Behind the Summer Beauty of the College’s Campus

Behind the Summer Beauty of the College’s Campus

It takes a lot of work to look this good. It takes time, vision, planning, research, ingenuity and resources. You have to start early, do your homework and get creative. And you have to keep it up all season if you want it to last.

CofC Flowers

The CofC Grounds Department gets started early in the spring to make the campus bloom all summer.

Yep, it’s that time of year, and – while the thought of the swimsuit season makes most of us wince – the College, for one, has nothing to hide: Thanks to the Grounds Crew, our campus is in perfect shape for summer.

“We start working on the spring flower order around the middle of January and place the order by the end of January,” explains Paty Cowden, grounds supervisor – who, together with crew leader Marlene Williams, begins the process by looking through websites to get ideas for new plants for the hanging baskets, planters and seasonal beds across campus.

“I get into that part. For a week or better, I’ll be skipping my break – I don’t want to stop looking at everything they have,” says Williams, whom Cowden credits for the creative vision behind the arrangements. “When I see a combination of colors I like, I’ll look for flowers with similar colors. It’s got to be something that’s going to pop at you and keep your attention.”

And, says Williams, it has to fit: “Each house, each garden – they’ve each got their own personalities. You can’t just take one basket and hang it on any porch.”

CofC Gardening

Marlene Williams, crew leader for the College’s Grounds Department, has been working the CofC grounds since 1997.

“Every house is different, and the plants have to do well in the area,” agrees Cowden. “Beyond that, every basket is different, because some are hanging in the shade, some are more in the sun. So, we’ll put different things in the different baskets – as long as the colors and texture look good together, it isn’t noticeable. They just have to look right together.”

Hanging baskets and planters look best when there’s something tall and upright in the center and something cascading around the edges, with a medium-height element in between.

“You want to include different types of flowers, with diverse textures, but they have to have the same needs – that’s why it takes so much research,” says Cowden. “We have to know how they’re going to react before we put them in the ground, because, if it doesn’t work, you can’t start over. You’ve wasted that money.”

Grounds Gardens CofC

Marlene Williams, crew leader for CofC’s Grounds Department.

The College spends about $2,000 for its big spring flower order every year, and about $1,000 on other, little things they pick up – at Hyams Garden Center (which Williams equates to the candy store), for example. The flowers are delivered about a month before commencement, and the crew spends the next week or so getting 3,000+ flowers into the soil.

“From April to the first frost, that’s the trial period to see what will last on campus,” says Cowden, explaining that – no matter how much research they do – everything is trial and error. “A lot can go wrong. But we’ve been able to get a lot of summer flowers to carry through to the fall. There’s a lot that goes into taking care of it all.”

And that, of course, is the price we pay for beauty.

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This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of the College of Charleston employee newsletter, Portico.