Accent Team Makes Its Mark

Writer: 
August 1, 2006
Blank canvas: children survey the undeveloped site of the future discovery garden; below, garden visions drawn by Madeline Partner, 8, and Chris Rice, 12

Landscaping: From left, Tilley, Goolsby, and Herbert Williams prepare bed at entrance to West Campus
Les Todd

Terrence Williams maneuvers his truck slowly along Towerview Drive, heading toward Duke University Road. In the back of the truck, 550 gallons of water slosh back and forth in a drum. He passes Rubenstein Hall, the Wilson Center, and the Wannamaker dorms. As he pulls around the traffic circle at the head of the blue zone parking lots, Wade Tilley, in the passenger seat, looks out the window at the circular bed of flowers in the middle of the circle. It's bursting with pansies: purple, white, yellow.

"All that got to be pulled up," Tilley says, matter-of-factly. Pansies are "winter flowers," he says. "It gets too hot, they gone."

"They get fried up," Williams says, nodding. "They love the snow. Snow sits on top of them. Once that snow melts, they look even prettier."

Now, there's no snow, and little chance of it for the rest of the year. It's early May, just after Reunions Weekend. Williams and Tilley, as members of the facilities and maintenance department's Accent Team, are charged with caring for all of the university's annual beds. At this time of year, that means pulling up the winter flowers--pansies, tulips--and planting summer ones--petunias, begonias, marigolds, angelonia, purple heart--in their place in time for the campus to present a fresh face for graduation weekend.

The team consists of six members: Wade Tilley, Williams, Rhonda Goolsby, Ramona McAdams, Herbert Williams, and their leader, horticultural specialist Jenny Gordon. On any given day, team members group together in twos or threes to handle a specific task: watering, weeding, pulling up old plants, planting new ones.

On this particular morning, Tilley and Williams have been sent out to water some recently planted beds. This task is particularly important, Williams notes, because the plants have yet to take root, and drying out could kill them.

Williams, twenty-nine, grew up in Durham and worked as a floor technician, as well as at Subway, until five years ago when his uncle Herbert, also a member of the Accent Team, keyed him into the job opening. He's been with the team ever since. He says he enjoys the solitude that the job allows. "I guess you got to 'make it their way' at Subway," he says, adding with a grin, "I like to make it my way."

Tilley, seventy-five, has worked at Duke for the last fifteen years, and though previous jobs included building houses, making sheets in a cotton mill, and working on machines in a tobacco factory, he has always been involved in landscaping on the side. Tilley has already retired from Duke twice, but keeps being enticed back. This time, he came back under contract to help train new employees. "You get to be seventy-five, it's about time to quit," he says. "It won't be long." But given the smile on his face, and his nimbleness in the flower beds, you get the feeling it might, in fact, be longer, rather than shorter. He enjoys chatting, and imparts nuggets of wisdom like, "the good Lord ought to have made all landscapers with rubber backs."

Williams pulls the truck up to the flagpole outside Wallace Wade Stadium. The bed that surrounds it is full of red begonias, planted just last week. Tilley shoves his hand through a layer of woodchips--which they call "bark"--and into the soil underneath, feeling for moisture. He and Williams turn on their hoses and focus the spray on the flowers for about a minute. Tilley reaches into the soil once more. He pulls out a handful and, after deciding that the texture is just right, nods to Williams. They cut off the hoses and reel them in. They hop back in the truck and move on to the next bed, in front of the Knight House on Pinecrest Road.

Before lunch, Terry Sterling, one of three growers that FMD contracts with for flowers, arrives on campus with a load of new plants. Though Sterling's Raleigh operation is somewhat smaller than that of the other growers, Gordon says she is often more reliable. If the team is getting down to the end of the season and still missing plants, it is Sterling they go to for a quick fix. Tilley and Williams show up just as the other team members are finishing unloading her van. After the team carries the last round of plants into the holding area, the two hop back in the truck to water a few more beds before an afternoon of planting. On the way, they stop to refill the water drum. It only takes six or seven minutes to fill, through a two-inch hose, and "if you hustle," Williams says, "you can empty it in forty-some minutes."

