Author Archives: Tim Parsons

Atwater Finished, for now

From The Middlebury Landscape, Tim Parsons reports on the Atwater landscape progress. -Tim

We’re declaring a truce on Turf Battle, taking a break until next summer. Left for next year will be the planting around the northern retention pond, and the sidewalk removal and re-configuration south of Allen Hall, and completing the wall next to the patio.

This was my fifth growing season at Middlebury, and Turf Battle was the largest landscape project I’ve been involved with here. Feedback on all of the projects I’ve worked on is familiar and welcome, (first thing I learned here? Everybody has an opinion, many of them opposing each other), but I’ve never gotten so much positive feedback from a job than this one. Students smiling at me, thanking the crew, saying how much better the area looks. So I feel the need to let you know of the immense amount of people that helped this project come together. I’m the one with the loud mouth, but many more people behind the scenes at Middlebury deserve much more credit than I. Let’s start with Tim Spears, the driving force behind the Turf Battle contest, and Sarah Franco, his partner in crime. Also Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief in the landscape department for that area of campus, who listened to me talk through a lot of the nitty gritty design work on the plantings, and told me when I was losing my mind. Most important, though, is Luther Tenny, an Assistant Director of Facilities, and our resident civil engineer. The landscapers get all the glory work-we come into a job site that essentially looks like well-placed piles of dirt, and when we’re done, the area is gorgeous. The devil is in the engineering, though. Drain placement, sidewalk and ADA ramp layout, handrail construction, job scheduling, budgeting, timing, and talking me out of crazy ideas, yeah, that’s the idea. Atwater would be a big hot mess were it not for Luther. I’ll attempt a photo tour, and explain some of the changes we made during construction to the actual plan. As always, click on the picture for a larger view. Let’s start at the Atwater Dining plaza. This is an overall view, from the Atwater Dining hall roof. (In all these pictures, you’ll have to imagine the dirt patches as grass. It’s up now, but not when I took the pictures) The new handrails show on either side of the stairway, with the brown mulched beds on either side. Originally, the landscape architect’s plan called for the entire area from Allen Hall to the stairs and the island formed by the ADA ramp to the right of the stairs to all be one giant planted bed, with shrubs and some flowers. In talking it over with Dave and his landscape crew, we decided this would be far too much to take care of, too much weeding and maintenance until the beds get established. This is in line with much of our landscaping we perform at Middlebury now. With less crew and more areas to maintain, the old style landscaping of large planted beds are no more. Instead, we prefer to have small focused beds in high traffic areas, and take very good care of those. In this spot, though, we were having troubles designing how these smaller beds should look. No matter how we laid the shapes out, it all seemed a jumbled mess.  After fussing for a while, we stumbled across the brilliance of the Wagner plan. His layout of the beds to either sides of the stairs were in straight lines off of the stairs. The problem we were having was the multitude of lines in the tight area; the curving roof line, the arch of the ADA ramp, the columns on dining hall. How did we mesh all of that together in the landscape? Simply put, we didn’t. Straight lines off the stairs relate the importance of that feature in the landscape, making the passage the dominant feature. The confusion of the curve of the ramp fades in significance. Alternating these beds on either side of the stairs with grass gives the walk down a sense of rhythm, and simplifies the landscape. These beds are followed through across the area formed by the ADA ramp, blocking a shortcut we didn’t want to turn into a grass path. We also carried one more bed to the dining hall side of the ramp, matching both the parallel sides and the size. This should help in making the plaza area feel more enclosed in a garden space. River birch trees (Betula nigra) were planted throughout the dining plaza area, much like the grove at Ross Dining. We modified the locations of many of them, in part to enhance the garden feel, but also to provide screening from the area above. We’re hoping for an intimate feel down on the plaza, and limiting the views of the upper areas, and of Battell  Beach. Admittably, the least popular bit of landscaping we did is right next to Allen Hall, blocking the dirt path that leads down to the Johnson Parking lot. While we would have liked to have put a sidewalk here, the topography made it impossible, and for a variety of reasons, including erosion, dorm window privacy, and accessibility, the area was planted in native White pine and Red Twig Dogwood, and will blend with the native retention pond below. Moving up the stairs, I once again had the pleasure of working with Brad Lambert, our stone mason at Middlebury. A flaw in the sidewalk layout with no graceful way of fixing means people cut the corner across the grass as they turn to descend the stairs. Pouring a triangle of concrete would have wrecked the graceful lines, and while some were advocating for a well-placed BFR, Brad and I instead did a simple little Panton stone wall, to limit the area of dead grass. The stone used is a match to the ledge behind, and is recycled from a stone wall that surrounded the Proctor deck before its renovation several years ago. I became fixated on approaches and entrances. Notice above how the two flower beds to either side of the first stairs are placed. The further one comes all the way out, while the closer one with the birch is placed further away from the main walk, subtly leading you into the stairs, implying the inevitable turn. Above is the new sidewalk across the west side of Allen Hall. It’s one of those “aha” moments you have, when  you can’t believe this sidewalk wasn’t always there. The large bed on the left has a disease resistant ‘Accolade’ elm in the center, and the contrasting focal point in front is a Dwarf Hinooki Cypress, as I’m a fool for dwarf conifers. This is a fairly large bed by our standards, but the space deserves it. Here’s the view from the front of Allen, with that new sidewalk leading off to the right.The gardens in front of the ledge are to the left. We’re picking up on the same effect here as at the top of the Atwater Dining, with more gardens on the left subtly steering toward the dining hall. Looking toward Atwater dining, across the Panton stone ledge, so you can see the gardens around the ledge. And remember Brad Lambert? I forget the student that came up with the suggestion to have pathways through the garden to the ledge, but I roped Brad into making a couple. They look good on the photographs, but really should be seen in person. Once again, they are composed of recycled wall stone from Proctor. Here’s a view toward Atwater Dining from the top of the ledge. The plants in the garden are mainly summer and fall flowers and grasses, including Black Eyed Susan, White and Pink Coneflower, Japanese Anemone, and several varities of grasses. The effect we’re looking for is to echo the roof planting, composed of wildflowers and grasses, with the gardens surrounding the ledge, joining two major landscape elements.
  The gardens wrap around the stamped concrete patio next to Hall B. Like the Dining Hall plaza, we’re hoping for the feeling of being enclosed by the garden. One of the most asked questions I’ve been getting on the project is the reason for the large berm behind Chateau. The long answer is that the hill breaks up the relativly flat topography in the area, and offers a new perspective for views in the landscape. Short answer? Needed some soil to grow a grove of trees. The plans called for a grove of single stem River birch, but we changed it to Honeylocust. The pH of the soil was too high for Birch, and we were also concerned about overplanting one species in the landscape. Honeylocust is one of my favorite shades-a dappled light dark enough to be cooling in the glare of summer, but bright enough so it doesn’t feel cave-like. The Honeylocust were planted in lines specifically to preserve views of Chipman Hill. The stairs on the plan turned out to be recycled granite that facilities had in storage. Top of the berm looking north, down toward the parking lot. Anyone with a history in Atwater are probably wondering what that foriegn green is between the halls-it’s grass. The trees shown below are Sycamore, a great fast growing shade tree. The wall, without the stone face, is visible to the right. Standing on the sidewalk in the middle looking toward Battell Beach. Up at the top are more elms, also to the west of Chateau, to provide some screening between the Atwater area and the quidditch pitch. One final picture, more grass, and a view down towards the lower retention pond. We’re going to get to the planting around the pond next year.

