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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.

 

Season Creep

Categories: Blooms, Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outdoor Art in Context

Categories: Outdoor Art

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit-Wesley Alan Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillcrest Center, sculpture at star on photo

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

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

click for larger view

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

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

 

Tree Removals 2011

Categories: Trees

Like most years, the landscape department takes advantage of the upcoming holiday break to do some tree removals. Not that we are doing anything under the cover of darkness-it’s more like we don’t want to break the solitude of campus with the cacaphony of chainsaws and tree chippers, not to mention the lack of stress we have when not having to do hazardous work with pedestrians walking around us.

Like last year, we’re working off of a hazardous tree list we’ve kept for several years now. Each year, the hazardous trees are inspected in the early fall, the best time to observe stress in the plant. We’re getting toward the end of the list of hazards that must be removed, as this year we’ve selected 6 trees that for reasons described below must be removed.

Actually, 7 trees, but one is sad and important enough to warrant it’s own post later in the week.

The first tree on the list is a big one, a Norway maple north of Starr/Axinn. Like I’ve written previously, this tree is held together by a web of cables up in the crown, two complete systems. The first set is a group of three cables holding the main scaffolds together, and the second set is a complete ring around the canopy. Like we’ve seen in the Black Willow that failed by Battell, failure of one of these limbs can compromise the rest of the cable system, and lead to total failure. For this reason cable systems should be inspected yearly, preferably whilst up in the crown of the tree.

This tree has been declining in health for the past several years.. Notice the greatly thinning canopy in the following pictures, with the interval between last year and this being by far the greatest loss.

Canopy fall 2006

Canopy fall 2010

Canopy fall 2011

The cabling systems were originally installed to protect against failure in the main trunk. Norway maples, though, have a life span, one that is quite a bit shorter than I’d thought, and this tree has reached the end of it’s life. Over 75% of the crown was dead wood, with hollow scaffold branches held up only by cable. Most worrisome was the appearance of several types of fungi, indicating rotten wood both in the trunk and in the root system. While I hate to see such a large tree go, we can’t risk failure in an area so heavily trafficked.

The next tree on the list is another large one, a Silver maple by the Davis Family Library.

Silver maples are poor compartmentalizers, meaning any wounds they suffer sit and rot, further decay going up the stem and into the trunk. This tree has a major defect at the attachment of the main scaffolds, and hollow limbs on two of them. This tree had a hanging branch several years ago, and I climbed up there on rope to remove it. After ascending, I noticed the branch I was tied into was completely hollow, an empty tube the length of the branch. I didn’t stay up long.

After any major windstorm I would always look towards this tree on my drive into work to see if it was still standing. The crack shown above has opened up in the last year.

Another Norway maple in need of removal is next to Centeno, another Norway at the end of it’s life. This tree, like the other, has poor scaffold attachments at the base, and suffers from major cavities with rot. The crown has also suffered major decline in the preceding year, losing much of it’s foliage.

Centeno maple 2010

Centeno Norway 2011

The rot in the trunk holds water, and is actually deep, over 1 foot. Note how, typical of Norways, much of the leaf surface is on the ends of the branch, and therefore much of the weight is as well. This raises a red flag, as high wind events cantilever the branch, with the foliage acting like a sail.

At the top of the stairs leading to the east side of Gifford is a Black Cherry tree, leaning towards the stairs and a nearby light pole.

Lean in a tree towards a target is always troublesome, or at the least worthy of a second, closer look. This tree suffers from a cavity at the root flare in the direction of the lean, indicating a weakened or even missing root system in the potential failure direction.

The last two trees on this removal list are both Sugar maples, which, given the percentage of Sugars on campus, is hardly surprising. The first tree doesn’t really have an obvious cause of death, but is nearly dead nonetheless. It’s located up at the tailgate area, near Route 30.

The final sugar to remove is located up by Hepburn, and to be honest I didn’t really want to see this one go.  In fact, it probably should have been removed several years ago, when its defect was first noticed. Students in my winter term class will recognize it, and the tree is prominent in all of my tree tours. Rarely do you see such a concrete example of girdling roots causing an untimely death.

