Purple flowers and grass frame the Harpole Memorial Fountain September 13, 2013 as the silhouette of Aquinas Hall looms in the background.

How It Works: Keeping Campus Beautiful

First impressions matter.

It’s true for every human being. You might not have continued reading this if the story’s first three words were something boring such as, “One might say,” or, “We can assume.” But you are because, as study after study has shown, first impressions really do matter.

Take the case of St. Thomas. Its first impression for prospective students and visitors in general is the look of the campuses, from the Mankato Kasota Stone buildings to the streets that intersect them. In St. Paul, a crew is responsible for making sure those impressions are supplemented by the natural beauty of flowers, trees, bushes and grass. On a daily basis, year-round, they work to make St. Thomas as beautiful as it can be.

"We consistently hear, ‘You have the most beautiful campus,’ from visitors," said director of admissions Kristin Hatfield. "When people see a place that’s well taken care of they feel it’s a place that students will be taken care of. It definitely help us in the work that we do, in big ways"

“I definitely think it draws people to go to school here because it’s that pretty,” senior Sydney Westfield added. “It influences people’s thoughts about St. Thomas.”

Those ideas are not lost on the grounds crew.

“Whether you park around here, do anything, the first thing you notice is the grounds, the grass, the greens, the flowers. We do take pride in that look,” said grounds turf technician Roger Weinbrenner. “When people are walking to admissions or are here for their tour, that’s going to stand out. We get comments and we take pride in that.”

Full-time upkeep

That pride is a central part of the job for St. Thomas’ four full-time grounds crew members, as well as the several student workers who put in between 60 and 80 hours a week helping them (in the summer those hours jump even higher). Weinbrenner said the majority of their work centers on the upkeep of existing infrastructure (for new buildings and large projects St. Thomas has used a landscape architect to help plan where larger flower beds will go). "Subtracting” is a big part of the grounds equation: cutting grass, weeding, trimming trees, and cleaning up loose soil and trampled plants.

The grounds crew, for the most part, divides the campus into three parts with someone responsible for each third, but they all pitch in together for larger projects.

“The overall goal is mainly to maintain what we already have here,” Weinbrenner said.

What they have changes on an annual basis, though: Part of the grounds crew’s contribution is the yearly planting and upkeep of flowers. Weinbrenner said they order thousands of plants from Gertens in May, and usually plant them in the second week of the month if the weather allows.

“The guys take a lot of pride, especially in the pots in the flowers,” he added. “Those tend to get noticed. We get a lot of comments on our flowers.”

Grounds and landscape manager Bob Reed generally designs the flower arrangements, which often feature purple and white flowers.

“We do avoid some colors … but we try to get creative,” Weinbrenner said.

Once the flowers are in place student workers water them two or three times a week, depending on rain fall. Monitoring and upkeep is needed as animals and foot traffic can damage plants, too, and at the end of each year all the annual flowers (which make up the vast majority) are removed. Then it’s time to prep for snow and ice season, as the same grounds crew is responsible for keeping St. Thomas’ many sidewalks and walkways clear and safe.

“It’s definitely a year-round job,” Weinbrenner said of the task to keep St. Thomas looking good.