One of the gardens behind A.D. White House.

The gardens behind A.D. White House. (Photo by Cornell University)

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By Beth Saulnier

Cornell is renowned for its natural beauty—not only the semi-wild delights of its gorges and waterfalls but also the more manicured loveliness of its carefully tended flowers and shrubs. In addition to the many small planted beds located throughout campus—most prominently, the bright red geraniums around the CORNELL UNIVERSITY signs that welcome visitors with a cheery pop of color from late spring to early fall—are more than twenty official gardens, some of which have graced the Hill for decades.

A woman sitting using a laptop at the Ruth Uris Garden.
A quiet moment at the Ruth Uris Garden. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

“Our gardens are in many ways not as formal as those on some other campuses that are very geometric in shape, with straight lines and corners,” observes Dan Schied, the University’s grounds director. “Ours are a little more curvilinear, and I think that makes a big difference. We’re really trying to complement the natural beauty of Ithaca rather than detract from it.”

Perhaps the best known garden on campus is one of the oldest: the dramatic arrangement of flora behind the A.D. White House (seen at top), formerly the University’s presidential residence. The garden includes a secluded “secret” section as well as a mixture of annuals and perennials that provide a riot of color in season.

An overhead image of TK TK.
A bird's-eye view of CALS' Minns Garden. (Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University)

For decades, it has been tended by Kim Klein ’90, a CALS horticulture alum and senior gardener on the grounds staff, who notes that it traces its (literal) roots to Daisy Farrand—wife of Livingston Farrand, Cornell’s fourth president—who “brought the gardens back to life” while living in the mansion in the 1920s and 1930s.

You hear the birds, and sometimes just the quiet.

Kim Klein ’90

“If you’re accustomed to the hustle and bustle—the noise and the traffic and the crowds—on campus, when you go up there it feels like you’re walking into a quieter, slower-paced environment,” Klein says. “You’re more aware of the chipmunks, squirrels, and butterflies. You hear the birds, and sometimes just the quiet.”

Flowering plants in the Rhododendron Garden.
The Rhododendron Garden, located on a knoll in the Botanic Gardens near Beebe Lake. (Photo by Cornell University)

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Most gardens on campus are tended by the grounds staff, with crews assigned to one of four zones. An exception is Minns Garden, located on Tower Road off the Ag Quad, which is a teaching facility maintained by CALS students and faculty; named for Lua Minns, Cornell’s first female professor of floriculture, it was originally located on Garden Avenue (hence the street’s name) near Bailey Hall.

“The beauty of our gardens is that they’re right on Central Campus, close by where you’re working or studying,” says University landscape architect David Cutter ’84, BS ’85. “You don’t have to make a special trip. If it’s a nice day and you’ve got a couple of minutes between classes or you want to eat lunch outside, they’re easy to use.”

The Japanese Garden outside the Johnson Museum of Art.
The Johnson Museum's Japanese Garden. (Cornell University)

Among Cutter’s favorites is the Japanese garden outside the Johnson Museum; designed by Marc Peter Keane ’79, it features natural elements symbolizing the Three Laughers of the Tiger Glen, an ancient parable about overcoming differences.

Nina Bassuk ’74, a longtime horticulture professor who co-teaches a popular course titled “Creating the Urban Eden,” cites as one of her favorites the Centennial Garden tucked behind Mann Library; she describes that secluded and shady spot, which her students designed in 2004, as “very calming and cool in the summer.”

Other gardens on Central Campus include the colorful collection of azaleas across from ILR and the Willard Straight Rock Garden, nestled between the Straight and Cornell Health. “To me, one of the most wonderful things is the great diversity of gardens we have,” Cutter says. “Whatever mood you’re in, whatever you’re looking for, you can definitely find a garden on campus to meet your needs.”

What’s the difference between an official “garden” and a bunch of plantings? “I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule,” Bassuk replies—but, she says, it can be generally defined as “a purposeful collection of plants, planted in a certain design to elicit different functions or experiences.”

Flowering plants in the Azalea Garden.
A riot of color in the Azalea Garden. (Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University)

Bassuk's yearlong “Urban Eden” course culminates with students teaming up to design and install a landscape or garden—one that becomes an enduring part of campus. She notes that in addition to adding to the overall beauty of the Hill, appropriate plantings reduce energy and air pollution and combat wind. “They provide ecosystem services that amount to monetary benefits as well as environmental benefits,” Bassuk says.

A panoramic image of the walkway at the Botanic Gardens' herb garden.
A walkway at the Botanic Gardens' Herb Garden. (Photo by Matt Fondeur/Cornell University)

And while students, faculty, and staff can enjoy numerous garden spots during their daily travels around campus, they also have access to a nearby facility devoted entirely to flora: the Cornell Botanic Gardens (formerly Cornell Plantations), which boasts 25 acres of tended gardens in addition to an arboretum and vast natural areas.

Those gardens include a dramatic collection of rhododendrons and spaces devoted to herbs and to wildflowers—even a garden specifically designed to shine in the depths of an Ithaca winter. “The Botanic Gardens can connect with people at an intellectual level, or at a more emotional level,” observes director Christopher Dunn. “Even at a spiritual level.”

Top image: The gardens behind A.D. White House. (Photo by Cornell University)

Published October 5, 2021


  1. John W. Barton

    Wonderful views, much more variety than when my wife and I were in graduate school at Cornell. I don’t believe we ever visited the plantation when we were there: we believed we might not measure up and would not receive our degrees.
    In 1980 we returned and the gardens were so splendid. We even got around to climbing the Bell Tower!
    Some of the many things we didn’t get around to when we were first at Cornell were the Ornithology Lab. This is such a huge resource.

  2. Val Frankoski, Class of 1967

    Time to make a video of each of these gardens for those of us too far away!

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