Skilled hands, green work

Landscapers are trained horticulturists

As hurricane-like rain pummeled the aluminum siding of the campus landscaping office—a single-wide trailer hidden behind the Stott Center—it was a struggle to hear Suzan Wilson’s soft voice.

Landscapers are trained horticulturists

As hurricane-like rain pummeled the aluminum siding of the campus landscaping office—a single-wide trailer hidden behind the Stott Center—it was a struggle to hear Suzan Wilson’s soft voice.

daniel johnston/VANGUARD STAFF

Suzan wilson is PSU’s lead campus gardener. Wilson and her team work year-round, rain or shine.

“Sheesh,” said Wilson, Portland State’s lead campus gardener, as she gazed at the water outside the front door. “What can you do in that? You can’t even stand on the soil in that.”

It is rare for Wilson and her crew to stop working because of rain. She and her landscaping team aren’t really allowed to stop because of the weather.

Heavy slickers hanging on pegs inside the trailer office are well-worn testaments to how often they work outside in the wet and cold.

“You get used to it,” she said.

Wilson and her two full-time coworkers, Susan Bruce and Erik Schubert, along with a handful of part-time student employees, care for the entire 52-acre campus.

“We maintain anything that’s outside,” Wilson said.

The work they do is largely inconspicuous, but they save student lives by raking slippery leaves and monitoring trees for falling branches. They clean up thousands of cigarette butts, and trim trees so sunlight can filter through the canopy and into the Park Blocks. They get rid of invasive pests.

Inside their trailer-office, which is decorated with posters of plant species, the gardeners eat homemade lunches around a kitchen table covered with potted plants.

The long-haired Schubert, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and, like Wilson, is a certified horticulturalist, postulated that people may have the wrong idea about the group.

“There is a stigma attached to people who work outside,” he said.

His coworkers nodded in agreement.

“Just think of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack,” Schubert laughed. “But seriously, I don’t think everyone realizes how skilled this work is.”

The bumbling idiot gardener played by Murray in Caddyshack doesn’t much resemble Schubert and his coworkers.

The professional crew implements environmentally-sustainable strategies that students frequently talk about in environmental studies classrooms.

Wilson, for example, has done planting on campus to restore wildlife habitat.

“I love to plant things for birds and insects, and for people too, but mostly birds,” she laughed.

With all the other things the department has to keep up with, though, there isn’t time to do this type of planting very often. There’s isn’t money for it, either.

Schubert explained that the landscaping department is understaffed by about 40 percent, and he believes it is underfunded as well. The crew, he said, has only gotten smaller as the university acreage has increased, stretching the three full-time employees thin.

“There isn’t a tree on campus that doesn’t need something,” said Wilson, explaining that lack of pruning causes improper growth. “But [with such a small crew] some things just won’t get done.”

This time of year, the landscapers’ time is consumed with removing fallen leaves from sidewalks. “It’s months and months of leaves now,” Wilson said.

One concern she shared about leaves was the number of cigarette butts she found among them, which puts composting completely out of the question because chemical compounds in the butts interfere with the composting process.

The fall season gives Schubert a break from the unruly irrigation system he fought with all summer.

“The sprinklers are 30 years old,” he said, frustrated. “They don’t turn the way they’re supposed to turn, so they don’t have very good coverage. They were installed when water conservation wasn’t on people’s minds.”

There are more sustainable irrigation systems out there, Schubert explained, systems that conserve much more water. So why is PSU using an outdated system that throws water onto the asphalt and wastes it? he wonders.

The office fills with frustration as the crew gives examples of what they wish they could do, but can’t with such a small staff and so little money.

Student landscaper and Environmental Studies senior Steven Teegardin points out the elephant in the room.

“The university undervalues this department,” he said. “It is clearly one of the most understaffed, underfunded and low-paying departments on campus.”

The trailer gets quiet. Wilson and Bruce sigh, and then hug. Frustration abounds.

Finally someone makes a joke and everyone’s laughing again.

“Well, I’m sure we are the most fun crew on campus,” Wilson said. “We like each other.”

Teegardin added that the landscaping department is a rich educational resource that the university doesn’t take advantage of. He thinks PSU students could learn native plant and wildlife habitation restoration from the university’s very own qualified horticulturalists.

“[Making wildlife habitats] is one of the kinds of things we talk about in environmental classes all the time,” Teegardin said.

“I think [supporting] the landscaping department could be a way to bring examples from classrooms to fruition. Look at Reed College. Their landscape guy [Zachariah Perry, the Reed College Canyon restoration project manager] takes students out all the time,” he said.

As soon as the rain stopped, the inside of the trailer came back to life as the crew began moving around and suiting up in heavy black slickers and rain hats.

Rake in hand, the small-framed Wilson headed out into the drizzle—ready to tackle the thousands of leaves she and her crew are used to raking up between buildings on campus.