He moves through the night with purpose, working methodically through the city streets to complete his mission.
Sometimes he plays classic rock — at a respectable volume, of course. And he checks the Weather Channel app on his phone frequently.
He’s Don Groff, LEADS’ sole paid employee, and he’s in charge of watering the nearly 300 flower baskets that hang from downtown lampposts each year. The rest of the organization, which is independent from the City of Lancaster, is comprised of volunteers.
LEADS works to beautify downtown Lancaster with decorations throughout the year. The Adopt-a-Basket fundraiser helps benefit those endeavors. Individuals can purchase baskets for $90 each in memory of a loved one; a plaque with that designation hangs from each basket. Donors can also include a photo on their adopted basket's plaque for an additional $10.
To adopt a basket, visit lancasterleads.org/adopt-a-basket. The deadline for adopting baskets is May 10.
The baskets will go up May 15 this year, and once they’re up, Groff works seven days a week through October to keep them beautiful.
Groff, 60, moved to Lancaster city 16 years ago. He grew up on a farm in Leola, and prior to living in the city, lived in the New Holland-Blue Ball area.
This year marks his seventh season with LEADS as a tractor operator and flower waterer. Here, Groff shares a bit about his unique position, and why he’s happy to work such an unusual shift for the cause. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How often do the plants get watered once they’re up?
Initially every night, because what happens is when we receive flowers from the grower, they’re dry, because otherwise, they’d be too heavy to hang… The first month, I’m out every night.
After that, it all depends on the weather. It’s something you learn through experience. If we’re having nice rain every other day or at least a couple times a week, I can go out every other night. But if it’s dry… then I have to go out every night.
So you water every single basket each time you go out? What’s your strategy?
When I go out, last year it was 270 — I get every one of them. The strategy varies. Sunday through Thursday is basically very simple, because the city basically by 11 p.m. is pretty much dead — at least the downtown area. I come down West King, off of Charlotte where our garage is, and come down the square and do the whole downtown, just start knocking it out. Then I work my way out to the perimeter.
Friday and Saturday nights, the strategy is drastically different… I start on the perimeter and work my way downtown. (Editor’s note: This strategy, Groff says, is to avoid the center of Lancaster city when bars and restaurants are at their busiest. Busy sidewalks can be an issue, as the vast majority of Groff’s work is on the sidewalk.)
What are your hours like?
I normally start about 10 p.m. at night, and if everything goes well, I’m done by 4 in the morning.
Are you nocturnal, then?
That’s ideal. I’m one of those people when the sun comes up, I have a hard time sleeping.
What’s it like being in the city that late?
I absolutely love it, because the city’s quiet Sunday through Thursday. I have the streets to myself. I absolutely love it.
I just love having the city to myself… you notice things that maybe you don’t notice during the day when it’s busy. Even something simple like, architecture… I’ll notice things like, wow, I’ve never noticed that before.
Does it get old, or is there something meditative about the repetition?
I like the way you said that… the meditative part. There’s definitely a meditative element to it. It gets old, I’m not going to lie. There’s days when it’s like, ‘Oh no.’ It’s any job. ‘Here we go again, watering flowers.’ But for the most part, those moments are slim. I find enjoyment just being out there.
I think part of it for me, I don’t look at is as just flower watering. I look at it as, I’m also a goodwill ambassador on part of the city. If there’s someone in need, can I help? It may be calling the ambulance, it may be giving someone a jump start because their car is dead, it may be talking to a homeless person because they look like they need someone to talk to. That’s what brings me joy. I do a lot of talking to the moon. There’s something comforting when I see the moon, it’s like, it’s all good.
What do you think the baskets add to downtown each year?
Obviously it’s the beauty that they bring. I’m constantly amazed at how much people enjoy the flowers. When I started, I was rather glib about the whole thing – how much do people care about flowers in the grand scheme of things? It became obvious very quickly that people love the flowers… I think there’s an element of pride that it brings to the city. How many places do you go where you see 270 beautiful hanging flower baskets in the downtown area?
Have you ever got one in memory of a loved one?
In memory of my mother and my father. I lost both to cancer.
What did it mean to see it?
It meant a lot. It meant a lot every time I saw it. You get busy in life, and sometimes you forget about people you lost that you loved. And when I do this, I had a reminder every night… the memory was alive.