Grounds Services keep tulips blooming through cold snap


The tulips waving in the breeze on the Diag and Ingalls Mall might have been damaged or destroyed by cold weather just before Spring Commencement if it hadn’t been for quick action and a new idea from members of Grounds Services. 

With temperatures dangerously low for the flowers, Jim Hicks, a horticulture specialist, arrived to work around 4 a.m.on April 24, five days before the ceremony.

“I was pretty frantic,” he said. “I was afraid we were going to lose them right when it mattered most.”

The tulips, sprouting from the 6,000 bulbs that Grounds Services planted last fall, are key to making Ingalls Mall and the Diag look their best during graduation activities at these major campus landmarks. But the unseasonably chilly weather threatened to damage the big, colorful blooms.

So Ground Services workers borrowed an idea they heard growers use to protect orange groves in the south.

Photo of tulips after watering.
When cold weather threatened these tulips on Ingalls Mall, workers used a watering technique to protect them. (Photo by Bradley Whitehouse)

“Apparently, orange farmers water the trees to protect them from a hard frost,” Hicks said. Bill Kronberg, horticulture supervisor, had called him about the idea the night before and suggested he try it.

The watering technique is effective when temperatures are right around freezing. When the water on the plant starts to freeze, it releases heat, which helps protect the plant.

So early that morning Hicks found Rick Privett, an irrigation specialist, and explained the problem.

The campus sprinkler system is not activated this early in the season, but Privett was working ahead and already had the system charged for the beds on Ingalls Mall. He quickly programmed it to water the plants during the critical pre-dawn hours, starting that morning.

The tulips around the Diag flagpole weren’t quite as easy since the system there was not yet charged. Hicks and Privett watered those tulips by hand every morning the week before commencement.

Privett said he was not familiar with this approach for protecting flowers but was glad for the quick thinking of others on the team.

“To be honest, I learned something that day,” he said. “When Jim asked me for help, I was glad I could do something. He could have watered them all by hand, but it would have taken forever. In the end, Jim deserves the credit for how good they looked.”

Geoffrey Chatas, executive vice president and chief financial officer, who oversees Business & Finance which includes Ground Services, heard about the tulips that week.

“It’s a great example of the pride that staff take in their work at U-M,” Chatas said. “I was so impressed that I told President Ono, and he loved the story, too.”

The tulips will soon run their natural course. Grounds Services will replace them in a week or so with a type of impatiens, part of the regular planting schedule. The tulips will return next spring in time for graduation again.



  1. Denise Schroeder
    on May 9, 2023 at 5:51 am

    Great job, Grounds! Proud of you for the quick thinking and early morning action. Looks beautiful.

  2. Divna Marinkovski
    on May 9, 2023 at 8:51 am

    Great job, Grounds team!

  3. Carman Thomas
    on May 9, 2023 at 2:06 pm

    Great Job, Grounds team! The flowers are beautiful, and I learned something new from this article.

  4. Lee Seramur
    on May 10, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    Love this story! I’ve seen this technique employed with annual edibles in the garden such as peas and other frost-sensitive seedlings.

    While I do think the Tulips are stunning, it seems that converting more beds to native early-season blooming plants adapted to the vagaries of Michigan Springtime would certainly merit consideration by the grounds team as well. Perhaps less dramatic that the bright red tulips, but en masse would be lovey:

  5. Anna Engleman
    on May 11, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    Hello, I am a UMICH student as well as an employee at the Michigan League. I loved the Tulips in Ingall’s mall so much but today I noticed that they were all removed. I am a little bit concerned about what the grounds team did with the flowers/bulbs? Are the bulbs being preserved in some way since they are perennials and still have life in them? I would be deeply disappointed if the tulips were just thrown away since that would be wasting bulbs that could liven up other areas of the city or even given to the citizens of Ann Arbor.

    I would love to get any clarification!

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