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‘Horticulture is where science meets art’: Charlie Somma reflects on a decade of grounds work at Princeton

<h6>Courtesy of Charlie Somma</h6>
Courtesy of Charlie Somma

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes several thousand staff and faculty members to educate and care for Princeton undergraduate students. 

Charlie Somma is one such employee. Somma has been a member of the grounds staff since 2011; he now serves as a landscaping Crew Leader, helping beautify and maintain Princeton’s campus grounds.

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The conversation below was edited for length and clarity.

Charlie Somma: Grounds isn’t exactly what most people from the outside would view as a very glorious position. But I feel very at home here, because I’m a plant nerd. It’s truly a labor of love; it’s not a job for me. I’ve worked in this industry my whole life.

The Daily Princetonian: How did you get involved in this line of work?

CS: I grew up in a pretty rural area. I always noticed that there were so many different trees in the woods, and I wanted to know them all.

When I finally got to about senior year in high school, freshman year in college — I really wanted to do something that wasn't work. So I went to Delaware Valley College, which is now a university (I hope that's not dating me) and took environmental design.

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It was eye opening. Once you get out into the field, you see it firsthand. It opened my eyes; I understood there was more than one way to do things. And I’ve been trying to be a sponge ever since.

DP: Where did you grow up?

CS: I grew up in Upper Bucks County, which is in Pennsylvania, just across the river. It was agrarian — a lot of farms, but still a lot of native plants.

DP: You have been working with plants for a long time. What keeps it interesting for you?

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CS: When I first got into horticulture, it was more ornamental. But when I went to school, [I studied] the environmental aspect of it. When I would drive around, [I would think] “wow, look at all those oak trees, you know, look at all those natives.” Conversely, when there was an infected area, like with a lot of environmental impact, [I would think] “Look at all those invasive plants.”

It’s very exciting. Other people who are more aware of these [environmental impacts] are really trying to help rebuild, establish, and maintain the ecosystem. I'm excited to be a part of that for the next generation. I'm sure you'll come back for Reunions and be like, “When I was a freshman, that tree was like only 10 feet tall.”

These big trees are about 250 years old. Who stood under them? What did they see? It’s amazing that they’re still here, and we have the privilege of everything that they have to offer.

DP: How did you end up on a college campus?

CS: I began in high-end residential horticulture, because that’s where the money was.

We were based in Bucks County. I cut my teeth there. That's where I really learned that people have different opinions on plant material.

[But] my life required me to get a job that had set hours.I have a family — sons. I was a designer before I was a maintenance gardener. That was a lot of meeting clients, meeting with contractors, or setting up crews. We’d go find a payphone, call the boss, and tell him what materials we needed for the next day. Of course, in winter, the work somewhat dried up, so you’d get laid off.

I had a neighbor who was an electrician here. He saw me working, and he was like, “Man, you really like to garden.” I'm like, “Well, that's what I do.”

He [asked,] “Did you ever think about working at the University?” And a light went on.

When I got hired, I was just blown away. This is a great place to work. Working for a place like this is much bigger than just what you do. Our mission is to give you a place to hang out, learn, grow, love.

DP: Do you have a particular favorite place on campus?

CS: I was going to ask you that question! But you got me with it.

I’d have to say Cannon Green. It’s so much more than just a quad. There are trees that have been there since well beyond my tenure. There’s Nassau Hall, Morrison Hall, and then there's Chancellor Green and East Pyne. Then you look behind you and there's the two Greek temple buildings – Clio and Whig. You feel like you’re somewhere special.

The way the light moves through campus is really fascinating. When the trees lose their leaves, it gives a whole new aspect to certain courtyards. The angles of the sun on the stone and the buildings give it different hues and fields. It’s constantly changing.

DP: Are you an artist? The way you talk about your work is very much like an art.

CS: Horticulture is where science meets art. You know, nature is gonna do its thing — we try to interpret it in a way that's aesthetically pleasing. And now, it has a useful function, the living landscape.

I'm not an artist. I like to draw, but I just love plants. I love gardening. I love dirt. I love every part of it. I mean, I even like the tools that they give us.

I’ve heard this quote that it’s the slowest of the performing arts. Gardening definitely requires a lot of patience; sometimes you'll do things and the plants are [six inches] big. You wonder, “What’s this going to be?” Then you’ll have to wait a whole year.

DP: What does the typical day look like for you on campus?

CS: I get in early, because I'm pumped. I am! I know, you’re like, “This guy is nuts.” But this time of year is great.

I'm a crew leader. I have about four people under me, sometimes five. We'll have a meeting in the morning. We try to stay away from the dormitories in the morning, because you guys are asleep.

We work on academic buildings or areas where we’re not going to create a lot of noise. It’s very dark still, so we’re usually blowing off weeds; some people look for trash. Weeding doesn't make any sound — it's an easy task, gets the blood pumping.

We have a break. We come back, and then we’re able to use more mechanized tools. We’ve never had this much construction; just getting around [campus] is difficult.

After break, we’ll meet up in groups of two and we’ll tackle bigger things. Then we have lunch.

We start at 6 a.m. Usually I eat my lunch by 10 and then by 12, it’s either paperwork or relaxing. We're done by 2:30, which is wonderful. I can go home and work on my own garden or do whatever life requires of me.

DP: What does life outside of Princeton look like?

CS: A lot of driving and pleading with children to take care of their studies. I'm a dad.

I wish I gardened more, but at this chapter in my life, I just try and give [my children] the best experience that I can. This job affords that for me because I don't have to work a ton of overtime. I’m there when they get off the bus.

On the weekends, I call my yard my ‘fortress of solitude.’ I like to go out there and weed, toil — putter, if you will — and just look at plants. I live over towards Washington Crossing State Park. So if I get bored in my house, I just walk to the woods. I’m very lucky.

DP: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Princeton?

CS: My favorite part was when we were able to finally claw back from COVID. [During the height of the pandemic] we really didn't have a big presence on campus and nature did its thing. You could have filmed “The Walking Dead” here. There were weeds everywhere. When we finally caught up, it was the next spring. I remember thinking, “Wow, we're finally where we need to be.” It was a relief.

To some people, this is just a grounds job. But I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure that this place looks good. It's my calling. [When I was applying] people would say, “If you work in Princeton, you're very fortunate. If you don't get the job, just keep applying.”

I ended up getting it on my first try, and it’s been a fairy tale ever since.

DP: What do you want the student body to know — either about you or the work that you're doing?

CS: I’d like them just to know how much we really do care about the campus. A lot of the people that I work with directly are very passionate people who really care about their jobs and what they do. That’s all — we’re really happy to be here. We're proud to be here.

Daniel Yu is a Features contributor for The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any corrections requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

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