Getting to Know Mike Mahanna: Arborist, Business Owner, and Council Executive Committee Member

Mike and Dianne
Mike Mahanna with wife Dianne.

Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in arboriculture and urban forestry? Mike Mahanna: I grew up in the city of Utica and was always mesmerized by the American elm trees and the way they lined the city streets and formed a canopy almost appearing to touch in the middle. I spent many hours walking those streets with my family—and suddenly they were gone. At the time I had no idea it was because of Dutch elm disease, but I did miss seeing them and was saddened by the void they left and lack of beauty it created.

I also spent years as a child camping with my Dad in the Adirondack Mountains and loved everything about it. I knew at a young age that I wanted to spend most of my time outdoors.

What has been your educational and career trajectory? MM: I entered Morrisville State College and studied landscape design. After working for two commercial landscape companies, in 1989 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work for Hamilton College. There, the mentality of “push the bush” no longer existed and I could concentrate on the value of proper horticulture practices.

I was hired as a horticulturist to maintain the Root Glen, a formal garden with woodland trails. The Glen was developed by three generations of the Root family dating back to 1850 when Oren Root bought the building adjacent to the Glen, which he named the Homestead. In 1971 the family handed over the care of the Glen to Hamilton College, who maintains it to this day. [There’s a real nice blog post about the Glen here.]

Root Glen by Ellen Rathbone
Photo by Ellen Rathbone,

While at Hamilton I became a Certified Arborist in 1993. I thrived at Hamilton College and continued to further my education every chance I could. I am a proud member of the New York State Arborist Association and became a regular volunteer at the New York State Fair Arborist booth. I pursued my Master Gardener’s certificate with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County and have done some volunteering and speaking at their events. I’ve led winter identification walks as part of the Hamilton College Arboretum lecture series as well as tours during the growing season.

norway spruce ellen rathbone
Root Glen of Hamilton College is home to the national champion Norway spruce. Photo by Ellen Rathbone,

Hamilton College was chartered in 1812, so parts of the campus arboretum are over 200 years old. The more than 100 species of trees on the campus truly make it one of New York State’s best keep secrets. When I walk under the mature canopy there, I feel as though I’m in an arboricultural Nirvana; my personal favorites are the ginkgos and the American sycamores.

Mahanna Plant Tag
Signage for one of the most special trees in the Hamilton College Arboretum.           Photo by Mike Mahanna

After a successful 20-year career at Hamilton, I left the college to own and operate my own landscape design company, the How-to Gardener. In the winter months I worked for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County and brought back to life their Master Gardener’s program after a 17-year absence. I am also active in a speaking circuit where I have developed several presentations on various landscape topics for the do-it-yourself community.

The How-to Gardener is a consulting and design company with a focus on tree care and education for homeowners and business owners. My favorite aspect of my job is meeting and educating the clients about proper horticulture practices so that we can give them the best design and plant material for their project.

What has been your involvement with the New York State Urban Forestry Council? MM: I became involved with the NYSUFC in 2005. In 2008 I became a board member representing Region 6 and in 2013 I joined the executive committee. I feel our work in educating the public is invaluable. I am excited to make people aware of the urban forest and its importance to our society.

When you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you what urban forestry is, and you only have about 60 seconds to answer, what do you say? MM: The urban forest is where a child gets to swing from a limb, a senior can enjoy its shade while enjoying a cool drink on a hot summer’s day, and a neighborhood can thrive from its beauty. And for all these things, it should not be taken for granted.

Mike with family
Dianne and Mike, daughter Melanie (center), son Ryan, his wife Rene and dog Snoop.

What are your interests in your free time, and something folks might not know about you? MM: I still hold the love for the Adirondacks that I did as a child and try to spend as much time there with friends and family as I can. I spend quality time with my parents and children and love to cook for them. My wife and I love our motorcycle and try to take a ride on any sunny day. I’ve been told I am an excellent cook. I am a collector of many things (much to my wife’s chagrin). I am expecting my first granddaughter and she will be born around the time this piece is published! [Jemma Dorothy Mahanna was born on May 13! Congrats to the Mahannas!]




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