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New Planting for Pearson Hall

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

One of my frequent failings in landscaping is my overall excitement when starting a job, especially here at Middlebury. So much of the work we do in the department for new plantings is ripping out large, overgrown, outdated landscape shrubs. Crank up the chainsaw, get the backhoe in position, and dive right in. The failing? I never stop, take a deep breath, and take some interesting ‘before’ pictures.

You’ll just have to trust us. The east (Battell beach) side of Pearson Hall consisted of 8′ evergreen yew hedges, smashed in the center from snow over the last several winters, with a large Burning Bush sticking out of the center, easily reaching into the second story of the building. I’m sure it was all quite lovely many years ago, but foundation plantings of that era relied overmuch on frequent clipping and shearing to maintain proper size, and even then, can only be maintained at manageable levels for so long.

(Most shrubs need to grow, of course, and lose their inner leaves or needles as time goes on. Even if you clip most of a yew back each year, that new inch of so adds up over the decades. The only exception I have heard to this rule is boxwood hedges around temples in Japan, pruned to the same exact shape for so long that a child can walk atop, the growth being so dense and congested.)

Many of the landscapes we’ve redone over the last five years have been that of almost total removal, with smaller, more manageable plantings at key locations. Not only does this lower maintenance, but, if you haven’t noticed, we’ve got some spectacular buildings on campus, and removing the multistory vegetation surrounding them allows the architecture to shine like the day it was born.

Pearson Hall was like that. A great building, hidden in plain sight. The challenge here, though, was that what we call ‘north campus’ is relatively plain,views notwithstanding. So the goal was to make a great planting, bring some color to a new area of campus, while still showing off the facade of Pearson. Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief for North campus, and I made several sketches of the front entrance, trying and failing to install a flower garden and show a building at the same time. Finally, we came up with the idea to pull the planting out, and put all the color in front of the building, in a new bed next to the sidewalk.

New Planting in front of Pearson

Not the greatest picture, but let’s just go with it. On either side of the door are two large shrubs, Seven Son Flower, surrounded by Mugo Pine (hopefully a dwarf variety, but one should never turn their back on a Mugo Pine.) The large shrubs will grow up and over the door, framing the entrance, but not overpower the building.

It’s the bed out front with all the color. The little red thing in the middle is actually a tree,  a Japanese Maple. Readers from the south may not understand how special this is to us up here, but we love the red leaves, and try and fill the few microclimates we have available to us with this little marginally hardy tree. And imagine the red leaves in front of the building. It’ll get about 12′ tall and wide in the north country here, 20′+ further south.

Surrounding the little tree are some shrubs, and filling the holes in between are perennials. It’s a trick I use all over campus. One of the secrets to landscaping is a rule: If it looks good when it goes in, it’s too crowded. Trees and shrubs need room, more room than impatient idiots like me want to give them, so instead of wasting plants I give them proper room, and fill the spaces in between with perennials. As the shrubs grow, the perennials can be dug and divided, moved forward in the bed, or put somewhere else on campus.

Even with all of the flowers gone some day, the shrubs Dave and I picked will easily stand on their own. A couple of dwarf conifers anchor either end. A ‘Jane Kluis’ Japanese Red Pine, and one of my favorites, a ‘Sherwood Frost’ Arborvitae, like the White Cedar in the swamps around here, but with new growth emerging a snow white.

'Sherwood Frost' Arborvitae

A couple of deciduous shrubs round out the structure, a blue leafed form of Fothergilla (‘Blue Shadow’), and another favorite of mine, Compact Summersweet.

'Blue Shadow' Fothergilla -Leaf closeup

Compact Summersweet-mature ones in front of Emma Willard

The rest of the space is filled with perennials. It is tricky to buy perennials for a planting. The temptation is to grab everything that looks good, thereby assuring a glorious two or three weeks of color, and a lot of green leaves the rest of the summer. We tried to pick a broad range of plant times, but the German language school in session when we planted this may have a bit of a bonus.

