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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 So much of the work we do in the department for new plantings is ripping out large, overgrown, outdated landscape shrubs.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.

The Most Beautiful College Campuses

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Forbes recently wrote an article on The World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses. A nice slide show is included in the article, if you can ignore the pervasive advertising in it. Take a look at the Middle Path at Kenyon College, or one of my personal favorites, the campus of Wellesly College, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., of Central Park fame, and, closer to home, designer of Shelburne Farms.

Main Quad Tree Removal

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

While we dislike removing trees, sometimes we must. The Landscape Department is overseeing the removal of some hazardous trees in the main quad over winter recess. (We like removing trees over recesses–there is no pedestrian traffic and hopefully the ground will be frozen enough so we don’t make much of a mess.)  Since the trees are in a very prominent location, we’ve been consulting with the President’s Staff, as well as the Master Plan Committee, and all are in agreement about the removals. When finished, the look and feel of the main quad will be very different, yet much improved. And, in a bit of synergy, the work aligns with Campus Master Plan.

Most of the trees being removed are unhealthy, or becoming so, and hazardous. The best example is an Austrian Pine on the top of the hill below Hepburn. 

Sick Austrian Pine at Hepburn

Sick Austrian Pine at Hepburn

The tree being removed is the one in front, and the tree behind is the identical species, for a health comparison. This tree is suffering from Diplodia Tip Blight, a fungus.  There are at least another 5 susceptible pines in the immediate vicinity, and the best (and most organic) control of this fungus is sanitation–removal of the infected tree before it can spread to others. We are taking care to remove as many of the dead needles from the area as well, as the fungus is present year round.

In the same area, a Blue Spruce on the north side of Stewart Hall has been declining for many years. It would be fair to say this tree is suffering from multiple maladies, many of which point to root problems. Its slight but still perilous lean towards the entrance of Stewart, along with its drastically compromised root system make this a hazardous tree.

Declining Blue Spruce at Stewart Hall

Declining Blue Spruce at Stewart Hall

The other trees all sit below the ledge, in the flat zone of the main quad. Let’s start with some history of the space. The Main Quad lies between Old Chapel Road and Mead Chapel, and has a beautiful ledge of Panton stone forming the hill right below Mead. Bounded by Old Stone Row and Hepburn/Mead/Gifford, this quad forms the core of the campus and has since early in the 20th century.

Hepburn Hall 1929

Hepburn Hall 1929

 

Mead Chapel 1920

Mead Chapel 1920

Voter Hall 1921

Voter Hall 1921

 While this quad serves many functions, one of its primary uses in the past has been athletics–McCullough being the old Gymnasium. The area directly north of McCullough was used as both a practice football field, as well as a make-shift ice rink.

McCullough 1930

McCullough 1930

 

McCullough 1912
McCullough 1912

As you can see in the photos, that athletic surface was bounded by two rows of spruces, the remnants of which are still visible today.

The main line of these trees sits at the base of the hill below Hepburn and Mead Chapel (trees 4-9 on aerial photo). All of these trees are Norway spruces, a tree native to central and northern Europe. These trees perform best in moist but well drained and acidic soil. In old age, they tend to lose their form and usefulness, becoming thin and less attractive. This seems to be particularly true in the Champlain Valley, in part due to the poor draining clay soils endemic to the region, and in part to the alkaline nature of the soil (the aforementioned Panton stone ledge being limestone, which all gardeners know makes soil less acidic).

The health of these trees deteriorates from south to north. The last two, trees 8 and 9, are great specimens, and tree 8 is particular is a noble tree worthy of a visit (go ahead, make it a lunch date).

Large Norway Spruce-Tree 8

Large Norway Spruce-Tree 8

Our department is doing some work on tree 8 to preserve it for future generations by adding some cables up in the crown to preserve its structure and integrity. I discovered a couple of years ago the trunk circumfrence on this tree is exactly one kindergarten class, all holding hands.

The next cluster of trees, numbers 4-7, are more troubling. The northern-most tree, tree number 4, is the one used as a lighted holiday tree in December. It is in good but not excellent health. Its proximity to the sidewalk and associated root compaction are evident in the thinning crown and slowing rate of growth. The other spruces in this row will age in a similar fashion, due to the aforementioned endemic soil type. We will be leaving the holiday tree in place.

