Greening campus into a summer wonderland

by Michelle Saport  |   


UAA's Horticulture/Landscaping crew is prepping to beautify the campus with plants and flowers they've been fostering for months in the campus greenhouse. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Although this extraordinarily sunny spring has left campus looking lusher than usual at this time of year, the best of summer is still ahead. In the coming weeks, UAA's Horticulture/Landscaping team will begin filling planters and garden beds all over campus with a colorful array of flowers, vegetables, herbs and trees nursed in the Facilities greenhouse. Artichokes, amaranthus, cucumbers; begonia, hibiscus, horseradish; red oak, cabbage and dusty miller: these are but a few of the plants you'll be able to find on campus this summer. 

It should be a sight to see since Alaska offers excellent growing conditions for many plants during the summer.

"The majority of the flowers, in a lot of places in the Lower 48, during summer are wilting," said Horticulture/Landscaping Supervisor Catherine Shenk. "They look beautiful in spring and fall, but in the summer, it's too hot and they struggle. Up here, we have cool days — and the long days — it's ideal."

Starting from seed

UAA Facilities Maintenance and Operations HorticultureThe new plants added to campus around Memorial Day get their start in a spacious greenhouse next to Gordon Hartlieb Hall. In the fall, the staff members in Facilities' Landscaping/Horticulture office start poring through catalogs and working together to create an interesting blend of foliage, flowers, textures and colors.

In addition to selecting plants for the visual appeal they'll add to campus, the team also seeks out new plants that'll respond well to Alaska's climate. Artichokes, for example, were first grown in Alaska at UAA using the Facilities greenhouse and are now grown throughout the state. And this year, thanks to a partnership with the Alaska Community Forestry Program, they've planted 20 trees never before grown in Alaska to see how they perform.

Another key factor is the plant's life span. "We want things with a long growing season," said Shenk. "Most the students don't return until late August, so we will choose things that will still be lively and fresh then."

UAA Facilities Maintenance and Operations Horticulture

Catherine Shenk, who oversees UAA's horticulture operations, poses in front of trays of seedlings taking root in March in the UAA campus greenhouse. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

The other big thing to plan around is moose. "We choose things the moose wouldn't particularly eat, although that changes. It seems like every year the moose eat things they haven't eaten in the past," Shenk said.

Once they've made their selections, they make note of germination times and optimum temperatures to create a detailed schedule and inventory for the growing season that ends up filling a large three-ring binder. In a typical year, the staff will grow about 5,000 plants in the greenhouse.

"We use every amount of space we have very efficiently," said Shenk.

The horticulturists also oversee an herb garden on the side of Gordon Hartlieb Hall. Stocked mostly with perennials that return on their own year after year, the garden provides culinary arts students the chance to experiment and play around with fresh herbs, as well as see what they look like in the ground rather than in a package at the supermarket.

The greenhouse also helps start the vegetables that are eventually cared for and eaten by children attending the Tanaina Child Development Center over the summer.

Set against a background of green

As the landscaping team begins prepping plants for the summer ahead, the turf crew readies the grounds.

Throughout winter, the turf workers help maintain campus by clearing away snow and ice from walkways and parking lots. Once the first big snow sticks and the grounds get shrouded under a heavy coating of ice though, it becomes difficult to tell what's grass and what isn't. This results in a lot of unavoidable damage to campus' green spaces every winter as plowers move snow from walkways and parking lots to nearby plots. After break-up, the team works to clean up campus and repair the lawns damaged by all the winter plowing and build-up. On the to-do list? Collecting gravel, clearing trash, raking leaves, wetting down dust, removing weeds, restoring grass, mowing, watering... Turf Supervisor Robb Willie has one idea to make this transition a little easier.

"With some of these places where we traditionally have to stash snow in the winter, instead of fighting it back to lawn only to have it destroyed again, I'm trying to switch to wildflowers, so we can have nice colors hopefully and not have to mow it every week."

Catherine Shenk shows the detailed 2014 planting design plans for the UAA campus. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Catherine Shenk shows the detailed 2014 planting design plans for the UAA campus. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Most of the campus turf will remain carpeted in Nugget (a type of Kentucky bluegrass now produced in Oregon, but supposedly developed in Homer during the '60s and ideally suited to Alaska's climate) though. After all, wide stretches of grass offer plenty of benefits as well.

"[Horticulture] adds the trees, the flowers, the beautiful colors..." Willie said, "I just want to do the background, to have this nice, pleasing green for people to enjoy looking at, walking on, sitting down on, and enjoying the sun when we get it."

(It's not only people who appreciate the green space either. Case in point: This video of twin baby moose frolicking in the sprinklers by Rasmuson Hall.)

Growing beyond campus


UAA is a Tree Campus USA and helps to nurture trees and plants destined for other parts of Alaska. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Facilities greenhouse also helps nurture trees and plants destined for other parts of the state. As part of its commitment to being a Tree Campus USA, UAA maintains a "No Net Tree Loss" policy. To offset the tree loss from recent construction, the landscaping crew cultivated birch and spruce seedlings to plant on university-owned land in Nikiski. They went down this past week, as the forest fire only a few miles away in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge took root.

"We watched the fire grow as we were there, but were fortunate not to be affected by the smoke. The breeze kept it from our planting area for the majority of the time, and we were able to plant 2,600 seedlings before heading back to Anchorage on Thursday afternoon," Shenk said in an email.

Creating a campus students fall for

A student lounges in the Cuddy Quad on UAA's campus.

A student lounges in the Cuddy Quad on UAA's campus.

Studies suggest students are heavily (and unconsciously) influenced by landscaping when selecting a school. Although at its peak in the summer, part of UAA's green legacy can be viewed during all seasons. If you ever find yourself on campus with extra free time, follow the UAA Tree Tour from Gordon Hartlieb Hall (where you can pick up a guide from a kiosk in the hallway outside the Facilities Work Management Office) to the edge of West Campus. Attractions on the tour include crabapple, apple, cherry, maple, pear, olive, willow, walnut, butternut, fir and lilac trees, to name a few. Some trees on the tour are almost in their fifth decade of UAA residency, while others have been here only a few years.

UAA's collection of trees (both indoor and outdoor) is one of campus' year-round charms, but, even for a northern city, it's hard to beat the combination of a nice, sunny day and a well-kept lawn.

"There aren't many things better than just plopping down on the grass with friends or a dog or a book or something," Willie said. "Just lay there and think and make plans. It's an exciting time in life for people who are going to school. It's great to lay there on the grass and look up at the sky and contemplate what your future's going to be."

Written by Michelle Saport, UAA Office of University Advancement 

Creative Commons License "Greening campus into a summer wonderland" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.