TOP
Gardens on campus

Q & A: Alaina Claeson

Alaina Claeson, Horticulturist/Landscape Coordinator, provides an inside look at how her team keeps our campus SBUtiful.

 

Alaina-ClaesonTELL US ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT SBU.
I’ve been a horticulturist on main campus for the past 12 years. Along with fellow horticulturist Dana Fernandez, we run the R&D greenhouse where we and our team of two grow all the annuals — between 7,000 to 10,000 each year — that will be planted around campus in preparation for Commencement while we maintain/spruce up other existing gardens throughout the year.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
Everything! I am outside or in the greenhouse (I couldn’t handle being in an office) everyday, and everyday is something new. I get to make campus more beautiful, I get to work with the students and teach them a bit about horticulture. I get to play in the dirt for a living. There is nothing better than doing what you love and getting paid to do it!

HOW DO YOU PREP THE CAMPUS FOR COMMENCEMENT?
We start planning our designs for Commencement in August. We come up with the designs and color schemes and order all the plants, soil and pots by October. We spend a few weeks cleaning and sanitizing the greenhouse, filling pots with soils, and organizing. Mid- February is when the plant plugs and cuttings start coming in. We plant them all in the pots we filled and let them grow! We check all the plants everyday (weekends included). We plant them about a week before the ceremony.

The team and I will spend countless hours prepping for Commencement week, whether it’s weeding, mulching, planting, just cutting the grass, sweeping it. There are so many activities going on during that time of year, and we just want the grounds to look beautiful for all the graduates so they can take pictures and enjoy their special day.

It’s great to see all the families come and take pictures in front of all of our beautiful flowers, especially in front of the big Stony Brook sign where they have the flagpoles with the red and white flowers. We always try to keep that area red and white.

DESCRIBE HOW YOU INCORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY INTO YOUR WORK?
We reuse as many pots as we can. We don’t use herbicides or insecticides. If we get a pest we combat them with biocontrols. Fungus gnats are our most common pest. We combat them by saturating the soil with nematodes, microscopic worms that will eat the fungus gnat larvae.

We have also been planting a lot more drought tolerant plants. We have a lot of self-watering pots across campus. These huge pots hold about 30 gallons of water and that has drastically cut down on our watering schedule.

HOW HAS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTED YOUR WORK?
Climate change has definitely impacted our plant choices. We have had to bring in warmer seasonal plants, plants now that can handle the hotter summers and the warmer winters and not plants that really prefer the cold weather. For example, we used to have a lot of birch trees on campus but they prefer cooler winters, which we aren’t getting as much anymore. So we’ve seen those trees decline. We’ve now brought in trees such as the river birch, which does better in the warmer environment.

BEST ADVICE TO A NEW GARDENER?
Check the requirements of any plant before bringing it home. You don’t want to plant a massive tree two feet away from your house or you don’t want to put a plant that needs sun in a shaded spot. And with indoor plants, be careful of overwatering them. Though indoor plants can be a little bit more difficult. It’s always hard to find a window that has enough sun and there’s a lot of beautiful tropical plants that everybody wants to bring inside. And if you don’t have enough sun, it’s just it’s not going to work.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FLOWER?
For a horticulturist, that is almost an impossible question. I have so many favorites and for different reasons. If I had to pick one, I would probably pick a dandelion. I love seeing them pop up in the lawns, even though it drives people crazy, you know, they consider it a weed, but it’s so beautiful and it is one of the first pollen sources for honeybees. And it is also the first flower that my children have picked for me.

FAVORITE PLANTS ON CAMPUS?
I love the purple smoke bush, forest pansy redbud tree, paperbark maple trees and the butterfly gardens in front of CEWIT and the Student Activities Center.

The added benefit of a plant like the purple smoke bush is that deer won’t eat it. Deer usually won’t eat plants that have purple flowers so we’ve been using a lot of lavender lately as a deterrent. It has a nice, strong fragrance and the deer stay away. I have lavender surrounding the roses in the Simons Center’s garden. I’m hoping that the deer will stay away from them. Even with the thorns, they still love to eat roses.