Botanical Campus

Landscape designed by Beatrix Farrand at the Graduate College.

Exotic and native plants, shrubs, and trees get their start in Princeton University’s greenhouses and nursery

By Ilene Dube | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon

a bitterly cold day on the Princeton University campus, and the wind is whipping plastic flaps around the greenhouses. Landscape architect Devin Livi uses his special key to let us inside, where the air is warm and moist. I feel like I’ve left winter for the tropics. Flats of potted vinca and ivy are a reminder that we’re on an Ivy League campus.

“When we’re done with the tour,” I find myself telling Livi, “I’m not leaving.”

“It’s a great job,” he admits.

He takes me to another greenhouse, where he lifts a plastic screen. It’s like peering through a portal to spring. There is coleus, orchids, lantana, euphorbia, even Einstein’s begonia. “Everything is hand-watered,” Livi says as fans spin above, spreading the most air.

At the time of my visit this past winter, Livi, who is the associate director, grounds, was more focused on snow removal and salting than in the orders he’d placed for bulbs and spring plants — his crew of 45 handles everything from maintaining lawns to planting and pruning. “None of this would be possible without our dedicated crew,” he says. “One generation passes along knowledge to the next.”

In a few months, the campus will come to life. Beech, ash (those that haven’t succumbed to emerald ash borers), European chestnut, dawn redwoods, American elm, and London plane will leaf out, and the land will give birth to fragrant flowers. What is now mud will become a verdant expanse. Like an arboretum, the campus is a carefully planned garden that mixes exotic imports with native species of trees, in a way that is inspired by nature but would never occur without human intervention.

Gardens fulfill a basic need. A recent spate of scientific studies points to the benefits of being outside in nature, in sunshine, in breathing air redolent of pine and wildflowers. Gardens are not just an indulgence in beauty, but students immersed in nature may be better learners.

When Princeton formed in the mid 1700s, all that could be seen surrounding Nassau Hall and the President’s House was a barren landscape. The campus gradually evolved to the lush, park-like setting it is today, including the “secret gardens” tucked into lesser-traveled areas of the campus — more on that later.

Climbing vines like Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis, and trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, at the Graduate College.

Princeton’s first consulting landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959), a niece of Edith Wharton, was a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects, along with Frederick Law Olmsted and others. She came to Princeton to work for the Moses Taylor Pyne estate at Drumthwacket. Having served as apprentice at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, her first design for the campus was Wyman Garden at the Graduate College. Her curvilinear border plants extended to the main campus, as she sought to create a connection. She was known to follow students around campus to determine where paths should be sited.

Farrand favored native plants and trees, choosing varieties that bloom in spring or fall when the University is in session. Influenced by English landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll, a proponent of the wild, Farrand’s designs were known for simplicity and ease of maintenance, and much of what she created still flourishes at Princeton today. In February, it was announced that a courtyard in the heart of the campus will be named for her.

Farrand went on to design gardens for Yale University; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in Seale Harbor, Maine; J. Pierpoint Morgan; and the White House. “We still refer to her drawings and design ideas,” says Livi, such as vines and espaliers. Some of what Farrand implemented no longer works due to disease or wetter sites resulting from climate change. “We won’t change her concept, but may change the plant material.”

There are trends in gardening that affect the availability of plant materials. For example, when Farrand planted southern magnolias in the 1920s they were rare, but today can be sourced at nurseries from North Carolina to Connecticut. Or, if honey locusts are specified but can’t be located, smaller trees can be established in the nursery. Crape myrtle would not have been found on campus in the 1920s, but is now ubiquitous.

“We have microclimates on campus, areas that are more protected so that a more southern-type of plant material can do well,” says Livi.

Greenhouse crewleader David Wagenblast, left, and landscape architect Devin Livi in one of the greenhouses.

Secrets of Success

It’s important to pick the right plant for the right location, where Mother Nature can provide, Livi points out. “We don’t use a lot of irrigation. You won’t be successful if you plant plants that require a lot of attention.” Foot traffic, events, and vehicles must be taken into consideration when planting Princeton’s campus.

Many consider the grounds surrounding Prospect House, with its formally composed arrangement of trees, bushes, plants, and flowers, to be the most spectacular. While the garden has been shaped and changed over the years, many of its trees predate the house, notably the tulip trees and the American beech. The flower garden at the rear of Prospect, in the shape of a shield, was originally laid out by Ellen Axson Wilson, an artist and the first wife of Woodrow Wilson who was president of the University from 1902 to 1910. Today, Prospect Gardens has more perennials than annuals, a measure toward sustainability, according to Livi.

Much of what is grown on the campus’s more than 600 acres gets its start in the greenhouses. “We source as much as we can locally,” says Livi. Back in November, he and his crew made cuttings of ivy and vinca to start in the greenhouses. In the nearby nursery, trees are established, while being observed for pests and disease. “The trees might have originated in Florida or Maryland, and we want to establish them in this environment so it’s not a shock, or if it’s a new variety we can observe it.” The nursery is protected with a 10-foot deer fence.

As long as the ground is workable, trees can be moved. A cut leaf maple salvaged from Bainbridge House, where construction is underway to make space for the Art Museum expansion, was moved to the nursery in mid-winter. Along with other trees in the nursery, including seedlings of the Mercer Oak, it will endure wind and other harsh conditions. “If it grows here, we know it will do fine on campus,” says Livi. On this particular day, a beautiful red witch hazel had come into bloom — just a teaser for spring.

Princeton is one of the few non-agricultural schools to have its own greenhouses, thanks to the vision of Farrand. She contended the University could save money, gain new plant varieties, and acclimate plants to the New Jersey environment by growing them in house. The facility started in 1935 with one greenhouse that has since been relocated to the West Windsor end of campus.

Livi takes me to see the compost — it’s where life ends and begins. When old trees on campus must be felled — “the worst part of the job is having to take down hundred-plus-year-old trees,” says Livi — carpenters at Willard Brothers are invited to look at the wood. If it isn’t of value to them, the wood will be ground and turned to mulch. Alongside the steaming piles of brown earth are the mounds, or windrows, of compost made from decayed leaves, to be used as a soil amendment. “We don’t buy any mulch,” says Livi, who studied landscape architecture at the University of West Virginia. “Using the right soil and plant material is what leads to success.”

Sustainability on Campus

A biodigester, which takes food scraps and mixes them with wood shavings, then heats the concoction, is now in an experimental phase. Livi’s crew makes compost tea in a large brewing vessel; when sprayed on plants and lawn, it can control for fungus and bacteria. Soil biology tests have shown that compost tea can reinvigorate damaged plant material. And as part of the sustainability plan, pollinators and beneficial insects are released on campus, to avoid reliance on chemicals.

Deer, the modern-day plague of gardens, usually congregate on the south side of campus, “so we won’t plant hydrangeas or hostas there,” says Livi. Sadly, he reports, the deer made their way to Prospect Gardens last year, necessitating heavy spraying with hot pepper and garlic.

When the University constructs a new building, the landscape architecture is part of the building design, but Livi’s department is consulted to review the plan and see how it will work. For example, Maya Lin’s earth-based installation, The Princeton Line, came with its own landscape plan, but Livi was given the chance to review the design drawings and offer input. Once it is established, it becomes his purview.

The Washington Road Elm Allee is another favorite feature of the campus. There are actually two rows of American elms that line the allee; those closer to the road are owned and maintained by the county, but the University maintains the inner row. When the trees succumb to Dutch elm disease, they are replaced with a disease-resistant variety developed by William Flemer at Princeton Nurseries.

ABOUT THOSE SECRET GARDENS

Beatrix Farrand’s very first garden still blooms on the grounds of the Graduate College, next to Procter Hall, just off the main campus. Wyman Garden includes a 100-year-old sundial, a European hornbeam arbor, and several fountains within beds of lamb’s ear, Japanese spirea, hydrangea, and wild geranium.

Bamboo, hellebores, and lavender hostas are among the attractions in the Class of 1946 Garden next to Maclean House. The adjacent Class of 1936 garden features painted ferns, native geraniums, and many other varieties. A tiny rose garden abuts the wide expanse of lawn behind Palmer House on the northeast corner of Route 206 and Nassau Street.

And it’s no wonder that Princeton has made it to various lists of prettiest campuses — visitors come to tour the grounds, which also include a spectacular collection of sculpture maintained by the Princeton University Art Museum.

“We recognize the historic beauty of the campus and work hard to be good stewards,” says Livi. “We’re continuing Beatrix Farrand’s legacy.”