Tag Archives: Random Thoughts

10,000, and an invitation

The site stats section of the blog just claims I reached over 10,000 page views (What does that mean? I have no idea. Maybe 9000 views by the “Google”, 500 people searching for “most beautiful college campus”, and then there is the rest of you in bloggerville. Welcome, come right in.) Like having a child, now I’m feeling this mantle of responsibility, but without the diaper phase. So the invitation is simple-ask away. Walking across campus I’m frequently stopped and asked questions, like advice on fruit trees, or tomatoes. I’ve been gardening and landscaping since about 6th grade, and while I have nowhere near all the answers, I at least know where to look. (And as you may have picked up on, I’ve got opinions. Lots of opinions.) So post some feedback, ask some questions, or send some pictures of your gardening accomplishments. I’m a landscaper, and although it hasn’t felt like it yet, it is May, so give me some time to respond. And thanks for listening.


The talk in our landscape department this morning was the peeper emergence lasts night. Being outdoor types, most of us sleep with the windows open, even with the woodstove blaring. It paid off last night, as the sound of peepers from my pond filled my bedroom.

Proving once again biologists have a sense of language, Spring Peepers are a variety of “chorus frog”. I always reach for the latin names, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Pseudacris crucifer crucifer is the Northern Spring Peeper. Pseudes (false) and akris (locust) for the sound, similar to a real locust insect. Crucifer meaning cross bearer, named for the cross like markings on the underside.

Peepers hibernate near ponds, and the males start making noise early in the spring seeking mates. Smaller than one inch, they are nocturnal, so hard to find, and although equipped with large toe pads for tree climbing, are more comfortable on the ground, hiding in the grass. I’ve learned they can tolerate freezing of some of their body fluids, so that explains their ability to have such an early life cycle in the spring.

The Most Beautiful College Campuses

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.

Snow Removal

It’s an odd business to be in, pushing snow around from place to place. Done well, nobody knows or cares- come to work, park the car, walk to class. Miss a storm, and it’s easy to see the mistake. Just ask a student wearing their slippers or flip-flops to Proctor for breakfast. (Yes, flip-flops, not exaggerating here) It’s a misnomer to call it snow removal, we’re only pushing it or moving it to a more convenient location. The only way I know to truly remove snow would play havoc with our carbon footprint, not to mention our stormwater catch basins. While I personally believe that snow should only be moved in snowman form, that’s not entirely possible on campus, so we move it around, stack it up, shovel it off of steps, and plow it to the side.

Snow removal starts several days before the storm, sometimes as much as a week. It’s best to not get surprised by a storm and, while it happens, is rare. The more foreshadowing involved, the better shape we are in handle the storm. So we wait, and watch. Luther Tenny, Assistant Director of Facilities Management, oversees snow removal operations, and lives and breathes the weather forecast all winter long. (And all summer, too, but for golf.) He makes “the call”, and sets the operation in motion.

If conditions are right, the day before the storm we spray an anti-icer called Ice Ban on our roads and walks. It’s a topic for another blog post-suffice to say it prevents the snow from forming a bond with the pavement, and helps clear the ground quickly and easily. The devil is in the aforementioned conditions, so while it’s a useful tool, we don’t apply all the time.

Snow removal gears up at 2 AM, about the time students are wrapping up for the night, and starts with the big iron. A loader, a back hoe, and a single axel tandem truck plow snow on the major arteries of campus. These include Old Chapel Road, Porter Field Road, the Service building, Stewart Hill, CFA, Bicentennial Hall Road, and other places I’m sure I’m forgetting. The early start time ensures when staff start arriving at 4 AM to start their day they can arrive safely, and have a plowed lot to park. It is also nice to have main roads open for not just ourselves, but for the town of Middlebury as well.

At 4 in the morning things get more interesting. 6 snowplows on one ton trucks head out, and start plowing driveways, parking lots, loading docks, and other places too small for the large equipment. I’ll outline a typical route-all of them are about this long. Ready? Emma Willard, both front and rear parking lots. Storrs Ave.-the small faculty staff lot, and hop across the road for the library loading dock while you’re in the neighborhood. 3 South, then Twilight Hall, 125 Main Street (Public Safety), then the Meeker parking lot, then go down South Main Street and do 121, 119, 99/105, 100/102, 104, 106, and 108/110. Now head up Franklin Street, and do The Mill, 91, 115, and 131. Still Snowing? Repeat.

