Robert Conaghan: A Man with a Green Thumb Who Keeps University's Arboretum Thriving
By Jamie Gesell
Most understand that Adelphi University is an institution that provides higher education to
individuals. However, it also serves another purpose. It is one of the few universities designated as an arboretum. Its 75 acres are devoted to 68 different types of trees and shrubs so that wherever you walk on campus, you can see all kinds of plant life like a Weeping Green Beech, Paperbark Maple and American Elm. The Delphian was able to interview Robert Conaghan, one of the groundskeepers who tends to the arboretum of Adelphi, to learn more about the grounds and the people who care for it.
Conaghan started working at Adelphi in 1980 as a power plant operator. He’s taken on many positions and responsibilities since then such as construction manager, facilities manager and mechanical trades supervisor. In 1999, groundskeeping was added to his responsibilities. He admitted that working as a groundskeeper is a lot different from his other duties on campus.
“If a room needs to be painted and I put it off for a week or two it is still the same job, but if a plant needs water or has an insect issue and I wait two weeks the plant could be dead,” he said.
However, he has always had a passion for the outdoors. When he was younger, he spent time outside and reading stories about the environment. He especially loved reading stories in “Fabre’s Book of Insects.” (He even traded 10 comic books to get the 1938 book.) Thanks to his youthful outings, he said he loves working on Adelphi’s grounds.
It was Conaghan who got the university to be designated as an arboretum.
“A little over 15 years ago I registered Adelphi as an arboretum after identifying some of our beautiful specimen shrubs and trees on campus,” he said.
Since then, he has added new plant species to the campus, such as 5,000 yellow Dutch
Master daffodils and 40 butterfly bushes. Other new plant species include Coral Bark Maple, Weeping Sargent Hemlock and Japanese Flowering Cherry. Old plants still continue to exist on the campus as well, such as those from the class of 1935 and a 70-year-old Winged Euonymus tree located just south of Levermore Hall.
Conaghan doesn’t do all of the work alone, however. He has a four-person crew who helps him maintain the arboretum.
“All have been in the field for over 20 years and are experts in areas of horticulture care and equipment,” he said, adding they can classify a plant, identify a fungal disease and do so much more for the arboretum.
One of the most notable challenges Conaghan has faced while working on the school’s grounds is getting rid of chemical pesticides. Since 2003 his solution to the matter was using biological pest-eating insects.
“Ladybugs, assassin bugs, green lacewing and beneficial nematodes are just a few that help
us control the damage caused by aphids, chinch bugs, white flies, mites and grubs,” he said. As a result, chemicals are no longer negatively affecting the plants—resulting in a very green solution.
Conaghan said he listens to what students and faculty have to say about the arboretum and is always on the lookout for new methods and ways to further improve the campus. Most of the suggestions he gets from the Adelphi community are about planting more native plant species on campus.
“Since those requests came in, we have planted hundreds of new native plants and created a native plant garden in the Quad by Alumnae and Harvey Halls,” he said.
For anyone aspiring to work in an arboretum, he advises they get involved in the field.
“My advice to someone who wants to work in the horticultural field is to join organizations that deal in this area,” he said. “Cornell Cooperative Extension is one of the best that I know. Their monthly newsletter sharing information on insect and disease reports from the area is outstanding and their education seminars are second to none.”
For an arboretum plant list and map so you can take your own tour, visit https://www.adelphi.edu/scc/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2020/06/AUarboretum.pdf. You'll be surprised by just how many different varieties of plant life live here.