Tag Archives: landscape

Cultivating Hope, Wisdom, Compassion, and a Tree

Nature can teach us many things. Life, death, love. And Hope, Wisdom, and Compassion. How appropriate the 14th Dalai Lama uses ‘cultivating’, the act of promoting growth, to describe his wish for the dissemination of his main tenants for the human race to strive for.

Sogyal Rinpoche, the Buddist author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, writes of trees:

Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object. But when you look at it more closely, you will see that it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretch across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it all the seasons form part of the tree. As you think about the tree more and more you will discover that everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is; that it cannot be isolated from anything else and at every moment its nature is subtly changing.

A Bur Oak is planted next to the Garden of the Seasons just south of the main library, waiting to be blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Think about this tree, as it grows tall and wide, its roots spreading far across the quad joining its companions, and be reminded that like a tree, we all depend upon each other as well: we all share a subtle net of relationships. Let the small oak show our hope, our faith in growth and long life, as our grandchildren will see the large tree. And let it teach us wisdom, like the timeless ‘wise old oak’ of our childhood stories, and learn from it compassion, as no tree stands alone.

Bur Oak by the Garden of the Seasons

Watering

Pick up any plant biology book, and they consistently list the three macro nutrients all plants need as N, P, and K, the chemical symbols for Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus. But really, what we share with plants is a need for ‘macro’ macro nutrients, something so profoundly necessary that the books don’t even feel the need to list them, and they form the backbone of all life. We’re talking about C, H, and O, or Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen.

The carbon and the oxygen are easy, the plants are getting that in the air we breathe. It’s the Hydrogen that’s been stressing me out lately. Plants obtain it solely from water, through photosynthesis. I always remember my snide remarks in the retail garden center world, when a customer would ask me what kind of fertilizer to buy with their new purchases. For the most part, I’d tell them the single greatest thing they could do would be to water.

How much? It’s a good question with no real definitive answer. I remember from who knows where that gardens in the northeast need about 1/2″ of rain a week in the growing season, and an article on strawberry production I found says about the same (actually .63″). Trees need quite a bit more, though, as they have much more extensive roots throughout the soil horizon. Plan on 2″ of rain a week. I found a handy online calculator to do the math, but here’s a quick answer. A newly planted tree with about a 2″ trunk, should have a 5′ x 5′ zone watered around it, so that’s about 30 gallons, pretending to be a 2″ rain.

Sounds a little high, but the wild and woolly world of plants is never easy.  Last year we were averaging 4″ of rain a month, and we didn’t have to do any supplemental watering. On cloudy days plants don’t transpire, or lose water, at as great a clip, so maybe last year it was fine.

Or not. We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off right now, watering every tree we’ve planted for the last 3 years. (that’s a lot) All of our recently planted trees are showing drought stress, and I’m wondering if I hadn’t watered enough in the last 2 wet years to well establish the trees. When watering, it is best to water a lot all at once, so that the roots have ample moisture and can grow long and deep. Too little water, and the tree keeps its roots near the surface, where the water is, and this makes it less drought resistant in the long run.

Gator Bags for Watering

We water all trees with 40-50 gallons of water about every 2 weeks. We use two gator bags zipped together, and they drain over the course of about a day. We hand water any tree we missed, and then gator bag it. In this heat and drought, I’d like to water weekly, but I’ve been checking the ground around the trees, and I think we’re keeping up.

Another good trick I learned once when hand watering is to watch the ground as it absorbs water from the hose. I think this is the one of the Eliot Coleman gardening books, but I loaned my copy out and now it’s gone. Once the ground starts to get saturated, the top gets glossy. Take the hose off that spot, and the glossiness will disappear. If you can count to 3 before the glossiness is gone, the ground is moist enough.

Drought stress symptoms in Birch

identifying drought stress in plants can be tricky, especially in herbaceous plants like annuals and perennials. Woody plants are easier. The inner leaves of the tree turn yellow and fall off. I find this remarkable. It isn’t like trees have brains, but here they are smart enough to drop the inner, less efficient leaves, to conserve its precious water for the maximally producing outer leaves. By the time your plants are showing symptoms of drought, obviously much damage is done. Plants are pretty hardy, so even with serious problems the tree will probably be fine.

Arbor Day Tree Planting

Middlebury College once again has been certified as a Tree Campus by the Arbor Day Foundation, and the landscape department is celebrating by planting more trees (naturally). Come join us Friday afternoon from about 1-4 just north of Battell as we plant five large shade trees. The holes will be pre-dug, so it won’t be too much work. (Sorry, can’t let you run the backhoe; I would if I could). Students, faculty, staff, children, all are welcome. Come make a permanent mark on our campus, and get some dirt on your knees.