Nobody ever said trees were terribly intellegent. This tree grew several roots that wrapped around the root flare, so as they grew the tree was slowly strangling itself.

Water couldn’t go up the trunk, nor nutrients down. It showed all the classic symptoms of root girdling over the last several years. First the top started to die back, as the very upper reaches of the tree starved. Next the side of the tree with the girdling died back, followed by major sections of the trunk. Finally the entire tree itself starved as it tried to reprioritize, but without sufficent water and nutrient flow just couldn’t retrench to live out its final days the way many mature trees do.

I’m compiling our Tree Karma score for this year as part of our Tree Campus re-application, but am fairly confident we’ve planted many, many more trees than we’ve removed, even with all the freak storms this summer. Feel free to contact me with further questions or concerns you may have.

Atwater Finished, for now

Categories: Atwater Contest

We’re declaring a truce on Turf Battle, taking a break until next summer. Left for next year will be the planting around the northern retention pond, and the sidewalk removal and re-configuration south of Allen Hall, and completing the wall next to the patio.

This was my fifth growing season at Middlebury, and Turf Battle was the largest landscape project I’ve been involved with here. Feedback on all of the projects I’ve worked on is familiar and welcome, (first thing I learned here? Everybody has an opinion, many of them opposing each other), but I’ve never gotten so much positive feedback from a job than this one. Students smiling at me, thanking the crew, saying how much better the area looks.

So I feel the need to let you know of the immense amount of people that helped this project come together. I’m the one with the loud mouth, but many more people behind the scenes at Middlebury deserve much more credit than I. Let’s start with Tim Spears, the driving force behind the Turf Battle contest, and Sarah Franco, his partner in crime. Also Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief in the landscape department for that area of campus, who listened to me talk through a lot of the nitty gritty design work on the plantings, and told me when I was losing my mind.

Most important, though, is Luther Tenny, an Assistant Director of Facilities, and our resident civil engineer. The landscapers get all the glory work-we come into a job site that essentially looks like well-placed piles of dirt, and when we’re done, the area is gorgeous. The devil is in the engineering, though. Drain placement, sidewalk and ADA ramp layout, handrail construction, job scheduling, budgeting, timing, and talking me out of crazy ideas, yeah, that’s the idea. Atwater would be a big hot mess were it not for Luther.

I’ll attempt a photo tour, and explain some of the changes we made during construction to the actual plan. As always, click on the picture for a larger view. Let’s start at the Atwater Dining plaza.

This is an overall view, from the Atwater Dining hall roof. (In all these pictures, you’ll have to imagine the dirt patches as grass. It’s up now, but not when I took the pictures) The new handrails show on either side of the stairway, with the brown mulched beds on either side. Originally, the landscape architect’s plan called for the entire area from Allen Hall to the stairs and the island formed by the ADA ramp to the right of the stairs to all be one giant planted bed, with shrubs and some flowers. In talking it over with Dave and his landscape crew, we decided this would be far too much to take care of, too much weeding and maintenance until the beds get established.

This is in line with much of our landscaping we perform at Middlebury now. With less crew and more areas to maintain, the old style landscaping of large planted beds are no more. Instead, we prefer to have small focused beds in high traffic areas, and take very good care of those. In this spot, though, we were having troubles designing how these smaller beds should look. No matter how we laid the shapes out, it all seemed a jumbled mess.  After fussing for a while, we stumbled across the brilliance of the Wagner plan. His layout of the beds to either sides of the stairs were in straight lines off of the stairs. The problem we were having was the multitude of lines in the tight area; the curving roof line, the arch of the ADA ramp, the columns on dining hall. How did we mesh all of that together in the landscape? Simply put, we didn’t. Straight lines off the stairs relate the importance of that feature in the landscape, making the passage the dominant feature. The confusion of the curve of the ramp fades in significance.

Alternating these beds on either side of the stairs with grass gives the walk down a sense of rhythm, and simplifies the landscape. These beds are followed through across the area formed by the ADA ramp, blocking a shortcut we didn’t want to turn into a grass path.

We also carried one more bed to the dining hall side of the ramp, matching both the parallel sides and the size. This should help in making the plaza area feel more enclosed in a garden space.

