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Middlebury’s Elm Collection

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Among various tree geeks in New England Middlebury is well known for our Heritage Elm Collection. Elms, of course, naturally succomb to Dutch Elm Disease if we humans aren’t very proactive. We treat 28 old Elm trees, some of which are over 150 years old. I’ve written a couple new pages on them, one a general overview of all of the elms, one a brief primer on Dutch Elm disease and how we maintain the trees, and a final page on the history of the elm tree at Middlebury.

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Elms have that classic umbrella shape, but can vary from specimen to specimen. We are fortunate to have trees in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, from the low spreading type like the Dog Elm behind Munroe (yes, we’ve named some of them), to the spectacular high and arching Field House elm. We also have been planting disease resistant varieties, such as Accolade Elm.

I remember a conversation with one of our seasonal employees several years ago, and we were discussing the difference between botany and horticulture. He cited the elm as a good example. Botanically, we will always have elm trees. They don’t die from Dutch elm disease until past their reproductive years, so they will always set seed and produce more young. And looking at them from a geological time perspective, eventually they will develop resistance, although that may be many millennia. Horticulture, though, is as much art as science, and as horticulturists we preserve some of the grandeur of an old elm, and we remember the dignity of the old shade tree as it was, even as we work towards bringing them back.

Tree Map Updated

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Having run inside, fleeing from the sub zero temperatures outside today, I spent the day updating our ArcGIS tree map with all the newly planted trees this year, as well as our removals. Seems like a good time to point towards the Campus Tree Map page, or go/treemap. The latest map contains all the trees we individually manage on campus, nearly 2500. Maybe if the cold spell lasts we’ll come up with a smartphone compatible tour…

Blind Sidewalk

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Landscape architects sometimes speak of ‘desire paths’-a phrase that means exactly like it sounds. Laying out sidewalks, driveways, or trails is considerably harder than it looks. A budding architect can either be a hero for guessing exactly where pedestrians want to walk, or a goat for taking an urban mentality and assuming people will use the sidewalk regardless of location.

Try as we might, the Middlebury campus is full of desire lines. Some are an easy fix. Two new sidewalks cut across the top of the Atwater quad based on dirt paths that had appeared post-construction based on pedestrian traffic flow. One that couldn’t be done, a dirt path from the Johnson Parking lot to Atwater dining, we tried to block with trees and shrubs, but the desire remains unabated. Another one that concerns us is a dirt path from Battell Beach heading toward Milliken Hall. This cuts in a straight line up slope, and is becoming so worn down that it may soon start to erode.

Dirt path behind Allen Hall

Dirt path behind Allen Hall

A new desire path appeared after the renovation of The Axinn Center at Starr Library. The northeast corner of the building, down by Route 30, houses several large classrooms, and students cut across the quad from the Main  library down to that corner.

Not that we blame the pedestrians. It’s cold here. Getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible makes campus life a little more tolerable in January and February. It’s a pretty obvious place for a walk, but the problem is the other walks in the space.

Before my time, the walk ways were redone, and came out beautiful. This is landscape architecture at it’s best. Gently curving paths arc across the space, connecting the buildings that surround the quad. The brilliance of the plan is the fact that they work. In colder climes like ours usually corners are cut, curves straightened, and shortcuts abound. The desire line from the library to that corner was, as expected, straight, and pouring this as a walk would break the beautiful rhythm of the rest of the walkways.

pathways plan view

Then, after one winter storm, the path was beaten through the snow, this time gently arching around some trees, eventually meeting the walkway to the library.

pathway zoomed

With this proof of concept, we were off and running. Last summer we went out to the quad with surveyor flags, and marked a potential route. Some language school students became willing test subjects, and we tweaked the lines for an hour or so until it flowed right.

The other, even more subtle brilliance of the walkway layout in the library quad is the way the sidewalks are blind, hidden from view. I bet few people have noticed this, but a picture makes it obvious.

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View from Route 30

Looking up from Route 30, the quad appears to a large expanse of lawn, unbroken by walkways. The art is in the subtle placement of the walkways. All of them are slightly built up on the route 30 side, and pitch towards Old Chapel Road. Leaning the other way, the flat expanse of the walk would be visible, but the design at present allows them to be blind, not seen from the road. Obviously that couldn’t be done had the road been higher than the quad, but geology and geography was on our side this time.

The new walk was tricky to match this effect. Its placement across the quad required some elevation of the surrounding area, as well as some grading to continue the natural water flow across the lawn. Had this been interrupted the sidewalk would pool water and turn into an icy mess.

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The Butternut Seed Orchard

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I’ve learned this summer a wonderful way to get attention is to build a one acre, 8′ high deer exclusion fence out on South Street past Eastview, brush hog down the existing corn, and not tell anyone what we are doing.

The landscape department, working with the State of Vermont, the US Forest Service, and a local researcher from UVM (Dale Bergdahl, father in law to local Middlebury College hero Mike Kiernan) applied for and received a grant from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation to erect the fence to grow Butternut trees. Butternut is threatened by Butternut Canker, a fungus with the potential to wipe out all Butternut across the United States. When found, disease resistant trees are grafted and grown for seed. An orchard was already established in Brandon, but another in a different locale (geographical as well as horticultural) is always preferred.

Deer love young butternut trees, hence the fence.

I’ve written a large explanation on the project on the blog here, it’s an entire page-Butternut Seed Orchard. I should give profuse thanks to Barbara Schultz, the forest health program manager in the Vermont Dept. of Forests, Parks and Recreation for an immense amount of work to make it possible,  Chris Casey  of the US Forest Service and Tom Simmons of the Vermont Dept. of FPR. And also, most importantly, local volunteer Sally Thodal for helping plant Butternut trees on one of the hottest days of the year.

