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No-Mow at Richard Stockton

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I recently received an email from Jessica Okazaki, from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, asking about Middlebury’s no-mow program. She is interested in starting a similar project at her school. Read more at her Facebook group called “Lose the Lawn”. I’m sure she isn’t the only one thinking about this on a college campus, so I thought that rather than just responding to her alone I would turn the answers into a blog post. A couple of her questions are below.

 For my project, I am hoping to plant native plants to this pinelands region, (or even better -native endangered/threatened species if they can grow on this soil). In some areas, I think I would like native grass, similar to lawn but needs no mowing… so that the students can walk on them without killing the plants… if that’s possible…..

 I would like your tips / advice on how to prepare the right soil for native plants and some specific plants you might recommend.

 I’ll speak first about the sites you have in mind, and keep in mind I’m looking at this from 300+ miles away, and don’t know much about the Pine Barrens. Your master plan is an excellent document, and has some great insights into your landscape in general.

Middlebury College and Richard Stockton seem to have drastically different landscapes, not only ecologically but from a human standpoint as well. Your beautiful campus is considerably more condensed, surrounded by woods (at least according to Google Maps). Here at Middlebury we have a relatively large but spread out campus. Many of our no-mow zones are many acres in size, while some of the areas you have in mind look quite a bit smaller.

Our no-mow zones are simply that-areas where we have let the lawn go. Native and non-native wildflowers are infiltrating the areas, and we are achieving a nice effect of contrast between mown lawn and no-mow, helping to differentiate sections of our campus. Because of their size, we couldn’t possibly think about re-landscaping these areas with plants, or even reseeding. It would be nice to plant these areas in Meadow plants, but the labor and herbicide needed on this scale would be far too costly. Your campus, though, seems to have many little pockets of lawn that aren’t needed, and these certainly can be re-done in native grasses and wildflowers. I think, though, that I wouldn’t try to find native grass that can be walked upon by students, but think in terms of taking entire areas out of circulation completely, and leaving the trafficked areas in lawn.

The problem is the amount of traffic in small areas, especially on college campuses. We affectionately refer to these as “goat paths”. No plant can take a constant traveled lane like this, particularly fussy native wildflowers. Focus on a healthy lawn in these areas.

In terms of preparing the soil for your project, there is no way for me to give any specific recommendations from here. A soil test would be a crucial first step before anything happens. I do have some general advice, though. Based on many of your pictures posted on the Facebook group, your campus suffers from the same general problem as ours, that of soil compaction. I see in many of the rainy day pictures standing water in the lawn, and you mention that it is the lawn not able to absorb the rainfall. Truthfully, it isn’t the lawn absorbing rain, but the soil. A hard, compacted topsoil cannot soak in a rainfall, and water does tend to run off. The best cure to relieve compaction is to eliminate the stress (probably foot traffic, lawn mowers, etc.), and to add organic matter, such as compost. Aeration would certainly help as well. Rain gardens can be used where water concentrates.

Here’s a photo of a nice pine stand. No lawn underneath, but who cares? This is probably because of the soil and shade from the pines. There probably are wildflowers that would grow in an area like this, but not many. Dry shade can be tricky.

Photo by Jessica

Here’s the same area (I think, remember I’m 350 miles away), after a hard rain. This screams compaction, possibly from foot traffic heading toward the parking lot? Or was this just a heck of a rain storm?

Photo by Jessica

In terms of other soil amendments, I constantly remind myself that I can’t fight geology-you have to play the cards you are dealt. If your soil conditions are radically different compared to the plants you would like, you probably aren’t looking at the right types of plants. Lists abound of native plants and certain well-behaved non-natives appropriate for all types of soil and landscape conditions .When amending soil one really needs to amend an entire bed, not just planting holes, and these can get costly in large areas. Certainly minor adjustments, such as fixing a nitrogen deficiency aren’t terribly difficult. In general, and listen for many other horticulturists gasping in pain as they disagree, wildflowers don’t need super rich soil to thrive, certainly not like our coddled landscape plants of today.

This is the area mentioned on the Facebook group as the first area to plant. I see evidence of compaction here too.

Photo by Jessica

If I’m reading the maps and your description correctly, I like the area you’ve chosen to trial. Establishing a new bed can be difficult, and it is nice to have it surrounded by buildings/parking lots. I always think of weed infiltration-if the area you want to plant is surrounded by lawn, the seeds from those grasses and lawn weeds can blow in and make the new bed harder to maintain, as the weeds need to be removed frequently in the first couple of years to avoid the competition.(They’re called weeds for a reason!)

