By Amber Cleveland
Photos by Kris Qua
As faculty and students return to the Troy campus in late summer for the start of the new academic year, Scott Litwin and his staff already are preparing for Commencement the following May.
From September to November the groundskeepers are tending to beds full of New England asters, “autumn joy” sedum, rudbeckia, ornamental grasses, and other blossoming fall perennials plants that reappear year after year. The team is also busy removing fallen leaves from the lawns and flower beds so that the gardeners can begin planting a plethora of spring-flowering bulbs timed to bloom during Commencement and Reunion weekends.
Between 2,500 and 3,000 spring-flowering bulbs are put in the ground during the first few months of the fall semester, thanks to an annual gift from Claire Schmitt, wife of past Rensselaer President Roland Schmitt. Called the “Claire Schmitt Fund,” the donation supports the purchase of crocuses, May-flowering tulips, and giant allium flowers (which look like purple globes on a stick), among other plants that blossom just in time for Commencement.
“Fall is a particularly crucial season for us, because if we don’t get the plants in the ground before the snow, we won’t have the amount of color and variety we want for Commencement,” says Litwin, who supervises landscape operations. “And planting these bulbs in the fall to flower in May saves us from having to rely so heavily on annual flowers in the spring.”
Some new perennials are also planted during the fall season, according to gardener Kathleen Kuber, who says the ultimate goal is “to have something new flower every month so that all the beds are in a constant state of bloom.”
Armed with a variety of colored markers and their own creativity, Litwin and his team huddle around a giant map of the Rensselaer campus drawn on dry-erase board. Methodically, they populate the blank page with sketched shrubs and trees, flower beds and benches, water features and rock paths. Before long the team of 16 comprising three gardeners, two lead groundskeepers, and 11 members of the grounds staff has created a visual “to do” list. They’ll follow it as they begin the annual cycle of enhancing and maintaining the Institute’s sprawling landscape.
Tending to the green spaces on Rensselaer’s 275-acre urban campus requires intense planning and preparation, followed by a rigorous schedule of propagating, planting, pruning, and preserving. As new buildings rise, the landscaping staff ensures that natural beauty is an integral part of the high-tech research, learning, and living environment.