'Jethro Tull' Coreopsis

'Morning Light' Miscanthus

'Rozanne' Perennial Geranium

There is more in there, but I took the best pictures. I keep obsessive records on what we plant, like what I wish I’d done at my own house (50+ varieties of daylilies, some with names…), so if you ever have the need to know what something is, just get in touch.

Black Locust

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

There is an area of campus called Stewart Woods-it’s south of Stewart Hall, on the other side of the road, next to the graveyard. Our department mows underneath the trees, forming a beautiful little grove next to the road. The trees are black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, and are in full bloom right now. A favorite of honeybees, walking over there you can just hear the air humming with the sound.

Stewart Woods in bloom

Stewart Woods in bloom

Native from Pennsylvania to Georgia, west to about Oklahoma, early settlers have since dispersed the tree far and wide. Like the lilac, old house and farm sites in Vermont can often be found by the black locust trees nearby. They had multiple uses back then, and still would, were it not for the locust borer, a destructive insect wiping out nearly all the magnificent trees in the prime of their life. The trees grow in groves, suckering up from their roots, making sharing trees with your neighbors easy. (This is like a lilac as well-popular early colonial plants were easy to propagate.) The wood was used not only for burning, with a very high BTU, matching an equal weight in coal, but also for fence posts, nearly never rotting when in contact with the ground. In fact, Donald Peattie in “A Natural History of North American Trees” quotes mark Catesby, a British naturalist who visited Jamestown a century after it’s founding. He states “they erected each of their little hovels on four only of these trees ( the locust tree of Virginia), pitched into the ground to support the four corners; many of these posts sare yet standing, and not only the parts underground, but likewise those above, perfectly sound”.

So, apparently, no “log cabins” for our early settlers, but an impressive grasp of the semi-colon.

The latin, Robinia,  honors either Jean Robin, or son Vespasien, who grew seeds of the tree sometime between 1601 and 1636, and introduced the tree to France, where it became all the rage. The wood is so strong, it is also used for nails on ships, lasting longer than the hulls they held together. The British used the superiority of our hastily built “locust fleet” as an excuse for their defeat on Lake Champlain in the war of 1812. The nails, also called Trunnels, took advantage of the nature of Locust wood, that when wet it expands and becomes leak proof.

Peattie expands the tree nails story, writing of William Cobbett, a famous English publicist and economist, who between 1917 and 1819 started a Black Locust grove on his farm on Long Island, hoping to supply the British navy with tree nails. He had to hurridly leave what he undoubtedly still called the ‘colonies’, having been chased out by popular opinion for libeling Dr. Rush for having killed George Washington by malpractice. He returned to England with some Black Locust seed, and the corpse and coffin of Thomas Paine, planning to re-intern the body in a spectacular monument to atone for his former attacks on the author. He never finished, the coffin auctioned to a furniture dealer, the corpse inside lost to history.

A special strain of Black Locust used to be described as “Shipmast Locust”, having perfectly straight and clear trunks for many feet, yielding valuable timber. It used to be described as a separate species, until botanists yelled foul, merging it back with the normal Locust, as it was probably just a cultivar asexually propagated by root suckers.

The tree itself grows fairly straight, only branching at the top. The leaves are a nice light green, aboiut 6-12″ long, with many leaflets at about 1-2″. The leaflets fold up at night and droop, making people believe the tree is conserving water, but that is a non-issue at night, so other guesses must be made.

Black Locust Bark

Black Locust Bark

 The bark is a light grey, but unmistakably furrowed and rough. The blooms are white, and hang in clusters 4-8″ long  from the branches. The scent needs to be experienced, but is spectacular.

Black Locust Flowers

Black Locust Flowers

Gardeners would recognize the bloom as similar to peas, and indeed they are in the same family. Black Locust has the ability to fix nitrogen, like all legumes, so the tree is often listed in the saddest of all plant use lists, Mine Reclamation. Micheal Dirr calls it an “Alley Cat Tree”, more as an indication of hardiness and usefulness than anything else. It is a common tree in China, and is called “yanghuai”, or Foreign Scholar Tree, as it does mimic the Scholar Tree native there.

