How Duke Students Are Growing Campus Landscapes

Projects help beautify landscape, add green spaces

Morgan Irons hasn’t lived on East Campus since her freshman year at Duke, but she still takes walks between buildings to check on old friends - a group of oak, elm, cherry and black gum trees she helped plant in 2014 outside the Biddle Music Building.

Now a junior, Irons has spent three years at Duke gaining experience not only in the classroom, but also with Duke’s Facilities Management Department to learn more about landscaping and campus beautification. She’s even rounded up student volunteers for occasional plantings and landscape projects and created a new group known as the Campus Keepers, which volunteers with Duke’s grounds units.

In the past three years, Campus Keepers volunteers have helped with about a dozen projects, from planting trees to identifying flora and fauna on campus as educational exercises. The ultimate goal is to encourage students to have a stronger connection to the space around them.

“We want students to feel like this is a home rather than an institution,” Irons said.

Upcoming projects include a tree banding event to prevent inch worms from damaging East Campus’ almost century-old trees and a planting to replace trees cut down along the East Campus wall. While the projects are led by Facilities staff and the almost 40 members of Campus Keepers, all students and employees are welcome to attend and help.

“Sometimes we focus too much on material things when it comes to sustainability, like recycling, not using a lot of water or energy conservation,” said Irons, who volunteers as Duke’s Tree Campus USA student ambassador. “But this gives us a chance to focus on preservation of biodiversity and many small things we may not initially see or hear about.”

Campus Keepers coordinates closely with Katie Rose Levin, natural resource manager with Facilities Management, who said working with students is a valuable as a learning experience, but it also allows her to tapping into the passion, energy and drive of the campus community. 

“It’s important for Facilities to partner with students because they may not realize all that goes on to make the campus function as beautiful as it is,” Levin said. “By giving them a sense of ownership, we can empower students to make their campus a better place.”

Campus Keepers isn’t the only student group partnering to enhance campus.

This fall, Nicholas School of the Environment graduate students Alex Klonick and Elissa Tikalsky started the Green Roof and Orchard Workforce to maintain a garden space on the roof of Environment Hall and a nearby orchard area. In developing the project, they have consulted with Levin from Facilities, as well as faculty and staff from the Nicholas School, Department of Biology and Duke Campus Farm to create a place where students and employees can host events and get hands-on experience to learn about gardening and urban agriculture.

For their first growing season this fall and winter, members of the group have planted herbs, such as rosemary and sage, flowers, succulents, and ferns. As the group grows, the plan is to host events in coming months to introduce the garden to campus community members who want to learn more.

“The space is a respite from the intense rigor of academic life,” Klonick said. “Seeing something alive and being connected to that can help ground you, even when you're on a roof.”