Arbor Day 2012

I measure my life in tree plantings.

Every time I come home from the Burlington airport, I drive down Dorset street in South Burlington and visit a Blue spruce I planted on a landscape job my first year out of college, 1989. It’s over 40 feet tall now, making me old.

A paperbark maple in front of my mom’s house in Connecticut is a lot smaller, but slows traffic down on the road in it’s awesomeness. A pair of honeylocust in front of a local church down there planted at my very first landscaping job now towers and dominates the little front yard. A Kentucky Coffeebean tree in my side yard in Weybridge planted when we moved in about 11 years ago is now starting to look like an actual tree, the trunk about 4″ now (it started small, I’m cheap).

Middlebury College has once again been certified as a Tree Campus by the Arbor Day Foundation, and the landscape department is celebrating by planting trees (naturally). Come join us Friday afternoon from about 1-4 just north of Battell as we plant 5 large shade trees. The holes will be pre-dug, so it won’t be too much work. (Sorry, can’t let you run the backhoe, I would if I could). Here’s your chance to make a mark on the Middlebury campus, and always have a friend to come visit when you return to paradise.

Or maybe we can call it my open office hours, no appointment necessary. Visits need not  be limited to 15 minutes.

Map of the Tree Planting-click for larger size

 

A New Class Tree

What we call a Class Tree on campus is a tree commemorating a graduated class, typically christened with a ceremony during reunion, such as on a 10th, 25th, or even greater. Our department was recently asked to pick a potential class tree for the upcoming reunion, and we’re more than happy to help. Traditionally we use a tree we’ve already planted in the recent past, and only ask that the class pay for the stone and plaque. This way we know the tree is already well established, so will live a good long time.

Trees connect us in many ways—through life, shade, a place to lean and sit under. Class trees are connected memories, bundles not of neurons and blood, but marking with rings and twigs the experiences of four years at Middlebury, a snapshot in time. Looking at class tree makes you think of your time in Middlebury, and your life during the time of that class.

Even before the discussion of where the tree would be and what type, I’d already picked one I thought would be perfect, and the request of having a Vermont Maple aligned perfectly. It’s a Sugar maple, grown by my good friend V.J. Comai at the South 40 nursery in Charlotte, and was planted 3 years ago.

My first summer here I was out in front of the Davis Family Library mapping the trees in the Library Quad. Collectively some of our oldest trees on campus, they are also the most stressed, with years of soil compaction wreaking havoc on fragile root systems. A professor came up to me, to this day I don’t know who, but he undoubtedly taught some of the students in this class. He asked what I was doing.

I explained how I was mapping trees, assessing health and measuring, and he asked if there were plans to plant more trees in this quad. I said most certainly, and showed him some of the weaker old trees nearby, and told him how it was much easier to remove a dying tree if the replacement tree was planted nearby and already well established. He then asked if I was going to keep the original line of trees, and fill some of the holes.

I had no idea what he was talking about. The trees in this quad are scattershot throughout, in random locations in between the uneven lawn shapes formed by the sidewalks. When the new library was constructed, many of the sidewalks were re-done in the library quad. At present, they are graceful swooping curves connecting the various destinations, such as Old Chapel, the library, Emma Willard, and Warner Science and Starr Library.

He points, and I look, and then finally see how many of the trees in the quad aren’t random, but demark a sidewalk long gone, connecting the south (front) door of Warner to the north (again front) door of what we now call Starr/Axinn. The old sugar maples lined the walk, and reading the landscape history, it was clear where some trees were removed, and needed to be replaced. The line is like a hidden Easter egg, a subtle reminder in the landscape of the past that many of us here don’t even know, a past the graduated class looking for a new tree took for granted as they walked on the now removed sidewalk from class to library.

I’ll be placing this plaque in the ground, looking down the row of trees, and thinking about what I was doing while these students were walking the long gone sidewalk. I was failing naptime in preschool.

My preschool was in a church basement, with a painted concrete floor reminiscent of the tile in the church upstairs, but harder, colder. Naptime means we bring out our blankets mom brought the first day of the year, and we place them out in neat rows, lay down for a half hour or so, and probably give the workers there a much needed break. My blanket had developed a hole, and my mom  brought it home the previous night, sewn a patch over, and hung it back up on the rack as she dropped me off.

I lay my blanket out on the floor. There’s the patch I’m seeing for the first time, a large, black, hairy spider right where the hole used to be.

Screaming, tears, running, and no nap. For anybody.