There are many Black Locust trees on campus aside from Stewart Woods. Off the top of my head, I can think of Nichols House, below the ledge at Gifford, McKinley House, and next to Hillcrest Road. The oldest and largest are probably at the McKinley House.

P.S.- A public apology. While running a garden center and growing trees in pots, I became enamoured of a cultivar of Black Locust called “Purple Robe”.  This was a beautiful tree. Nice round shape with good branching, not like a normal locust, crisp lime green leaves, and spectacular purple flowers instead of white. We grew and sold many of them, and it was easy, for they grew fast and looked good in a pot. I even planted one in my back yard, and it would slow traffic down on our road in flower.

Purple Robe Locust Flowers

Purple Robe Locust Flowers

After several years, the trees started falling apart, literally. Some would get a couple of locust borer holes, and snap in half at a gust of wind. Others would branch poorly, and split down the middle. Still more woiuld get riddled with borer holes so bad as to just up and die. Mine did all three.

I only mention all of this because I still run into former customers in town that will not talk to me, or even nod a hello, mad at me for making them fall in love with a fast growing shade tree that died a premature death. It’s terrible to see a tree die in the prime of its life, and believe me, had I known, I wouldn’t have grown or sold them. Sometimes a plant that does well in one part of the country does poorly elsewhere, but that’s not really an excuse, is it?

Some things in bloom

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

It’s mother’s day, it’s snowing outside, and I’m blogging in front of my woodstove writing of plants in bloom. Go figure.

Fothergilla is in bloom right now. A great native shrub, I’ve raved about this in several fall postings, and the blooms are nice this time of year as well. 

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy'

 

Fothergilla-Fall Color

Fothergilla-Fall Color

A dwarf golden yew outside of Warner Science. I’m a sucker for dwarf conifers.
Taxus cuspidata Nana Aurescens

Taxus cuspidata 'Nana Aurescens'

One of my favorite spireas, Magic Carpet, also not in bloom, like the yew above, but just look at the color of the new growth.
Magic Carpet Spirea

Magic Carpet Spirea

The Pulmonarias are in bloom. That’s a terrible latin name for a pretty plant, but it’s common name of Lungwort is, I think, worse. These shade loving perennials will be in bloom for a month or so, but the pretty spotted leaves should look attractive the rest of the year. These are planted underneath the grove of River Birch in front of Ross Dining.
Silverado

Silverado

Pulmonaria ‘Silverado’
Pulmonaria 'Raspberry Splash'

Pulmonaria 'Raspberry Splash'

Pulmonaria 'Bertram Anderson'

Pulmonaria 'Bertram Anderson'

Another plant with an unfortunate name, Siberian Bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla. A better common name would be Perennial Forget-Me-Not, as the flowers are very similar to it’s cousin. The original forget-me-not most people think of is a biennial, but I prefer the Brunnera, as the foliage stays attactive in a hosta sort of way the rest of the summer. There are some beautiful (and expensive) variegated forms availible now.  A very old fashioned plant, I first met this plant outside a 200 year old farmhouse.

Siberian Bugloss

Siberian Bugloss

This is one of my favorites, a perennial commonly known as Candytuft, Iberis sempervirens. This is one of those perennials that blur the line between perennial and teeny tiny shrub. The leaves on candytuft are evergreen, and the plant should not be cut back in the fall. It grows from a single stem, making it very shrub-like, and impossible to divide.

Iberis "Tahoe"

Iberis "Tahoe"

 Finally,  a rare little tree leafing out. This is a green leaf Japanese Maple on the New Library Davis Family Library side of Warner Science. It was slow enough that it didn’t make the previous post on new trees sprouting, but is sure pretty enough to include as a ‘bloom’.

Acer palmatum Viridis

Acer palmatum 'Viridis'

Most Beautiful Parking Lot, Ever.