Also at 4 the sidewalk tractors join the fray. 4 people, in a couple of types of tractors, and a Trackless, head out and plow our 10 miles of walkways. In square footage, it’s over 8 acres of mostly concrete sidewalks. All the tractors have a small sander on the rear, spreading sand to keep the walks from becoming too slippery. These operators are really the unsung heroes of the snow removal team. Think of the  first snow of the year, with no snow banks as reference points, and how hard it is to remember not only where the walkways are, but where are the lips, bumps, manhole covers, trash cans, and other obstructions are, and you’ll get a feel for what they are up against.

6 Am comes, and the light is beginning to break. Unless there is a tremendous amount of snow, the sidewalk tractors have opened enough up for the shovel crews to head out in gators to all the buildings. 43 people in facilities, ranging from electricians and plumbers, to floor crew, Recycle center staff, general services, landscapers, and carpenters, to anybody else we can rustle up, load up the gators with shovels, sand, salt, other ice melters, and ice scrapers, and go shovel out all campus buildings on 10 different routes. Not just main entries, but every fire door, wheelchair ramp, garage door, fire escape, basement hatchway, and front and rear door need to be shoveled clear.

On a normal storm, most routes are done by 9:30 or so. Everybody goes back to the service building, cleans their equipment, and scrounges some coffee or hot chocolate. Then they go back to their regular job for the rest of the day.

The landscape crew stays on the snow detail, for a couple of days sometimes.  The sidewalks may need to have snow pushed back more, to make room to push off the next snow. Fire hydrants, oil fill spigots, and propane tanks need to be found and cleared. Unoccupied houses still need to be shoveled, along with decks, plazas, and roofs. Even most of the Bicentennial Hall roof gets shoveled off, with a pair of electric snow blowers, so the building doesn’t fill with fumes, and many shovels. Kohn field is cleared of snow for early spring practices and the track is cleared as well.

On average, snow events number about 15 a year. Even a 1 inch storm demands some response-the tolerance on campus is considerably lower than an average driveway. And come spring, all the sand and torn sod needs to be picked up as well. It’s great fun, actually, being part of such a large team of diverse individuals all coming together to move snow. At least for the first couple of storms…

Plants of a (mis)Spent Youth

Friends ask me how I got into this line of work. How do can I explain it to a non-plant person? It’s all about the plants, after all, but how? What is it about the flowers, or the mulch, or the dirt? How did I get from playing Led Zeppelin on my eight track, painting my parent’s house white (again) to landscaping?

Lily of the Valleyis my earliest plant memory. lilyvalleyIncongruously, planted on the south side of the house, explaining the brown leaves all summer. My sister and I, 6 and 4 years old, picking little Dixie cups full of the white bells, and running next door on May Day, setting the flowers on the porch, ringing the door bell, and running like hell home. Forever linked in my head: the smell of Lily of the Valley, and the smell of band-aids for skinned knees.

Silver Maple-picking up sticks in the back yard in springtime. Lots of sticks. Lots and lots of sticks. So many sticks, I almost brought my kids to tears once, when I suggested we pick up sticks for their grandparents. My mom offered the kid across the street $50 to do it last year, and he said no. She never offered to pay me.

Sugar Maple. You have not truly lived until you have seen your dad peel all the wallpaper off the kitchen wall showing his son how maple syrup is made.

Bridalwreath Spirea, Spirea x vanhouttei. Did you know if you pick stems of flowers and put them in a vase with food dye, you can get the flowers to turn color? It’s a totally different flower in black.

So much for early childhood memory, short of a forsythia hedge moving 5′ north in our back yard (tips of the branches arching over and rooting in the ground), and some pleasant tree climbing memories (Norway maple, politically incorrect now, but has great branch spacing necessary for climbing). The epiphany came when I had the great fortune of starting work for a plant person.

Plant person? Yeah, I knew I was all in when we were driving to the next lawn to mow, and a tree service was topping some red maples in a yard along the way. Mark, my former boss, rolls down the window, slows down, and yells “Murderers!” at the top of his lungs. Maybe it was the heat,dianthus-alpinus but the house we went to had Cottage Pinks, Dianthus alwoodii, smelling of carnations, a close relative, stretched across 100′ of stone wall in the back yard, full bloom: the only landscaping in the yard, and utterly perfect.

Or Lacebark pine, driving 20 minutes out of our way to a job because I’d had the great misfortune of not having seen one yet? Have you? A pine with bark like a Sycamore. Don’t come and see the one I’ve planted in my backyard, it takes an older and wiser tree to know how to show off, and mine is only growing about 3″ a year for the last 8 years. (For those of you keeping track, yes, it is one of the first trees I planted) Likewise wait a while for the one I planted across from Emma Willard next to the Middlebury College sign.

