The green thumbs behind UAA’s gardens

The diverse set of plants around UAA’s campus are the result of the horticulture crew’s hard work. With short spring and summer seasons in Alaska, the green house behind Cuddy Hall helps facilitate growing year-round. Photo credit: Young Kim

The flowerbeds, abundance of trees and greenery on the University’s campus don’t take care of themselves.

Catherine Shenk, horticulture supervisor for UAA, and her crew are responsible for maintaining the landscape and environment of campus grounds. Their tasks range from snow plowing and ice control in the winter to planting flowerbeds, trees and cleaning up litter during the warmer seasons.

Horticulture, unlike agriculture, is the practice of garden cultivation for beauty and visual effect, Shenk said.

The horticulture crew works to maintain that beauty all year round. The presence of flowers, trees and other greenery on campus is crucial, especially for a healthy learning environment.

“Our role is to make sure the campus stays safe and attractive for students, for all campus users. Keeping campus really beautiful, I think, is important for people deciding where they want to go to college,” Shenk said. “And there are also studies that talk about how being in an environment where there are plants and trees and natural beauty… they enhance creativity and thought. So green space is very important, I believe… not just for people in a campus environment but I think for healthy human beings in general.”

Shenk grew up in a farming community in Ohio, so plants and agriculture are not new to her. It wasn’t until years after she graduated college that she made the decision to get involved with horticulture.

Although the weather and environment in Alaska are much different compared to Ohio, Shenk says she enjoys the fact that the job changes with the seasons.

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“Come winter time, plowing snow is fun the first few times but then by the time spring, you know, is ready to come around… I’m really tired of it by then,” Shenk said. “And by then, we’re starting to plant seeds in the greenhouse.”

The shift from winter to spring early in the year is also Kara Monroe’s favorite part of her job. Monroe has been with the crew for about three years as a maintenance service worker and often looks forward to starting up the greenhouse. She’s typically used to a longer growing season, having earned her degree in tropical horticulture at the University of Florida, but she appreciates the variety in work with machinery in the winter and garden maintenance in the summer. This transition begins as early as January or February and workers are able to plan for the plants that they will work with.

“So we are given a set of portions of campus and we can actually design the beds. So we choose the flowers, we order the seed…” Monroe said. “And then with spring we get to start all those plants in the greenhouse. And then, you know, we’re just wrapping up planting them out now, so we get to see that whole cycle through, which I’d say is one of my favorite parts.”

Jacob Patton, a journalism and public communications student at UAA, has only worked with the crew since early June, but has quickly come to enjoy the work that he does. As a seasonal maintenance worker, he finds that his time is always taken up with many tasks, some fun and others more tiresome.

“It’s nice to work and see a difference in what you do,” Patton said. “It’s just really pretty sometimes, the flowers we plant, and I feel proud of myself.”

The horticulture crew isn’t always planting flowers or pruning bushes; oftentimes they pick up trash and have other duties that require physical labor, which is a bittersweet part of the job for Patton.

Recently, for several days, he and his coworkers removed cages around trees on campus that were designed to protect them from moose. Although he now has blisters on his hands from the hard labor, Patton says he likes the time spent outside in the sun, knowing that there is a purpose behind what they do.

“Everything has a purpose, like taking weeds out of the flowerbeds,” Patton said. “There’s a lot of doing that, which can be tedious.”

Maintaining sustainability is also important in horticulture and the crew does what they can through several methods, Shenk says. Plant waste is taken to an organic dump rather than a landfill. They also refrain from using pesticides and prefer more natural methods of pest control, which Monroe says is essential since chemicals are undesirable in a public setting.

Not only is UAA environmentally aware, but the University is also known for having the most diverse set of trees in a communal area.

UAA is a certified Tree Campus USA University and has been for the past eight years. This means that the University demonstrates healthy management of their trees and has met the standards and requirements to be good stewards of Alaska’s forestry.

Shenk and her crew hope that the natural beauty they work to maintain has a lasting and positive effect on others. She says that the wild lands of Alaska help distinguish UAA from other campuses in the nation.

“We have moose on campus, we have bears… There are fox, lots of different kinds of birds. There’s been an explosion in the population of hares the last couple years,” Shenk said. “I’m wondering if we’ll see a lynx or two in the future.”

Monroe hopes that the experience would be pleasant and relaxing for those who use the campus. Whether they are sitting on the grass and studying or simply checking out a flowerbed, perhaps they will be met with some peace and clarity.

For Patton, there is a story behind each plant to be remembered: each of them has come a long way.

“I just hope people appreciate, the effort that goes into it,” Patton said. “A lot of people probably didn’t think about how easily it could’ve gone wrong with growing these plants, and so there’s a lot of effort involved growing them and getting them out there.”

From plowing snow to planting flowerbeds, the horticulture crew of UAA hardly misses out on a busy day throughout the seasons. In an environment where everyone is hard at work, the rich and colorful greenery of the campus offers a constant reminder to stop and smell the flowers.