Another thought is to work closely with the Grounds department. One of the best parts of our no-mow program was the reduction in labor from constant mowing. We’ll be honest-some of our no-mow areas were picked because we didn’t really want to mow them (!). Some small no-mow areas you may like to plant may take 3 times as long to mow as other areas because of obstructions such as trees and planted beds. You can get a larger bang for your environmental buck by removing these slow to mow zones.

Here’s a picture from the Facebook group of an area you think should not be lawn.


photo credit-Jessica

To me, extending the bed from the building would add a tremendous amount of weeding that would have to be done, although it is hard to get the right context where this is on campus based on this picture. If the bed were eliminated and the entire area planted in natives the strip would still need to be mown next to the walk (tick control), leaving an awkward area in between that strip and the building.

This is a good area for no-mow-

photo by Jessica

Extending this existing bed/wild area under the trees would lose quite a bit of lawn, and look in the landscape like a logical extension of the area.

Lose the lawn here too-

Photo again by Jessica!

This area looks unused, with no doors or pathways evidenced. It also looks hard to mow, with a lot of weedwacking. A native stand of plants under the trees would look quite attractive. The trees do seem to be planted in a grid, was this supposed to be (or is) an outdoor recreation area?

Your last question, that of specific plants, I’m afraid I’ll be no use. New Jersey is a world away ecologically compared to the Champlain Valley. A little bit of googling while eating my lunch led me toward some interesting sites-like the Plants of Southern New Jersey, and some interesting work on Native Warm Season Grass Meadows, including an interesting PDF here from the New Jersey NRCS.  I liked Professor Jack Conner’s blog.

I wish you the best of luck. Let us know how it goes.



Squirrel Business

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I’m primarily a plant person, because I’m slow on the uptake and not very observant. Someone says “Look at that bird!” and by the time I’m looking even close to the right direction, let alone focusing in on what a bird is, said bird has flown far, far away. Trees, wildflowers, landscapes-easy to see, and prone to stay in one place. Since starting at Middlebury, though, I’ve become enamored of our extensive squirrel population.

Photo Credit-Dan Celik (Thanks!)

Aristotle named the squirrel ‘skiouros’, combining  two Greek words, ‘skia’ for shade, and ‘oura’ for tail, or, in some ancient Greek slang, ‘he who sits in the shadow of his tail’. The French created the word ‘esquirel’, from whence came the English ‘squirrel’.

Our breed of squirrel on campus is the Eastern Gray Squirrel, native to the east coast from Manitoba to Florida and eastern Texas. Squirrel fossils date back to 40 million years ago, and know number over 365 species in seven families, including ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and flying squirrels. Clearly, our Middlebury squirrels are tree squirrels. This time of year their nests, or dreys, are seen high in some of our trees, or in the several hollow trees we have scattered about.

We seem to have some squirrel ‘families’, or at least some serious inbreeding going on, although it does not seem to be as notable this year as in past years. While all white or black squirrels can often be seen in urban populations with little to no predation, up by Mead Chapel for the last several years we had a group of gray squirrel with thin, wiry red tails, more like a red squirrel. The difference in the squirrels between Mead Chapel and the library quad was quite striking. Now the Mead squirrels have fluffy tails, but they are still red.

Squirrels are ‘scatter hoarders’, making many small caches of food in various locations. They are known for their spacial memory, remembering where up to 1000 of these sites are. Food types are generally tree seeds, including many nuts, although they’ve been known to feast on fungi and tree bark as well. When food is scarce they will even turn carnivorous, eating insects, frogs, small birds, even other squirrels (!).

They are most well-known for feasting on nuts, however. In fact, their love of seeds started this post. While preparing to remove the lightning struck spruce, we noticed a large cache of spruce cones underneath the tree. Given a sudden abundance of a food source, a squirrel will make a temporary pile to await better burial and hiding later. Spruces were prosperous this year in cones, and if you’re a squirrel you can’t let a good thing go to waste. The seed of the spruce sits at the base of a seed scale, and each cone can have many scales. Squirrels seem to process the cones, flaking away the bracts to reach the seed, and then later burying the seeds for retrieval later.


If I were a squirrel, though, I’d be waiting for acorns. A good source of protein, their size is probably a meal unto itself. While humans don’t like the bitter tannins found in many acorns, the squirrel doesn’t seem to mind.


