Someone asked me the other day, “Why does Ithaca College replant annual plants rather than invest in perennials?” I’ve never been much of a plant observer, but this question made sense.
For those who don’t know, the main difference between perennial plants and annual plants is that the former persist for many growing seasons — sometimes indefinitely — while the latter live for only one.
It is no secret the college has an environmentally conscious crowd, and thus it seems to gravitate toward all things “green.” For years, the college has had countless sustainability initiatives, such as the three Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design classified buildings on campus and, recently, a number of water fountains on campus that now have a feature to refill a water bottle.
But what is the college doing about its plants?
About 8,000 annuals are planted each year, costing about $8,000–$10,000, and the number of annuals has been reduced from more than 11,400, which were planted in the past, Ernie McClatchie, director for grounds and transportation, said.
The college plants annuals twice a year, once in May prior to graduation and again in select locations between September and October prior to Alumni Weekend, McClatchie said, and the reason the college uses annuals is because it gives a different appearance than perennials.
“What we are trying to do now is putting a lot more perennials into our landscaping around campus,” he said. “[But] you still need areas at entrances and other strategic locations that are large, showy and truly make a statement, and there hasn’t really been a big push in the landscape and horticultural field to do a lot with perennials in those certain locations.”
Perennials could be more sustainable, but there are several things to consider. Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, lecturer of environmental studies, said if the plants are shipped long distances or kept in greenhouses, there is an additional carbon footprint compared to plants grown by seed in that same garden bed. Replanting could also require more labor than perennial planting.
“If beds are being planted and replanted several times a season, with all of those plants being shipped over long distances, kept in greenhouses, one should consider the ecological impacts of such practices,” she said.
McClatchie said perennials are used in several parts of the campus. In fact, there are about 785 perennials around campus, he said, and next year 550 perennials are slated for planting near the Whalen Center.
He said several perennials that work well in Ithaca’s climate attract deer. In fact, several perennials around campus have been damaged and eaten by deer this year, he said. Additionally, the blooming season of annuals is easier to control so the plants are ready and beautiful for commencement — because who wants their graduation pictures to include dead plants?
Gerald Hector, vice president of finance and administration, said the annual plants give the campus a picturesque feel, and people who visit the campus have come to expect the colors and beauty the plants provide.
“If you look at the aesthetics of the campus, it is very striking, and that is because of the planting that we use,” he said. “We do intend to use some perennials in certain areas that are less visible, but still, to keep up with the feel and look of the campus, we have to do certain things.”
This doesn’t change the fact that annuals are still not the most sustainable option. The college used to grow some of its annual plants in a greenhouse next to the facilities office — which made them more sustainable — but stopped three years ago because there was not enough staff to work it, McClatchie said.
Now, the plants come from a variety of sources. Last year, most came from Hoovers Greenhouse in Penn Yan, N.Y., which is located about 52 miles away from the college and is the closest greenhouse from which the college purchases flowers. McClatchie said the college keeps its purchases as local as possible to be more environmentally friendly.
The college tries to be sustainable but also wants to stay beautiful all year. Does the college need some makeup, or should it go au naturale? You can decide. In the meantime, now you know!
If you have any questions you want answered contact the Ithacan at firstname.lastname@example.org.