A Commencement Day

Syndicated from Tim Parson's blog, The Middlebury Landscape, this is a humorous, behind-the-scenes look at all of the hard work that goes in to making the quad beautiful for Commencement Day. - Tim

4:30 comes early. I like to say I’m a morning person, but the alarm goes off, it’s summer, it’s dark, and well, that’s just too early. I drive to campus, and park behind Kenyon Arena. All facilities staff park there, so the incoming guests can park closer, and we walk to the Service Building, not talking a whole lot. I’m mainlining coffee. The walk towards campus feels a bit like a fish swimming upstream, as most of the senior class is walking away from campus, towards Alumni Stadium to watch the sunrise. Both sets of people, though, look a little bleary eyed and tired. They get to go take a nap later.

The work day starts at 5, with all hands walking the campus picking up any trash we may find. It’s never really all that bad, more like sweeping the front porch before 6000 guests arrive. We walk our snow shovel routes, with others dispatched to hot spots. I like this time of day, the calm before the storm. I also like ending up near the stadium as the sun rises. The shouts, whoops, and hollers of the graduating class as the sun comes up quickly gets subdued, and all becomes quiet, maybe as the reality of the light of day hits-it feels like an end, and a new beginning for them.

At 6 or so the swarm of workers descend to the commencement site, the main quad below Mead Chapel. The tents were erected previously in the week, including the main tent, technically called the clamshell. Some in Facilities spent part of yesterday setting chairs in front of the tent. It’s a delicate balance. While it’s nice to have some of the many many thousand chairs we need to place already up, we could spend a large chunk of the morning drying them off from dew or, even worse, rain. Towels work best, although we have resorted to backpack blowers in the past.

My day begins in earnest as well. My job is to set up the flowers in front of the commencement tent. There is a giant seal of Middlebury College right in front of the stage, and 300 red geraniums are placed at the base. First secret exposed? I leave them in the trays, and mound mulch around them to make them look like a planted bed. All life is a stage.