I remember my first fall here at Middlebury, and thinking our Red oaks had a terrible disease. The ends of the branches, the new growth, would lie scattered about the base of the tree. Dan Celik, custodial supervisor extraordinaire, has noticed the same thing, and took pictures for the blog. Squirrels, even though they have a brain the size of a small walnut, aren’t too dumb. They go to the end of an oak branch, and gnaw with their teeth until the end falls to the ground, where they can easily and quickly harvest the bundle of acorns attached.

Photo Credit-Dan Celik (Thanks!)

Japanese Beetles

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Gardeners, and especially Vermont ones, seem to like to share maxims. Like “Don’t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes.” My Nebraska wife said she’d heard that one out there too, so don’t go thinking that our weather is more strange in the Green Mountains. The one I was thinking of a couple of days ago was on Japanese Beetles, and their annual appearance on the Fourth of July.

It held true this year, at least in my yard, with a small collection of them on some wild grape leaves. They’re a particualry nasty little pest, as their voracious appetite can seemingly eat anything in their path. In reality, though, they favor certain plants above all others, but it would be a dreary yard indeed if you didn’t have at least one plant they found tasty.

Japanese Beetles were introduced in August of 1916 in the Henry A. Dreer, Inc. Nurseries, about 2 1/2 miles east of Riverton, New Jersey. Closed in 1944, this very famous nursery owned the very first plant patent, the New Dawn Rose, a climber still in production today. Rutgers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture made a valiant effort to control the spread of the beetle, including attempting to keep sprayed a half mile radius of land around the point of discovery with Arsenate of Lead. The beetles turned out to be strong fliers, and would quickly fly to un-sprayed foliage. Control efforts moved to containment, but the Beetle was too strong for that as well. By 1920 the beetle occupied 50 square miles of New Jersey, 213 square miles in 1921, and by 1925 was over 500 square miles. (Read about the complete battle at the Rutgers Department of Entomology.)

Japanese Beetle, Popillia japonica, are very recognizable and familiar to many of us working outside. It’s bronze colored back is a dead give-away, with a metallic green body. Harder to identify, but equally destructive, is it’s larval phase, a white grub in prolific in lawns almost 2 inches long. The grubs are strong feeders of turf roots, but most people complain about the turf damage caused by raccoons and other creatures digging for a fast grub meal.

They are clumsy fliers, dropping when hitting a wall (don’t we all?), so that’s how the ubiquitous traps work, by having four walls coated in floral scent and phermone to lure the idiotic beetle to fly into, dropping in the bag below.The traps work great, too great, a victim of their own success. Multiple studies have shown that the traps lure insects not only into the trap, but into the surrounding area, thereby increasing the population. The best place for a trap? The next door neighbor’s yard.

Control of the beetle is best done at the source, the grub stage, but is quite tricky in Vermont. The best organic control is Milky Spore, a Bacillius bacteria that kills the grub, and reproduces itself inside the body, spreading into the soil. Unfortunately, Milky Spore does not do well in heavy, moist, cold soils, namely all Vermont soils. While it is somewhat active at soil temperatures of 60 degrees, it does best at 80, a range rarely seen this far north. Anecdotally I’ve heard of treatment succeeding quite well, but it’s time and expense I can’t rationally recommend.

Other control recommendations seem to almost change yearly, so you’re on your own. I’ve had good luck picking them off by hand or dropping them into a mason jar of soapy water-they aren’t the fastest things in the world. Systemic insecticides work well, but our bee population would thank you if you stay right away from those.Neem, or even hot pepper oil, acts as a deterrent in low populations, although higher populations will ignore them like a teenage boy in a line for pizza.

Cedar Apple Rust

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Once you see one, you start seeing them everywhere.

Cedar Apple Rust-Juniper Spore Horn

The first warm rain in the spring makes these spores appear on Red Cedar (Juniper) trees, completing part of its life cycle. Red Cedar is a first-growth conifer pretty common in Vermont in abandoned pastures, along roads, and elsewhere, so finding these disgusting things aren’t hard. Sometimes they are as big as your fist, sometimes just a golf ball, but they are always bright orange, and disgustingly slimy and gelatinous. I remember being thrown one by my landscaper employer in Connecticut, and being grossed out for the entire rest of the day, catching it absentmindedly.

