Zen and the Art of Gardening: Meet the Men Behind UVA's Idyllic Enclaves

Zen and the Art of Gardening: Meet the Men Behind UVA's Idyllic Enclaves

Wrapped within serpentine walls, the 10 Jeffersonian gardens at the University of Virginia’s Academical Village, each exhibiting its own personality, are places of serenity and contemplation, where students and visitors can relax on shaded benches nestled among a wide variety of flowers, shrubs and trees. 

Three gardeners with Facilities Management’s landscaping department have the mission of preserving this magic: Mike Beaudreau, Tim Andrus and Roland Von der Muhll. Beaudreau has worked in the gardens for 22 years, while Andrus and Von der Muhll have been there only a short time.

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“They have to be self-motivated, knowledgeable about plants and good with the public,” said Richard Hopkins, superintendent of grounds for the University. “They are stewards of the gardens and the Academical village.”

The trio of gardeners is responsible for the pavilion gardens, the courtyard at Rouss/Robertson Hall, the Cabell Hall courtyard, the two Rotunda courtyards and the front plaza. Once the Carr’s Hill house restoration is complete, they will have a small area there to tend, too. With weeding, pruning, raking and cleaning, the gardeners are constantly busy and there is never an end to the work.

And yet the three are well-suited for the job, with backgrounds in farming, botany and agriculture and an ability to find peaceful moments in the daily tasks.

“I like that it is outdoors and relatively low-stress, and that you can actually see results at the end of the day,” Von der Muhll said.

Gardener Roland Von der Muhll worked on vegetable farms and in orchards before coming to the University.
Gardener Roland Von der Muhll worked on vegetable farms and in orchards before coming to the University.

Andrus says he has made it a personal goal this year to learn the names of the 200-plus species of plants throughout the University gardens. “I like raking leaves. It’s a very relaxing thing. It keeps you moving around and it’s not strenuous. It’s a moving meditation, very much a Zen activity.”

Ambassadors for the University

Mary Hughes, University landscape architect in the Office of the Architect for the University, serves as the University’s liaison with the Garden Club of Virginia, which gifted the Colonial Revival gardens to the University in the 1950s and ’60s. She said that in addition to keeping Grounds beautiful, the gardeners are in the front lines of those dealing with the public.

“They are frequently ambassadors for the University,” Hughes said. “There are not many of the staff who encounter tourists. They are working in a very public place and they have to answer questions, give directions and provide information about the University.

“It is a unique position and tremendous challenge. The gardens are open 24/7; they’re reserved for events, and students study there. The gardeners have to rake the gravel garden paths after it rains and pick up after events. They have to tend more than the plants.”

Interacting with the public is indeed a large part of the job, the gardeners say.

Gardener Mike Beaudreau has worked in the pavilion gardens for 22 years.
Gardener Mike Beaudreau has worked in the pavilion gardens for 22 years.

“People come to visit here at the University; a lot of them are gardeners, and they absolutely love this place,” Beaudreau said. “They admire what we do and the different types of plant material in these gardens. I stand there and talk gardening with them. That’s part of our job.”

Andrus, who has traveled widely and visited gardens in foreign places, welcomes foreign visitors to the UVA gardens.

“People come here from all over the world – from every continent but Antarctica; I’m still waiting for that,” he said. “I like hearing languages I don’t understand or can’t recognize and I enjoy people from other countries coming here, knowing they are traveling from there to be at UVA and to see what we have here. That’s always exciting.”

And sometimes students can be like tourists.

A close-up look at quince growing in Pavilion Garden IX.
A close-up look at quince growing in Pavilion Garden IX.

“At the beginning of the school year there was a group of international students who came into Garden V and they wanted to know about the apple trees,” Von der Muhll said. “I explained the history of Thomas Jefferson bringing Albemarle pippins here and that is why we have Albemarle pippin trees.”

Von der Muhll gave the students apples to sample.

While many visitors take memories, some leave things behind. Beaudreau has causally accumulated his own special collection of odds, ends and bits of detritus that he has found in the gardens – Matchbox cars, earrings, bracelets, a quilt, half of a 20-dollar bill, and assorted items of clothing. There is even a stuffed duck in the collection, though Beaudreau said the duck, mounted on the wall of his garden shed, pre-dated him. He found it in the gardening shed when he first came to work there and has only taken it down occasionally for dusting.

