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(Photos by Eugene Zakusilo)

"Beauty is Nature's brag," as the poet John Milton wrote, but Northwestern landscape staffers have much to be proud of, too.

Keeping the 240 acres in Evanston and the 20 in Chicago as lovely as they are in all seasons is indeed one of the great unsung stories on campus. The industrious crew is responsible for a mind-boggling number of chores that thousands take for granted every day.

"There is always something going on at Northwestern," says Tim Spahn, groundskeeper foreman. "Every year, it gets more intense because of new projects and the fact that the University is growing."

Just how many varieties of trees, grasses, shrubs and, everybody's favorite, flowers are on the campuses? Sitting behind a casually intertwining arrangement of rhododendrons, tulips and Juneberry blossoms on her desk, landscape architect Ann Ziegelmaier can only make a roundabout guess. "Several hundred, at least," she muses.

A 1995 recipient of a horticultural award from the Garden Club of America for her campus landscape, Ziegelmaier is serious about her mission to develop designs that integrate with the existing campus environment in terms of function, future maintenance and aesthetics.

While plants and flowers with Northwestern colors definitely play a part in the visual plan, many other hues grace this landscape. "Of course, purple and white play big roles in our color scheme, but there's a lot more than that in nature," says the 14-year Northwestern employee, adding after a few moments, "The landscape is a dynamic, living system filled with shapes, forms, colors and textures."

Whenever possible, the crew makes use of or preserves flora that are native to the upper Midwest, such as the original oak grove by Harris Hall that harkens back to the days when Evanston was an oak savanna. Although the diplomatic Ziegelmaier is reluctant to disclose her favorite spots, she points out one compelling destination for everyone -- the landfill open space and the lakefront. "The lakefront offers an incredible visual and recreational resource for everyone to enjoy," she says.

As it happens, the grounds crew has no responsibility for another equally popular spot, the Shakespeare Garden, designed by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen. By long standing tradition, the space is tended by the Garden Club of Evanston. "It's wonderful, unique and historically significant," Ziegelmaier says. "And the garden club does a great job maintaining it."

Spahn oversees the maintenance of the Evanston campus, and his assistant, Stephen Camburn, handles irrigation and aids in the coordination of the overall operation. Their crew completes its projects and adheres to brutal time schedules, often while combating plant diseases, blistering heat, lack of rain, too much rain and other forces of nature beyond mortal control.

Not the least of the crew's challenges is salt, so necessary to free up snowbound motorways in a metropolitan area but the bane of any plant's life on earth. Ziegelmaier, who selects new trees, is careful to choose ones that can handle salt if they are to be planted near streets. "The Chicago campus, of course, is a much more urban environment," she says. "The hardier lindens, honeylocusts and gingkoes are planted in the parkways there."

Spahn and the team do many of the landscape construction and renovation projects in-house, which is more cost-effective than contracting all projects outside the University.

They also save a lot of money -- and do the ecologically correct thing -- by salvaging hundreds of plants that must be removed for campus construction or renovation projects. Existing trees, plants and flowers are either saved for restoration at the construction site or replanted in a different campus location.

"Sometimes, the same plant is moved three or four times," Ziegelmaier says.

In addition, pruned plant material and fall leaves on the Evanston and Chicago campuses generate 300 tons of organic material waste each year.

The team's annual schedule is not unlike the seasons followed by farmers. In the fall, an average of 35,000 flower bulbs are planted on both campuses; of that number, 8,000 crocuses are planted to replenish the south Evanston campus crocus beds ravaged by squirrels.

During the cold season, much time is spent doing renewal pruning for the ornamental plants and shrubs. In addition, vehicles are maintained, and weather permitting, some trees are planted.

Spring sees lawn restoration and seeding. Rose and other flower beds are uncovered, and shrub beds weeded -- by hand, of course. Crab grass, the eternal problem, is dealt with.

Summer, naturally, means mowing the acres and acres of lawns and watering. The area around the hallowed Rock is replenished with gravel.

And in all seasons, sad to say, a lot of time is spent picking up trash. In fact, about 7,200 labor hours are expended to pick up campus debris, such as fliers and other discarded items.

The growth anticipated in the near and medium-range future for both campuses presents special challenges for this crew, but not ones it can't handle.

"Northwestern is going to change a lot in the next five years," Ziegelmaier says. "It's up to us to do the best we can with the remaining green space."

Judy Moore is activities and events editor in Northwestern's Department of University Relations.