Landscape Services’ greenhouses: year-round planting for the future

Do you ever think about where campus plants come from? Thanks to the efforts of Landscape Services’ greenhouse staff, families are being created in the landscape--plants you see in one area may be direct descendants of a plant in another area. Plants given out at events may have a parent living and growing on campus, and newly installed plants may have been moved across campus rather than being discarded. Refreshing, reusing and recycling of plants happens every day since greenhouse production ramped up in 2016.

The Landscape Services greenhouses had historically been used for growing annuals and for housing and caring for live plants rented for events. Once the decision was made to use artificial plants for events, it became necessary to find a more productive use of the space. Significant resources had been dedicated to these live rental plants, and it became apparent that there had to be a better use of this valuable space. So, for the past two years, Landscape Services’ greenhouse staff have been propagating and repurposing plants from the campus landscape. 

None of this would be possible without the imagination, dedication and facilitation of greenhouse specialist Casey Limerick. He has an extensive background in the propagation of succulents and various other plants.

“I was the assistant manager of East Austin Succulents for several years, then was the general and propagation manager of Lost Pines Nursery in Bastrop, Texas, for two years. I’m going on my third year growing at UT. During my time at these companies, I’ve done everything from grafting cactus to growing lettuce to building entire new greenhouses,” shared Limerick. 

Along with Limerick, gardener Mickey Bowman has been instrumental to the growing successes. According to Limerick, Bowman’s position “doesn’t technically require greenhouse work, but he enjoys it and has a talent for growing plants.” Bowman’s assistance allows more plants to be grown in a shorter timeframe as he and Limerick split the management of the two greenhouses.

Horticulturist Ty Kasey supervises the greenhouse team and noted his greatest contribution has been to bring to the greenhouses interesting plants that he finds at the nurseries to experiment with and potentially propagate. “Whether it is bringing in plants Casey hasn’t grown, has always wanted to grow, hasn’t grown in a long time, or whatever, it is always cool to encourage Casey and Mickey to do their magic,” Kasey said.

So, with all the thousands of plants on campus, how to choose the best to use? Good propagation candidates must meet certain criteria: Texas native or adapted, a pollinator species, drought tolerance, and sun or shade needs. Often, cuttings and seeds come directly from plants on campus, while certain species in the greenhouses serve solely as “mother” plants for cuttings or seed production. Cuttings and seeds are grown into “baby” plants raised in the greenhouses, available when ready or needed. Landscape Services’ Landscape Architect Lisa Lennon pointed out, “Propagating plant materials from cuttings and seeds reduces our carbon footprint, and in-house production directly and significantly contributes to our overall sustainability goals.” In addition to creating new plants, staff mix their own growing medium, composed of 65% recycled material from campus (in-house mulch and compost) and 35% purchased amendments from local suppliers. Limerick explained, “Tree trimmings from campus are mulched and put into our growing medium, which we return to the soil on campus by planting our container-grown plants.”

The greenhouses also house plants to be recycled and rehomed rather than simply discarded.  Plants may need new homes due to construction projects, and staff may transplant usable species, giving them another chance of success in a different part of campus.

With this new operation, the greenhouses serve as a store for the supervisors and staff. They can “shop” for plants for an area they want to revitalize. East Campus Supervisor Curtis Robillard mentioned this has positively impacted landscaping efforts by allowing staff to request specific plants be propagated. This reduces the need to spend time buying plants off-site, saving time as well as money.

Not only are the plants used for internal projects, but they may also be used for campus projects, student initiatives, or events. Supervisor of Urban Forestry Jennifer Hrobar said she has seen the biggest impact when greenhouse staff are “taking seed I collect and growing them into either trees I want to give away for Arbor Day, student service projects, or other special campus events, or used to plant in pollinator beds or other special areas on campus.” Limerick remembered, “This past spring we grew out hundreds of native grasses and wildflowers for the CEC (Campus Environmental Center) Half-Pint Prairie Project as well as providing pollinator plants for BEEVO, the beekeeping society on campus.”

The use of internally grown plants enables Landscape Services to accomplish time-sensitive projects for clients quickly and factors into planting designs for new projects. “On the projects where we have good lead time we can get plant material from outside sources, but on last-minute events, the greenhouse really makes our work shine,” said Kasey.  In February 2019, the first baseball game of the season at UFCU Disch-Falk Field was fast approaching, and the landscape needed some dressing up. According to Kasey, “The design utilized white dianthus, a cool-season annual that was no longer available at the local nurseries, and also orange lantana which we could not have purchased so early in the season. Because of the greenhouses, we had both cool season and warm season plants in bloom ready to install on short notice when most local plant nurseries were nearly empty as they prepared to change seasonal stock, ramping up for spring.”

Landscape Services has plans for the greenhouses, including installation of a 10,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system that will be used for irrigation of the greenhouses and compost tea production. In addition, they are considering growing more interior plants for campus use.  While a great deal of effort goes into this operation, the greenhouses play a major role in Landscape Services’ ability to provide quality services to the UT Austin campus.  

Landscape Service employees show beautifully grown flowers in the greenhouse
Landscape Services employees show off beautifully grown flowers in the greenhouse
Jan. 17, 2020