River birch trees (Betula nigra) were planted throughout the dining plaza area, much like the grove at Ross Dining. We modified the locations of many of them, in part to enhance the garden feel, but also to provide screening from the area above. We’re hoping for an intimate feel down on the plaza, and limiting the views of the upper areas, and of Battell  Beach.

Admittably, the least popular bit of landscaping we did is right next to Allen Hall, blocking the dirt path that leads down to the Johnson Parking lot. While we would have liked to have put a sidewalk here, the topography made it impossible, and for a variety of reasons, including erosion, dorm window privacy, and accessibility, the area was planted in native White pine and Red Twig Dogwood, and will blend with the native retention pond below.

Moving up the stairs, I once again had the pleasure of working with Brad Lambert, our stone mason at Middlebury. A flaw in the sidewalk layout with no graceful way of fixing means people cut the corner across the grass as they turn to descend the stairs. Pouring a triangle of concrete would have wrecked the graceful lines, and while some were advocating for a well-placed BFR, Brad and I instead did a simple little Panton stone wall, to limit the area of dead grass. The stone used is a match to the ledge behind, and is recycled from a stone wall that surrounded the Proctor deck before its renovation several years ago.

I became fixated on approaches and entrances. Notice above how the two flower beds to either side of the first stairs are placed. The further one comes all the way out, while the closer one with the birch is placed further away from the main walk, subtly leading you into the stairs, implying the inevitable turn.

Above is the new sidewalk across the west side of Allen Hall. It’s one of those “aha” moments you have, when  you can’t believe this sidewalk wasn’t always there. The large bed on the left has a disease resistant ‘Accolade’ elm in the center, and the contrasting focal point in front is a Dwarf Hinooki Cypress, as I’m a fool for dwarf conifers. This is a fairly large bed by our standards, but the space deserves it.

Here’s the view from the front of Allen, with that new sidewalk leading off to the right.The gardens in front of the ledge are to the left. We’re picking up on the same effect here as at the top of the Atwater Dining, with more gardens on the left subtly steering toward the dining hall.

Looking toward Atwater dining, across the Panton stone ledge, so you can see the gardens around the ledge. And remember Brad Lambert? I forget the student that came up with the suggestion to have pathways through the garden to the ledge, but I roped Brad into making a couple. They look good on the photographs, but really should be seen in person. Once again, they are composed of recycled wall stone from Proctor.

Here’s a view toward Atwater Dining from the top of the ledge. The plants in the garden are mainly summer and fall flowers and grasses, including Black Eyed Susan, White and Pink Coneflower, Japanese Anemone, and several varities of grasses. The effect we’re looking for is to echo the roof planting, composed of wildflowers and grasses, with the gardens surrounding the ledge, joining two major landscape elements.

 

The gardens wrap around the stamped concrete patio next to Hall B. Like the Dining Hall plaza, we’re hoping for the feeling of being enclosed by the garden.

One of the most asked questions I’ve been getting on the project is the reason for the large berm behind Chateau. The long answer is that the hill breaks up the relativly flat topography in the area, and offers a new perspective for views in the landscape. Short answer? Needed some soil to grow a grove of trees. The plans called for a grove of single stem River birch, but we changed it to Honeylocust. The pH of the soil was too high for Birch, and we were also concerned about overplanting one species in the landscape. Honeylocust is one of my favorite shades-a dappled light dark enough to be cooling in the glare of summer, but bright enough so it doesn’t feel cave-like.

The Honeylocust were planted in lines specifically to preserve views of Chipman Hill. The stairs on the plan turned out to be recycled granite that facilities had in storage.

Top of the berm looking north, down toward the parking lot. Anyone with a history in Atwater are probably wondering what that foriegn green is between the halls-it’s grass. The trees shown below are Sycamore, a great fast growing shade tree. The wall, without the stone face, is visible to the right.

Standing on the sidewalk in the middle looking toward Battell Beach. Up at the top are more elms, also to the west of Chateau, to provide some screening between the Atwater area and the quidditch pitch.

One final picture, more grass, and a view down towards the lower retention pond. We’re going to get to the planting around the pond next year.