To give you some idea of how long Facilities plans the commencement ceremony, I first get asked to order the geraniums in September. I say you bet, but I don’t worry about them all too much. (perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this?) I buy the geraniums from a local wholesale grower, so 300 is just a tiny little drop in the bucket. It doesn’t even make a dent in the greenhouse. He gets the stress though, and the fact that they have to be right shade of red, so he doesn’t pick on me too much when I’m ordering plants 9 months in advance.

While I’m there working, I’m also watching the second coolest job for the day, the hanging of the flags. Behind the tent, hanging off of Voter Hall, are flags of every country represented by the graduating class. I was told we had to buy 9 new ones this year. I counted 59 flags when they were done, but I was supposed to be working, not counting, so there may have been more. They use a lift truck, 65′ boom, and I bet it takes them a good hour or two. One year, someone in Facilities that was attending the festivities looked up, and noticed one of the flags was for the Boston Red Sox. Oh, the horror, and the humor. Mostly horror, but we had to admit it was pretty funny. We got into the student’s room, where he thoughtfully leaned the correct flag against the wall after he leaned out his window and made the switch.

The lift truck hanging flags

I also rent some shrubs to do a fake little planting where the tent guy lines get staked in front of the clamshell. When I first arrived on campus, I noticed a plethora of White Potentilla and Dwarf Garland Spirea planted here, there, pretty much any little corner. You see, they used to come buy them off me when I worked up the road at Greenhaven, for the very same purpose I now use Ivory Halo Red Twig Dogwood (not white flowers, but a pretty variegated leaf). I don’t want to fill the campus exclusively with a plant that looks for great for two weeks in the spring, so I just rent them and bring them back to Greenhaven the next week. They don’t make a habit of it, but I still have a little bit of influence. (I also tend to help a customer or two while I’m there-old habits and all)

There is a huge amount of activity taking place around me. It’s too much for a blog post, it could be it’s own blog. The brunt of it, though, is chair setting. Some chairs get set the day before, but the bulk are set this morning. And by bulk, I’m talking thousands. We have a tractor trailer we keep filled with chairs, I think it’s about 4000. The trailer is parked on the road, and trucks and gators are used to ferry them to the setters, following the lead of the string setters, who assure the chairs are placed in straight lines.

Seriously, we use string and stakes to set chairs. Not because the person setting chairs is a civil engineer, although that helps, but because looking at 5000 chairs set out, well, they just NEED to be straight. For a great video picture diary of chair setting, view the pictures taken by the communications department of the (very wet) day before.

The early arrivals for the ceremony begin arriving around 8 or so. There’s a couple key places to sit, and they usually go first. One  is the area around a Red maple, which offers some key shade most years. The other isn’t in the chairs at all, but up the hill towards Gifford, where the day beforehand the landscape department sets all the Adirondack chairs out. Watching commencement while reclining in a comfy chair? Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it.

Graduates start arriving soon as well, and get staged east of Old Chapel. I usually run into Matt Biette, the extraordinary head of dining, for the first of several times today, handing out water and breakfast sandwiches to the seniors. Starch and re hydration-Matt’s a genius.

Time to pull out, get out of Dodge, and pretend we aren’t even there. Some years, the landscape department goes and pulls weeds, radio close by. I have another semi-official job, though, that of weather-boy. Luther Tenny, Chair General (you did click that link on chair setting above, right?) calls me occasionally, wondering what the weather radar looks like. I’m the local weather geek, next to Luther, who is in an information tent on site, so isn’t close to a computer. I was watching this year by Android phone, as it was a spectacular day to pull weeds. The year Bill Clinton was the speaker several thunderstorms were forming in upstate New York, and I was freaking out. 6000 plus guests, and a storm on the way? I deferred to the experts, and called the National Weather Service in Burlington, who thought I was nuts, until I explained just exactly why I was calling, and they set my mind at ease. It rained for about 3 minutes, and then the sun came out and all was well. So, really, I’ve never seen the ceremony.

11:30 all the workers start traipsing up the hill towards Mead Chapel, where we get fed. All parents and graduates get fed by Matt Biette and crew, and that’s another blog post all together. Middlebury has an amazing home-grown dining service, and the food is great. They are brave feeding the landscape crew before the guests, but they certainly cook enough. Second Matt sighting-right below Mead Chapel telling guests walking up the hill that food is on both sides of Mead, and the lines are never too long. It seems like almost every student stops to talk to him.

The lure of the food works, and the chairs and stage empty soon enough, and facilities goes berserk in reverse. It’s easier to take things apart than put them up, and the chair trailer fills again. We also store chairs all over campus, so trucks are dispatched to places I haven’t even seen yet in my 5 years here. It’s a logistical nightmare, and always goes off without a hitch. I take apart the flowers, and plant them in the coming week by Admissions.  We’re done by 3 or 4 PM most years.