A stuffed duck has decorated the Pavilion IX Garden tool shed since before Beaudreau started working there.
A stuffed duck has decorated the Pavilion IX Garden tool shed since before Beaudreau started working there.

Lives Devoted to the Land

For these three men, working in the gardens has been the continuation of a long journey, with their extensive backgrounds in horticulture, botany and landscaping.

“I have specific interest in fruit and herb cultivation,” Von der Muhll said. “I worked in agriculture before landscaping, on vegetable farms and orchards. This is the one place on UVA Grounds where you get to spend much time working with pruning fruit trees or berry bushes, different Mediterranean-type herbs. I like the practical nature of it and the historical nature of it, too.”

Beaudreau, who moved to Virginia from New England, has worked in farming and landscaping most of his life. “I like being outside and working with all kinds of plant material,” he said.

Andrus moved a lot as a child with a father in the Air Force, shifting from California to Alaska to Florida. He learned gardening from his mother.

“She grew up on a farm and they grew a lot of their own vegetables,” he said. “We always seemed to have some sort of garden going when I was a kid. My mom taught me a lot about how to care for plants.”

Trained as a botanist and a biologist, Andrus worked a variety of plant-related jobs, including restoring an orchid population in Florida and tracking a parasitoid insect in Guatemala.

“It wasn’t until later in life that I really got into plants that you would see in a garden like this,” he said. “In the last 20 years so I have been teaching myself the names of all the animals and plants that I can. So, for me, getting into the [UVA] gardens was a big thing. I was just a regular landscaper, and getting into the gardens was a treat.”

Gardener Tim Andrus has made it a personal goal to learn the names of the 200-plus species of plants throughout the University gardens this year.
Gardener Tim Andrus has made it a personal goal to learn the names of the 200-plus species of plants throughout the University gardens this year.

Their work doesn’t stop when they leave Grounds. All three have gardens at home and raise vegetables, fruit and flowers as an integral part of their lives. Andrus raises vegetables – okra, tomatoes, squash, sprouts for salads, collards, kale – in in his whole backyard. Von der Muhll favors apple trees, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, herbs such as sage and oregano.

“I usually have a vegetable garden,” he said. “This year I planted more grapes and berry bushes on my property in Madison County, to make the landscape nicer.”

And they are planning ahead.

“Once I retire, I will be working in my garden at home, and one of my hobbies is going out and picking wild fungi so I will probably do a lot of mushroom foraging on a lot of the trails around here,” Andrus said. “One of my big things will be hanging out with my wife. It’s always fun.”

As the season shifts into autumn, the gardeners have begun raking a lot of leaves, which can be a restful routine. Still, there will be tons of leaves to be hauled away and composted.

“The leaf raking is good, but when it comes to fall, it’s a lot of work,” Beaudreau said.

Gardening, like all agriculture, flows with the seasons and, as all work with nature, goes ever on. There is a subtle frustration that once something is “perfect,” it does not stay that way.

“We might take care of one garden in a day and it looks really, really good,” Andrus said. “But you can never get them all looking that good at the same time. You just can’t. As soon as you get one looking good, the others are in disrepair. Leaves fall, sticks fall, things get messed up.”

Take a look at the gardeners at work on a recent day in Pavilion Garden IX.

Student Alexandra Pentel reads in a quiet corner of Pavilion IX’s garden.
Student Alexandra Pentel reads in a quiet corner of Pavilion IX’s garden.
Gardeners Mike Beaudreau and Tim Andrus spruce up around some shrubs.
Gardeners Mike Beaudreau and Tim Andrus spruce up around some shrubs.
A bee collects nectar from a spider flower.
A bee collects nectar from a spider flower.
Gardener Mike Beaudreau replaces some plants in a pavilion garden.
Gardener Mike Beaudreau replaces some plants in a pavilion garden.
Pavilion IX was designed by the Garden Club of Virginia in the 1950s, using Jefferson’s sketch of the Lawn for guidance.
Pavilion Garden IX was designed by the Garden Club of Virginia in the 1950s, using Jefferson’s sketch of the Lawn for guidance.

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications