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Class gives Ithaca and Geneva sites a landscape makeover

The face of Geneva's Hedrick Hall at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES), with its simple evergreen hedge, didn't hint at the building's identity as the home of leading horticulturists for the past 80 years. But with new landscaping by the students and faculty of Cornell's Creating the Urban Eden course, the building now sports an entrance as noteworthy as its horticultural legacy.

"The existing landscaping was what we call 'meatball yews' -- green blocks that have been pruned into shapes for decades," said horticulture professor and course co-instructor Nina Bassuk. "We wanted to create a landscape that would be welcoming for faculty and staff and horticulturally interesting in every season, with different bloom times, plant architecture and leaf types."

Students in the horticulture and landscape architecture course, led by Bassuk and Department of Landscape Architecture Chair Peter Trowbridge, performed a site analysis at Hedrick last fall, which informed Bassuk's design.

Every site has its challenges. At Hedrick Hall, it was a shady site with alkaline soil. On the positive side, the soil structure and drainage were reasonably good, Bassuk said.

The mid-May installation was a joint effort between Ithaca and Geneva horticulturists, with volunteers from the Ithaca campus teaming up with NYSAES horticulture faculty, grounds crew, graduate students and emeriti faculty to plant the artful array of shrubs, perennials and grasses -- 264 plants in all.

"It seems fitting that a top-rated horticultural program should have a top-rated entrance," said Department of Horticulture Chair Marvin Pritts, who suggested the Hedrick project. "The new landscaping is a visual benefit of the merger between Ithaca's horticulture department and Geneva's Department of Horticultural Sciences last summer."

The Geneva site was just one of several renovated by the class this year. Guided by the requirements that their designs provide the most value to the landscape and people with the fewest inputs, students designed and installed landscapes at Kennedy and Roberts halls on the Ithaca campus and a new rooftop garden at Malott Hall. Elements from students' individual designs were selected for inclusion in the final designs by a class vote.

The students were challenged to create landscapes that reduce such maintenance costs as pruning, hedging or mowing; limit inputs such as pesticides and water; and entice people into the landscape, even into unexpected places like a rooftop garden.

"The rooftop location was interesting because it was underutilized -- one may say entirely unused -- because most people did not know it existed," said Trowbridge. "The students designed a green roof that spans two large classrooms, creating a new usable space for people to gather."

In previous years, the class completed projects on the Ag Quad, including renovation of the Mann Library courtyard, creating spaces where, as Trowbridge noted, students can learn outdoors with a little help from infrastructure including furniture and WiFi. For the students and faculty, the Urban Eden landscapes connect them to Cornell in a very personal and lasting way.

"The students see their work as a legacy project -- really a gift to the college and university -- which they look forward to visiting as alumni," said Trowbridge.

Amanda Garris is a freelance writer in Geneva, N.Y.

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