Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

May 31, 2007

Spring planting beautifies campus

It’s pink and purple posies in pots by Posvar, cannas near the Cathedral and palms protecting the William Pitt Union panther as spring planting reaches its peak at Pitt.

When the annual May ritual is finished, some 30,000-40,000 colorful annuals will have found their way into more than 100 flowerbeds across the Pittsburgh campus.

For several weeks starting in mid-May, Dave Heintzinger, grounds manager in Facilities Management, has begun his days in the Strip District, lining up at 6 a.m. to get the best annuals at a plant wholesaler. Each day, a team of about 35 grounds employees and student workers plant as many as 150 flats of 40-60 annuals apiece in beds that have been prepared with mulch and compost.

Keeping that many people organized can be a challenge, noted his assistant, Kathy Trent, during a brief stop in the Posvar Hall garage storage area where each day’s arrivals are kept until it’s their turn to be planted.

The plants come from the Strip, as well as from growers with whom the University places orders early in the season.

In addition to annuals, larger plants such as ficus, crotons, palms and ferns are destined for containers near the Cathedral of Learning and law school entrances and dozens of sweet potato vines are waiting to trail from planters outside Benedum Hall and the Litchfield Towers.

Some of the larger plants aren’t new. This year, some 20-30 large palms spent their winter under grow lights at the University’s Melwood Avenue facility so they could be re-used this season, Heintzinger said.

Some garden beds remain the same each year: Outside Clapp Hall, it’s expected that there will be blue ageratum and gold marigolds spelling out P-I-T-T in a floral display. And it’s always blue and gold in the bed at Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard outside the Cathedral of Learning.

Other beds alternate looks. Last year, the panther statue outside the William Pitt Union was surrounded by flowers. This year, it’s getting a wilder look with large palms, colorful crotons and dracaenas accented by tall cannas and white begonias. “We’ll keep it looking like the panther’s in the tropics,” Heintzinger said.

Still other flowerbeds spring from Heintzinger’s trained eye. He said looks are the most important quality when he’s choosing what to buy, but he also must keep in mind the students, traffic, sun, heat and shade.

Heintzinger said he likes to mix up many of the flowerbeds so they’re colorful and different each year. The plants are laid out by eye, “and if we like the scheme, we plant it,” he said.

Twenty years’ experience in the landscaping business has given him a good idea of what will look good and thrive. Among the selections this year are a rainbow of vinca, zinnias, geraniums, salvia, New Guinea impatiens and begonias, to name just a few.

A blue and gold panther-themed bed was begun last year between Posvar and Mervis halls on Roberto Clemente Drive near South Bouquet Street. The initial results weren’t as striking as Heintzinger had hoped, but some tweaking has been done to make an outline of a panther head planted in gold marigolds and blue ageratum more visible to passersby this season.

Once all is planted, maintenance becomes the key.

“It becomes a headache taking care of them,” he said. Early on, watching out for a late frost forces Heintzinger to keep an eye on the weather report. Last year, planting began soon after Mother’s Day, but a few days later, a late frost moved crews to action. To protect the plants, crews covered them with tarps or headed out pre-dawn to water them so they wouldn’t be damaged.

“We’ve been lucky this year,” Heintzinger said.

Another hazard is theft. The flowers are so attractive that the grounds staff has to plan for some of them to disappear. Baskets on the Schenley Quad disappeared until they were first glued — unsuccessfully — then bolted down to prevent theft, Heintzinger said.

Each year some plants are plucked from the ground, roots and all, under cover of darkness — a few here, a dozen there, Heintzinger said.

When that happens, typically it’s several weeks into the season when growers already are sold out, Heintzinger said. Rather than be out of luck with empty spots in the flowerbeds, he’s learned to keep some spares on hand to replace any victims of plantnapping.

Throughout the summer, watering is essentially a full-time job for a grounds employee. The employee drives a small truck equipped with a water tank that’s filled from an underground water source accessible from the basement of Sennott Square.

The most maintenance-intensive plantings are the 84 hanging baskets near the Cathedral of Learning, the William Pitt Union and the Petersen Events Center. They require watering once or twice a day.

While most planting is completed in May, some chrysanthemums will be added and the flowerbeds freshened with new mulch in late summer to prepare for fall student arrival. In addition, spring flowering bulbs are replaced every other year. Some 12,000-15,000 of them will be planted this fall.

The largest plantings on campus are near the William Pitt Union. This year the space near the Fifth Avenue driveway is accented with three new sago palms — a continuation of the tropical theme.

Of all the plantings at Pitt, the beds around the student union are Heintzinger’s personal favorite, he said. “I’ve always had an attachment for that area.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply