Behind the Scenes: John Sauer, Carr's Hill Gardener

August 27, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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The rise of ground northwest of the Rotunda is known as Carr’s Hill, since 1909 the residence of the president of the University of Virginia. It’s a place of towering trees, border gardens and winding brick paths.

The gardens have evolved over the past century to suit each president’s tastes and needs. For 34 years, this lushly landscaped hilltop has been in the care of one man: John Sauer, the Carr’s Hill Gardener.

Sauer began work at Carr’s Hill in 1974 and says it has been "a learning process ever since." The University’s fifth first lady, Ann Hereford, gave him his earliest lessons. "She mentored me, taught me sensibilities and techniques. I learned to make bouquets from her, each one a work of art," he says.

This aesthetic appreciation is obvious in Sauer’s approach to gardening, and his sensibilities can be likened to an impressionist painter, composing art with an emphasis on light and the colors of nature.

"It feels wonderful when the light is just perfect," Sauer says, standing at the Oval Garden, a place that feels like a haven against the speed of contemporary life. Even so, Carr’s Hill is seldom quiet. In an average year, about 17,000 guests visit the president’s home.

The floral art at Carr’s Hill is always evolving.

"Every season has charm and at the end of one season, we’re ready for the beauty of the next," he says. "It’s a good feeling to create something that makes people happy. It’s good to feel needed."

"But I don’t want to romanticize it," he adds. "Gardening involves a lot of getting down and dirty."

You might assume that Sauer is weary of gardening at day’s end. "Oh no," he says, smiling. "It’s not a case of the cobbler’s son going barefoot. I garden at home in Batesville, and my wife is a horticulture teacher and columnist. I consider it a privilege to work here."

Photo by Peggy Harrison