Or driving through the Imperial Nurserieswholesale yard picking plants for a job. Now, I’d spent some time in garden centers, rest assured. Ever since I was about 12 or so customers would come up and ask me questions, regardless of where Iwas, just assuming I’d worked there. This yard, though, required driving, for it was measured in acres and miles. We needed a map to get to the exbury azaleas. (that’s another olfactive memory) Not so at another nursery, the lovely Summer Hill Nursery. We went there (presumably) just for a couple of plants. Looking back, it was probably more for the Bald Cypress planted there. (Yeah, I’ve got those planted too, right in my ditch. Hoping for the knees they for in native locales, although most springs I’m just happy when they finally break bud after winter-they’re very slow, and I worry.) (Yes, some at Middlebury too. Just planted last fall near the McCullough plaza. Ron was walking by, and asked if they were going to make it. An astute observation-the fall color is a dead rust color. For all intensive purposes in a couple of weeks every fall they look like they’ve kicked the bucket.)

Or my first design job, a small perennial garden (Mark was a dwarf conifer guy, hence letting the young whippersnapper do the perennials). Imagine, if you will, the heartbreak of doing a great job (so Mark said), then going back in 2 months to see the plants staked upright and tied with pantyhose. Just cause it’s in an organic gardening magazine doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea.

Or the guilt of being shown a rare variegated shoot on yew, then trimming all the yews around the church and forgetting about the shoot, whomping the next potential great plant into utter oblivion. It was about 100 degrees that day, but that’s really no excuse, right?

I haven’t explained the Led Zepplin, and if you have to ask what an eight track is you are on your own. And my parent’s house is no longer white, but cars once in a while slow down while driving in front, looking at theDSC00024Paperbark maple I planted in the front yard after painting all summer. One of those at Middlebury too, across from the field house. It’s the Class of 1942 tree. Go look at it, worth the walk, even in the cold.

Winter Term

Hello all, I’m back now. Thanks for your emails wondering if I am still around. I am. I had the pleasure of teaching a Winter Term course, BIOL 1003- Trees and the Urban Forest. What fun it was to join in the Middlebury experience from the faculty side, as opposed to being the staff guy with the dirt on his knees.

I love how random Middlebury is, how it appears out of nowhere, popping up in your life when you least expect a dose of academia. A good example of this was Nancy and I driving home from one of those inevitable but still unpleasant Taft Corners runs (Plato’s Closet and Once Upon a Child, have pity for me with 3 girls), and tuning the radio into WRMC, Middlebury’s own radio station. Sunday night, 4 Pm, and the show was The Jet Stream. Now granted, I’m a bit of a weather obsessive, but I was blown away by the quality of this show. Two guys, doing nothing but talking about the weather for the upcoming week. (who are you two? If you see me up in a tree on campus pruning stop and introduce yourself) Easily the best forecast discussion I’ve heard in a long time, with talk of computer models, trends, and facts for the obsessive in all of us. As high quality as the Eye on the Sky guys at noon  on Vermont Public Radio. My only comparable experience while driving was listening to a book on tape, A Brief History of the Universe by Stephen Hawking. I remember listening to that one and having to pull off the side of the road to sit and think for a little bit.

Another Middlebury random experience was just this morning, while reading Slate. The article was on Lost, and it mentioned another article by Jason Mittell. I thought I’d recognized the name, and sure enough, he’s in the Middlebury faculty. It’s not a small world, it’s just random.

Winter Term was a blast. I was warned by someone-it comes at you fast. Did it ever. 4 days a week of classes for four weeks didn’t even leave enough time to sneeze. The class did a couple of large service projects I’ll be writing about in the upcoming weeks. One was the start of applying to the Arbor Day Foundation to become a Tree Campus. Another was developing a street tree plan for an area in Middlebury known as Buttolph Acres. Yet another was taking the Middlebury Campus Tree Map and running the information through a computer model called iTree to determine stormwater abatement, pollution control, and carbon sequestration, among other items. Good blog fodder until the landscape starts greening up to be sure.

What an honor to work with Middlebury students. It was an experience I won’t forget for a long time, and one should the stars align correctly again I’d love to repeat. 23 students, all smarter than I am, teaching me as much as I was teaching them. Hopefully I’ll get a little random as well.