Wings of Change
Monday, January 9, 2023
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Strolling through the overturned earth in what soon would be Scissortail Park, Lance Swearengin attempted to decompress following his interview.
As he surveyed what he hoped would be his new office, he glanced up and spotted a scissortail flycatcher perched on a light post — a premonition of his adventure to come.
Hired in 2019 as director of horticulture and grounds at Scissortail Park six months prior to its grand opening, Swearengin took an incredible role and opportunity to rebuild the downtown Oklahoma City ecosystem.
“As soon as I read the job description, I knew this was the next step in my career,” Swearengin said. “It was a significant opportunity I knew I needed to explore because you don’t get a chance to build a greenspace in a downtown area like this very often.”
While growing up in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Swearengin helped his mother in her rose garden, which sparked his lifelong interest in horticulture at a young age.
“It’s in my DNA,” Swearengin said. “My mother is big into gardening, and my grandfather had a massive vegetable garden I helped with, so I knew agriculture was something I wanted to be involved in.”
Swearengin enrolled at Oklahoma State University in 2010 to study horticulture and public garden management and took advantage of opportunities early in his career. In his first year of college, Swearengin was accepted into the Disney College Program in Orlando, Florida.
“When I applied for the program, I came in as a Disney College Program professional,” Swearengin said. “I had the opportunity to go to Disney World and work at the attractions on Spaceship Earth.
“I worked there for a season,” Swearengin said. “That allowed me to do professional development within the company and get accepted into Disney’s horticulture program.”
Interning at Walt Disney World for three consecutive summers, Swearengin worked on attractions at EPCOT, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.
“Disney has a really top-notch horticulture department and horticulture program,” Swearengin said. “I learned a lot about working in a professional atmosphere, being a leader in horticulture, and doing the grunt work necessary to move my career forward.”
To avoid the Florida summer heat and guest traffic, the staff often worked from midnight into the next morning to have a new landscape for guests to enjoy, Swearengin said.
“Working around guests in a large park is pretty significant,” Swearengin said. “I had some great experiences where I worked on large plant and animal topiaries.
“I grew animal browse, such as tree trimmings or green leaves, at Animal Kingdom, which kind of brought me back to the zoo in a special way,” Swearengin said.
When Swearengin was not working at his internship, he spent his time volunteering at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden.
“The opportunity with The Walt Disney Co. was a significant experience for me that tied into my work at the zoo and pushed me more into public horticulture,” he said.
After gaining knowledge through OSU’s horticulture program and other opportunities, Swearengin graduated in 2014.
He then was hired as a full-time employee at the zoo and decided to continue his education and earn a master’s degree in horticulture.
In 2016, Swearengin earned the title as curator of the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden while conducting research under Bruce Dunn, a horticulture and landscape architecture professor at OSU.
“It takes someone who is very detail-oriented and dedicated to manage two different projects and succeed,” Dunn said. “Lance’s passion for horticulture made things flow naturally for him.”
Working at the zoo for a total of nine years gave Swearengin time to learn the procedures of operating an accredited garden.
“The reason I got into public horticulture was my work at the zoo,” Swearengin said. “Going into that realm of conservation, public garden management and plant collections inspired me to take that further and brought me to this opportunity with the Scissortail Park Foundation.”
Hired to build a horticulture program from the ground up at Scissortail Park, Swearengin said his experience at the zoo and Walt Disney World helped set him apart as a candidate.
“All the little opportunities and experiences I had helped me to understand what a good horticulture program looks like,” Swearengin said. “These helped set me up for greatness and to build a world-class program here, which is what we have at Scissortail Park.”
Before the opening of Scissortail Park, Swearengin had the opportunity to adjust the facility’s landscape plans.
“Making different plant choices and tweaking the irrigation systems were small adjustments that were necessary to help us move forward,” he said.
Eager to share his kindness, knowledge and expertise, Swearengin has an inclusive and transparent leadership style, said Jill Johnson, chief operating officer of Scissortail Park.
“A lot of people have to work at including people in conversations and wanting to share their knowledge,” Johnson said, “but Lance does not.”
Starting her position in November 2021, Johnson said Swearengin was the first person to “show her the ropes” at Scissortail Park.
“Coming from a business and marketing background, I didn’t know a lot about plants and irrigation,” Johnson said. “Lance and his team are all about wanting to lift each other up, and that really helps the entire team.”
Often hosting educational programs for the employees, Swearengin likes to see harmony within his team, she said.
“When you step into a new position, it can be a nerve-racking experience — you never know what you are going to face,” Swearengin said. “However, the direction I had from professors at OSU really set me up for greatness.”
Providing outdoor recreation to the Oklahoma City community, Scissortail Park is a 70-acre urban oasis that extends from the core of downtown Oklahoma City to the shore of the Oklahoma River.
Features such as wellness recreation areas, an outdoor roller-skating rink, and a café have helped make the park the “backyard of Oklahoma City,” said Lance Swearengin, director of horticulture and grounds.
With almost 2,000 trees planted, various Oklahoma native plants and several rain gardens, Scissortail Park is used as an educational tool through various programs.
In 2020, Swearengin applied for arboretum accreditation, a program to set professional standards for woody plant collections.
“Educating guests on the importance of planting trees and woody plants through programs, plant sales and interviews are what make an arboretum,” he said. “A strong part of public horticulture is managing plant collections, landscapes, programs and educating the public.”
Educating the public through wildlife conservation programs, plant conservation programs and more, Scissortail Park also provides free events to the community.
The most impactful program has been the farmers market, Swearengin said.
“This area downtown is formally a food desert,” Swearengin said. “The development of the farmers market has really opened up a vein to the community where people can come downtown and get locally grown, fresh produce through SNAP or senior benefits.
“Scissortail Park is something we didn’t know we needed until it opened,” he said. “It’s really great to see the community come out and use the park.”
Story By: Alyssa Hardaway | Cowboy Journal