In the dead of winter, when the predominant colors on campus are brown and browner and snow may be on the way, WCU’s two greenhouses already are preparing for vibrant flowers in spring. In late December or mid-January, Peggy Eidson and her crew start sowing seeds. Lots of seeds. About 400,000 seeds, down from a million in better budget years. And that’s not counting thousands of bulbs they set out much earlier to bloom while the seedlings are still just thinking about it.
Keeping track of seeds and seedlings, blossoms and bulbs, trees and shrubs, grass and ground cover, weeding and watering, not to mention 5,000 bales of pine straw and everything else required to maintain the beauty of WCU’s 250-acre main campus is the responsibility of grounds superintendent Roger Turk, greenhouse manager Eidson and a crew of about 33 other people, including 20 groundskeepers, whose handiwork is on display every day of the year. That adds up to 24/7/365, as Turk counts it. “We take a good deal of pride in keeping the campus looking good no matter what, no matter when,” he said.
Students and their families appreciate that. When Monica and Bradford Johnson of Mooresville brought their son to WCU for summer orientation, the three found the campus beautiful. “The first time we came, we were impressed,” Monica Johnson said. Kerry Winter and son Justin of Charlotte agreed. “It’s so homelike, very welcoming,” Justin Winter said. “The campus is impeccable,” Kerry Winter said.
That, in spite of nearly constant construction on campus over the past decade. “During the 10 years we were involved in master plan changes, including building additions, road relocations and other disruptions, my crew kept up the standards we had established,” Turk said. To landscape around newly constructed buildings, they planted 1,100 new trees, 4,000 more shrubs, and 14,000 groundcover plants and still prepared all the usual seeds and bulbs. “We did all that in-house and saved money. I’m proud of that,” he said. He is pleased that it turned out so well, and he’s glad to get back to a more normal routine.
Normal for Turk includes watching over interesting plants such as the odd spruce trees in back of the Killian Building. “They were planted by my predecessor’s predecessor about 30 years ago,” Turk said, and they’ve been changing shape ever since. “Once they looked like camels, then horses. At one time, we had one looking like an elephant,” he says. Now some people say the trees look like dragons. “They are contorted. That’s their natural shape,” Turk said.
He likes fringe trees better than contorted spruce. “The fringe trees’ white flowers have an amazing aroma, not so overpowering as magnolia, that touches a personal chord with me,” Turk said. Sometimes called “old man’s beard,” the small, upright, oval or rounded accent trees have two prime locations on campus: one in front of the H.F. Robinson Building and at the chancellor’s residence, where it was planted recently in memory of a longtime WCU staff member.
Housekeeper Wanda Dills was walking across campus when she stopped to talk with son Mickey Dills, one of a team of groundskeepers who was trimming around the sidewalks behind Scott Hall. “I love it here,” Mickey Dills said. Though beautiful, it takes a lot of work to keep it up, he said. “I like the tulips best,” his mother said.
While Turk enjoys the tulips and at least 50 other varieties of flowers that grow in showy color beds from last frost in May to first frost in October, his favorite area of campus is up the hill near the Old Student Union. “Although we have done little landscaping in that area of campus, I like some of the older architectural features of the buildings. The terrain is interesting, and there are some beautiful, well-established trees there. A lot of people overlook that part of campus,” Turk said.
What they do not overlook are new and unusual things on campus or familiar things that go missing. “Every year when there’s something different in flower or fruit, I get comments,” Turk said. For example: “We have yellowwood that is a native tree, but it does not flower every season. A couple years ago, the flowers were the best ever,” he said. The spectacular, foot-long, drooping flower clusters, which looked a lot like wisteria, got a lot of attention. “It did not hurt that they were blooming at WCU’s main entrance,” Turk said.
Observers also notice that the rose garden near Forsyth is gone. Trees cast too much shade for roses to thrive there, Turk said. “Most of those were hybrid tea roses, and they required a lot of work. Now we have something called a Knock Out Rose. It’s relatively new on the market, doesn’t get fungus or disease and doesn’t attract so many Japanese beetles. It’s almost indestructible,” he said. The bushes in place will bloom for a long time without extensive maintenance, and the bright red roses have a lovely fragrance.
Turk has a keen interest in native plants but notes that they are irregular in their shapes and sizes. Rather than putting them beside WCU’s architecture, which he prefers with plants that are trim and tidy, he uses native plants or their hybrids along roadways and clustered informally in spaces such as adjacent to Hoey Auditorium and between Hunter Library and Stillwell Building.
