The flower van

Local muralist Kellie Cox painted the Beautification Van in 2014

In-ground plantings on The Commons

Yes, the kale on the Commons is edible.

Image by Martha Gioumousis

Beautification plants grow in the greenhouse at Cornell University.

A Monarch Butterfly caterpillar feeds on Milkweed at Sign Triangle.
Image by Martha Gioumousis

The Beautification Brigade supports butterfly habitat, including this milkweed and Monarch butterfly caterpillar.


Tompkins County Community Beautification staff and volunteers are very visible as we work on various planting sites.  We are often approached by visitors and locals both with these questions:

Do you work for the City?

No, we work for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Community Beautification Program is funded by the Tompkins County Tourism Program.

Where do you get your plants?

We buy from local growers, primarily Earlybird Farms on Route 13 in Newfield and Baker's Acres on Route 34 in Lansing. In addition, we are grateful for our association with Cornell University, allowing us to rent greenhouse space at the Guterman Greenhouse Complex on Caldwell Rd. There we pot up tropical bulbs such as Canna and Caladium; seed many annuals such as Zinnias, Marigold, Coleus, Asclepias, Petunias, Balsam; and root cuttings of Coleus and Sweet Potato Vine. Cornell growers maintain the plants in the greenhouse, while program volunteers join Beautification staff to plant, seed, divide, top and transplant as needed for two months each year in April and May. The Program conducts research with Horticulture Associate Professor Neil Mattson on the use of different media and fertilizers for the varieties grown.

Who painted the van?

Kellie Cox, a horticultural muralist formerly of Ithaca who now lives near Washington, D.C. Her artwork is visible in Ithaca: the Black Eyed Susan and Bloodroot murals on the walls of the parking garage on N. Aurora St., one of the 21 Electric Boxes at W. Clinton St. and S. Albany St., a shed mural at La Tourelle Resort on Route 96B, inside the parking garage on Dryden Road, murals in the Plant Science Building on Cornell campus and online at Kellie painted the van over a long weekend in September, 2014 and joined us for a dedication and ribbon cutting in May of 2015.

Who painted the truck?

Heather Williams, a volunteer who joined the Beautification Brigade in 2019.  She is also a visual artist and tattoo artist.

Are you volunteers or do you get paid for this?

The Program has a full time, year-round coordinator and two part-time seasonal assistants. Positions for summer interns also are available. And, we work with a lot of volunteers—collectively known as the Beautification Brigade and recognized by their colorful bright orange shirts and baseball caps.

Can anyone volunteer with Beautification?

Yes, we have volunteers from the community, student groups, special interest groups, youth groups, ESL classes from BOCES. You can download applications and screening release forms here. There are trainings for volunteers every year before the season gets busy, but volunteers can join anytime. Get volunteer applications here.

Do you grow native plants?

Yes, we do. See the plant lists for each site and look for the (N) symbol. In addition, we have a Pollinator habitat garden and a certified Monarch Waystation garden.

What are the tall tropical plants on the Commons?

They are called Canna (not Canna Lilies). We are now mostly growing dwarf varieties—Canna Cannova and Canna Toucan. The tallest ones with multi-colored leaves are Tropicanna Canna. They form large tuberous roots that we dig each fall and store in a nearby basement. They are not winter hardy to stay in the ground here.  Contact us in the fall for Canna giveaways if you would like to grow some of these!

Is the kale on the Commons edible?

We grow several varieties of kale, both edible and ornamental. 

Since 2016, we have been growing edible kale on the Commons, in the eight new in-ground plantings. We harvest leaves from mid-summer on and donate them to Loaves & Fishes downtown soup kitchen. Feel free to pick a leaf or two from these during the summer and fall seasons! Edible varieties we grow include Redbor, Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, Red Russian, Nero Di Toscana Lacinato and Dwarf Blue Curled.

The kale we plant in the fall in containers on and near the Commons is a mix of ornamental varieties: Peacock White and Red, Kamome Mix, Chidori Mix, Glamour Red, Song Bird Mix. They provide a nice splash of color for the fall as the season changes and summer annuals fade. These are also edible, and  are harvested in time to fill the containers with greens and berries for the winter.  The colorful kale heads are also donated to Loaves & Fishes.

How about the sweet potato vines?

The ornamental sweet potato vines we grow will sometimes form tubers and sometimes not.  They should be edible, but are probably not as tasty as those bred for eating.   

How do you choose what to grow?

The plants chosen for Beautification plantings need to fit certain criteria. Most sites are sunny and many are dry, so plants are chosen by drought tolerance. Drive-by sites need large swaths of bright colors typically supplied by annuals. Walk-by sites can be mixes of annuals and perennials. Containers have their own requirements, with tall focal plants, trailing plants and filler plants. The plants chosen by the Beautification Program do vary as we experiment year to year with new varieties and new plantings, but also include the time-tested standards that we have used successfully for years.

Are you organic?

Not necessarily—as we do use time-release chemical fertilizer in the plantings and containers. However, we also use a lot of compost and mulch—the best sources of organic material to build soil naturally. We do not use pesticides.

Can you come to my house next?

Sorry, we do not provide landscaping for private residences or businesses! The Beautification Brigade works on public plantings in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

How long has the program been doing this?

The Tompkins County Community Beautification Program was started in 2002 by Chrys Gardener in conjunction with Monika Roth at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Program has grown significantly since its inception, with funding from the Tompkins County Tourism Program approved  each year by the Strategic Tourism Planning Board.

Do you do the site at ……?

Yes, probably, if it has flowers. See the site and plant lists here.

Are you on Facebook?

Yes, check us out here.

Are you on Instagram?

Yes, check us out here.

How do you water your plantings?

On the Commons, workers with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance water all the plantings from city water hydrants located in the planting beds. The E. State St. triangles are also all equipped with water hydrants providing city water. The Beautification Program has a water tank, 12-V DC pump and hoses for watering sites that do not have water. Many of the sites are now equipped with drip irrigation and water tanks, providing a more efficient and less wasteful watering program. In response to the drought of 2016, the Program located water tanks at several dry sites, to be filled by non-potable water from a groundwater source in Fall Creek, thereby not using city water supplies. Workers from DPW and the forestry crew deliver water to the tanks to be used to irrigate the plantings. This partnership was developed in response to the drought and will continue in the years to come. Several sites are being developed as drought resistant plantings with more perennial plants and less water-needing annual flowers.

In addition to our hydrants, partnerships and tanks, we do a lot of rain dances.

Last updated January 29, 2021