JMU Landscapers By Shelby Imes

“I need my truck, hun… Is it still raining?” asks Matilda Honeycutt, into her phone.

She stands with a hand on her hip, radio clamoring by her side, as she waits to receive the keys to her white JMU Facilities Management truck.

“They’re just gonna have to take the commode up on the truck and load up a little mulch,” she says into the phone.

The office she waits in is lined with cluttered desks; it’s dingy in there. Matilda likes to be outside. She is one of over 602 facilities management workers, and one of 89 in landscaping, that plant, weed, mulch, water, and many other things to keep the campus’ revered beauty in tact.

She hangs up her phone.

Rain or shine, JMU landscapers are out in the field. Today, it’s rain. Matilda has a little bit more work to do today than usual, and wants to do it in between the day’s spouts of April showers. As a supervisor for JMU landscaping’s horticulture and floriculture, she and Caroline, the landscaper assisting her today, must fill 21 large pots around campus with purple and yellow flowers, then mulch and weed anywhere on campus that needs it.

Matilda’s phone rings again; this time, the truck is ready. She heads out of the office, through the employee lounge, then through the tool room, and finally outside. Caroline joins her, and they tread out into the drizzle and pile into the truck.

“It ain’t raining in here!” says Caroline, in the passenger seat. “We could plant in here.”

Matilda takes a drive through the campus. She drives to the Student Success Center to fill a pot.

~~~~~~

Everyday, before campus starts to buzz and every patch of grass is peppered with students playing frisbee or studying, the grounds get a shower from the sprinklers. Either just to test the sprinkler heads, or to give the lawn a good douse.

“We get a lot of people joking with us, like ‘what are you doing watering grass, how hard can it be?’” says Justin Morris, the Irrigation Supervisor for JMU facilities management. “But then you come on campus to see how much grass there actually is. It’s a big difference than just driving by the interstate and looking.”

Like Matilda, Justin comes to work at 6:30 am. He wakes up around four o’clock, fixes a cup of coffee, and makes his commute to JMU. After the morning meeting with other supervisors, he pops a red lollipop in his mouth and heads out of the office to water the grounds.

There are sprinkler heads on every “zone” on campus, each “zone” being a section of irrigated lawn. Here at JMU, there are over 900 zones, and the irrigation team of four checks on all of them.

“Now this is the trickiest part of every day,” he says, chuckling. “Where’d I park the truck?”

The quad is one of the most highly populated lawns on campus. Justin tries to be considerate, and watch for students on the lawn before he tests the irrigation heads. On hot days, students might get caught up right in the middle of a sprinkler zone. Justin runs to turn them off, but only to resistance.

“Leave them on!” students will shout. “We want to run through them!”

Seven years may seem like a short time to be working at JMU landscaping, but in terms of technological advances, those seven years for Justin saw enormous change. Almost every sprinkler can now be controlled remotely through a radio, as opposed to manually turning on every sprinkler head for each zone. Pictured above, Justin uses a map on his phone to figure out which zones he wants to turn on.

Students are generally friendly to Justin and the irrigation crew. Justin is friendly back. He waves kindly and asks them how they’re doing, and minds his business. But some days, he wishes people understood his job more.

“What is it, yik yak? They’d be bashin’ us about how the water’s running when it’s raining, but they also didn’t see us doing [the job],” Justin says. “We’re not out here wasting water. We’re out here checking it, making sure everything’s running so we don’t waste water.”

The irrigation heads on the quad are 5004 Rainbirds, as Justin calls them. They drone like maracas, then putter out. Justin’s two radios buzz with requests from his supervisors, other supervisors from the landscaping department and his irrigation workers. Apparently, there’s a sprinkler head breakage at east campus. He decides to check it out.

~~~~~

Matilda parks the truck, bed first, in front of the warehouse’s garage. She and Caroline pile out, open the truck bed, and begin loading the bed with purple and yellow flowers. They move quickly, since the rain has subsided a bit. They don’t want to get caught in it again.

They plan to first plant the flowers in a pot next to the Student Success Center, and they hop back in the truck and are on the move.

JMU landscapers’ work is steady. They are in a constant state of maintenance, because landscaping takes constant nurturing. And at the same time, it takes months to reap the benefits of what they sow.