Feel free to email any questions you have, and say hi to the trees as you drive by.

Another Summer in the Books

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Summer comes and goes very quickly here in Vermont—blink and you've missed it, as some would say—and like the season itself, our summer exhibits vanish with a similar haste, like a Fumé Blanc that you wish would have lingered just a bit longer on your tongue. As I watch the works come off the wall and go back into storage or back to their lending institutions, I often find myself wishing that I had spent more time with them, and inevitably I turn to the exhibit's comment book to absorb others' insights about the show as a way of allowing it to hang a little longer in my mind's eye. Continue reading

Arbor Day 2013

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

It’s been a gorgeous spring, and we’re celebrating with a huge Arbor Day celebration. Plan on joining us May 14th, details below. But in the meantime…

love a tree? share the love. send us photos, poems, and other art about your favorite campus tree. Submit a photo, or post on twitter with #middarborday. submit by may 10 to have your tree featured in the arbor day tree-k race! Either go twitter (@middland) or send to tparsons (at) middlebury.edu to submit. Prizes, fame, fortune, and good tree karma await. And the winning trees will become the basis of the second annual Tree-K race around campus (run 5-K,, and learn the names of 5 of the trees along the route to win) A kid’s race will be held as well. Winners receive gift certificates to the Grille.

The days events will be as follows:

Campus Tree Tour-join us for a walk around campus and learn about some of our woody friends. The tour starts at the McCullough Plaza at 2 PM, and wends its way through campus until about 3:30, when we will end up north of Battell Hall, where we-

Plant a Tree- a whole bunch of trees will be awaiting your tender loving care to be planted north of Battell Hall and in between Allen and Wright Theater. If you’ve never planted a tree this is something you should do-it will still be here for all of your reunions, like the rest of your old friends you’re eagerly awaiting to see. Afterwords, you can run or watch the-

Tree K Race-run about a 5-K loop around campus to all the various favorite trees nominated by the Middlebury campus community. Winners will receive prizes, and all kids will as well. Not too strenuous, as you’ll need to save strength for-

Food, music, and ice cream-We’ll be on the Atwater plaza, with a cookout by Grille Catering using local foods, ice cream, and listen to music by Will Cuneo and Rita Pfeiffer. Enjoy the sunshine for an hour or two before heading back inside to study for finals. A huge thank you to the Environmental Council for funding us!

So spread the word, let your neighbors know, and come celebrate our campus forest.

Bark Mulch

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

June may smell like roses, May smells like Lily of the Valley in my mind, but spring, sweet, sweet spring, smells like bark mulch.

Like many things in Horticulture, mulching really isn’t for the plants, but for us. Meant to imitate the look and ecosystem of a forest floor, mulch does neither, but it is not completely benefit free either. Mulch can help regulate soil temperatures in summer and winter, helps retain soil moisture, and can also help keep weeds out of the space. A little can go a long way, though, and as we’ve learned here, mulch is not something to just put down and forget.

Mulch can be a variety of materials, but let’s focus on tree bark and wood chips. On campus we use a double ground spruce/hemlock mix locally made in Newport, but that’s really all about looks. I used to be one of those people selling bark mulch, and so would steer people away from using (free) wood chips, but I’ve since recanted. The handy excuse I would use is that the as chips break down through normal soil processes they steal nutrients from the soil, and therefore the plants, but this  has not been supported by research. And in fact a good mixed load of chips, twigs, leaves, and needles from the back of a typical arborist’s truck seems to imitate the duff of a forest floor nicely, and is becoming the preferred mulch for some. If you are interested, some good reading on this is published by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott of Washington State University.

I used to say 3” of bark mulch was the right depth. I now think that’s too much and 2” is probably fine. Mulch too deep can actually inhibit water from reaching down to the roots, and/ or cause shallow rooting of trees. This is easy to see either by a white fungus growing throughout the mulch, or by roots growing right through the mulch.

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White Fungus hiding in bark mulch

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Shallow roots at base of River Birch

Too much of a finely shredded mulch can also decrease oxygen to the soil and roots. Unlike leaves, which make oxygen, roots require oxygen for respiration, and a thick layer of mulch will prevent good gas exchange between the soil and the atmosphere. The white fungus seen above has the added nastiness of turning the mulch hydrophobic, or water repellant. The mulch not only will not allow water to pass through, but will actively repel water right from the top, and let it run off.

Another thing I ignored in the past was the edict of not placing mulch against the trunk of the tree. I’d personally never seen any harm or problems by this practice, and being a busy landscaper, never took the time to push back the couple inch ring of bark mulch from around the trunk.

A gingko tree has recently proven me wrong. We’d noticed this tree declining for several years, and given the pattern of decline, assumed it was something wrong with the roots, like compaction or too abundant moisture. Closer inspection at the root flare (the most critical part of any tree) showed a ring of decay circling the entire tree, preventing all the nutrients and some of the water from its proper flow within the cambial layer. This decay was undoubtedly caused by the mulch against the trunk, and can be directly implicated in the death of the tree.

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Weak tree-notice tip dieback

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Ring of rotted wood at base of tree

Even if the mulch did not cause the bark to rot away, the constant moisture against the trunk, like the roots in the example above, decrease gas exchange. The trunk needs oxygen much like the roots, and can’t do this when it is constantly moist from mulch.

So my new mulching recommendations are these. Mulch is good, about 2”, real shredded bark if you can afford it, wood chips if they are free. Avoid the dyed mulch, which just plain looks tacky. Don’t blindly put a new ½” to 1” of mulch on top of last years’, better to dig down in the old mulch to look and see what is going on. Maybe stir the mulch up some, break up any hydrophobic layers, or add some compost for a biological kick in the pants to break down the existing mulch and closer imitate a forest floor.

And stone pebbles for mulch? Only in a zen garden, please.