Tim Parsons

Posts by Tim Parsons

 
 
 

Arbor Day, the film

Categories: Random Thoughts

When some friends from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and the University of Vermont came to my winter term class to see our group project on Emerald Ash Borer, one of the things that impressed them the most was the diversity of experience in the classroom. We take it for granted at a liberal arts school, but to them it was quite novel to have Studio Art and Religion majors in the same classroom with Biology and Environmental Studies.

I’ve also discovered another delightful fact about teaching here at Middlebury-the sometimes painful truth that all of the students are more intelligent and creative than I could ever hope to be. It’s a great feeling to have your simple little course on trees extended into other work across campus, in liberal art ways you would have never thought.

So in that spirit, I want you all to watch Arbor Day, the movie. Created by the incredibly talented Joanie Thompson for Sight and Sound I in the Department of Film and Media Culture, it made my whole day. As I’m sure happens often at Middlebury, the teacher becomes the student.

Arbor Day from Joanie Thompson on Vimeo.

 

Arbor Day 2013

Categories: Landscape, Trees

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.

Vandalism Reward

Categories: Trees

Two  nights, three trees trashed. Once again, all around the Atwater dorms. More and more, I’m convinced that it is either one student, or a small group. As spring creeps along, the damage is getting worse. Based on the pattern of damage, I’m pretty sure the students(s) are in the senior class, and I worry about the end of the semester, in light of the increase of damage this spring. Will it get worse and worse closer to graduation? So I’ve had enough, and I’m going rogue.

A Ramunto’s Pizza, your choice of toppings, to the student or students that help me discover who is behind this. THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL MIDDLEBURY BLOG, and this reward is not sponsored by Middlebury College or Facilities Services. This is me, frustrated, saddened, and pretty pissed upset over the stupidity and sense of entitlement these vandals have.

Someone knows who they are. It’s a small community. And they don’t want to tell. I get that. Based on the violence exhibited, I don’t blame you. So email me (tparsons @), campus snail mail me, whatever. I will pass along tips to a detective in public safety, anonymously if you like, and we will figure this out. Heck, I’ll even throw in a batch of cookies my kids will make.

Don’t believe we have a problem? Read what I’ve written in the past, or read the excellent article the Middlebury Campus wrote a couple of weeks ago.

I can’t even begin to write about how much of a pleasure it is to work here, and how much pride both myself and the entire landscape department takes in the outdoor environment here at Middlebury. As I begin to take my oldest daughter to other schools, I’ve yet to see a college that even comes close to our little peice of the world here. I look at young trees, but in my mind I see mature trees, 50, 75, 150 years down the road. Think this campus is pretty now? Wait until your 50th reunion. We’re planting trees for your grandkids. Wouldn’t it be nice to have them around?

So I’ll cook dinner some Friday night, instead of getting take out, if that’s what it takes to stop this stupidity.

Broken Cedar on way to Atwater B

Broken Cedar on way to Atwater B

2013-04-04 13.53.55

Branches someone didn’t like on way to Atwater B

2013-04-05 07.49.47

One entire trunk of a clump birch twisted and torn apart, scarring the other two trunks, then thrown 30 feet away, outside Atwater A

UPDATE 4/22

Happy earth day everyone! Four nights, and two more trees pulled up out of the ground. One, right in front of Atwater B, had been pulled up last fall as well. We’d replanted and staked well, hoping it would live, and now saw both tree and stakes pulled up and out. Excessive damage to the rootball didn’t make the tree worth re-planting. Chalk up another mortality. The other was a Japanese Stewartia pulled up in front of Ross Dining, We replanted, and are hoping for the best.

The guys in the department are chipping in for two pizzas now. Whatever it takes. Don’t want to send a tip to me? Call public safety and make it anonymous. Try Middbeat or Middblog. Somebody. Anybody. This is your chance for 15 minutes of Lorax fame.

Accolade Elm killed in front of Atwater B

Accolade Elm killed in front of Atwater B

2013-04-22 08.29.48

Japanese Stewartia pulled out of ground

Bark Mulch

Categories: Landscape

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.

2012-12-06 14.33.46

White Fungus hiding in bark mulch

2012-12-06 14.34.11

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.

IMG_0155

Weak tree-notice tip dieback

IMG_0159

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.

My Latest Heartbreak

Categories: Landscape

No, not the song by the 22-20′s.

The plant vandalism on campus continues. We’re on year four, and I’ve been trying to document all the cases. The tally stands at 62 incidents in the last four years, 10 in 2009-2010, 25 in 2010-2011, 9 in 2011-2012, and 18 so far this school year.