Because of budget constraints, WCU doesn’t have any irrigation in landscape beds. “People used to believe it wasn’t necessary to irrigate in the mountains,” Turk said. Not true. There are more than 8 acres of color beds on campus. All those thirsty flowers require about 1,600 gallons of water a day. “We’ll be running a water truck six hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week in the heat,” Turk said. As usual, he’s thinking ahead. He took advantage of recent construction to plant “sleeves” under areas now covered by hard surface. Those pipes will remain in place, dry, until funds are available to connect them for irrigation in the future.
Watering was especially important throughout the summer of 2012 at the greenhouses, where 1,000 shrubs and about 120 trees were kept in huge temporary pots, waiting to be planted around the new Health and Human Sciences Building on the West Campus after the contractors left and before classes started.
What gives Turk the greatest satisfaction? “As a designer, when you can have an idea in your head, in your mind’s eye, and transform it to a piece of paper and then get it in the ground and see it become established for the long term – I like that. It’s very rewarding,” he said. Most rewarding is knowing that he and his crew are responsible for the first and lasting impression of quality at WCU with a campus they keep in great shape.
It’s little wonder he has no patience with people who drop trash or cigarette butts on the ground and tramp through the bushes. “I understand why people would pick their way around obstructions and create ‘cow trails’ while there was so much construction, but not anymore,” Turk said. Yielding to pedestrians, he paved a few of the most popular trails, but he hopes to find no more, now that the construction boom has passed and walkways are in their permanent positions.
“We put a lot of time and effort into what we do to keep the WCU campus looking good. And that deserves respect,” he said. Still, he admits it is impossible to keep every piece looking perfect every day, as some shade-tree horticulturalists seem to expect. With a campus so large and a limited grounds staff, the areas that first get mowed, mulched or watered are the ones that first get shaggy, bare or dry. Turk schedules the work to stay ahead of as many problems as possible.
That said, it is not possible to plan for everything. In 2012, when spring came early, the bulbs that had been planted in the fall did not wait for graduation in May, as scheduled. Instead, they burst gloriously into early bloom – just in time for the chancellor’s installation in March. Even for an experienced professional like Turk, some things in landscape design are just a matter of luck.
The Cullowhee Native Plant Conference will celebrate its 30th anniversary on WCU’s campus in July. The oldest and largest of its kind in the Southeast, the conference was originally founded in 1984 in an effort to increase interest in and knowledge of propagating and preserving native Southeastern plant species.
Each year, the conference hosts approximately 300 landscape architects, commercial nursery operators, garden club members, botanists and horticulturists from state highway departments, universities, native plant societies, botanical gardens and arboretums. A wide range of plants enthusiasts, ranging from the environmental hobbyist to the professional landscaper, can gain valuable knowledge from the workshops, lectures and field trips.
Keynote speakers for the this year’s conference will include writers Douglas Tallamy and Janisse Ray. Tallamy, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, is the author of the award-winning “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants.” Tallamy stresses the importance of native plants for ecological sustainability and restoration of the web of relationships between insects, birds and mammals. He will lead a talk titled “Maintaining Curb Appeal with Native Plants” and also will present “Networks for Life: Your Role in Stitching the Natural World Together,” a special session for those newly interested in gardening with native plants. Ray’s first book, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” recounted her childhood in rural southwestern Georgia and explored her passion for the South’s rapidly vanishing longleaf pine forests. In “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food,” published in 2012, Ray makes the case that in order to secure the future of food, individuals must first understand and value its source.
One day of the conference will include field trips to natural areas in the region, including the Blue Ridge Parkway. Another day will feature campus walks that focus on practical aspects of growing and designing native plants. Vendors include providers of native plants, sustainably grown and available at affordable prices, and the Compleat Naturalist Natural History Store, a nature store and wildlife art gallery located in Asheville.
In honor of the conference’s 30th year, founding members and past directors will present a panel titled “Thirty Years of Progress in Advancing the Cause of Native Plants: Where Are We Now?” A highlight will be a special appearance by Andre Michaux, the well-known early botanical explorer of the Southeast. Michaux will be portrayed in costume by Charlie Williams of Gastonia, president of the Andre Michaux International Society.
Cullowhee Native Plant Conference – Wednesday, July 17 – Saturday, July 20 | nativeplants.wcu.edu | 828.227.7397