After 13 years as the head of trimming, mowing, plowing and planting, Jim Blonien knows the grounds of Marquette like the back of his hand — a hand that includes a very green thumb.
The service manager of the grounds department is also what you might call the campus beautician, largely responsible for the grooming, pruning and landscaping of all of Marquette’s nearly 100 acres.
But Blonien, with his crew of 15 full-time staff members, pays special attention to each acre of greenery. And for him, the cultivating comes naturally.
“We’ve done it so often, we know what to do,” Blonien said.
A team of professionals
While the timing of landscaping falls differently each year depending on the weather, the process and practice of planting is always the same.
Typically, winter cleanup begins in mid to late April, as soon as Blonien and his crew are almost certain the snowfalls are behind them for the season. Cleanup includes repairing damage to turf from snow, plows and salt, as well as raking areas that weren’t finished the previous fall before winter set in.
The crew also focuses on cleaning up individual plants around campus by pruning them to remove dead and overgrown leaves and branches. Crew members prune both in the fall and early spring and try to prune between snowstorms. They aim to finish pruning when plant life is still dormant and before flower buds start showing.
Blonien said the groundskeepers are ahead of schedule with both pruning and winter cleanup this year.
“We were able to get a good jump on it because of the warmer temperatures in March and the lack of snow,” Blonien said.
After cleanup, Blonien and his crew begin mulching — which involves removing some of the old chips and freshening them up with new mulch — and reseeding to restore any vegetation killed during the snow season, such as brown grass and the grass along sidewalk edges.
In addition to reseeding and mulching, campus landscapers have been in full mowing operation throughout the turf areas for the past couple weeks — another jump ahead of the typical schedule.
Tiptoe through those tulips
And then there is the task of planting those famous tulips dotting campus — all 3500 of them. The crew plants each tulip bulb in the fall and covers them until spring for protection from winter frost.
But not all of the tulips always poke their way through the surface of the ground come spring, particularly after severe winters. Blonien said the tulips have bloomed successfully during the last few years and that while they typically are done blooming two to three weeks before graduation, last year they bloomed right through.
Once the tulips have peaked, the crew starts planting other annual flowers, beginning in highly visible areas of campus like the Saint Joan of Arc Chapel, the Alumni Memorial Union, the Al McGuire Center and along street boulevards. Landscapers often plant during the first or second week of May. It’s a delicate balancing game; they try to plant before graduation but hold off long enough until warm weather since annuals are highly susceptible to freezing.
Throughout the summer, much of Blonien and his crew’s attention turns toward weeding, watering and mowing — a lot of mowing.
“Grass keeps growing,” Blonien said.
The full growing season starts between mid and late May when the flowers are in full bloom, plants and shrubs need to be maintained, and all plants need to be watered on a regular basis.
“We’re right on the doorstep of this season now,” Blonien said.
Maintenance hires between 10 and 15 students in the summer during the height of the full-growing season to help the crew stay on top of the day-to-day growing grind.
In keeping campus green and watered, maintenance relies on an irrigation system with a network of underground pipes running between sprinklers. The system covers 80 percent of campus and is activated each spring once night temperatures surpass the 20s. Maintenance routinely checks the pipes to make sure they’re operating correctly and hooks them to clocks so they can control when the sprinklers come on and how long they run.
Now Blonien just hopes that the tulips keep their blossoms through graduation on May 20 so parents and students can take advantage of them in their graduation photos and enjoy them before departing campus.
“Everybody likes to see the tulips blooming because of the color they bring,” Blonien said.
This includes visiting families. Blonien said the grounds get a lot compliments from parents and students during university open houses and tour days. And since the grounds serve as the first impression of the university for newcomers, maintaining them is critical.
“It’s the first thing everybody sees of the university,” he said.
The campus feeling
Although the beauty of campus isn’t a direct emphasis of the university’s marketing efforts, Doug Frohmader, Creative Director in the Office of Marketing and Communication still sees it as an aspect of the Marquette identity.
“I think we’re very proud of our beautiful campus, and we’re also very proud of our location in the city and our connection to Milwaukee in that way,” Frohmader said. “I do think we try to reflect that and show campus as it is and also as it relates to the rest of the city … and use imagery and visuals supporting that as we market the university.”
But Frohmader is more concerned about fostering a setting where students feel comfortable and cohesive than he is about manicuring a perfect landscape on campus.
“A certain feel at a university is a very important part of recruiting students and creating an environment that feels welcoming,” he said. “It’s always been important.”
In promoting the university and reaching out to prospective students, OMC produces videos and print mailings and updates its website and social media accounts — all of which feature images reflecting the beauty of campus year-round.
“That’s nice to see, that people appreciate the work my guys put in by displaying it on the Web page for the university,” Blonien said. “It shows the high praise for the work that we’re doing.”
Andy Schneider, assistant dean of Undergraduate Admissions, said that while the aesthetics of campus may not specifically draw students here, they certainly enhance their views of the university.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who decides to go to Marquette because of how many tulips we have, but it’s one of those many factors,” Schneider said.
When sitting down with families on campus, Schneider almost always hears compliments about the beauty of campus. And when visiting students leave campus feeling confident about other facets of the university, the aesthetics only add to their impression of the school.
According to both Frohmader and Schneider, Marquette is fairly unique as a university with components of both a rural and urban campus — a sort of peaceful retreat in a hectic city.
“We feel we have a real advantage to talk about how Marquette is a little bit of both,” Schneider said. “We try to as much as possible showcase the advantages we have from both of those settings.”
Tour guide Matt Campbell, a senior in the College of Communication, makes a special effort to showcase the quieter, more colorful parts of campus during his tours.
“I like to specifically talk about (campus aesthetics) when we approach Joan of Arc,” Campbell said. “That’s the most beautiful spot on campus. At Joan of Arc you have one of the prettiest buildings on campus and you also have this awesome amount of plant life and awesome flowers.”
Though the city surrounds the campus, Campbell said that in places like Central Mall, you would never know it.
“Right in downtown Milwaukee, we kind of have this little oasis on Marquette’s campus,” he said.