At the University of Virginia, time seems to slow in the summer, when many fewer students populate Grounds.
But summer is a busy time in UVA’s Jeffersonian gardens, when warm, wet weather hastens plant growth – including weeds that sprout rapidly and shrubs that encroach upon walkways.
“In some ways you could say that in the few weeks leading up to Garden Week and graduation, in April and May, are busier because there are a lot more expectations of how things look for visitors during those times,” said gardener Roland Von der Muhll, who works on the gardens on the east side of the Lawn. “But the volume and speed of plant growth this time of year can be pretty extraordinary compared to the rest of the year, especially when it is a wet year like this one.”
Von der Muhll and fellow gardener Tim Andrus have their summers consumed by weeding, pruning, collecting debris and raking.
“A lot of shrubs start to grow vigorously in the summer, so they will start to block the pathways,” Andrus said. “When the rains come, we need to keep all the drains cleared out. Even some of the newer ones get clogged up very quickly and debris will land on top of them and build up like sedimentary layers in a geology zone.”
Von der Muhll, who has worked in the Jeffersonian gardens for about three years, enjoys working in a detailed ornamental landscape, with a variety of plantings.
“Here there is a lot more pruning detail work with the plants, but also what makes the gardens kind of unique is it is not the type of plant species you would see in a recently installed landscape for a shopping mall, or even newer parts of Grounds,” he said. “We have fruit trees, berry bushes, grapes, different culinary herbs such as lavender and rosemary, and, to a certain degree, you could say ‘historic-type plants,’ such as the smoke tree in lower Garden X, a lot of boxwoods, espalier fruit trees. It is a whole different landscape in that regard than what you would tend to find on the rest of Grounds – a more interesting one I would say.”
In the early years of the University, the gardens were utilitarian work areas for the pavilions and the hotels, with enslaved laborers doing the work necessary to keep the University running. The garden areas did not function at all like their current spaces of sanctuary and botanical variety.
The gardens have been restored and renovated a number of times since the 1950s – most notably by the Garden Club of Virginia – and are considered public spaces, open to visitors.
Much of the work that Andrus and Von der Muhll do is maintaining what is there, as well as working on other locales. Von der Muhll also tends the courtyards at Rouss-Robertson Hall and between Old Cabell and New Cabell halls. Andrus tends to the plantings in the west-side gardens and around the Rotunda. On a recent early morning, he was at the Rotunda trimming back distylium.
“It has had shoots sticking out a foot into the pathway on either side,” Andrus said. “Dozens all the way down. I just finished trimming that off the pathway and I had to trim it away from the building, on the side where it drops off into the English ivy beds on either side all the way down that everybody photographs.”
Andrus also tends the fountain in the Rotunda’s east garden.
“I have to go up and keep that clean because it gets moldy and you get bacteria growing on the side,” Andrus said. “I have to keep that going and all those pocket gardens at the Rotunda.”
But the bulk of their work centers on the pavilion gardens.
“Today is weeding, as always,” Von der Muhll said. “They are growing up everywhere, and cleaning walks from the recent storms trying to get all the sticks and debris off the walks and making sure they look nice, making sure you can see the brick edges, because the gardens look so much prettier when you can see well-defined walks with brick edges, instead of having mud and gravel washing over the edges.”
“Keeping ivy and other plants off the pathways,” Andrus said. “A lot of shrubs start to grow vigorously in the summer so they will start to block the pathways. Pruning, raking, keeping weeds out and keeping the paths cleared, that is 90% of it.”
The gardeners often encounter visitors during the summer – fewer students, and more families and tourists.
“I don’t know much about the historical part of everything here, but I know the plants pretty well and I can answer questions about taxonomy and things that have to do with the plants here in the gardens,” Andrus said. “I am always curious about why people come here. I like to engage in conversation. I was told that as a gardener I am an ambassador for the University.”
Andrus, a botanist and plant taxonomist, is also happy to see students using the gardens.
“These are their gardens,” he said.