Tree number 5 has some sad history.
Tree number 5

Tree number 5

A previous Ice Storm snapped the top off, and subsequent rot at that cut has left a cavity in the very top of the tree.
Tree number 5-wound on top

Tree number 5-wound on top

Unsafe to climb and inspect, this hole is at least two feet deep, but has potential to be greater. Norway Spruce is not a great compartmentalizer, (I’ve written about this before, but for a better explanation go here) and so the cavity and weakness in this tree may extend for many feet down the trunk. Unpredictable trees are hazardous, and given the location of this one, it needs to be removed before it fails and splits in half.

The last two in this first cluster appear from the outside to be in fine shape, although are certainly entering their mature years, as their growth rate appears to be slowing. The southern-most tree (#6 on the photo) shows some worrisome excavation at the root flare from squirrels as well as some girdling roots.

Tree 6-Girdling Roots

Tree 6-Girdling Roots

This root is grafted onto the main trunk, and cannot be removed without serious injury to the trunk of the tree. Closer inspection revealed the compromised root system’s impact in the upper trunk, where a large dead zone is starting to lose bark.

Tree 6

Tree 6

While it is nearly impossible to predict the future longevity of any tree, this tree‘s survival will be short at best. We will be removing this one. As to the tree next to it (#5), most trees, and particularly evergreens, when grown in groups or clusters such as these, tend to rely on each other for support. A single tree can adapt to wind load from all sides, while a group of trees only adapts to wind from the exposed sides. Removal of one tree often results in wind throw of the remaining tree, especially in clay soils, which cause shallow rooting. Furthermore, the proximity of these trees to each other would leave a very bare and unattractive side to the remaining tree, as the canopies have grown together. We will be removing this tree as well. (The lighted holiday tree, with its considerably smaller and less dense canopy, is less at risk for wind throw. Think of a sailboat with only one small sail unfurled.)

The second row of trees to the east of the old football field is a bit less noticeable, as there are only really two original trees (trees 1 & 2 on aerial photo) left in the original line. Both are Norway spruces and are directly opposite Old Chapel in the Main Quad.

The southernmost of these, with the larger trunk size of the two, is a very hazardous tree that needs to come down.

Tree number 2

Tree number 2

It probably got hit by lightning years ago, and now has a spiral shaped cavity running up its trunk for at least 15′.

Wound on tree number 2

Wound on tree number 2

This tree is also an immediate hazard, and needs to be removed.

Soil conditions are also impacting the last group of evergreens–a cluster of 4 fir trees (indicated by #3 on aerial photo) to the south of the previously discussed Norway spruces. Fir trees, while similar in appearance to spruces, have even less tolerance of heavy, wet soils.  All four of these trees show very poor form for the species, have no limbs at all for the first third of the tree, and are quite thin above that. Douglas Fir is rare in Vermont, being native to the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast rainforest. There are some nice specimens of Douglas Fir up on the ledge west of Hadley House, thriving from the better soil conditions. This cluster in the Main Quad, however, is not enjoying the heavy clay soil, and are declining and dying. We will be removing these four as well.

All of our landscaping work is driven by the master plan , and this project is no exception. In one of my roles here, as the campus arborist, I know most of these trees need to be removed for the safety of the student population. In my other role, as a landscape designer, I also know these trees should be removed, but for a different reason.

The main quad is large, larger than many other quads at other schools, including Harvard Yard and the Dartmouth Green. Our main quad, however, doesn’t really feel much like a quad. The feeling of vastness, of this great expanse with no boundaries, is in large part due not to the size, but to the row of evergreens in the center.

View towards Mead Chapel

View towards Mead Chapel

While a long ways away, the buildings at the top of the hill should connect one side of the quad to the other, and put a more human feel on the space. The row of evergreens block this view to the western boundary, and create an artificial (although alive and green) wall.

The master plan calls for elimination of these evergreens. Imagine the view from Old Chapel Road, looking up to the three large buildings at the top of the hill. The quad will be bounded by beautiful stone buildings on all four sides, and feel like an enclosed and protected space. We will be limbing some of the maples up at the base of the hill to further enhance the effect–they are still young enough to prune with no real deleterious effect.

Ironically, the chips won’t go to the new Biomass plant. We value them much more for our compost operation, where they get mixed with the food waste from the dining halls, and then the finished compost is used on campus grounds. We never seem to have enough compost.

And, as I mentioned in a previous post, we are continually planting new trees, at the rate of about 3 ½ new trees to every one removed. Some gardeners look through catalogs all winter picking seeds. I visit local nurseries and tag trees grown by friends of mine to grace our campus. Yeah, it’s as much fun as it sounds, even in deep snow.