Meet Chris Sass, UK’s Arboretum Advisory Board Co-Chair

Meet Chris Sass, UK’s Arboretum Advisory Board Co-Chair

Meet Chris Sass, UK’s Arboretum Advisory Board Co-Chair

Published on Dec. 20, 2023

Chris Sass has been the UK co-chair of The Arboretum Advisory Board for less than a year, but visitors to The Arboretum have long enjoyed projects that he and others developed as part of two successful UK Presidential Sustainability Challenge Grant efforts.

The first project is located at the left of and along the entry drive on Alumni Drive. There, visitors can see a series of bioswales that create a changing display of false indigo, tall yellow blooms of compass plants and a variety of sunflowers, blazing star, cup plants (with leaves that hold water for thirsty bugs), and grasses such as big blue stem and little blue stem.

The second project is the wet meadow near the Kentucky Children’s Garden and the outdoor restrooms, which have many of the same plants, as well as foxglove, sycamore, and bald cypress trees.

Chris Sass, UK co-chair of The Arboretum Advisory BoardThe funding provided by Chris’s successful grant application allowed the student-led UK Horticulture Club to grow (from seed) all the plants for both projects. Chris incorporated both projects into LA 531, a landscape architecture class which he teaches. “I try to teach students how water moves and how we can clean it before it reaches the creek,” he says. Chris led the students through the design and installation of both projects (with assistance from Arboretum staff member Jesse Dahl) which incorporated plants with deep roots that absorb water and improve the condition of the soil.

Chris is Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture in the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. But when he began his college career, landscape architecture was not in the picture. Christopher Kevin Sass was born in Quincy, Illinois, but when he was 10 his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. His father was in the construction industry. His mother was a homemaker who later had a career in banking.

When it came time for college, he went to Missouri Western State College for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. Then came the keynote speech that changed his life. It was a landscape architect speaking to Master Gardeners. “I thought ‘Gee whiz, I could use my biology degree and do ecological restoration and be a landscape architect,’” he says. “Then I got the teaching bug, and the rest is history.”

Chris earned a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Kansas State University, followed by a Ph.D. in Environmental Design & Planting: Emphasis in Sustainability. He describes his dissertation on stream bank erosion rates as “pretty boring,” but says it informs the work he does now. “I can make a difference. Instead of studying what erosion rates are, I can be helping lessen erosion rates by increasing upland tree canopy.”

Chris was a teaching and research assistant and instructor at Kansas State before coming to UK as an assistant professor of Landscape Architecture in 2013 and becoming associate professor in 2019. In 2022 he was named department chair. He also has been a steering committee member of UK’s Natural Resources and Environmental Science (NRES) program and still is an advisor there.

He was named UK’s co-chair of The Arboretum Advisory Board, which advises the Chair of the UK Department of Horticulture and the Director of The Arboretum on operations and programs. Chris replaced Ned Crankshaw as board co-chair. Crankshaw is a former Landscape Architecture chair who is now Acting Dean of the UK College of Design.

Chris Sass, UK co-chair of The Arboretum Advisory Board, with his familyFor the last several years, Chris has been a co-leader of the Urban Forest Initiative (UFI), a group of UK faculty, staff and students who champion the benefits of trees on the campus and throughout the region. Dr. Lynne Rieske-Kenney, UK faculty in forest entomology, is another UFI co-leader, and says Chris’s expertise in design and planning has broadened UFI. “Traditionally what the Urban Forest Initiative had been about was tree health and tree canopy expansion, so Chris has brought a prospective that we have needed,” she says. And, she says, his advocacy of planting trees in red-lined neighborhoods that banks and government programs ignored for a century “brings a social justice slant that we did not have.”

Chris and his wife Jessica have two sons, ages 14 (Logan) and 16 (Andrew). There is also Zeus, a boxer, and Vega, a boxer mix. In his backyard, he says, he has tried to create something similar to The Arboretum’s Horticulture Gardens, with various non-native plants like a shrub ginkgo and Persian parrotia. There is also a more conventional vegetable garden.

In his free time, Chris enjoys hiking on the Sheltowee Trace in the Red River Gorge and canoeing on the Kentucky River. He also is a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Once a year he gets together with former Landscape Architecture classmates, and they visit a different ballpark. The trip usually involves an arboretum. “It gives me a chance to go to different arboreta, to see different landscape projects that have made a difference or impact on that city, to bring back to the students something that is valuable,” he says. “And it helps me think about things a little differently.”

Contact Information

Molly Davis

500 Alumni Drive Lexington, KY 40503

+1 (859) 257-6955