Nighttime crew keeps plant containers hydrated, healthy around Pittsburgh
The sky behind PNC Park slowly fades from orange to purple as Bryan Alton raises a long metal hose wand up to the hanging baskets lining the Rachel Carson Bridge. Every once in a while, a biker or pedestrian passes under the gauntlet he's presented, but Alton usually sees them first, stops watering, smiles and lets them by.
This is one of 600 hanging baskets in the city getting their daily watering; today's dose includes some liquid fertilizer, which is added weekly.
Alton is the crew leader for Lawn Sense, a company contracted by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to keep the hanging baskets and 500 more containers healthy.
“Each container gets about 15 seconds of water. We stop on some streets every 20 feet. Some of them are right next to each other,” he says while water starts to spill out of a basket.
That's a good indication it's completely watered. In that short time, each one receives 10 to 20 gallons of water.
For the work on the bridge, Patrick O'Toole is the driver, inching the water truck along, following Alton to each pair of baskets. They usually start their shift around 8 p.m., when traffic is light. The job at hand takes 10 to 12 hours. The duo changes roles when they start to water large pots on Penn Avenue. On some nights, Alton acts as the driver for the entire shift.
“It's like a trip to Myrtle Beach every night,” he says with a laugh.
Arthur DeMeo is director of community green space services for the conservancy. One of his duties is to be sure the containers thrive, a job he used to do in midtown Manhattan. In a thick New York accent and wearing a Yankees cap, he talks about the unusually wet spring and how it affected his crews.
“For the first time, we canceled watering for four nights, which is very odd; we've never done that,” he says. “The planters were holding too much water.”
The cost for the large containers is underwritten by the Colcom Foundation, and the hanging baskets are funded by the Laurel Foundation. Although most people know about the 130 gardens the conservancy sponsors in the region, they might not know they are also behind the containers and hanging baskets around the city. The organization uses 190,000 plants each season.
Over the years, DeMeo has experimented with lots of different plants for the hanging baskets and containers on the street. Wave petunias are a safe bet for both, but on the ground, there's another plant emerging as a winner.
“This year's superstar is the dragon-wing begonia, DeMeo says. “They've been performing the best out of everything.”
His choices for the flowers in the baskets have been set in stone for a while now.
“Hanging baskets will always be a Wave petunia, verbena and geranium — we change colors, obviously,” he says.
Sometimes, he'll experiment with plants that trail and other varieties here and there, looking for something else to complement his favorites.
The large pots on the ground stay in place year round. Their summer planting will be followed in October by mums. Next spring, forced daffodils and pansies will be planted, then tulips and, eventually, back to the summer plants.
“I, like, try to be the first daffodils out,” DeMeo says with a smile, “but sometimes Phipps beats me.”
Each corridor in the city gets a different planting to mix up the visuals. Penn Avenue will have a different color combination than Wood Street, for example.
“It adds nature to Downtown in a pretty hard gray landscape; (it) adds some color and green the best we can,” DeMeo says.
The containers are rarely vandalized, although once, a big pot was run over by a tractor-trailer. There can be other problems, too.
“They are at what we call ‘petting level,'” he says. “They get a lot of garbage; they get touched a lot. They tend to move mysteriously at night. Every now or then, if the Pirates or Steelers aren't doing so well, maybe you'll see one flipped over.”
Back on the street with the crew, night has fallen, and they are out of water. Alton pulls next to a special hydrant earmarked for the truck and hooks up a hose. As O'Toole feeds the garden hose into the tank, the two have an hour to kill as the tank fills. There are certain obstacles to working nights in the city, they say. Lunch is usually packed from home, although convenience stores and some pizza places stay open late.
The advantages of doing this job overnight are pretty obvious — less people, traffic and construction. All three, though, can be a problem, even overnight.
Both men have a lot of pride keeping the city beautiful with these containers. When Alton comes Downtown during the day, he enjoys seeing the fruits of his labor.
“Every time I'm through, I get a little tickle out of things that have gotten bigger and better,” he says.
Although every night they get waves and even a few cheers from people, it was a nationally televised game that was most thrilling for Alton. When ESPN came to town recently to broadcast a Pirates game, the cameras zoomed to the hanging baskets on the Clemente Bridge and the commentators gushed about how beautiful they were.
“It's cool. When you get that kind of recognition, you know you're doing a good job,” he says. “That's a nice little pat on the back.”
Doug Oster is the Home and Garden editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.