Will Henriques wrote an excellent article for The Middlebury Campus on our spate of tree and  plant vandalism, after interviewing both myself and Brian Marland, a student in my winter term course who wrote a term paper on tree vandalism.  The thrust of Brian’s paper was how plant vandalism is an inherently violent act, and how this is more than likely related to alcohol consumption. Not even consumption by the vandals. Studies he found show an increase in violent tendencies by people not even drinking, but merely in the presence of alcohol or alcohol advertising. Brian writes, “aggression is no longer viewed as an unwanted result of drinking, but instead is seen as an expected condition.  Therefore, students may be committing vandalism in order to meet these expectations and produce a reputation among their peers.  When surrounded by a drinking culture, these expectations of aggression may fuel behavior that would not occur otherwise among these college students…While living in an environment where alcohol consumption on the weekends is common such as a dorm, a college student does not even need to consume alcohol to be subject to the aggressive thoughts and behaviors that may follow alcohol cues such as a beer bottle.  This revelation is instrumental in understanding the acts of tree vandalism that plague the Middlebury College campus.  After drinking, many students travel in groups to parties in other locations, and even if a person in this group had not been drinking, their behavior will still be subject to aggressiveness from exposure to alcohol cues.  They will be much less likely to interfere with or report senseless acts of vandalism in this heightened state of aggression.  Therefore, in an environment of alcohol consumption on a college campus, all students exposed to the environment may be suspect to increased aggression.”

I’ve written about the violence against the trees in the past, and we continue to see the same acts again this school year. The classic example would be an elm tree planted 2 years ago for the Atwater landscape project, rocked back and forth, and the 300 lb. root ball pulled up out of the ground and left on top for an entire weekend.

Elm Tree at Atwater

Elm Tree at Atwater

Sadly, this wasn’t the only tree torn from the ground this year-two more that were planted last spring were pulled during winter term.

As Will’s article alluded to, and Brian summarized well in his paper, the damage seems to be focused not necessarily around party locations (little damage is seen in Ridgeline, for example), but seems to be on pathways to and from these locations. I recently mapped the locations of the incidents for the last four years, and have included it below.

Tree Vandalism 2009-2013 Click for larger size

Tree Vandalism 2009-2013
Click for larger size

I continue to struggle with solutions. Some communities post signs next to the damage. I hestitate, thinking about how within the next year I’ll be going on school tours as a parent. Surely the article in the Campus is a great start, as will be our annual tree planting for Arbor Day (May 14, mark your calendars now). We’re a small community, we have to take care of each other, and that would include our campus forest as well.

Pruning 101

Categories: Trees

Students that have taken my class will probably remember how disdainful I was about (well, lots of things, but in this case) books on pruning. They probably still line bookstore walls, but I avert my eyes fastidiously, so don’t quote me. Large tomes on pruning trees and shrubs, each plant type seeming its own chapter. How do I prune a lilac? A maple? A ninebark?
The books are worthless. A little plant biology under your belt, some tools, and we’ll have you all set to go in no time at all.

Timing

George Aiken famously said the best time to prune was “whenever the saw is sharp”. He’s close to correct. There is no bad time to prune, only better times. Most orchards are pruned in the winter. Why? Long winter, nice to get outside. We prune our shade trees on campus during the winter as well, and for the same reason. The only time I would not recommend pruning is early spring, as the buds are swelling and starting to pop open. Trees and shrubs are working so hard this time of year, pushing new growth without their leaves ready to replenish themselves by photosynthesis, so they are using all their stored energy, and could possibly be weaker and less able to recover from pruning. That being said, if that’s the time you’ve got, then so be it.The evil pruning books will also go on about timing, giving large charts about when to prune various flowering trees and shrubs. One rule of thumb will cover all that, though. Prune immediately after flowering. Spring flowering things, like lilacs and crabapples, have set their flower buds last year, so a winter pruning will cut them off before they had a chance to flower. Summer and fall shrubs will probably flower on new wood, so pruning them with the lilacs in June will probably cut those buds off as well. After flowering covers just about everything.

Tools

Anything you got that’s sharp will be just fine. I prefer Felco pruners (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=felco+pruner) and Silky handsaws (http://www.sherrilltree.com/Professional-Gear/Silky-Saws) but this is what I do, so I’ll spend a little more on something that cuts well and will last. Try and avoid what are called Anvil pruners, the kind with the blade that stops on a flat piece of metal, as opposed to moving past the bottom piece (bypass pruners). The flat piece of metal crushes the live wood around the cut, possibly injuring the branch protection zone.
If you feel like you need rope to climb a tree, or a chainsaw to prune, back away slowly. You’re reading the wrong post. By all means don’t use a chainsaw on a ladder or in a tree. Spend some time on You Tube if you don’t believe me.

