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John Brong gives CCU’s campus a green thumbs up

by Bracey

John Brong wasn’t a horticulturalist when he took the job of Coastal Carolina University’s greenhouse/nursery manager 10 years ago. But the position has evolved over the last decade, and Brong now wears many hats – gardener, floral designer, landscaper, plant doctor, nursery specialist, Zen master and go-to guy for anything green. “When I moved to Myrtle Beach, I learned I had to adapt quickly,” Brong says. “I took master gardening courses through Clemson, and even now, I’m constantly learning and reading about new ways to do things.”

Brong's adaptive attitude has proved very useful over the years. In the last decade, CCU has grown, and all aspects of the landscaping and floral catering have grown with it. The campus is covered with flowerbeds, and a retention pond is in the works that will capture the drainage from the constant watering and feed it back to a central location beside the HTC Center. Brong did have two smaller greenhouses, but he has moved to a newer, bigger location between the HTC Center and S.C. 544. “The square footage is bigger, and that’s nice. But having the two greenhouses did aid in climate control for the plants that need a cooler environment,” he says.

“I grow everything on campus here in the greenhouse,” Brong says. “I used to grow and help plant everything, but now, it’s too big. I’m in the greenhouse most of the time.” Then he adds, “Well, I still help put in the new flowerbeds and assemble the big potted plants and hanging baskets around campus. But the maintaining falls on our hardworking ground crews from the greenhouse. They keep everything growing, and all that color builds a nice atmosphere.”

Brong also does all the floral arrangements for special events on campus, the centerpieces, displays for graduations and admissions and any other occasion that may need some sprucing up. “I try to stay 12 weeks ahead with my ordering and planting and arranging,” he says. “Between the growing and the projects and the events and the learning new stuff – it’s never-ending.”

To help out with the growing workload, Brong has three student workers from the marine science program. “They save me,” he says. “And I’ve had good luck. I’ve been able to work with them for three or four years.”

These student workers aren’t just there for the heavy lifting or to give a helping hand. These students are innovative, helping to redefine how the department does things. In the last four years, they’ve set up a rainwater recovery system to water all the flowerbeds on campus. They’ve fashioned compost piles by combining food scraps from CINO Grille with the campus landscaping waste. They’re currently in the planning stages to build an aquaponics system that will incorporate koi fish and plants in a symbiotic growing relationship.

Brong looks for offshoots in the growth around the greenhouse. He propagates most of the campus’ trees, plants and shrubs to cut down the costs of buying new ones. About 90 percent of the new root growth in the greenhouse came from stem cuttings. He points to lines of small potted plants on the roof of his portable office. “Those succulents hardly need water, and they grow like crazy, plus they help keep my office cool.”

Brong grew up in Clinton, N.J. He put in 20 years working for Coca Cola in Fort Worth, Texas, before he took a job with CCU’s grounds department 12 years ago. He moved to Myrtle Beach to be closer to his parents and raise his young son. His son is now 15 and his every spare minute is spent traveling to baseball games during the season or
showcase games for scouts. “He’s gotten pretty good,” Brong says. “He’s pitching in the mid-80s now.”

Brong’s job works in rhythm with his need for quality time with his family, and he seems to foster a sense of community around him. Out beside the greenhouse, he’s planted a small vegetable and fruit garden for the grounds department. He used his own money to buy seeds, and he and others in the department spend half of their lunch breaks tending to it each day. “When we harvest it, everyone in the department shares in the crops,” he says.

“I figured out along the way that’s it nice to do something you love,” Brong says with what would seem like a sense of contentment. But as he walks around the saplings and budding plants outside the greenhouse, he points to a small tree still in a pot. “Tell you what’s driving me crazy,” he says. “They say if you can propagate a Eucalyptus, you’re a master gardener. I haven’t gotten one to take yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”

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