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Seasonal work

Winter on the sometimes frigid and snowy campus becomes an intense growing season inside Rensselaer’s two greenhouses located on Sunset Terrace.

“Starting in about February, we purchase 12,000 to 15,000 plugs — tiny germinated seeds in small pots — and I begin to grow wave petunias, marigolds, and a variety of other annual summer bulbs that we’ll plant right before Commencement,” says Kuber, who holds degrees in both art and horticulture and has extensively studied plant science. “I also propagate some flowers from vegetative cuttings and straight from seeds.”

While growing the plants and flowers, the landscaping staff also is endeavoring to cut costs. One way is by growing seedlings on site months before planting season instead of purchasing full-grown flowers and immediately transplanting them into beds. Another cost-cutting method is splitting perennial plants, which entails digging up the largest perennials on campus, splitting the root ball, and essentially ending up with two or more plants instead of one. Kuber says she is “constantly splitting plants and relocating them to new spots.”

Today more than 60 different types of perennial plants can be found across the Rensselaer campus, and there are upward of 5,000 plants in the ground. Lead groundskeeper Wes Malik has witnessed a dramatic change in the campus grounds in his 21 years at the Institute. “When I first started there were only perennial plants in about two or three spots,” he says. “Now we’ve split them so many times that we have coverage for just about all of campus.”

At the first sign of melting snow and spring’s climbing temperatures, the landscaping staff enters its busiest season. Anticipating Commencement, the group works diligently to prepare the campus lawns and flower beds for more than 10,000 visitors. Litwin asks his staff to come up with their own colorful bed designs for the thousands of annual flowers that go into the ground between April and May.

“We plant the same areas with annuals each year, and I’ll let the gardeners take on some of their own projects,” he says. “They’ll come to me with some designs, and if their ideas are fundamentally sound, of course I’ll let them see them through to fruition. That creative leeway — the ability to create something beautiful from scratch with your own two hands—can be so satisfying and fulfilling.”

Lee Bradt, an Institute gardener since 1981, has consistently designed and installed landscapes that are aesthetically pleasing and low maintenance, according to Litwin.

Gardener Steven Thode says he ruminates on his plan before he breaks ground. “Sometimes I’ll just drive by a spot day after day for a week to try to visualize how certain plants will look in different areas,” he says. “By the time I start to dig I know exactly where I want every flower to sit.” Thode, who holds a horticulture degree and specializes in landscape development, credits Litwin for enabling the Institute’s gardeners to be creative and innovative.

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Rensselaer’s 275-acre campus is home to more than 5,000 perennial plants representing 60 types of perennials; 55 different species of trees; 15 different types of ornamental grasses; 80 different species of shrubs; 2,500 to 3,000 spring-flowering bulbs planted each fall; and 12,000 to 15,000 annual flowers planted each spring.
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Just weeks before Rensselaer’s students cross the Commencement stage, approximately 45 pots of varying shapes and sizes can be found all around the campus, from the steps of the Troy Building to the sidewalk in front of the Heffner Alumni House. Spilling over with multicolored annual flowers and teeming with ornamental grasses, each arrangement is carefully crafted by gardener Kathleen Kuber, who spends the majority of her time delicately transplanting the annuals she’s cared for all winter from indoors to out.

An artist by training, she uses the Rensselaer campus as her canvas, painting the green lawns with splashes of pink and yellow begonias, splotches of lavender petunias, and broad strokes of tangerine-colored marigolds.

“Kathleen will take ideas seemingly from thin air — things that are just floating around somewhere in her head — and go out and plant the most beautiful, visually striking arrangements that I have ever seen,” says fellow gardener Steven Thodes. “And it’s effortless.”

Following the busy spring season, Litwin and his staff enter a maintenance phase. “The growing season really slows down in the summer, and we are focused on irrigation — making sure the plants have the water they need to thrive — and keeping up with the lawns and sports fields on campus,” says Malik. “But we also get to do our own side projects, and come up with new designs to utilize any leftover flowers that weren’t planted.”

Litwin makes every effort to ensure that no remaining plants are wasted.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.