As we pass Memorial Hall, she points out the hyacinths that line the flower beds. She planted them in October, to bloom in May. It’s a waiting game, landscaping. But it also requires a sort of thoughtfulness that goes unnoticed.

Once Matilda and Caroline reach the Student Success Center and pot the plants quickly and carefully.

They first remove the old plants that lay dormant in the pot, and as the pot sits vacant of plant life, the campus sees a flash of what life would be like without the landscapers. As the pot sits there, colorless and filled with old dirt, its surroundings seem unkempt as well.

Matilda’s work is so subtle; and yet, could a student imagine JMU without its flowers? How would graduation be different without its hyacinths?

Matilda and Caroline quickly haul the flowers from the truck bed and begin planting hurriedly before the rain satrts to come again.

Students pass them without acknowledgement as the bright green leaves nestle into the dirt. JMU purple and gold are put of display in the flower pots, and become a part of the scenery.

Matilda and Caroline pack up and head out to the next flower pot.

~~~~~

Justin arrives to the sprinkler head breakage; it’s behind Chesapeake. Kent and Jeremy, two irrigation workers under Justin, are busy digging up the irrigation head as Justin pulls up in his white Facilities Management truck.

This zone is one that students walk, bike, run and even drive by everyday. It’s not a hot spot like the quad or the lawn near Duke hall.

The hole where the sprinkler used to be is filled with muddy water; Kent and Jeremy are shoveling out a clear path to resintall a new irrigation head.

Kent, Justin and Jeremy talk about the breakage.

Justin leaves Kent and Jeremy for a bit, and heads to the sprinkler control room, attached to Chesapeake. Justin, like the other JMU landscapers, experiences campus in a very different way. Landscapers tend to the grass behind residence halls, see campus at the times when students have vacated it, and they have access to what’s behind control rooms’ locked doors.

"We see a lot of campus. A lot of it. The students are here for one thing, well, I’m guessing one thing…. We’re on a whole different side of it," says Justin.

Justin weaves through the blue and silver pipes of the control room and checks out the irrigation control panel while he’s here. Everything seems in order.

It’s sometimes an around the clock job to maintain the sprinklers. Justin’s work day is from 6:30am to 3pm, but breakages don’t always come on schedule.

“If a main line breaks, I have to stay back here to get it fixed. I’m pretty much going to work over to get it back up and running.” Justin has gotten calls at midnight to come to campus and fix the sprinklers.

But the demanding aspect of the job doesn’t begrudge Justin, or Matilda even. Even in the winter, when JMU landscapers are required stay in a motel and work around the clock to clear paths for students to walk during snow days, both Justin and Matilda are mainly concerned about one thing: the students.

“We have to be here for the students. They can’t leave, so they have to be able to walk to the dining facilities and eat. And they gotta be able to get out of their doors,” says Matilda.

While students are indoors celebrating the cancellation of classes, employees like Justin and Matilda are outside working tirelessly to salt the roads and clean up campus. Matilda says that they're worked up to sixteen hours at one time, and Justin says they've stayed in the motel for as long as two weeks since he's been here.

Justin is even able to find a silver lining in the harsh work hours.

“You get tired, you get exhausted, and then you look down and see all the kids throwing snowballs, playing in the snow.” He thinks, “Okay, well they’re having fun. Keep going.”

Beyond the disconnect that there is between students and landscapers, one thing remains: a genuine care for JMU students.

~~~~~

Now that graduation is upon us, the entire landscaping crew is gearing up the campus to be a picture perfect backdrop for seniors. The hyacinths that Matilda planted are coming into a nice bloom, and the grass that Justin has steadily kept his eye on has reached its most striking shade of green.

“It’s pretty much our time to shine,” says Justin. Around this time of year, landscapers are “working hardcore, getting everything to the best point it can be.”

After graduation, the work continues. Matilda and Justin work an extra hour in the summer, to take care of the fragile landscape during the summer heat, and to prepare for students to return.

Once 11 am comes around, they bid adieu and return to work. Justin is headed to the quad to help out some of the landscaping crew mulch, and Matilda is headed to east campus to plant more pots.

The beauty of JMU comes from more than just the hills of the Shenandoah and the tulips planted in the pots; it’s the people who make it happen.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.