 

 

 

 

Seven Son Flower

Categories: Blooms, Trees

I don’t know if I’m a lazy, slothful gardener, or just a brutally honest one, but either way I’m hoping for a hard frost pretty soon. I’m tired. My garden is tired. A good significant freeze, a cleaning of the summer slate, an official change of the seasons, that’s what I need.

Given my perennial neglect, fall flowers always hold a soft spot for me. Anything that can brighten the garden in September is a bonus. Take Asters, rising up above the weeds of late summer. Sure, go ahead and curse the Aster yellows causing the lower leaves to fall away all summer, making the plant look ridiculous, but the bright pinks and blues as a surprising upper tier to the late garden redeem almost any neglected space. Grasses hold their own all season, but shine in the fall as vertical accents even as other plants droop and hunch like my sore autumn back.Trees and shrubs, though, are truly a lazy gardener’s friend. For a minimum of work, they blossom and grow dependably. In the plant world, it’s like something for nothing.

Heptacodium minicoides - Seven Son Flower

Seven Son Flower, Heptacodium minicoides, is a recent introduction into the plant world. Originally discovered by the famous plant explorer E.H. Wilson in 1907, at Hsing-shan in western Hubei province in China. Found on cliffs about 3000 feet above sea level, only one seed was found, so dry specimens were collected and brought to an herbarium. Another expedition found the plant in the Hangzhou Botanical Garden in 1980, and two seed collections were made from a single plant and distributed to various arboretums. Most active in spreading the plant around was the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. (Read the complete history ) As far as I can tell in my reading, all plants in the trade trace back to that single plant.

Seven Son flower gets its name from the seven headed inflorescences on the flower cluster. The white flowers wouldn’t draw much attention in the spring, as they honestly don’t hold a candle to a lilac. In September, though, they draw the eye through the tired landscape, showing off against the pale tattered leaves of most trees and shrubs in the late summer.

Heptacodium-flowers

The plant seems to grow somewhere between 10-20′ high, and about 10-12′ tall. It’s one of those gangly plants that defy the easy tree/shrub category, although the finest specimens seem to be pruned into attractive multi-stemmed small trees. The advantage to this little bit of work is the ability to show off the bark, which peels in long strips in alternating cinnamon and light brown shades. The leaves hold opposite each other along the stem (showing off its familial relation to Honeysuckles, the Caprifoliaceae) and stay dark green, pest and disease free all season. Some books claim no fall color, but we seem to get a dependable, but not stunning, gold.

Seven Son Flower-bark

Further south, once the flowers fall, the calyxes stay attached, and while the seeds are forming, turn bright red, looking like a second bloom on the plant. Honestly, I’ve never noticed this in Vermont, and the book Landscape Plants of Vermont states that the the season ends too soon for this Cape Myrtle effect, but I’ve managed to photograph some last week, and I’m watching.

Heptacodium calyxes

For the observant, there is one planted near Painter Hall, just off of Old Chapel road, pruned to a single trunk. Other clump forms are on the south side of Munford, the east side of Pearson Hall, and a couple other places I’m forgetting. Heptacodium seems to do best in full sun, but is at least partially shade tolerant as well.

Atwater Construction-Turf Battle

Categories: Atwater Contest

Doing large construction projects at Middlebury comes with a unique challenge, that of time. Most colleges and universities have various programs running throughout the summer, like summer camps and classes. Middlebury, though, has an entire college, the Language School. This intensive 6-9 week program requires the full attention of the students, so we in Facilities try not to tear the whole place up. Therefore, most of our large projects, like the Atwater landscape, we schedule for the couple of weeks from the end of August to the start of Fall Semester.

So Turf Battle begins. We’re winning, by the way, turf tends to lose when faced with an excavator. I will admit its been quite an experience. Most landscape restorations I’ve done at Middlebury are all uphill-starting from the beginning to the very end, the continual process is one of improvement, the next day looking better than the first.

The Atwater landscape at present looks like hell.

Fear not. We’re laying a good foundation, and things will come together quickly. Much of what we’ve done is laying a good foundation (literally, in some cases) for the landscaping on top. I took a bunch of pictures last week to share on the progress.

