damage.
This spring, in a bit of a ground stabilization experiment, some crew members are also planting “live stakes” – short, stubby pieces of shrub dogwood, willows, ninebark and elderberry – in wetland areas to facilitate needed shrub growth in those places.
This work brings a cross-section of plant and park employees together for a common goal; keeping the almost 4,000 acres of The Parklands fit and happy.
“I love it,” Mann said of her job. “I just love being outside and being part of this project.”
She grew up in Louisville, earned at degree in horticulture at Eastern Kentucky University, then worked at Audubon Country Club while she and her husband, Tom Mann, who ran a lawn service.
Stretching out into other areas and interests, she worked for Independent Industries Inc. where she helped build a greenhouse and taught gardening to participants with development disabilities, and then went to Louisville Diversified Services in much of the same capacity.
She later worked as a private gardener at a Louisville home, even as she and her husband began raising three children. Her job at The Parklands came in 2013 as the result of her curiosity augmented with her passion for gardening.
She was driving down I-64, looked over at what seemed to be a park under construction, and decided to check it out:
”I took a little adventure and discovered what it was. I went home, went on-line and saw there was a job opening for a park attendant.”
She was hired as an attendant; those who open gates early and shut them later, pick up trash, clean the restrooms. That broadened out into working as a Gheens Lodge concierge at weddings and corporate events, and in the PNC Welcome Center.
She became Head Gardener in August, 2014 - a descriptive title she accepts with nominal regard:
“I don’t like to call myself that. We are a team. We divided the park into three zones and there are three people with me. On Monday and Friday we work in our zones and Tuesdays and Wednesday we work on team projects.”
On a recent Wednesday that meant joining with other Parklands employees shoveling water-washed gravel back onto Black Willow Trail, an almost two mile walk that begins at the Thornton Bridge, circles the meadows of the Humana Grand Allee, ducks through wooded areas and then touches the Louisville Loop on the way back.
The very basic equipment required was rake and shovel; the gravel being shoveled back up on the trail and raked into place – even in underwater places where the stone had slide downhill into a nearby farm pond.
Pushing one rake with practiced care was Brett Cissell, an outgoing Louisville St. Xavier graduate and Parklands Trail Team Leader. He had spent most of his previous working life on horse farms and in ranch management, with some extensive home improvement and plumbing work along the way.
It was those hands-on skills – and a natural mechanic’s abilities – that have come in most handy at The Parklands.
“I started here in August, 2012,” he said. “I spent about 40 hours a week for about five weeks with my head down pulling weeds out of the Garden Gateway.
“It was a seasonal job that was supposed to last eight weeks and I finished a little bit early, but they kept me on.
“Then I got hired back as an attendant. I did a lot of maintenance work and they figured out I had more skills I could utilize here…They knew they needed somebody in special projects that could operate equipment.”
That turned out to include cleaning mud-encrusted paths and roads in the park with a pressure pump that sucked water from Parklands ponds – and an almost 12-hour, all-night shift on a tractor shoveling snow from the same paths last winter.
“There’s always something in front of you here,” he said.
Not all the employee rewards come in the form of a paycheck; Parklands users are almost relentless in thanking staff for their work as they walk, jog, bike or drive past.
“A woman came by just this morning,” said Cissell, “and thanked all of us for what we do.”
Also proving handy at the business-end of a shovel was Trail Team Member Jared Stark, who worked for many years at the family-owned Cardinal Hills Golf Course in Bedford, KY., before joining The Parklands in September, 2014.
He was carefully ladling water and gravel from a muddy pond adjacent to the Black Willow Trail, then flipping it back up onto the trail where it belonged.
“It’s a fun place to work,” he said.”It’s easier, better and a lot less stress than running a golf course. This may not be my favorite thing to do with a shovel, but it’s something different here every day.”
Something different certainly applies to the experimental work of Matt Jenne, who grew up in Finchville, KY. and “always wanted to work with plants.”
He is part of a team effort to protect and preserve wetlands areas with “live stakes,” a product name that sounds more like some garage rock band.
This process is better suited outdoors. It involves shoving two-foot cuttings of easily-rooted willow, shrub dogwood, nine bark and elderberry into wet soil where they will grow into shrubs.
The stakes were provided by the aptly named Foggy Mountain Nursery in North Carolina. They came in bundles of 50 at about $21 a bundle.
After team members first laid down a protective layer of biodegradable jute fiber, the stakes were stuck in the muddy soil in about a 200-yard stretch of perpetual wetlands near the Grand Allee.
Three weeks after the planting some of the elderberry cuttings had begun to show leaf growth. Jenne was more than hopeful about the others sprouting out.
“You see it work in nature,” he said. “Branches break off and root on banks all the time. We’ll come back through and see how successful it was and replant what didn't make it.”
Garden team member Alaina Tobbe had the most quiet, introspective take of her work at the Parklands. One of six children from a farming family, she would occasionally float Floyds Fork from Seatonville to Bardstown Road long before it became a park.
She earned “a degree in flowers” from Murray State University in 2012 and had wanted to get a job at The Parklands ever since.
“Why?” she was asked.
She paused about five seconds before answering:
“Why not? Look at this place…I love the land and I can’t run a combine so I’m going to work in a park.”
Her flower degree comes in handy. Some of her job includes taking care of the flower beds near William F. Miles Lakes, Distillery Bend, the Pope Lick area near John Floyd Fields.
The Floyds Fork flood waters also tore out a section of board fence and 19 of 20 new winterberry hollies planted below the I-64 overpass, washing them downstream.
She’ll help replace them.
Of special interest to her further up the park road was a row of 38 hopeful clematis vines planted in about an 800 feet stretch on a low wire fence across from the MSD plant bordering the park.
She has watched them, cut them back, babied them and is anxiously waiting the result; sprawling color.
“I wish they would start blooming and take over the fence,” she said. “It will be gorgeous then.”
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.
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