Hamline News

Spring Planting

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Ken Dehkes, director of facilities operations and horticultural services, is a wealth of secrets. For example, some of the flowerpots on campus are filled with edible plants: gem marigolds, lavender, and nasturtiums, as well as leeks and Swiss chard. And think you have a covert shortcut through campus? You don’t. Via aerial photographs, Dehkes and his team monitor circulation patterns, observing excessive wear in the areas where informal paths have emerged.

Dehkes has worked at Hamline for more than 20 years, gradually transforming the landscape from formal hedges and lines of trees to a lush, natural haven filled with variety, color, and life. “My aim is to create a livable landscape at Hamline,” he says. “The question in my mind is always, ‘How do we create a landscape that is functional, environmental, and fiscally responsible as well as attractive?’”

It’s no easy feat on an urban campus that serves more than 5,000 people each day. Here, Dehkes spills his secrets for making the Hamline campus one of the prettiest spots in Saint Paul.

Secret One: It’s no secret— weather rules. Preplan, but prepare for the unexpected. Consider colorful perennials, shrubs, ground cover, and trees over annuals.

When your business is growing, your boss is the weather. While Dehkes and his team of four employees and student workers are constantly planning for the next season, an unusually early or late frost can throw everything off. “We look at long-range forecasts and follow weather patterns, and I keep track of the previous winters and how things came out,” says Dehkes. “Each year we take an educated guess as to what might happen and hedge our bets so we’re prepared for whatever comes up.”

When life revolves around the academic calendar, full of important events, the game gets dicier. May 20 is the average last frost for the Twin Cities—dangerously close to Commencement, which is typically accented by a campus bright with spring flowers. “Every year we do a little dance,” says Dehkes. “We need a certain amount of time physically to get all the flowers in and get everything ready, but we’re also worrying, ‘Is this all going to be toast if we get a bad frost?’” The team packs most of their planting into the 10 days prior to the event—with fingers crossed.

Homecoming Weekend presents another challenge, as the average first frost is October 5. Often there has been snow. As a result, Dehkes changed his overall strategy, moving away from flowering annuals to perennials, ground covers, shrubs, and a variety of trees that can withstand a frost and hold their color late into the fall.

Of course, he notes, there’s still a place for the vibrant color and seasonal entrance of annuals. So the team began planting annuals in flowerpots and hanging baskets that they can move under cover in the case of a weather disaster.

Secret Two: Go natural. Avoid formal layouts such as hedges and rows of trees that are high cost, more maintenance, and less sustainable. Look for functional, hardy vegetation and plant a diversity of species.

Since Dehkes took over, competition among plants for a spot on campus has gotten stiff. Plant materials have to meet Dehkes’ design criteria: functional, hardy, aesthetic, a limited amount of pest problems, and not reliant on extra inputs such as fertilizer or excessive labor. He strives for a natural layout, always taking into account budget, maintenance, and the reality of change over time.

“Formal layouts—hedges or a row of trees that are all the same—go against my philosophy of a sustainable landscape because they need to be manipulated to perform,” explains Dehkes. When a formal landscape has a problem in a particular area, the whole design breaks down. “For example if you plant a row of trees that are all the same and a storm takes one out, you could replace it with a sapling, but it won’t have the desired effect. It’s like when someone gets a tooth knocked out. And a specific disease or pest could wipe them all out. That’s why our aesthetic approach is more informal.”

The approach well suits a college campus, where the only constant is change. Buildings are constructed and, at times, torn down. Student and faculty needs evolve, and the community grows—in size and philosophy. “In an urban area there’s a tendency to build more hardscape— solid and constructed features—because there’s a perception that you can’t maintain plant material when thousands of people are walking on it. But we’ve found that softscape, or horticultural, solutions are more cost-effective and flexible to change.” Dehkes chooses vegetation that adjusts easily to transplanting. He has even moved trees.

Secret Three: Think about function, circulation patterns, and resources. The average life of a landscape is 40 years. Assess impact and cost in terms of ongoing yearly maintenance rather than initial design and installation.

People (and pets) are on the move. It’s important to keep an eye on circulation patterns that may break down your landscape. Dehkes and his team continually adjust their design to redirect or allow for natural walking patterns. “Areas of high traffic where the ground cover is worn away can result in erosion, which enables weeds to better compete,” explains Dehkes. To avoid destruction, he adjusts, making paver trails along the worn path or by planting vegetation to force people to use the sidewalks. “Constructing a walkway with pavers is an investment, but over time it will offset some of the costs we incur through ground repair and maintenance.”

Water use is a major consideration in terms of cost and environmental stewardship. Dehkes is mindful of both. Over time, he’s eliminated much of the turf grass on campus, which requires extensive amounts of water. Hamline has an irrigation system that allows him to better control water use, ultimately saving on cost and waste. “We water at the right time and in the right amounts for each specific area,” says Dehkes. “We take that seriously not just for the show of being frugal with water, but because it creates healthy, sustainable plants.”

Secret Four: Find ways to incorporate edible flowers and plants into your landscape and look to your recycle bin for construction elements.

The birds generally get to them first, but the dark purple berries on the Juneberry shrubs Dehkes planted throughout campus can also be eaten and made into pies. The flowerpots that hold edible flowers and leeks were his suggestion to Hamline’s student garden organization SPROUT. “There are all sorts of ways to incorporate herbs or fruits and vegetables into your landscape,” says Dehkes. “You can put in fruit trees and/or blueberry shrubs as a landscape element, but still enjoy the eating function. It’s fun and easy to blend in edibles, and it’s another element that helps people get in tune with nature.”

Dehkes also looks to his recycling bin for inspiration. When SPROUT requested raised beds for a student garden, facilities staff members constructed them from the aluminum bleachers from the old Norton Stadium. “They won’t rot, they’re lightweight, and we’re recycling.”

Secret Five: Measure your success in wildlife and in how many people you expose to the joy of gardening.

Thanks to Dehkes, squirrels, rabbits, birds, and butterflies have become citydwellers. “We’ve always had the squirrels, but now they can chew on acorns rather than just pizza crusts,” he laughs. “A whole range of small wildlife now thrives on campus because there’s more opportunity for shelter and there’s a food source.”

People also enjoy the fruits of his labor. Dehkes began putting identification markers on trees and shrubs due to frequent questions from visitors and has led walking tours during Alumni Weekend. “The goal is to get people exposed,” he says. “Have them get out there. Have them weed—get their hands in the ground. It’s not about winning a prize at the state fair for the biggest dahlia. It’s about raising interest, interacting with friends and family members, and gaining an appreciation for growing things.”

 By Phoebe Larson