One of the first parts was the renovation of the ADA ramp to Atwater Dining Hall. The old ramp, made of blacktop, was ripped out, and after regrading, replaced with concrete, now meeting proper codes for width, pitch, and a flat landing area at the bend.

This sidewalk, on the west side of Allen Hall, was added. To the left of the sidewalk in the triangle formed by the walks will be a large planting bed.

Another view of the new walk. This area previously was all crushed stone, put down to prevent mud, as the area was so heavily trafficked that no grass could grow.

This was the beginning of the patio, after layout. The grades here are tricky-the natural lay of the existing ground wanted to send water right toward the building. This is where the excavator came in handy.

View of the patio looking north. This type of patio is tricky to pour and stamp. The concrete is pre-colored in the truck, then stamped on site with what for all intensive purposes look like giant rubber stamps. The process takes a while, so only a square a day can be done, lest the concrete set up before it all gets stamped.

A freshly poured corner piece. We kept the sidewalk through the center of the patio looking like sidewalk in order to keep it’s function. Hopefully tables and chairs won’t be placed on the sidewalk to keep the way clear for access.

A view of the berm looking north. The berm is made of topsoil removed from all the sidewalk and patio excavation, so is a sandy/rocky mix. The berm will be topped with 6″ of good topsoil, to help the trees and lawn that will be planted there. It is hard to get a feel for the size of the berm on pictures, but suffice it to say it is quite large in person.

Here is a view of the berm looking south. The rise at present is pretty close to 4′

One of my favorite parts of the project, not showing up well with my weak cell phone camera. This view is from the top of the berm looking towards Chipman Hill. While during the design competition we’d discussed saving the view of the hill, what surprised me that I hadn’t thought of is the new perspective of the Atwater Dining green roof afforded by the higher topography of the berm.

The project won’t be done by the time the semester begins. Our goal is to have most of the loud construction finished shortly. There are a couple of squares of patio to finish, as well as the two sidewalks leading west from the patio. The next step, which should begin this week, is the planting. We’ll be starting with the planting around Atwater Dining, and will expand out from there as other pieces of the project fall into place.

 

Summersweet

Categories: Blooms, Landscape

Memories of first loves can sneak up, then slam into the consciousness, triggered, perhaps by the sound of a song in a car at a stop light, the sight of a certain color hair, or, most strongly, a scent slipping into your brain upbiden.

For me, smell. Summersweet may well be my first plant love. The unique scent reminds me of a Connecticut childhood, wandering in the woods mid-summer, and smelling the spicy flowers for half a mile or more before coming upon the colony of undergrowth, sometimes a half an acre in size. Blooming now, and in fact for most of July as well, the plant sports long 3-4″ spikes of white (or pink, we’ll get to that) flowers, with a fragrance of, oh, vanilla and cloves together. Maybe that doesn’t even describe it, but is as lovely as it sounds.

Others know it as Sweet Pepperbush, for its small seedheads that look like little peppercorns, but without the taste. The latin is the rather unwieldy name of Clethra alnifolia, and is a native shrub to the east coast, from Florida all the way north to Maine and Nova Scotia. In fact, the only northeast state where Clethra is not found seems to be Vermont. Its marginal hardiness in zone 4 probably prevents it being found wild in our state, but this certainly doesn’t preclude use in the landscape.

Clethra alnifolia 'Compacta'- Summersweet

Given the bright audacity of so much in the late summer landscape, the subtlety of Clethra in bloom is a refreshing change of pace. It comes from a forest understory provenance, so they naturally do best in shade, and prefer some moisture. Smart gardeners are drawn to shade in the heat, and while the hostas are looking tired and beat, summersweet glows bright and fresh. My lone plant at my house is in a dry shade, but the species seems to grow well in sun given sufficient moisture.

Even the leaves stay clean and lustrous all season, in various shades of mid to an almost black green, with a slight sheen on top. Fall brings a bright yellow gold, holding late in the year. Full grown plants range from 4-8′ tall, depending on moisture, and tend to be wider than tall owing to its suckering nature, sending new plants up from the roots.

