BENSON — Terraced container gardens filled with blooming flowers create eye-catching settings on all three Benson Unified School District campuses.
Colorful ground covers extend across low areas in planters, vines weave their way up trellises, while brushy accent plants make quiet contributions to the district’s landscape.
A volunteer who brings his horticulture expertise to the three campuses a couple mornings a week, Aten has been delving into the gardening projects that enhance Benson’s campuses for about five years now.
“When you walk across the school grounds, you see Dan’s creative touch everywhere,” said Venessa Nunez, Benson Middle School office manager. “He comes here and works on the different planters early in the morning before it gets too hot outside. Everything he does is beautiful.”
When he first started the gardening projects, one of the things Aten discovered was a lack of water supply in different stretches of the district’s campuses.
“Because some areas had no irrigation, I dug trenches and added pipes underneath the planters,” he said. “Once the pipe was installed, I got everything on timers, set five minutes a day, and that system seems to be working out really well.”
Aten, a retired teacher with 30 years experience, taught third-grade on Fort Huachuca for 10 years.
“I retired out of Fort Huachuca and after five years, I became a classroom volunteer for the Benson School District,” he said. “My three step-children attended school in Benson, so that’s how I started volunteering here seven years ago.”
Aten stepped out of his role as a classroom volunteer and transitioned into his first landscaping project when he designed a rose garden at Benson Primary School, along with other landscape settings on the primary school campus. After two years, he moved onto the middle school, where he designed and planted container gardens.
Last year, he started working on the Benson High School campus, which he has been continuing to do through the summer.
When it comes to plant choices, Aten prefers “winter-hardy” plants — those capable of withstanding temperatures that dip as low as 20 degrees — because of their ability to bounce back every year.
Other favorites are quaking aspen trees, which he has brought to the school district. The visual impact that ornamental grasses bring to container gardens is another feature he enjoys working with.
“Grasses make great accent plants and come in a variety of sizes and shapes,” he said.
Roses are another favorite of Aten’s. The primary school’s thriving rose garden, with its perfusion of color, is popular among students and staff.
While finding plants of varied colors, textures and height combinations that work well together is one of his areas of expertise, Aten is also knowledgeable when it comes to soil mixtures.
“I get compost from the Sierra Vista transfer station because it’s high-quality, fairly inexpensive and produces good results,” he said with a glance toward a flower-filled planter.
While pausing to chat with Aten, Benson School District Maintenance and Transportation Director Shawn McCartha praised his work and selfless volunteerism.
“He’s here nearly every morning and always does beautiful work,” McCartha said. “He’s one of the most hardworking volunteers I’ve ever seen and is willing to do anything the principals ask of him. His efforts and the amazing results he gives our district’s campuses do not go unnoticed.”
Aten was honored in September 2017 with the Carol Huddleston Volunteer of the Year award, presented on behalf of the Arizona Community Foundation of Cochise. The award is given to those who exemplify volunteer and philanthropic endeavors for the betterment of a community.