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Willamette grounds crew focuses on perennial flowers

Cleighton Roberts


The weather is warming up, students are spending more time outside and the trees are growing back their leaves. Spring is almost here. The grounds crew is working to make spring beautiful for those at Willamette: four years ago, they replaced annual flowers with perennials, which are plants that live two or more years, and which have many advantages over annuals in both budgeting and enjoyment.

All around campus are pockets of plants that will soon bloom and be filled with color. As of now, the only flowers seen are early bloomers, including daffodils, currants, magnolias and honeysuckle. The rest of campus will be blooming in a matter of weeks, depending on the temperature. 

“It’s a succession. They start in January and then by March we are going to hit everything,” said Jim Andersen, the grounds manager. “February will be our early bloomers, and then we are going to get kind of a lull where trees and shrubs that bloom first and then leaf out, like the magnolias. And then we are going to get a whole other succession of plants blooming, like the rhododendron and the pieris.”

In past years, the grounds crew would plant annual flowers every year, mostly around the edges of campus. However, buying new flowers every year got expensive and required more water, so the grounds crew gradually began planting perennials. Perennials also allowed a larger coverage of campus by flowers because they didn’t need to be changed out every year. 

“About four years ago we stopped putting in annual flowers. We would spend maybe about four to six thousand dollars a year on annuals,” said Andersen. “It came with budget cuts and that was one of the things that got sliced so we continued to do more and more perennials.”

The perennials planted by the grounds crew include a number of different types of flowering plants such as shrubs, wildflowers, trees and even reeds. There are a mix of plants that are both native and non-native to Oregon. To accomodate plants not used to Oregon’s rainy weather, the grounds crew replaced the soil in some of the planting areas with looser draining soil.

The planting of the perennials was a long and thought-out process. According to Andersen, getting to this point took 22 years of planning and experimenting. One example of exemplary planning is right next to the Botanical Garden, immediately after the footbridge on the way to Sparks, which Andersen calls a “fragrant area” that allows passersby to smell the flowers just by walking through or standing in the area. This area is perfect for rushed students headed to or from the gym that don’t have time to stop and smell the flowers.

“[Flowers] generally give off more fragrance when they’re in the sun,” said Andersen. “This area was all lawn before. We knew this took a lot of sun, so what we wanted to do was to make a fragrant area.” 

The grounds crew doesn’t just want the flowers to be fragrant and pretty to humans, though. They also want to attract wildlife to campus. Flowering plants attract nectar-consuming birds, such as Anna’s hummingbird. Flowers will also attract pollinators like bees, which allow the flowers to rebloom every year. 

“The pollinator-friendly perennials that the grounds crew plant do attract a lot of bees,” said Professor of Biology Biranna Lindh. “Some plants that bees really enjoy include manzanita and ceanothus and flowers like penstemon, Mexican sunflower and cup plant. Bees like native plants like ceanothus, but they often are very happy to use non-native plants that have similar characteristics to native plants.”

In addition to bees, the grounds crew is looking to attract and provide a habitat for butterflies, particularly the milkweed eating monarch butterfly, which are endangered. 

“We’re trying to get more butterflies on campus, so we’ve planted a whole host of showy milkweed,” said Andersen.

The grounds crew works to make campus beautiful year round, and that goal does not need to be achieved by the costly replanting of flowers every year. As campus is beginning to bloom, take a moment to appreciate the care and hard work that goes into making campus beautiful each year.

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