Tree Map Updated

Categories: Landscape

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…

Water, water everywhere

Categories: Weather

So we had some rain today.

January is starting out with a bang-it didn’t get above 0 degrees for several days last week, and this morning was 50 degrees and raining. Rain of biblical proportions, with the rain gauge at the track saying .88″ of rain, most of it falling between 7:30-10:30, up to a half inch an hour at times. I’m not going to answer the Middbeat question of “What’s the deal with the weather”, except to say we’ve got some lower atlantic moisture sliding up the coast on the side of the polar vortex in the middle of the country. When low pressure systems like that get squeezed on the sides by intense high pressure, all sorts of funky things happen, like lots of quick rain, or high winds. We had both.

And with the deep freeze last week, storm drains were plugged, iced over, or covered in snowbanks. Rain can’t soak into frozen ground, taxing storm drains even when they are available and working. The landscape department went into overdrive, breaking up ice dams and opening storm drains. The most worrisome spot was solved quickly, that of Voter basement. You know, (or maybe you don’t), that place with all the computer servers. That would be a heck of an excuse for a banner web crash, wouldn’t it?

The northwest door of McCullough, the one that heads either straight towards Munroe and Mead Chapel, or head up the stairs towards Stewart, sits at the bottom of that whole slope below Mead. That entire side slope seems to drain right towards that door. There are several storm drains near there, including what turns out to be a critical one to the right of the door way. This is Jaime and Buzz, wearing hip waders, looking for the storm drain with ice picks and an iron bar. (As always, click on the picture to enlarge)

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And this is the doorway in question, where water was flowing a foot deep through the doors and down the stairs. We actually got the backhoe in there and broke up the iced over snow banks around the entry, and got the water moving down. The plastic and snow was acting like a temporary dam blocking some of the water.

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The Gamut room, in the Gifford pit, started flooding too. That’s Buzz and Jaime again, looking for the tiny little drain somewhere at their feet.

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Yes, I’m the one taking all these pictures. Only barn boots, no hip waders, and I don’t know how to swim.

The drain for this pit is simply down the hill below Mead Chapel. Bet you’ve been sledding over the top of it. Broke the ice around this drain and the pit was cleared in about 15 minutes.

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The last spot we’re still worrying about is on the north west alcove of Battell. This drain is frozen solid, barely flowing at all. We use bags of calcium chloride, and dump them on top of the drain. It acts like a non toxic drain cleaner, flowing down the drain and melting the ice. I’m hopeful this drain will be fixed by tomorrow. I’m not the most patient person you know.

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The true heroes for the day, though, I don’t have any pictures of. There is an entire custodial team known as ‘floor crew’. I don’t even know how many of them there are, but the ones I know on it are all pretty cool. They ran around all day with wet vacs, carpet extractors, blowers, mops, and various other implements of mass destruction. Wherever water was pouring into basements or doorways, they were there, fixing the mess, saving the floors and buildings (and maybe your room!) from the water mess.


Blind Sidewalk

Categories: Landscape

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: Landscape

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.

Cut Off Low

Categories: Weather

All professions seem to have their own language, most of it inscrutable. What’s impressed me about meteorology is their ability to take seemingly innocuous plain words and string them together in ways to make them terribly confusing. While doing a little digging to figure out just what’s been going on with the weather these last couple of weeks I came across the phrase “cut-off low”.

Apparently all of our moist, tropical air we’ve been (not really) enjoying is thanks to the jet stream, which has made up its mind this year to take an exceptionally strange dip southward across the plains. This leaves a path for the heat and moisture to stream northward into New England. A Weather Underground map from yesterday shows it pretty well.


Not only is the dip odd, but the fact that the jet stream is staying like this for several weeks is striking forecasters as peculiar as well. This is setting us up for what we’ve seen for the last week or two, hot muggy days with the ability to build thunderstorms, the late summer tropical kind with torrential rain only fun to play in when you’re young.

Working, not so much.

Last night’s storm, however, was a cut-off low. Cut off, it seems, from the jet stream. While it should have missed us altogether, instead it meandered up north and east, dumping an impressive amount of rain in northern New York (the forecast called for it to be over us, but it stayed a little to the west).


Now it is going to poke around Quebec for a while, probably exiting out the Saint Lawrence seaway at some point, once it gets caught back up again in the jet stream. The dip is forecast to be around for a while, so the rest of the week we’re looking at more warm, muggy, tropical August weather. We got .75″ of rain last night, bringing June up to 5.47″ of rain. Last year June had 2.3″ of rain, two years ago 3.1″. That’s why my boots aren’t drying out anytime soon.

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) 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

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Branches someone didn’t like on way to Atwater B

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


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

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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.

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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.


Weak tree-notice tip dieback


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.