 

Season Creep

Everybody has their own phenologies, their own timing of spring. First day the snow shovels get put away (unused in my driveway at all this year, I might add), first day of working without long johns on, or maybe the first day of wearing shorts. I’ve always dreamed as a horticulturist of keeping a journal, tracking of events throughout the years such as first frost, peepers in the pond, first robin at the feeder. Yesterday I realized I sorta had one, and that I hadn’t posted to it in a while. So here I am…

One of my harbingers of spring is the opening of forsythia. It’s a plant I grew up with in our backyard, and the bright yellow flowers more than anything else speak spring to my weary winter frame. After arriving to work yesterday I saw the ‘Vermont Sun’ Forsythia in bloom next to the service building parking lot. Early. I first wrote about this hedge of Forsythia when in bloom on April 13, 2009, and wrote about it again in 2010 when it way 11 days earlier in bloom, on April 4. For the record, the bloom date this year was yesterday, March 20. Peepers were in my pond Monday the 19th of March, a blog post on them in 2010 was April 2.

Phenology, not brought to you by the letter “F”, comes from the greek phaino, meaning to show or appear. It’s the study of recurring life cycles of what is around us, the timing of insects, plants, mammals, and the relationship of time to weather and climate. There is even a USA National Phenology Network, using volunteers across the nation to study these cycles. A great example is the Cloned Plants Project, a partnership with the aforementioned  USA NPN and the National Weather Service, where clones of either a lilac or flowering dogwood are planted in an observer’s yard and bloom times noted throughout the years.

Obviously, this is wonderful data for global warming. More inputs than air temperature factor into when trees leaf out in the spring. Daylength certainly plays a part, as well as moisture conditions the previous fall, and amount of cold temperatures in the winter. But air temperature is the biggie. A study of oak leaf emergence in England since 1947 has indicated that a 1 degree rise in global temperature is associated with a 7 day earlier tree leafing. This is called Season Creep, and scientists point to this as one of the first effects of global warming that we can actually see in the present, with most of the other detrimental effects taking place in the future.

So where does this put us right now? I’ve been getting many questions on if this early spring will hurt the trees or landscape, and the best answer isn’t cut and dry. The worry is a late frost or freeze after the buds have opened, or shoots emerged from the ground. Short answer? The plants will be fine.Trees losing their first set of leaves can regrow new ones from secondary buds. Like beer on a worknight, it isn’t something to make a habit, but once in a while it isn’t going to hurt anything. And bulbs and perennials emerging from the ground know just when it is safe to come out-a frost never seems to bother them.

The impact of a freeze will be bad for us humans. For example, apples bloom before the leaves emerge, so should they bloom and get pollinated, a late freeze will destroy most of the crop for the year. There are no secondary buds for flowers.

The mild and early spring will cause other problems as well. Those suffering from allergies are miserable all the sooner. And the short, mild winter did nothing to mitigate the deer tick population, so extra care should be taken. If you are interested in tracking the spring and summer phenologically, I can’t speak highly enough of the UMass Landscape Message, posted weekly.

Outdoor Art in Context

A blog post, and a recent visit to my alma mater, UVM, has me thinking again about public art, and contexts. My question is this: Can a spectacular painting be ruined by the wrong frame?

Probably. I wonder how many paintings I’ve seen appraised on Antiques Roadshow, where the appraiser raves about the painting, then looks down their nose saying, of course, the frame needs to go. So why would this be any different for sculpture, or for outdoor art?

The blog post is Lovely Filth, by Douglas Perkins, on the Middlebury Art Museum blog. He writes of Solid State Change, a challenging piece by Deborah Fischer located outside of the Hillcrest Environmental Center. Others have written (and commented, don’t skip those) on the scultpure on his blog, so I won’t rehash. I won’t even give my opinions on the piece itself, as I’ve amply proved in the past I’m no art critic. I do, however, wonder if part of the perceived problems with the art comes from poor context.

The winter meeting of the Green Works, the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association, brought me to the University of Vermont for what may have been the first time in at least 20 years. The campus looked great-I had a little bus man’s holiday walking the grounds, mentally comparing campuses. I walked toward my first dorm, Buckham, one of the ‘shoeboxes’, when I saw part of ‘Lamentations’ through the cold mist of the day.

Photo Credit-Wesley Alan Wright

Lamentations Group 1989” is by Judith Brown, 1931-1992, and was donated to UVM in 1993. Only 2 of the original 5 ladies are still outside, the other three are awaiting restoration (and funding). (side note: thanks to CAPP, Middlebury will never have to face this, we owe our trustees a big debt in setting up the art fund). What I like best about the piece, though, is the context.

Situated behind the Fleming Museum, the statues appear to be walking through the grove of Honey Locust trees planted by Dan Kiley, the famous Vermont landscape architect, and matches a grove planted at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception down the hill by the waterfront. The honeylocust are grown in close quarters, and their dappled shade and contorted branches give a perfect setting for the spectral wraiths as they seemingly float through the bleak grove. The context of the landscape matches and enhances the art, like a good installation in a gallery, but more dynamic, changing with the light, seasons, years.