Technique

The hardest thing to explain is the necessity of a plan. Why are you pruning this plant? Is it in the way? Funny looking? Too tall? Most plants really don’t need to be pruned, we just think they do. Probably because we planted them in the wrong place, or they have a hazardous condition we would like to remedy. But before hacking away on the poor thing, you owe the plant a couple seconds of your time to stand back and make a plan. And step back often while pruning, checking yourself.
Starting in, remember the 3 D’s, Dead, Diseased, and Dumb. Start by pruning out all the dead wood from the plant. It’s dead, the plant doesn’t need it. (Maybe the ecosystem does, but that’s another blog post.) Also, this prevents you from making a bad mistake a little later on. I’ve pruned much live wood out of a tree to free up a beautiful branch in a direction and location I liked, to later find that branch was actually dead. Once you’ve gotten everything dead, start looking for diseased wood. Little white fishscale fungus, bark peeling away, there are all sorts of little clues that tells you that branch is probably on the way out and will join the ranks of deadwood shortly. Like truly dead wood, no sense to save it, or to count on it when pruning for structure.
2 D’s down, now the fun one. It won’t take a PhD in plant biology to recognize that plants aren’t the most intelligent creatures out there. Sometimes a branch will grow straight down. Cut it. Sometimes a branch will grow right into its neighbor. Cut it. Look for branches that are crossing, rubbing, growing in the wrong direction, growing parallel to one another, or anything else that just plain looks dumb, and get rid of it.
Now that you’ve gotten everything that shouldn’t be there, you can start to prune for structure. That’s a little more than an intro blog post will cover, but here’s a good start. For trees, read http://na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/howtos/ht_prune/htprune-rev-2012-screen.pdf . Pay particular attention to the section on where to make a proper pruning cut. For shrubs, a good basic rule would be to remove any large woody stems-plants bloom and look better with young, vigorous wood. Like lilacs-every year I like to take out a stem or two that are larger than 2”, leaving the younger thinner ones. This has the advantage of keeping the plant a little smaller (so you can reach the blooms to cut them for a vase), a little less gangly, and a little more manageable.
Our department will be pruning trees in the library quad for the next month. Feel free to stop and ask questions.

Cultivating Hope, Wisdom, Compassion, and a Tree

Categories: Trees

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

A New Vermont Geology Map

Categories: Geology

I’m a sucker for blogs and websites that send me scrambling to a dictionary, and recently I’ve come across a good one. Here’s your word for the day-odonatist. I’ll wait here while you look it up.

Back? Good. The site was The Daily Wing, an outdoor blog focusing on winged creatures, such as birds and dragonflies. (that’s an odonatist, if you were lazy and not terribly curious, a person interested in dragonflies, of the Odonata group. Good luck using that in your next conversation.) Bryan Pfeiffer, the author, writes all of the posts, and shows some of his amazing photography. It’s a gorgeous blog.

And like my blog, it seems like many things interest him. (Unlike my blog, he updates his more frequently. No excuses here-I got my house painted this summer.) What caught my eye was a post on the new Vermont Geological survey map, with the awesome title of “A History Expressed in Stone”.  The map, published by the state Vermont Geological Survey, is over 30 years of work, and shows major bedrock formations across the entire state. I want to get the paper copy, but our house lacks wall space for the 3 6 foot by 5 foot sheets, and my cave of an office wouldn’t even fit one.

So I’ve downloaded it, and the three PDF’s would blow my entire Papercut budget for the year, so I’m holding off on that. I’ve also download the shapefiles for Google Earth and ArcGIS, but am waiting to really delve into that this winter.

As a landscaper, something I’ve learned the hard way is that you just can’t fight geology. I’ve tried over and over to grow rhododendrons, holly, and other ericaceous plants on the MIddlebury campus, but our high pH soils just won’t let me. And the reason for that? The bedrock.

Watering

Categories: Landscape

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.

The Juice Bar at Crossroads Cafe

Categories: Random Thoughts

I make no excuses for not blogging.

I’m not one of those super-organized, or super-marketeer landscapers who spends the slow winter writing blog posts to store them for slow release all summer. No, we spent the snowless winter busily pruning more trees in one winter than the previous 3, and my dream list of blog posts keeps growing almost, but not quite, as fast as the weeds in the garden.

So what’s my first blog post of the dog days? Guess what, it’s not even about plants, but food.

Some of you probably know my wonderfully patient wife, Nancy, and if not go introduce yourself. She summers as the supervisor of the Juice Bar, which, lacking students, is run by the Grille staff, where she slums in the winter. They’re calling it Crossroads, probably because of the large sign above the back, but the menu is all Nancy. Last year was the year of the Panini, which they’ve kept (try the Sierra Smoked Turkey one), but this year crepes are the thing.

We had crepe weekend here at home a month or two ago, where she and the children practiced all weekend. (Oh, the sacrifices I make for the Middlebury community; I didn’t eat until Tuesday)  She’s got it down now, and has taught Sydney and Kate (Kate from Wilson Cafe, similarly slumming in McCullough for the summer). And you owe it to yourself to go get one.

Like the Goliath, with flank steak, goat cheese, carmelized onions, and roasted red pepper. Or the Fernicky, (don’t get the name? Ask Miguel), with sausage, ricotta, and apple. But, believe it or not, even this landscaper thinks the best one may be the vegetarian option, with a coconut tumeric lime sauce. I run and hide from Indian food (an unfortunate experience at a local restaurant after a Sunday brunch), but this crepe may be the greatest thing since skinny pancakes came along.

So go for the crepes, but stay for the Chocolate Soup. Really. We practiced that recipe at home too, but I was training for the Middlebury Half Marathon, so it was’t a sacrifice, but needed fuel.

Or so I said.