How long have you been at the UI and on the flower crew?
Al: Twenty years in April. I started out doing just general groundwork: mowing, trimming hedges. This is my first year full-time for the flower crew. I’ve planted flowers, beds, in the past, but this is my exclusive job this summer.
Chuck: I’ve been here 21 years this month. Like Al, I started out as just general work force. I worked in the grounds greenhouse for 12 years. Then I was asked to do the flowers out on campus. I think this is my sixth year doing them.
What does your job on the flower crew entail?
Chuck: Well, we don’t get to decide what goes in the beds and where, but we do everything else: plant, fertilize, water and cultivate.
Al: We have two horticulturists in the department, and the guy we work with, Jim Smith, is mostly concerned with the flower beds: the designs, the varieties. He’s gone on a trip right now, but he’s left us detailed maps as to what goes where.
Tell me about what you do from day to day. Do you have a schedule where you work your way around campus?
Chuck: We kind of make a route out of the flower beds. We start on one side of the campus and work our way around weeding, watering, cultivating. By the time we get to one end, we’re ready to start over and do the same thing all over.
How long does it take?
Chuck: A week to 10 days.
Al: We’re still planting a lot of beds. So, first thing in the morning, unless we’re receiving a delivery of flowers, we do the route. We make sure squirrels haven’t dug flowers out or that somebody hasn’t run through the middle of a bed and stomped the flowers down. We’re about to the end of our planting schedule, then it’ll just be the daily maintenance.
Where do the live plants come from?
Al: The majority of them come from Kleiss Nursery. They do grow a few thing here [at the university] but the majority of the annual plants come from Kleiss Nursery.
How many annuals do you put out on campus?
Al: Maybe 10,000 apiece. And that’s a conservative estimate.
Chuck: We’ve never kept a running total.
And you plant them all by hand?
Al: Well, if you’ve got your soil worked up, your trowel just kind of melds into the soil, and it can go pretty quickly. Most of this year, we worked with only one extra person.
How long does it take you to plant that many?
Chuck: About a month. We’ve been using this compost that’s called mushroom compost. It’s comparable to peat moss but they grow the white button mushrooms in it, wherever it comes from, and then we get it when they’re done with it. We stockpile it and use it to fill in the beds. And that really makes a difference. It lightens the soil up. That’s one of our key features, amending the soil every year, and that’s the key to having good healthy plants.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Al: No rain.
Chuck: No rain. When Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. And the heat. When it gets to be 90 or 95 degrees and it hasn’t rained, you can’t keep the flowers wet, and they’ll dry out in a day’s time.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Al: Being outside. You get to meet some new people. It could be students, it could be someone that works inside in some kind of office job. I think that people appreciate the efforts we put into the beds.
Chuck: The compliments from the people visiting campus. They appreciate the flowers and the way they brighten up campus. It’s like the frosting on a cake – little bits of color here and there.
How does your job vary according to time of year?
Chuck: In the wintertime, we go back to the general workforce and do snow removal.
Al: And tree planting. We may not necessarily go back to the same area we worked in the previous year.
Chuck: We kind of get plugged in wherever we’re needed.
Do you both do gardening at home or what do you do in your spare time?
Chuck: I have a garden at home. Actually, my yard’s kind of my laboratory. I try different things and see if it will work so I can carry it over to campus. If something fails in my yard, it’s not as bad as if it’s on campus.
Al: I’ve got an acre of ground, and I’m always experimenting with different beds. I do landscape maintenance as a side job, so I don’t have a lot of time to spend on annual beds, so I’m a big perennial person: daylilies, hostas, columbines, bleeding hearts. I work for another company part-time and then I have my own customers that I take care of, so spring through fall is pretty busy for me. In the wintertime, I get to slow down a little bit and catch up on my reading. I love to read about plant and landscape design. I do some hardscape things, too. I like to put little paths or borders around the beds. Like Chuck said, my yard is kind of my laboratory.
What tips can you guys offer to the rest of us amateur gardeners?
Chuck: Don’t be afraid to try anything.
Al: And soil is the biggest part of it. If you’ve got good soil, then if you’re a little faithful about watering, the flowers pretty much take care of themselves.
Chuck: And be consistent in terms of watering, weeding, cultivation and keeping the pests off.
Do you have an educational background or training in horticulture?
Chuck: I grew up on a farm near Assumption and always enjoyed plants. My great-grandmother was the town florist back in the early 1900s. She was known for her peony gardens and her gladiolus gardens. I have a degree in botany from Eastern, so that helps quite a bit. I’m fortunate to be able to make my living in what I went to school for. I feel quite fortunate to do that.
Al: I’m from Penfield originally. Dad was a farmer, so I grew up doing the row crops, but row crops didn’t appeal to me like flowers do. I did four years in the Marine Corps and then some other jobs before coming here.