Yes, by all means, dig those suckers up and pass them to friends you like.

Michael Dirr, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, writes of seeing Clethra next to a water feature while shopping at L.L. Bean in Freeport, and “I got so excited I amost fell in taking photographs. L.L Bean is a terrific company plus they know their plants.” He raves on “if a retailer says he/she cannot find Clethra tell them Dirr said it is one of the easiet plants to grow at the commercial and garden levels and excuses will not be tolerated.”

In my 1990 copy Dirr lists 3 cultivars, and my 2009 copy over 25. I’ve grown some, and have opinions. The marginal hardiness of the species means some may not grow quite as well as others. A popular cultivar, Hummingbird, while a gorgeous dwarf at only about 3′, was discovered by Fred Galle in Northern Florida, and suffers from severe dieback in our northern state.’Hummingbird’ can also succumb to a nearly unforgivable genetic floppiness, which hopefully the sibling ‘Sixteen Candles’ has not inherited. I prefer ‘Compacta’ for it’s better hardiness- it was found in Tom Dilatush’s brother’s garden, the seed transported from the New Jersey Pine barrens in some leafmold-although this is a harder find in a garden center,.

Pink is another color worth persuing in the Clethra cultivar world. Ignore ‘Rosea’ and ‘Pink Spires’, both hinting of a light pink, but barely blushing, and look for ‘Ruby Spice’, a sport off of a Pink Spires discovered at Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut. The rich rose red color holds throughout its entire bloom cycle, even in the heat of August.

Ruby Spice Summersweet

So why isn’t this just grown everywhere? As a plant for sale, Summersweet suffers several minor flaws that drove us crazy back in my garden center days. One is the fact it blooms late. While I can argue until I’m blue in the face that Clethra is integral to Any Garden, I was generally talking to myself, not customers, in the dog days of July and August, and our September shoppers were lured instead by the cheap thrills of red leaves and pumpkins. Springtime brought another headache. The species is very late to leaf out and show growth. So late, in fact, I’d taken to warning customers to not give up on the plant until the fourth of July, after too many experiecnes of seeing live plants return “dead” in May, an irate customer wanting their refund. They grow out of that. The plant, not the customer.

And when it does leaf out, it may leaf out low on the branch, suffering dieback. This seems to also happen to younger plants, although even my 10 year old plant still does this to some extent. The late bloom follows a long, late growing season, so this tender new growth may not have sufficent time to harden off before the Vermont winter. The plant blooms on new wood, so any dieback (or spring pruning) will not decrease flowers.

I’m sticking Summersweet everywhere I can on campus. Compacta is next to the main door at Emma Willard, tucked against the north side of the building. Ruby Spice is at the lower door. More plants are at Battell, and in a new planting in front of Pearson Hall. Another cultivar, Sherry Sue, sporting bright red stems and a large size, is planted on the north side of Axinn, where the last two winters have been a little tough on them, but I’m still rooting for it.

Annuals in the Landscape

Categories: Annuals

A couple of months ago I’d found myself up in Burlington. I’d been planting some of the flower beds on campus, so annuals were on my mind. We (miraculously) got a place to park right outside the store, and I jump out. Looking towards the road, I see an abomination of an annual planting, one of the cliches in the modern landscape, the sign planting. I’ll let the picture do the talking here. (click on all the pictures to view a larger size)

I’m not an expert, but I will admit to an opinion or two. Granted, planting annuals commercially, on a large scale in public places, is somewhat trickier than it appears. But it seems like so many people are lousing it all up. So over the past month or so I’ve been taking notes on what makes successful flower plantings, and, after crossing off the bits that made me sound like a cranky old guy,  I’ve come up with some guidelines on how to make annual plantings that matter. Like all things, you’ll probably read some that apply to all sorts of plantings, even if you never find yourself with a 10′ by  50′ bed to fill with color.

1. Consider your audience.

Where are people viewing your planting? This is the very first step to consider before planting. Gardens can be viewed in very different ways, depending on where the viewer is located. Like the flagpole planting above. I count 6 kinds of flowers mashed together. The viewer for this garden? Drivers and passengers on Dorset Street. The viewer here is driving at 30 mph. It’s not a time to be subtle. The myriad of different colors in a small area at best look like a greenhouse just threw up on the lawn and, at worst, won’t even be seen.  Scale is important too-what’s the backdrop? Here’s another example.

