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.


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.


Anything you got that’s sharp will be just fine. I prefer Felco pruners ( and Silky handsaws ( 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.


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 . 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.


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.

Real Sod, Fake Grass

Categories: Outdoor Art

Towards the end of the term the observant on the north end of campus would have noticed a sod box on the south end of Battell Beach, about 7′ high and 5 ‘ wide. Constructed by Cha Tori and Hannah King for Professor Sanford Mirling’s The Artist Collective class, the sod hut joins a long tradition of end of the term student projects sprinkled about the landscape. Being the end of term, it sadly didn’t stay up very long, a victim of timing and student vandalism. I’ve posted their narrative below, as well as a brief slideshow.

“This work began in Sanford Mirling’s sculpture class, The Artist Collective and as a response to the prompt: make an environment for something. Working together, Hannah and I initially chose to make a room in which you felt happier when you left it. As the project progressed, we decided to achieve this by contrasting the natural with the synthetic. Dealing with the feelings of happiness and sad-ness, we purposely left the room free of objects so that it would lend itself to impressions but not specific memories. We wanted the outside of the sculptureto appear seamless with the work’s environment, as though it were growing out of Battell Beach. As a material, sod is very strange because it is a naturally grow-ing product but typically used in highly manicured settings. While the sod allows the box to blend with and grow out of the grass surrounding it, as a material that can be manipulated into a box, it underscores the more nuanced relationship between our conception of the real and artificial.”

2011’s Tree Karma Score

Categories: Trees

Applying for certification for Tree Campus involves a very enjoyable day of taking stock of the previous year. They ask about tree plantings, removals, dollars spent, volunteer hours, and community service projects. During a terribly boring snowless winter, it was nice to sit down and revel in our accomplishments during the previous growing season.

2011 was a banner year for tree planting. With the Forest renovation, the CFA renovation, our normal tree planting program, and the Atwater Turf Battle construction, Middlebury planted nearly 100 trees on campus this year.

We’ve had to remove some too. Storms and hazard tree removals are the most common culprits, although occasionally construction takes it’s toll as well. (It’s this reason I get lots of input from many people before planting, including managers in Facilities and the Master Plan Implementation Committee.) This year 22 trees have been removed.

So our Tree Karma score for 2011 is a very healthy 4 1/2 trees planted for every one removed.

Informally we try to plant 2 trees for every one removed. Our six year karma average is 3.8 trees planted for each removed. I got asked the other day what my favorite trees planted this year were, and thought it was either the Arbor Day planting, the large trees planted around Ross Commons, or maybe the rare trees planted to the west of Munroe, including a Stewartia, a variegated Tulip tree, and a rare yellow Magnolia. Or maybe the disease resistant elm in Adirondack Circle. But how can I single out one child over another?

We’re planting this spring too, mostly locally grown trees, in various locations all over campus. There is a method to our madness, we don’t just randomly plunk trees down all willy-nilly. One example is this year’s Arbor Day planting, just north of Battell. That awkward little triangle of grass lets Battell Beach lose it’s structure on that corner, and the space of the beach bleeds into the quad in front of La Chateau. The trees planted there will form a wall of sorts, segregating two spaces, and probably extending the usable lounging space of the edge of the beach.

(Not making any sense, am I? The next good beach day, go look at where people are laying out on Battell Beach. The southeast corner, down by Forest hall, along the southern edge, near the Forest hall sidewalk and some pretty spectacular ash and beech trees, or along the base of the slope that heads up to Pearson hall. Think about all those spaces. Psycologically, they are all protected–your back is up against a building, or a line of trees, or a slope. The northeast corner, near Chateau? No wall, no back, just open space across the sidewalk. Almost no one sits there, preferring instead to be near the line of spruces on the north end of the beach.)

Other places trees get planted are near trees that are dying, albiet slowly. I don’t like removing trees, and it makes me feel better to know when I do remove a tree I’ve already got it’s replacement planted and well established nearby. Look for some new trees near the Davis Family Library for this reason.

And by all means, join us today at 1 to plant some more-north of Battell Hall. We’ll allow you to get dirty.

Arbor Day 2012

Categories: Landscape

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

Categories: Trees

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.


The Avocado

Categories: Random Thoughts

All the talk around campus seems to be about Avocados. I’d always wondered about them, so I did a little reading. It got racy, I started blushing, and just now finished sputtering my way through the randy history of the buttery fruit. For apparently, with avocados, it’s all about sex.

It starts with the name. Avocado is a bastardization, the actual name comes from the Aztec ahuacatl, meaning testicle. Yeah, I went there. It gets worse. The fruit hangs off the tree in pairs.

The spanish took the aztec word and went with aguacate, which slowly became avocado. How’d they do that? We can only speculate, but it probably came about from lawyers with inferiority complexes. The spanish aguacate slowly became synonomous for abogado, legal expert. The french use avocat for both avocado and lawyer, the italians use avvocato for lawyer, and avocado for fruit.. Draw your own conclusions.

Naturally, avocados has a long history of being an aphrodisiac, following a botanical tradition of anthropomorphizing food based upon its looks. (there’s a name for that, anyone know it?) The first recorded english use of the word was in 1697, as Avogato Pear, but that was still hitting too close to home, so English prudes tried later to change it to alligator pear. Wiser heads prevailed, we’re calling a spade a spade, so Avocado it is.

And the sex isn’t stopping there. Avocados have evolved to avoid inbreeding at all costs. There are two types of avocados, A’s and B’s. Imagine this-a plant where the female flowers open on the morning of the first day, then in the afternoon of the second the male flowers strut their stuff. That’s an ‘A’ type tree, the B’s reverse this, with the males starting.

Our dining halls are filled with Ettinger Avocados, according to Midd-Blog, which is a ‘B’ cultivar. Bred in Kefar Malal, Israel in 1947, and brought to the US in 1954, this type is frequently used as a mate to the more popular Hass variety. (what makes Hass so popular? Marketing, savvy marketing. Hass bears all year, so is much easier to grow and sell, so the industry has made it popular.)

The pits are filled with a milky sap that turns red when exposed to air, and was used as an ink by the conquistadors. Bonus points for the first Middkid to write their thesis with this.

An avocado tree gets about 80 feet tall, and a mature tree will bear about 200 fruit. The trees are evergreen, and scared to death of the cold, although some can tolerate freezing temps for a couple of days. Most trees are grafted nowadays, and bear fruit in a relatively short 1-3 years. Stick 3 toothpicks in a pit about halfway up the fruit, suspend it in a glass of water, and watch roots grow in a couple of weeks. TAKE THEM HOME, I’m not taking care of them if you plant them out in the landscape.

Avocados are one of the Anachronistic Fruits, like the Mango or our Osage Orange, evolved to disperse its seeds with an extinct mammal, in this case probably something from the Pleistocene era. Or at any rate, if anything alive has the ability to eat and excrete an avocado pit, I don’t want to meet it.