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Is there a contest out there for most beautiful parking lot? I can’t seem to google one, but if one turns up, I’m nominating the the Mahaney Center for the Arts parking lot-the big one off of Porter Field Road. Monocultures are verboten in the arboricultural world, but this singular planting of ‘Snowdrift’ crabapple transforms a blacktop wasteland with nice views of the Green Mountains to something totally magical for a week or so in the spring.

DSC04348

 

DSC04347

Snowdrift Crabapples have a great shape, with almost no variation in the population, making it predictable, and therefore enjoyed by landscape architects who don’t trust their plantings to trees that may take any old shape they want. The cultivar gets a nice dull gold fall color, and reddish orange fruit that birds wait and eat in the spring (at least in my yard, returning Robins mostly). While the name may have come from the flowers on the tree, I prefer to think it was named for the petals as they fall on the ground, all at once, blowing against the curbs and tires.

DSC04349

Spring Ephemerals

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I had dreams of guest posting on the great Middlebury Trailrunner, inspired by his post on Snake Mountain (the wildflower in his post is a Hepatica, by the way) . I was going to go for a run up the back side of Snake Mountain, the side where our house is located, taking pictures the whole way of plant life.

Well, I’m not that much of a runner.  My reason for running is simply running away from middle age, and besides, the plant life is too distracting, and I’m not sure I want to share the less popular trail up Snake Mountain with everyone. So, the run I was thinking about turned into a much needed and great hike with Nancy and Molly the stillhyperpuppyeventhoughshe’salmostayearold. While not on campus, I still feel like I should share what we saw, though, as this is one of my favorite times of year in the plant world, the quick flash in the pan of the spring ephemerals.

Spring Ephemerals are plants that complete an entire life cycle early in the spring, before the upper tree canopy leafs out. An unknown Wikipedia author writes about “excess light” in the early spring, but after a long Vermont winter we know better. Light can be held in dearth, but the glorious spring rays are to be cherished, not called out as vain and excessive. Imagine the evolutionary trick-sprouting, flowering, reproducing, and storing of energy for the next year all within the light and cold of early spring. What a strategy.

springbeauty This is Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica -an apt way to start some pictures. Grows from an underground tuber like a potato, and was used as a food source by native Americans and early settlers.

wildoatsWild Oats, or Sessile-leaved Bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia . A common bellwort, and maybe not technically ephemeral, but pretty nonetheless.

lrgflwbellwortAnother Bellwort, the Large Flowered, Uvularia grandiflora .

hepaticaHepatica, Hepatica americana , named for the supposed resemblance of the leaves to the shape of the liver. Can be seen in blue, white, or pink flowers.

lrgtrilliumOne of the grand queens in the spring ephemeral world, the Large Flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum .

wakerobin

Personal favorite here, Wake Robin, or Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum. Probably the most common trillium in the northeast, and known for it’s foul scent, which it uses to attract carrion flies for pollination. The smell is such that early herbalists used the plant to treat gangrene, since plants were used to cure the ailments they resembled.

troutlilyTrout Lily, Erythronium americanum. Very common in the woods lately, and named for the leaf pattern resembling the fish.

dutchmansbreechesDutchman’s Breeches (best name ever), Dicentra cucullaria. Perennial gardeners will quickly see the resemblance to Bleeding Heart, another Dicentra. Flowers are pollinated by early bumblebees, as honeybees don’t have a long enough proboscis to gather nectar.

bloodrootBloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. So early blooming, the flowers are self pollinating, just to be on the safe side. The name comes from a dye that can be made from the roots, and was probably the ink used for the Scarlet “A” on the forehead of adulterers. There are some great patches of this in Ridgeline. The plant is myrmecochorous, ant-dependent, as it’s seeds attract the insect which then moves them around and buries them.

earlymeadowrueEarly Meadow Rue, Thalictrum dioicum.

wildgingerSome Wild Ginger I found in a tree stump, Asarum canadense. Strange and kinda ugly brown flowers thankfully hidden beneath the foliage-ant pollinated.

