US (VA): Welcome to the college jungle

Sprinkled across the campus of the College of William and Mary are dozens of manicured flower beds, potted plants, and decorative trees. Though they often appear in admissions brochures, most current students barely stop to glance at the landscaping, let alone wonder where it comes from, but if they were to venture just a few blocks from campus, past the law school and tennis facility, they would find the College’s greenhouse, run by Greenhouse and Nursery Supervisor Ben Owen.

Owen said: “I have a horticulture degree, but I started as a temp because I got married and moved to the area, and then I just never left.” Owen is responsible for landscaping some of the focal points of the campus. Owen and his team pick the details of all their landscaping projects, down to the colors of the flowers they select. “Now, don’t get me wrong, the turf people and the landscape people are just as important as we are, but we get the fun stuff,” Owen said.

One of the key parts of Owen’s job is maintaining the President’s house, currently occupied by College President Katherine Rowe. Much of Owen’s work on Rowe’s garden is dictated by her personal taste. “She loves foxglove, so we’ll be doing those, and snapdragons and dianthus, we do all kinds of stuff,” Owen said. “She takes an interest in the yard, but doesn’t have time.”

Owen and his team also grow small amounts of produce at their greenhouse facility, planting rows of lettuce, squash, cucumber, and hot peppers. Much of that produce goes to Rowe and her husband, but the peppers go to the spice-loving Owen himself. “I love the look of peppers,” Owen said. “I would personally pay for the seeds for the hot peppers. We have Carolina Reapers, and we have ghost peppers.”

Most of Owen’s plants are used for landscaping projects, as well as set-dressing for big events such as graduation. Some plants are grown from cuttings, while others are cultivated from bulbs or seeds. Some are seasonal, while others may take many years to grow. It all depends on what the plant needs. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can walk into a greenhouse and feel what needs to be done,” Owen said.

Though Owen’s plants are scattered throughout campus, most students are unaware of their origin. Aside from the occasional research studies, looking into milkweed or bird populations, students rarely visit the greenhouse facility. “I don’t think people have any clue where the plants come from,” Owen said.

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