Behind the Vest: Fall Foliage Is No Match for Landscaping

By Joe Flaherty

13 miles of sidewalk. Over 300 acres.  Even for a 14-year Landscape Services veteran like John Quelch, these numbers are daunting. Nevertheless, Quelch has an eye for detail when mowing and holds his team to a high standard.

“Maybe it would surprise [students] if they saw what we didn’t do or if they saw someone who didn’t care how it looked,” said Quelch. “For me in particular, no matter what it is, I look for the end result – what it looks like when you’re done. When you start off, it’s not pretty, but you chug away and get it done.”

Landscape Services Supervisor Clinton Snyder pulls out a map of campus full of little Sharpie markings that divide the campus like a battlefield; a commander keeping track of troops on the battlefield. “We have an average of 12 to 18 guys working in landscaping and it’s broken up into three groups,” said Snyder.

North, Central and Athletic are the three zones in which Landscaping operates.North encompasses everything from College Street toward Bicentennial Hall, Central covers the areas around Old Chapel and Athletic demarcates the athletic fields to the south. Quelch is the crew chief in charge of Central and is responsible for 5 or 6 staff members who run the landscaping from Old Chapel to the CFA.

“He makes sure everything is looking good,” Snyder said. “This is a high-profile area of the College and he works with his guys making sure everything is mowed and it looks primo.”

The mowing happens on a schedule.  “The North crew mows on Monday and Tuesday, and we mow Central on Wednesday and Thursday,” said Quelch. “Usually it takes us a little over a day and a half to mow our section and then we have to string trim it, all around the trees and any objects that you can’t get to with a mower. That’s quite a bit of work just doing that. In the summer it’s pretty much mowing and weed whacking.”

The team has a Toro lawnmower with wings on it that drop down and can mow 10 to 12 feet on either side which they use to mow large fields and open areas. As the weather turns colder, Landscaping has been preparing for the first snowfall with an eye to keeping the exits of buildings free from snow.

“We were working on it yesterday.  We have to distribute shovels to every building and the custodians,” said Quelch. “The custodians will sometimes take care of the front and they’ll just shovel 6 or 7 feet out for us just to help out because we’re sometimes short-handed in that department.”

Landscaping also has to work with the Facilities auto shop to prepare the tractors and trucks for moving snow.

“We have plow trucks that we are responsible for maintaining and guys out in plow trucks. Then we have tractors to do all the sidewalks and the larger equipment (the backhoe and the payloader) doing the parking lots and removing the snow,” said Snyder. “They just started doing it now, right into Thanksgiving, getting every piece of equipment ready so when the snow falls, we’re ready with the trucks, the tractors and the snow blowers. This is the rotation we start now – taking out winter stuff and putting away the summer stuff.”

Once heavy snow begins falling, the real work begins.

“Bicentennial Hall has to be shoveled on the roof – the entire top,” continued Snyder. “We have 200 plus buildings and over 300 acres that we’re taking care of, so every building has an entrance and an exit, everything has to be shoveled, usually six feet wide out to a walk or out to a drive.” The wear and tear on machines and tools is evident after only a few years. “Brand new shovels get worn right down,” added Snyder.

Quelch also has his share of snowstorm horror stories.

“We had a really big storm on Valentine’s day 7 or 8 years ago,” said Quelch. “It was brutal; lots and lots of snow. I called up here and told people if they didn’t have to travel not to do it,” said Quelch.  “People stayed here that night and the College paid for however many hours you worked in that storm, they gave you double your hours.  They had cots out for people to stay in.”

On the Gator, Quelch does hesitate to do some clean up at a moment’s notice.

“I’m going to pick up this branch while I’m here,” said Quelch, stopping the vehicle to grab a large branch that had fallen down in from of the Emma Willard House. Right now, however, the main target is fallen leaves.

“We have a lot of leaves and a lot of them are still on the trees now. Oaks always hold them,” Quelch said. “We are constantly after leaves, as long as we can do it before the snow hits.”

All the leaves are collected via vacuum devices that are attached to either a box on a Gator or a separate truck.

“We have a leaf vacuum – a vacuum that goes in a straight shot and sucks them up,” Quelch said. “And then we have another one that we are experimenting with this year.  The auto shop people built a box on the back of it. It has an engine on it and it has knives and it chops the leaves up and blows them into the box on the back of a Gator.”

“They also like to mulch as much as they can with the mowers,” said Snyder, a tactic used to get as much organic matter as possible back into the ground. “But at some point they have to stop doing it because you get so many leaves you’re basically just plowing because there are so many leaves so they need to start picking it up.”

The leaves are first brought to the Facilities services building but eventually they go to a site off of the TAM which Landscaping calls the ‘stump dump’. Quelch pointed out this site while on the Gator, where Landscaping keeps gravel, brush, woodchips, and manure from the Morgan Horse Farm. Leaves are piled next to the manure and food compost from the dining halls is mixed in.  “We turn that into topsoil so we have fresh topsoil,” said Snyder.

A little-known part of Landscaping’s duties are R-25 forms, a variation of a work order which lists events all over the College that require the department’s attention.

“It’s our responsibility to read that and see what is going on each day,” said Snyder.  “It says in each event to see if it’s something we need to do.  It could be as little as getting garbage cans out there or roping something off.”

Landscaping also takes care of the brunt of Monday morning’s trash pickup.

“I get sick of that but to keep it looking nice it’s got to be done because there’s always beer cans, broken glass, napkins. We start our day out Monday morning with campus pickup,” said Quelch. “Usually it takes about 2 hours with 4 people.

“We’ll get a call like, ‘At FIC there’s broken glass across the whole parking lot.’ You have to stop what you’re doing and take care of it,” said Snyder. “They stood by that parking lot and drank and every time they drank a bottle they threw it. By the end of the night there was broken glass across the whole parking lot.”

The ridgeline houses and the mods are reportedly the worst spots for garbage in the campus. Despite incidents like this, Quelch is nonplussed.

“It is our job, but sometimes it’s frustrating if you go down there three or four times, but it’s in our job description,” said Quelch. “Most of them are very respectful like when we are cleaning off a sidewalk. A lot of students come by and say thank you. That’s pretty nice to hear that they appreciate what you are doing for them.”

The importance of being alert is obvious on a Gator. While driving the Gator around campus on Friday, Quelch made a point to veer off whenever pedestrians were near, an unspoken rule of landscaping.

“When we are mowing and students come by we idle down, shut our blades off, and let them come by,” said Quelch. Quelch also said his crew is mindful of keeping the noise down around lecture halls and other classrooms.

Quelch grew up in Vermont and started work at 12 years old as a butcher and meat cutter.  “That’s pretty much what I’ve done for most of my life until I cam here,” said Quelch.

“You learn a lot about blood and guts, that’s for sure.  But I can do the whole job.”

Quelch pulls up at 468 McKinley, a College house near the athletics center and points to a group of three facilities crew members.  The three all wear the backpack-style leafblowers and use them to drive leaves into a pile, fighting gusts of wind.

“We definitely play the wind and we couldn’t really suck the leaves up today because they don’t suck up when they’re wet and it clogs a lot,” said Quelch, referencing a rainy morning.

Despite the monotony of mowing, Quelch says he enjoys his work.

“Mowing up the leaves and chopping them up with the smell of the fresh air is awesome,” said Quelch.