My favorite CAPP piece at Middlebury is Hieroglyphics for the Ear, 1997, by Kate Owen. This piece is located in the woods along the path on the way to Nichols House, home to the faculty heads of Atwater commons. The base of the piece lies in shade plants, such as vinca and lungwort, and help transition the work from the woods to the gravel path. The metal and stone blend with the site, but stand out enough to be noticed, and the engraved text almost echoes in the woods. I doubt the piece would resonate as well outside of this ‘frame’, like if it were in the center of an expansive lawn.

Another piece with a good context is Frisbee Dog, by Patrick Villiers Farrow, 1989. This work is on the edge of the main quad, underneath a large elm tree behind Munroe Hall. Here the context plays to the sculpture, matching the students out often playing frisbee in the quad. If it were placed in a more subdued setting, in amongst other works, the dynamism would be lost, the dog looking misplaced.

A piece that originally suffered context issues is the Garden of the Seasons, Michael Singer, 2003-2004. Observers watching this area of campus have probably seen the landscape surrounding transformed several times over the years. Sometimes it is difficult picking a frame for a painting.

The sculpture/garden lies a third of the way down a rain garden ditch that treats storm water from most of the library quad, and is situated under another elm tree, one of our better specimens. The swale was planted in wildflowers and grasses, specifically to treat the drainage and prevent storm water from entering the greater Middlebury area. This swale, however, was surrounded by mown lawn, and backed by the large southern facade of the main library. In short, something was ‘off’, and an acre of wildflowers were planted around the swale, to help contextualize the sculpture and the swale together.

Wildflower plantings, though, have a limited lifespan, and can quickly look ‘weedy’, a problem compounded by the location in the center of the quad. The facade of the library was working against the planting as well-the weeds and wildflowers all in one horizontal plane, matching the lines of the windows above on the library.

The ditch is ecologically very important, and needs to remain planted for storm water treatment, and needs to stay strongly diverse for important wildlife and bird habitat in a section of campus lacking such accessible space. We planted the ditch to the east of the sculpture in large swaths of native shrubs, such as Winterberry, Dogwood, Witchhazel, and Redbud. A couple of these varieties are matched in the Garden of the Seasons, tying the piece into the greater landscape. The mistake I made was in planting smallish shrubs. When mature, the swale will be transformed into a mixed height shrub border, breaking the strongly horizontal lines of the library. Now, however, all the shrubs are barely poking through the wildflowers and weeds of the ditch, so some imagination is still required to achieve the effect. Patience, grasshopper.

When mature, though, the Garden of the Seasons will find it’s proper context, and be perfectly ‘framed’ in the landscape.

I love Hillcrest as as building. Originally student housing modeled after a Victorian Farmhouse, the building has been transformed several times, and has now been fully restored and serves as the Environmental Center for the college. The inside retains its farmhouse charm, but unlike most I’ve been in, including parts of ours, is light, airy, and spacious. The modern touches inside and out, such as solar panels, play and blend with the old remaining Victorian touches.

Solid State Change (called tirerrhea by the students) lies alongside the building on the south side, against a stainless steel wall that I believe acts as a heat sink for the building. To further illuminate the context of the sculpture, to the south is the giant deck of Proctor hall, all gray stone, to the west is parking lot, Hillcrest Road, and more parking lot, and to the east is three in ground propane tanks, lids above ground, a sidewalk, and Hepburn Road.

Hillcrest Center, sculpture at star on photo

It’s a challenging site, almost industrial in feel, and I think works against the piece. The intent of the tires was to mimic the natural geology of the Champlain Vally, and while we can debate about the look of the tires versus actual dolomite, the setting is not helping. Does the stainless steel wall accentuate the recycled tires, rather then making one think of bedrock? Do the black tires help draw your eye towards the myriad of roads and parking lots? Is the space large enough for the sculpture?

I pass by a barn on the way to Middlebury daily. Recently restored, the foundation sits upon a panton stone ledge, organically growing from the site.

click for larger view

I’m pretty particular about using stone in the landscape, either in walls, walks, or ledges. Maybe I’m over sensitive, but I think stone should be local, echoing the greater area the site sits in. The ‘stone’ of Solid State Change is out of context, sitting in an improbable location, not part of the building, not part of the landscape. The work sits in mown lawn, a suburban look, not like a ledge sitting in a hay field, surrounded by tall grasses as the farmer is unwilling to risk sharp cutter knives near piles of rock.

I understand the intent of Solid State Change, and the need to have it placed near the Environmental Center, but the frame is fighting the painting.