After lunch, the team returns to the holding area to greet a delivery truck from a second grower, Franklin Brothers. Gordon carefully consults the packing list as the driver unloads the plants, handing them off to Accent Team members.

The trays come off the truck dripping wet and cool. As each new type comes off, they start a new row of flats in the holding pen. The team lines up to grab trays. Some carry one, some two, back and forth from the truck to the line of trays growing neatly.

They unload marigolds, yellow and mixed; petunias, white, blue, and "flag mix"; and angelonia, pink, white, and blue--"for outside Davison," Gordon says.

"There's your edging at Fuqua," she tells McAdams as they unload trays of yellow marigolds off the truck. "That's for Physics," she adds, pointing to another tray.

Gordon wears work boots, khakis, and a dark-blue polo shirt. She mostly keeps her graying hair pulled back in a pony tail. She first moved to North Carolina in 1985 and owned her own landscaping business before coming to Duke in 1997. She does much of the planning for the beds, though she often consults with the other team members and, when necessary, makes changes on the fly based on what flowers are available and where they are needed.

There is a science to arranging flower beds. With perennial beds, you carefully arrange a mixture of plants so that the bed will bloom in stages throughout the year, says Goolsby, who has taken some graduate courses in horticulture and plans to earn a degree in landscape design. But with the annual beds, the idea is a fuller, more colorful, impact.

"With the drive-by beds, we've only got a few seconds to catch you," Gordon says. "They have to be bright and bold. If you're in a walking area, you need to layer up the details--for instance, the pansies should have faces--because you have more time to take in the details." Sometimes, she tries to shake things up, using plants in atypical ways. Last year, for example, they planted hot peppers in several beds.

In three trucks, the team heads for the traffic circle at the intersection of Chapel and Campus drives. The center of the circle is lush with thick, green grass. It's a sunny day, and the temperature is mild. Just a few days ago the rim of the circle was exploding with purple, yellow, and white pansies and pink tulips. Those have now been removed and replaced with three rows of red wax begonias and fresh bark. The plan is to plant an outer row of petunias now and follow up with an inner row of blue salvia in a few weeks when the plants arrive from the grower.

They park their trucks on the outside of the circle. Team members hop out and don reflective vests. Tilley and Terrence Williams start off at one point on the circle, each holding a tray of petunias. Tilley heads left, and Williams right, laying out plants at eight-inch intervals as they go. When they run out of plants, they drop the empty tray and head back to the truck for a new one. Herbert Williams starts off in the middle. He grabs a plant, squeezes the plastic casing gently and eases the plant out, stabs the ground with a trowel, and deposits the root system into the hole that opens up to the blade. He tosses the plastic casing behind him, into the street, and quickly taps dirt and bark down around the plant. He grabs the next plant.

Campus buses pass slowly and carefully (perhaps more carefully than they will later--as Terrence Williams said on the drive over, "Soon as we plant these petunias, somebody's probably going to run over them.") As the minutes pass, empty flats stack up, and small plastic containers blow across the street in the breeze.

When Terrence Williams and Tilley finish laying out the plants, they grab trowels and start planting. Goolsby and McAdams, too. The work gets done fast.

In the past, the team was feverishly planting up to the last minute to finish all of the major beds--those on the main quad and near the entrances and athletic facilities--before visitors began streaming in for the big weekend.

But, this year, lunchtime on the Friday of graduation weekend finds them sitting around the break-room table in their Central Campus headquarters trailer, eating barbeque chicken out of Styrofoam containers and watching the news on a television in the corner. The pace of the meal is leisurely considering that they have only a few hours before moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles and cousins begin arriving. They're not worried. As Gordon explains, this year the team already met its goal--on Tuesday.