This is brought to you by a fungus called Cedar Apple Rust, latin name (brace yourself) Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae. The fungus is a ‘dual-host’ fungus, needing two different type plants to complete its life cycle. Part is on the Red Cedar, where small galls sit and lie in wait for the warm rain in the spring to activate. They can be mistaken for cones for those not totally up on their conifer botany. Once activated, spores then alight on the wind, and carry to apple trees (or crabapples), where they infect the twigs and leaves. On this host, it appears like small orange or yellow spots. These spots then produce spores in July or August, and re-infect the juniper.

Because of the ubiquity of Eastern Red Cedar control is very, very difficult. Like many things, the best techinique is prevention, which entails removing all cedar from within a mile (!) of the orchard. Fungicide sprays are effective, but need to be done now, which is another whole host of problems, seeing as the apples and crabapples are starting to bloom, a delicate time to say the least. Apples and crabapples vary in their susceptibility to the disease. I fell in love with a crabapple once, a double flowered variety named ‘Brandywine’, with dark pink flowers like tiny roses (I won’t post a picture and tease you too), only to watch it totally defoliate by the end of July-not a leaf left the rest of the year-all from a severe infection. Resistant varieties can be found, though, and are probably a good idea.


Pussy Willow

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Ask 20 gardeners, and you’ll get 40 or more answers on what they consider signs of spring. One of the most common answers, though, will probably be Pussy Willow.

Salix, the Willow family, claims more than 400 members, with a range from the tropics all the way up to being the last woody plant before you are stumbling across the Arctic Circle. Many kinds are native to western China,  including the magnificent but weak-wooded Weeping Willow, but North America claims her share as well, about 75 varieties. Pussy Willow is one of these, although there are several willows with that name.

Go to your local garden center, and you’ll probably find, well, you probably won’t find pussy willow at all. Garden centers have a hard time selling very early or very late bloomers, like pussy willow or Witch hazel. Both bloom before most garden centers this far north are even open, and, during the regular growing season, these wonderful shrubs probably wouldn’t even catch your eye.

Should you happen upon one, though, probably in the sale bin, odds are it is a Salix caprea, a European Pussy willow also know as Goat Willow. Native from Europe to northeast Asia and northern Iran, it is nearly identical to our native species, Salix discolor. Our native form is more susceptible to canker, and have deeper brown branches and a nearly bluish white underside to the leaves, but it is the canker scaring plant propagators from growing the native species.

Pussy willow (both) reach about 15-25 feet high, and about 12-15′ in width. Native to wet, moist areas, they are frequently seen in marshes, wetlands, and on the edges of rivers and ponds. The ‘pussies’ we are familar with in kindergarten are male catkins, flowers with inconspicuous or, like Salix, no petals. While most catkins are designed for wind pollination, the Willows are known for insect pollination. Perhaps the non-showiness of the catkins is forgivable in the wild, as nothing else is in bloom, competing for the insects to visit them. For you pollinators among us, they are high-sugar flowers. At any rate, they are easy enough to force in a vase starting in February for the spring-desperate.

In the wild, Pussy Willow is an important source of food for browsing animals, such as deer and moose, although not the most palatable (who asks?). Duck and other waterfowl feed on the catkins in the early spring, while mice and other rodents can be found eating the stems in the winter.

Majorie Harris, in Botanica North America, writes of the Pussy Willow, and references a somewhat sketchy web site for the legend of how Pussy Willows got their name. It’s a Polish legend, and involves a sad, crying cat next to a river, whose kittens had fallen into while chasing Butterflies,as kids and kitts are likely to do. Hearing their cries, the Willow trees next to the banks swept down, arching into the river and allowing the kittens to cling to their branches, when they were safely brought to shore. Every spring since, the willow sprouts tiny fur-like buds at the tips of their branches in remembrance.

We have some Pussy Willows at Middlebury, but I had to do some thinking to remember where. While there undoubltalby some wild native species along Bi-Hall Road or the wetlands next to the Johnson Parking lot, the best species on campus proper are probably right next to Atwater Dining Hall, on the south side, where they were planted in the ditch that runs along there as part of the storm water mediation.


Middlebury Becomes a Tree Campus

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I’m very (very) pleased write that Middlebury College has been named a Tree Campus for 2010, culminating work started in January of last year by the students in my Trees and the Urban Forest Winter Term class. Special thanks goes to two students in particular, Chelsea Ward-Waller and Hilary Platt, for being the driving force behind the application process, and for being strong advocates of our urban forest on campus.

