Cincinnati Branch Tours

Greater Cincinnati Branch Tours Historic Berea College

By Jenny Gulick

On a beautiful Appalachian spring morning, members and guests of the Cincinnati Branch were treated to a private tour of the grounds of Berea College. This historic liberal arts college is located in Berea, Ky., nestled in mountain foothills, and in one of the state’s fastest growing cities.

The tour was conducted by Grounds Coordinator, Matt Partain. Matt has been with Berea College for over three years and has an impressive professional landscape management resume. Previously, he held grounds management positions for prestigious properties such as Disney, Biltmore, and the Greenbriar. Matt even applied his knowledge and gained new expertise by working in New Zealand for over two years. Despite all his travel and experiences, he and his family have found a home in Berea and he enjoys the challenges and rewards of working on a college campus.

The Branch enjoyed a walking tour of the campus with discussions centering on designing for low maintenance landscapes, use of perennials for color and interest, how to create consistency on a campus, but still preserve identities, and the ever-present challenges of protecting trees and valuable landscapes from construction activities.

Matt is responsible for maintaining and enhancing over 200 acres on the main campus and has a staff of six full-time employees, including a Certified Arborist, and one temporary position. The May morning of the tour was unseasonably warm, but members stayed comfortable under the shade of an almost continuous canopy of a variety of mature trees. Matt uses the skills of his staff and additional professional consultation to maintain and protect over 2,000 trees on campus. Berea college also uses Asset Manager© software to map and track planting and work histories of their trees. They are proud of receiving the National Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA award for three consecutive years.

Under Matt’s leadership, Berea College is working on a sustainable landscape program. The first step was installing the policy that the trees, shrubs, and landscape beds will be planted only if they can be maintained with current resources. Additionally, he selects plant materials that are native to east-central Kentucky, but will supplement his plant lists with non-native species that are well-suited to the site, can achieve the desired goals, and are not invasive. At this time, they use very little chemicals and do not have underground irrigation systems.

Matt accomplishes all this work with a relatively small full-time staff, but uniquely also through a long-standing requirement of the college, and that is each and every student must work for the college during their four years. So, almost 50% of the grounds crew workforce are students.

To understand this arrangement better, it’s useful to know a brief history of the College. Berea College offers a high quality liberal arts education to students who have great promise but limited economic resources. Founded upon inclusive Christian principles in 1855, Berea College was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. To this day, the College promotes understanding and kinship among all people, service to communities in the region and beyond, and sustainable living practices that set an example of new ways to conserve our limited natural resources.

Tuition at the college is free; therefore the College attracts many national, as well as international students. But, all students must commit to working at the college every week for every semester they attend. Those jobs range from teaching assistant to office clerk to artisan craft-maker to campus gardener.

Those working for the campus Horticulture Department are responsible for the total upkeep and maintenance of all landscape beds, small tree and shrub care, turf mowing, and planting of all new landscape projects as well as new street trees. In return, the students earn their tuition and learn about horticulture.

The Branch concluded the tour with lunch at the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant. Authentic southern cooking and genuine hospitality was served up in “heapin’ helpins'” within the formal and newly renovated confines of this charming and elegant building. Everyone asked for seconds of their legendary cornbread soufflé locally known as Boone Tavern Spoonbread.

The Branch again heartily thanks Matt Partain and the College for hosting the Greater Cincinnati Branch for this successful educational program. See photos from the event below!

If you would like to learn more about Berea College, please visit If you would like to contact Matt Partain he can be reached at