mouseearchickweed

Mouse Ear Chickweed, Cerastium vulgatum. This was on the top of the mountain by the concrete platform, which makes sense seeing as it is an escaped European plant. Now a lawn weed, but reportedly edible leaves once boiled like other greens.

amflyhoneysuckleAmerican Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis. Not an ephemeral, but a woody plant along the trail edge.

bluetsBluets, Houstonia caerulea. Another plant found up by the concrete platform, native to fields and open woods.

earlysaxifrageEarly Saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis. Feel free to let me know if I’ve mis-identifed this one-I hadn’t brought the wildflower book with me on the hike, and have been identifying from pictures. violarotundifoliaThis was a great find, and a bear to identify. Round Leafed Yellow Violet, Viola rotundifolia. the only stemless yellow violet, with flowers and leaves on separate stalks.

 

Daffodils are Blooming

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

daffodil`

The blue Nymph, Liriope, gave birth to a son, destined to become a mighty hero. His fate was sealed after being granted his good looks by the very gods themselves, and given immortality. Like all gifts from the gods, however, immortality came with a catch. He could remain immortal, as long as he didn’t know his own reflection.

Echo was a nubile Oread, a mountain nymph. Zeus liked the mountain nymphs, in a ballroom dancing in the old movies sort of way, and Echo would distract Zeus’ wife Hera during the indiscretions. Beware a spurned goddess, especially the wife of the almighty Zeus, who, catching wind of the plan, punished the lovely Echo by taking her voice, only allowing her to echo others.

Our hero in this story grew tall, handsome, and vain. Ironic, given that he was not allowed to view himself. Surronding yourself with admirers does present difficulties, however. One day, while hunting in the woods, the lovely Echo fell in love with our young hero, and followed from a distance. Hearing this, our boy shouts “Who’s there?”-only to hear “Who’s there?”, quieter, and a little further away. This goes on longer than you can imagine, until the hero gets angry, and leaves, spurning the unrequited love.

Echo and Narcissus, Oil Painting, 1903-John William Waterhouse

Echo pines away, weeping and wailing, consumed by her love for the boy. Finally, all that was left was her voice, which childern can still hear deep in the woods, or boorish tourists in the canyons. As she dies, she offers a prayer to Venus, the goddess of love, for punishment to the vain youth.

Nemesis, “she who ruins the proud”, hears and intercepts the prayer. She lures our hero into the woods, and takes him to a still pool of water. He gazes below his feet, and seeing his reflection, the divine penalty takes effect. He promptly falls in love, and stares into the water until he fades away. As he fades, a flower arises from the ground from where he sat entranced. The Narcissus, or Daffodil, bears his name to this day.

More Early Spring Blooms

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Early Tulips and Grape Hyacinth by Pearsons

Early Tulips and Grape Hyacinth by Pearsons

I wish I could claim credit for this combination, the pale yellow early tulips go great with the intense blue of the grape hyacinth, but, while horticulture has a grand tradition of theft, I’ll state for the record someone else planted this years ago.

Azalea in Bloom by Ross Dining

Azalea in Bloom by Ross Dining

Somewhere in my files I have the name of this cultivar of early deciduous azalea, but I’m at home. I’m normally not much for pink flowers, but in the early spring I’ll even let that go.  Azaleas are a great understory planting-they bloom before the leaves appear, and then sit and gladly suffer the shade all summer.

Forsythia by Stewart Hall

Forsythia by Stewart Hall

One of the better clumps of Forsythia at Middlebury, this one is a pretty reliable bloomer. Unknown cultivar, but being in a protected spot such as this certainly helps.

Cherry Tree in Main Quad

Cherry Tree in Main Quad

The main quad has two cherry trees, probably Prunus sargentti , but I am not totally sure. I wrote above I wasn’t much for pink flowers, but pale pink doesn’t count. Ornamental cherry trees are rare in Vermont, so I suggest a short walk at lunch hour to go check them out would be in order. Look at the pretty bark while you are admiring the blooms.