Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Everyone at BU knows that Nickerson Field is the epicenter of Commencement weekend, possibly none more than Steve Lindberg and Michael Sisti. The University grounds workers have less than two weeks to plant thousands of geraniums, petunias, and impatiens around West Campus, transforming the area into a flowering oasis that will wow a president, visiting dignitaries, graduates and parents, and passersby.
A confident Lindberg predicts his section of campus will outshine others. “This is where it happens,” he brags. “West is best.”
Not according to Dan Tucker, a grounds worker-cum-poet whose area encompasses Marsh Chapel: “You can say West is best, but a lot of the other areas have put that to rest.”
If you can’t tell already, these guys are a tad competitive. Lindberg, Sisti, and Tucker are among the 20 grounds workers spread across six areas of the Charles River Campus feverishly mulching, mowing, and planting up to 12 hours each day, 6 days a week in preparation for Commencement annually. The 140th BU Commencement is on Sunday, May 19. While they work for the same department, make no mistake: this is horticultural war.
Ray Bourgeois, manager of grounds and masonry at Facilities Management & Planning, says Commencement preparation begins as soon as the snow is gone. When it comes to grounds beautification, there’s no huge mystery behind the process. “We know what we have to do year-to-year,” he says. “It’s a matter of getting out and getting it done.”
No easy feat considering that the task involves spreading nearly 600 cubic yards of mulch around flowerbeds, trees, and shrubs. Bourgeois says he’s stopped counting how many flowers he’s requested from the University’s wholesale producers, Mahoney’s and Cavicchio Greenhouses.
He says he isn’t picky about flower types—he simply tells growers to “ship me what you have, whatever’s in color” now or by Commencement. Usually that means low-maintenance annuals like petunias, New Guinea impatiens, impatiens, and geraniums, plants that will keep blooming all summer and still look good when students return in September. Occasionally growers send samples of new varieties to gauge grounds workers’ reactions. Sometimes they become so popular, Bourgeois says, that his people “fight over them.”
At 7 a.m., tractor trailers laden with flowers and shrubs start rolling up to 120 Ashford St., where grounds workers unload them into a nearby storage facility and then grab whatever they want to plant that day. Bourgeois half-jokingly describes the scene as cutthroat. Lindberg is more graphic: he makes an elbowing motion as he describes the good-natured scrum that develops around hot commodities.
Steve Crain, who works with Greg Limerick in the Central Campus area, says sometimes the best flowers never make it to the shed, but are snuck directly into workers’ waiting trucks. And if you arrive later than 7 a.m., he says, “you’ve missed the boat.”
Every BU grounds worker comes to the job with years of landscaping experience, and by extension, personal horticultural preferences. Limerick is a big fan of ornamental grasses, because of their variety, heat tolerance, and the fact that they don’t need much water. “BU wants to conserve,” he says with a broad smile. Fortunately, Crain shares his affinity for the plants, but also appreciates a nice rose of Sharon or butterfly bush for sunny spots. Rhododendrons, azaleas, and viburnum flower nicely, he adds, and are perfect for shady spots around campus.
Tucker likes to bring his area “to the next level” by creating new flowerbeds, adding grass to barren spots, and mowing in angular patterns “to add that little extra feature to make it one step better than across the street.” He says that because of workers’ preference for a specific flower, some areas around campus have acquired a nickname, like “Bay State Rose.”
And Lindberg says he likes the “bigger pots.” Spoken like a man who’d just finished planting a couple of dozen tiny New Guinea impatiens near the West Campus dining hall and had several dozen more to go before lunch.
Grounds workers say they don’t start out with a specific landscaping design in mind, but choose varieties based on what will do best in specific exposures (full sun, partial sun, or shade), wind conditions (33 Agganis Way generates its own weather pattern), and color (no monochromatic rows, except for scarlet and white near key points around West Campus).
Nickerson Field has always been a priority close to Commencement. But rumor has it that the late John Silber (Hon.’95), president from 1971 to 1996, used to have Facilities Management & Planning rent potted plants for the big day, sink them into the ground, then dig them up and return them to the growers once the weekend was over.
Kevin Carleton (COM’82), who worked in public relations at BU at the time and is currently a special assistant to President Robert A. Brown, doubts that there’s any truth to the story. Potted plants did appear around Nickerson Field just for Commencement, he says, but were later planted across campus. But he does find black-market trading in potted flowers a chuckle-worthy idea.
However lore has it, University grounds workers say they’ve added a fair bit of variety to the landscape in recent years, and not just near Nickerson Field. The entire Charles River Campus is on display for Commencement weekend, and continues to be as students and parents visit for summer orientation. Workers take their job seriously and keep tabs on who has the most eye-popping, awe-inspiring display of color.
Lindberg is keenly aware of the competition and isn’t afraid to say that his and Sisti’s area is “the focus of the University.”
Word to the wise, Lindberg, don’t lose focus on those flowerbeds: Crain says a coveted plant “goes missing” every now and then.