Every year since 2001, students in Creating the Urban Eden: Woody Plant Selection, Design, and Landscape Establishment (HORT/LA 4910/4920) have taken on real world projects, designing and installing gardens on campus each spring. This year’s primary project was particularly challenging – a total makeover of the courtyard at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR).
“It’s by far the biggest project we’ve ever taken on,” says Nina Bassuk, director of the Urban Horticulture Institute in the Department of Horticulture, who co-teaches the course with Peter Trowbridge, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. This year’s class also revamped the landscaping outside the Computing & Communications Center on the Ag Quad
At the ILR courtyard, Urban Eden students had to cope with a demanding site that included compacted soils and buildings on all sides. “It’s an extreme microclimate, particularly with the heat reflecting off the wall on the north side of the courtyard,” notes Bassuk. “But these conditions are typical of what the students will face when they design landscapes for urban settings.”
The courtyard’s warmer microclimate allowed the students to use plants that wouldn’t normally survive winters elsewhere on campus. (See plant list below.) That will make it possible for Bassuk and Trowbridge to teach about landscape plants usually only found in warmer climes. The planting even includes a hardy banana (Musa basjoo).Bassuk and Trowbridge kick off the annual design and installation process in summer when they meet with the Grounds Department to identify locations that need a makeover. During the fall semester, Urban Eden students learn site assessment theory in class, but then apply it to the site where they’ll be working. They test drainage, pH and other soil properties, observe how much sun different parts of the site receive and create a site map.
“Then each student creates a design plan for the site and presents their plan to the class,” says Bassuk. “The class votes on which plan they think will work, and the elements of the best plans are folded into one unified design.”
After a reality check of the plan with the Grounds Department and other stakeholders, students begin preparing the site for planting as soon as the weather breaks in spring. “It took some serious soil preparation and organic matter amendments to relieve compaction problems on the ILR site,” notes Bassuk. That included incorporating hundreds of yards of compost and spreading 175 yards of topsoil. Students also used coarse sand to create a beach-like environment for some plants that require especially well-drained soil, and imported acidic soil so they could plant acid-loving plants along the south and west walls.
After planting nearly 900 trees, shrubs and groundcovers, students tucked them in with 40 yards of mulch and rolled out 6,500 square feet of sod under the tutelage of Frank Rossi, Department of Horticulture turf specialist.
“We’ve always thought that it’s not enough to just learn about landscape plants in the classroom,” says Bassuk. “Our students have to learn how to do things. When they’re out there in management positions and creating designs, they have to know what it takes – and how it feels – to turn their plans into reality.”
‘Zone Creep’ in the ILR courtyard
Some of the plants Urban Eden students matched to the conditions of the ILR courtyard aren’t considered to be winter hardy at most locations on the Cornell University campus. (List below.) “Most sites here are USDA Hardiness Zone 5b,” says Nina Bassuk. “The courtyard is at least Zone 6b and possibly 7a – conditions more commonly found on Long Island or in New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland.”
- Abelia x grandiflora ‘Rose Creek’ (Glossy Abelia)
- Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cedar)
- Fargesia robusta ‘Green Screen’ (Clumping Bamboo)
- Genista lydia ‘Bangle’ (Lydia Broom)
- Juniperus conferta (Shore Juniper)
- Lagerstroemia ‘Pink Velor’ and ‘Sarah’s Favorite’ (Crape Myrtle)
- Mahonia bealei (Leatherleaf Mahonia)
- Musa basjoo (Hardy Banana)
- Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo)
- Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (Black Mondo Grass)
- Parthenocissus henryana (Silvervein Creeper)
- Pinus thunbergiana (Japanese Black Pine)
- Pinus wallachiana (Himalayan Pine)
- Prunus laurocerasus (Common Cherry Laurel)
- Rubus cockburnianus (White-Stemmed Bramble)
- Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Sweetbox)
- Skimmia japonica (Japanese Skimmia)