Grounds for Celebration

By Kerry C. Regan, May 15, 2019
Ten ways the IC grounds crew dresses up the campus for 10,000 guests Commencement Weekend.

On commencement day at Ithaca College, flowers bloom in every freshly mulched bed. Leafy tree canopies shade lawns trimmed to uniform heights carpeting each quad and lawn. And the Dillingham fountain waters dance before a postcard valley hugging the long finger of Cayuga Lake.

Of course, this idyllic scene will be somewhat grayer if the weather isn’t cooperating. And that’s the nature of commencement preparation as well — dependent upon the peculiarities of the weather and area wildlife, whose wily behaviors evolve from season to season. But each year, the two-dozen members of the Ithaca College grounds crew rise to the occasion.

“The most important thing to understand about our commencement preparation is that we try to clean and mulch and beautify the entire campus from one end to the other,” said Ernie McClatchie ’01, executive director of maintenance, grounds and transportation. “We will work all hours to ensure we get things done.”

Here are 10 ways the crew ensures that all 300 acres of the developed campus are in peak condition for commencement:

1. Plant flowers: The grounds crew aims to keep campus flowers blooming continuously from spring to fall. The cycle begins in autumn when 6,000 to 7,000 tulip and daffodil bulbs are planted. They bloom in early spring, and die out by May or June, when the crew replaces them with annuals, such as marigolds, zinnias, dragon wing begonias and New Guinea impatiens. Timing is critical: some will bloom through commencement; some will need to be replaced in the days prior. Eventually the annuals are replaced as well, by chrysanthemums, which bloom from mid-August to the first frost.

When the Snow Clears

tulips in a protective cage

The plants lining the walkway to the academic quad were covered with chicken wire barriers until all the flowers bloomed. (Photo by Kerry C. Regan/Ithaca College)

2. Clean campus of leaves and debris: This is the first thing the team does when the snow clears, usually in mid March. Typically, the crew descends on flower and shrub beds in a group of 15 or more, completing the whole campus in about six weeks.

3. Protect plants from wildlife: The campus is a smorgasbord of opportunity for area wildlife, such as rabbits and deer, and they can be unrelenting. In protecting vulnerable plants, the crew this year switched from nylon netting to chicken wire, because deer had learned to chew through the netting. Appetites have changed as well. Last year, for example, deer began eating mums for the first time, which may affect fall planting strategies, McClatchie said.

4. Restore the fountains: The Dillingham fountains and their feeder pipes are put into storage for the winter, when repairs are made, parts cleaned and pumps and motors rebuilt. The systems are reinstalled over a period of several days each spring, in time for April admissions events welcoming admitted students.

5. Repair sidewalks, roads and staircases: Winter takes its tolls on the concrete and asphalt infrastructure, and while many permanent repairs must wait until warmer weather, patches made in the spring boost aesthetics and help ensure safety. In play are the campus’s seven miles of roads, more than 11 miles of sidewalk and 1,200 exterior stairs.

6. Perform normal duties: These include preparing athletic fields and picking up garbage and recycling.

As Spring Takes Hold

7. Mulch: Over a two-week period beginning in late April, the crew lays down about 17 tractor-trailer loads of mulch (1,200 cubic yards) around trees, shrubs and other plants to encourage healthy growth.

8. Re-sod lawns: Snowplows invariably tear up roadside lawns, which the crew repairs with patches of sod.

9. Mow the lawns: By early May, campus lawns will need to be mowed, leaving fewer grounds crew members to complete mulching, flower planting and other remaining tasks.

10. A special project: Last fall’s special project to re-landscape Muller Chapel to have a more welcoming entranceway — a request from IC Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Heirald Osorto — was cut short by early snowfall, so it was completed this spring. McClatchie designed the new, lower profile look, which mixes small shrubs and flowers in its first redesign since 1978.

In the final week before commencement, the team puts on a full-court press, mowing every lawn, ensuring blooming flowers are populating every flower bed and cleaning up any messes that have developed — including the fireworks from the traditional display the day before commencement.

And the odds are that come commencement day, the campus will be looking as good as you’ve ever seen it.

Campus Commencement Prep By the Numbers

300 acres

6,000-7,000 tulip and daffodil bulbs

6 weeks to clear the leaves and debris from flower beds

7 miles of roads

11+ miles of sidewalk

17 tractor-trailer loads of mulch