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.

greenhouse plants

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, as well as other local nurseries. 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 part-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 the website. 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. We make an effort to grow and include native and pollinator plants for our in-ground plantings, mostly with perennials. In addition, we have a Pollinator habitat garden and helped establish a 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. Canna are not winter hardy to stay in the ground in our climate. 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 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 Dinosaur Kale, Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, Red Russian, and Nero Di Toscana Lacinato.

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 or perennials planted for succession blooming. 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. More recently, we have begun to design more sustainable plantings, including more natives and more perennials, in an effort to reduce watering needs. We have also found that wildlife is becoming a bigger consideration at some of our sites, which has meant making additional adjustments to the types of plants we grow there.

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. 

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 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 all equipped with water hydrants providing city water. The Beautification Program has installed drip irrigation at these sites, providing more efficient and less wasteful watering of the garden. 

A few of our sites are equipped with water tanks  In response to the drought of 2016, the Program located water tanks at three sites to be filled with non-potable water from a groundwater source in Fall Creek, thereby not using city water supplies. Workers from DPW and the forestry crew can deliver water into the tanks which can then be used to water our plantings. 

The Beautification Program has a 100-gallon water tank, 12-V DC pump, and hoses for watering sites that do not have water.

Several sites are being redesigned as drought resistant plantings with more perennial plants and fewer annual flowers.


Janine Willis
Community Beautification Coordinator
(607) 272-2292

Last updated November 3, 2022