Every day, thousands of living things at Tampa International Airport depend on Karen Allen. It’s her job to make sure they have all the food and water they need, and to help them live contented lives so they flourish.
As a maintenance supervisor for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, it’s Allen’s job to tend to all the plants inside the airport.
“It’s kind of like being Mother Nature,” Allen said. “Plants are supposed to grow outdoors, not indoors. You have to give them everything they need.”
At any one time, Allen said, there may be 2,000 plants inside the airport. Maybe even more; she’s never really counted. There are fewer right now, she said, because of the ongoing renovations around the airport.
Allen looks after those plants, plus thousands more in the airport’s two greenhouses and a shade house, which is home to plants making the transition from the natural sunlight of the greenhouses to the artificial light of the airport.
Each kind of plant has its own needs, Allen said. Some plants have to be rotated frequently from the terminals to the greenhouse because they need a lot of sun. Others do okay for extended periods as long as they’re near windows. Some palm trees haven’t moved from their airside homes in years.
Allen, who has worked full-time for the Aviation Authority for 13 years, said she couldn’t do it alone. She leads a three-person team that currently includes Wayne Crain and Shawn Culbreth.
“Your team makes you who you are,” she said, “and I’ve always had a great team.”
Allen was born in West Virginia, but grew up in the Tampa area. She’s always been an outdoors type of person, and spends a lot of her spare time tending to her five-acre property in Lithia. She used to keep a couple of cows on the property, but her airport work keeps her too busy for that now.
“Anything outdoors I love,” she said. “Fishing, hunting, anything like that.”
She got her start with plants working as a florist, but left that work and took a job with a company that that provided and maintained greenery for commercial properties. Most of the company’s clients were doctors and lawyers who wanted to spruce up their offices.
“I was just looking for a job,” Allen said. “But once I got my hands dirty, I knew that this was work I really loved doing.”
Tampa International Airport was the company’s biggest account. So Allen actually worked with the airport’s plants for years before she became an employee. She knew the different growing conditions at different airsides and knew which kinds of plants worked best in which spots.
Right around the time her boss at that company was getting ready to retire, the Aviation Authority was looking for to hire someone in-house to take care of the terminal’s flora.
Even though she had worked in the airport for years as an employee of that company, Allen said, she was daunted by the idea of becoming a supervisor and having ultimate responsibility for those thousands of plants.
It was her old boss who gave her the confidence she needed. Just before he retired, he let her know that she had the ability and talent to keep Tampa International Airport brimming with lively vegetation.
“You know,” he told her, “your thumb’s never gonna get any greener than it already is.”