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

September 13, 2007

Making Pitt Work: UPB master gardener Bob Harris

BRADFORD — One of the most enthusiastic teachers at Pitt-Bradford spends little time in the classroom.

Instead, Bob Harris’s domain is the entire 317-acre campus where he pursues his lifelong passion for gardening. With a gentle manner and an easy smile, he dispenses snippets of knowledge — and perhaps a sample of an herb or veggie — to students, faculty, staff and campus visitors with all the pride and enthusiasm of a grandfather showing off a new grandbaby’s photo.

A longtime master gardener and member of the campus facilities staff for nearly four years, Harris oversees UPB’s ever-growing number of gardens. “They kind of let me go wild,” he said with a satisfied smile.

But he also has other duties that include making repairs, moving furniture and setting up rooms for classes or meetings. “I can’t spend all day playing in the flowers,” he admitted.

With the help of two full-time student workers in the summer, Harris is the driving force behind the campus’s ever-growing number and variety of plantings. Since his arrival on campus, Harris has doubled the number of flower beds from 25 to 50, bringing familiar garden favorites as well as new and unusual plants to the grounds.

Near the entrance to Frame-Westerberg Commons, tall Egyptian papyrus have found their home in a raised bed they share with bright begonias and lemon licorice. Outside the dormitories, Harris has planted giant pumpkins so students can watch how fast they grow. A few steps away, there’s a student vegetable garden overflowing with produce. Passersby can help themselves to squash, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, celery, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers or even a taste of basil or dill. “Some students are coming from the city and some have never seen a tomato plant,” Harris explained. He uses no chemicals on the garden so the veggies can be eaten right off the plants. “I get the biggest kick out of someone picking something and eating it right here,” he said.

Outside Swarts Hall, hummingbirds dart in and out of an orange flowerbed inspired by a garden Harris saw on a visit to Albuquerque. The brick-colored salvia and orange million bells petunias haven’t done as well as he’d like, Harris lamented, pointing out numerous burrows tunneled among them by troublesome chipmunks.

The tiny rodents aren’t the only challenges — rabbits and woodchucks also like to dine on the campus landscaping. And, sometimes it’s two-legged creatures who take their toll. Some of last year’s pumpkin crop met with what might have been a not-entirely- unanticipated outcome when mixed with young people. One of the giants found its way into a UPB dorm. Others fell victim to pumpkin-smashers.

Harris remains undaunted by garden interlopers, regardless of the variety. And while he hopes this year’s pumpkins don’t meet with the same fate as their predecessors, he views the student-pumpkin relationship with a positive outlook: The students had fun and interacted with the plants, he reasoned, so he didn’t hesitate to try again.

Harris gathers ideas for his garden designs from visits to botanical gardens and arboretums across the nation. He and his wife are working toward their goal of visiting at least one historic home and garden in every state. They’ve already gotten to every state east of the Mississippi River and are concentrating on shortening the list to the west.

Their travels inspired his construction of a water garden with a rotating golden ball that floats atop a tall pedestal, and his current favorite, an all-foliage carpet bed that he claims is the first ever in Bradford. Situated outside Fisher Hall, the garden is composed of silvery dusty miller mixed with several brightly colored varieties of calico plants in green and magenta — but no blooms. The carpet garden, which Harris admits is his “pride and joy,” is a Victorian-style bed rarely seen in residential settings, but popular in public gardens or floral clocks such as those found in Niagara Falls or at Disney World.

After the novel garden drew mixed reactions from some people who wondered why there were no flowers, Harris installed a small explanatory plaque near the multicolored garden explaining the concept.

The newest garden on campus is a Japanese garden started last month in honor of a longstanding program that brings students from the Yokohama College of Commerce in Japan to hone their skills in UPB’s summer intensive English program. For the past decade, the Japanese students would inscribe their names and handprints into a section of wet concrete to commemorate their visit. But the harsh winters, rock salt and even construction have shortened the life of the mementos, forcing organizers to look for another option.

“Concrete doesn’t last,” Harris said. “A Japanese garden is a much better idea.”

He marked out a 30 x 8-foot section in a niche outside Fisher Hall and selected a trio of bamboo plants as the first selection for the garden. “It is initiating something I hope will carry on for years and years,” he said, envisioning Japanese maple and evergreens among the possible future additions.

At the end of their visit to the campus, the students, their group leaders, school officials and members of the campus community gathered for a brief ceremony in which the bamboo were placed in the garden. When the ceremony ended and the golden shovels were set aside, Harris’s natural bent toward teaching took over.

One student, eager for a photo, asked to pose in the garden with Harris. Rather than simply smiling for the camera, Harris turned a photo op into an impromptu teaching opportunity. Kneeling down, he gently began explaining to the young man the proper way to remove a plant from its pot, loosen its roots and place it into the soil. In short order, with the help of the foreign students, all three bamboo plants were tucked into the soil Harris had prepared.

Experimentation is in Harris’s blood. For the carpet bed, he had a local grower raise a few test plants last year to see how they would fare before following through with a full order sufficient to fill out the entire garden with a kaleidoscopic pattern reminiscent of an Oriental rug.

He’s constantly searching for new and unusual plants to draw the interest of passersby or even science professors who may use them in classroom lessons.

He can’t name a favorite plant, admitting that his tastes and interests change from year to year.

Harris is always seeking new spots for gardens. New signs on campus are more visible and attractive when surrounded by plants, he reasons. Harris even views the renovations and construction underway at UPB as prime opportunities to add even more new plantings.

New buildings need new landscaping, Harris maintains.

Not all his plantings are stationary. His student workers, Jen Cole and Kelly O’Brien, were given free rein to choose plants for five container gardens that can be moved to wherever they are needed to add color for campus events. Pointing to one filled with a tall canna, zinnias, coleus and lantana, with pride Harris notes the women made good choices. “It’s just what I would have picked,” he said, admitting he must have been teaching them without directly intending it.

Cole also had a hand in choosing the components of a garden outside the new entrance to UPB’s Hangar Building. Anchored by a hydrangea tree, the garden also features a burning bush, daylilies and hosta.

Harris shares his knowledge as well with faculty and staff, speaking to the staff organization on campus several times a year on gardening topics. He always asks for suggestions about what they’d like to see planted, though he noted it’s difficult to try to please everyone and introduce new plants as well. “I don’t think these are my gardens,” he said. “They belong to the campus.”

Harris has big ambitions. He wants to add to the range of trees and plants on the UPB campus in hopes of someday having sufficient variety to have the campus designated as an arboretum.

Harris also branches out beyond UPB. For the past decade, he’s hosted a radio call-in gardening show each Saturday morning from May to November. And he’s added his touch to the community walking trail that adjoins the UPB campus by planting ornamental grasses, fruit trees and several varieties of blueberries. A design for a new trailhead garden also is in the works, he said.

As summer draws to a close, plenty of garden tasks await. Now is the time to design the bulb gardens that will greet the campus community next spring. As is his habit, Harris aims to find some new and unusual selections to place among the hyacinths, daffodils and other bulbs.

With his student workers back in class, he’ll be on his own when his order arrives this fall. Harris said it takes him several weeks to plant the thousands of bulbs that need to rest below ground for the winter. Then his attention shifts to mostly non-gardening tasks: refinishing the campus’s outdoor furniture, removing snow or doing other cold-weather chores. But even in winter the gardens are never far from his thoughts: It’s then that he graphs out plans for next year’s beds.

His lifelong love of digging in the soil shows no sign of waning and he has no thoughts of retiring.

“I’d do this anyhow; I might as well stay here and get paid,” he joked.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 2

Leave a Reply