I’ll quote from the letter we received-

The Tree Campus USA program is an initiative that sprang from a partnership between the Arbor Day Foundation and Toyota MotorNorth America, Inc., to foster the development of the next generation of Tree Stewards. The program is designed to award national recognition to college campuses and the leaders of their surrounding communities for promoting healthy urban forest management and engaging the3 campus community in environmental stewardship.

As you already know, trees are a vital component of the infrastructure in campus landscaping, providing environmental and economical benefits. Trees in urban areas, and especially on campuses, reduce the heat island effect caused by pavement and buildings. Leaves filter the air we breather by removing dust and other particles. Properly placed trees create a welcoming environment that makes students, administration,and alumni want to be a part of the campus.

Last year there were 74 Tree Campuses across the country,and this year there are 114. Middlebury is the only campus in Vermont that is a Tree Campus, and one of only two in New England. The older program, Tree City USA, has over 3400 communities, with 8 in Vermont, including Burlington and Rutland. We all can take great pride in our trees and campus landscape, and I enjoy being part of a team that places as much value as we do on our campus environment.

The standards to become a Tree Campus are designed to create a sustainable plan to care for and manage campus trees, and to provide opportunities to engage and educate college students and community members in tree planting, benefits of trees, and in Best Management practices. To be eligible for Tree Campus USA recognition, schools must meet five core standards of tree care and community engagement: Establish a campus tree advisory committee, evidence of a campus tree-care plan, verification of dedicated annual expenditures on the campus tree-care plan, involvement in an Arbor Day observance, and a service-learning project aimed at engaging the student body in sustainable efforts. Collaboration is encouraged-the program is a platform for students, faculty, staff, and community members to team up and learn from one another about the benefits of trees on college campuses. Ensures true sustainability of the urban forest by joining forces with the broader forest community.

Our service learning project was a high point in the entire process. Another group of students in the Winter Term tree class worked on a complete Street Tree plan for an area in Middlebury known as Buttolph Acres. This included an inventory of existing trees, recommended locations and varieties, as well as tree planting specifications. The students also used a computer model known as iTree to estimate what the potential carbon sequestration, storm water abatement, and pollution control the tree planting would yield in 25 and 50 years. The work they put into this is amazing-I highly recommend downloading it ( Buttolph Acres Proposal ) and reading it.

And yes, we’re planning a heck of an Arbor Day (May 6). Stay tuned!

Putty Knives

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A couple of storms ago, I caught myself absentmindedly sticking our most important snow fighting tool into my pocket, and it occurred to me I’d left it out of the list of techniques and equipment I’ve written about in the past. Yes, for some storms, the most important tool in our kit seems to be the lowly putty knife. I prefer an inch and half blade myself.

I was introduced to this my first winter at Middlebury, during the Valentine’s day storm of 2007. The roads were impassable- I’d tried with a friend in a four wheel drive truck, and we’d turned around and went back to the college to spend the night. This was no ordinary storm, but a a blizzard, so strong we couldn’t keep up with it, either by shovel, tractor, or plow. The most important work of the night remained, though, so we broke into teams of two or three, shovels and putty knives in hand, and trudged from building to building, closing doors.

A plumber told me Middlebury has 110 buildings. I asked him how many exterior doors were on campus, and got a look like I’d lost my mind. Fire codes dictate at least two per building, and some many, many more, so let’s say there is 500. Most of these buildings are heated centrally with steam, from the Service Building. The operators in there work wonders, 24/7, heating the entire campus. Ever had snow block your main door at your house, preventing it from closing? Even if you don’t notice immediately, I bet you quickly figure it out as the draft quickly goes through the house. Some storms seem block doors better than others. Now imagine if even a couple of doors on campus are like that. The magicians in the heating plant notice. Now imagine those storms where even 10% of the doors are stuck part way open. The steam can’t compete,alarms in the plant go off, and precious steam and heat literally goes out the door.

So we go out, putty knives in hand, cleaning door thresholds, making sure the door is re-sealed against the building. The knives scrape the snow from the threshold, and from the underside of the door. It builds up against the door frame as well. If you’re really unfortunate, or in the right storm, hot air from the building is melting the snow in the way, and it re-freezes to rock hard ice.

We’ll gladly do the shoveling, plowing, and salting. Save us some time, though, and close the door behind you. What, did you grow up in a barn? Snow stuck in the threshold? Grab a knife from the dining hall if you have to, I won’t tell Aunt Des.