I count five of six kinds of flowers here, kinda mish-mashed together in about 3 feet. It’s a nice combination, certainly something I wouldn’t have come up with (too subtle for my outlandish guy taste), and looks nice while walking right next to it. But look at it in the context of the rest of the landscape-

Can you even see the subtle pinks, blues and yellows? Or is the scene dominated by the giant yews, and the annuals have lost the battle?

Take this better example, the front of a flower border in a formal backyard setting. The masses of flowers, while pretty when up close, are still beautiful from a distance, in this case, the back porch and sitting area where most functions take place.

2. Buy larger.

I fully realize it’s 90 degrees outside right now. That’s why I’m inside writing. But to a plant, summer in Vermont is pretty short. Why wait? Particularly on large plantings. Go ahead and treat yourself to larger plants, maybe annuals that come in 4″ pots. They are in bloom right when you plant them, look like something immediately. The little plants from 4 and 6 packs just look silly out in the landscape, and take a month or so to start looking like anything. Save them for filler in your landscape, or the vegetable bed. This is some lost looking 6 pack flowers in the midst of some large perennials, taken about a month ago. They still look a little lost even now.

3. Buy more of less.

This relates to what we’ve already discussed up above-planting large groups of plants to make a statement. I will admit to that heady spring rush, the first trip through the greenhouse when everything looks so vibrant and new after snow all winter. Resist that temptation to buy one of everything. More impact can be had from massing a couple of types of plants together.

And when you fail, you can fail big. Like this mass planting of a large leaved red Oxalis planted in front of Proctor hall last year…

4. Avoid straight Lines.

Quite a while ago on an estate in Charlotte I planted a spectacular row of peonies. My memory says the line stretched for hundreds of feet, so it was probably about 50. They started to fill in great, flower all about the same time, and was beginning to look like the hedge we intended. After a couple of years, a water line broke in January directly underneath the line. We dug the peonies (they weren’t screaming, but I thought I saw the roots shivering), fixed the line, and planted them back. To this day, the dug plants are a little smaller, and the hedge dips a half of a foot where they are.

Staight lines are stressful. Ask anyone that has a boxwood hedge. They cower in fear that some random car will plow through the line. What if one or two of the flowers die? You’re looking at a hole all summer long. Maybe you can live with that.

5. Read the tags that came with the plants.

There are hundreds of varieties of annuals. The goal of growing them in a greenhouse is to get them all saleable for the end of May, so they need to fill out the pot. So yes, they all look about the same size. What you may not know is that some had to be started in March to look that big (geraniums), while others may have been started only a month or so ago (Bacopa), and still others may have been thrown on the greenhouse floor, stepped on a couple times, deprived of water, cursed at, and thrown in the pot last week so they don’t get too large too fast (petunias). One of my favorite flowers, Anagalis, looks small and dainty in a four inch pot, cause they don’t really like greenhouse life. The tag recommends a 14-20″ spacing, and they indeed grow all of that. You wouldn’t know it looking at them in May. Go look at the front of Emma Willard now, though. It looks like this-

6. Ignore the tags.

Some companies are better with their tags than others. Of course, they are looking to sell more plants, so spacing may get fudged a little bit. Some companies, though, are totally inexcusable. Proven Winners, for example. One of my standards in planting are Supertunias, a new hybrid of Petunias that spread quickly with large flowers in nice shades that don’t require much fuss (trimming, deadheading). An average Supertunia at Middlebury gets spaced 2′ apart, and they are still touching in a month. Even the ones where the tag says 6-10″ spacing.

Maybe they mean in a pot.

But don’t get too worked up about spacing. And please don’t use a tape measure. I can remember passing by a landscaper in Shelburne lining a sidewalk in front of a funeral home with two kinds of perennials, both spreaders (that’s a nice way of saying invasive, one of them was an artemisia.) He was out there with a tape measure, moving each plant a quarter inch this way or that, until they were just right. Within a month, they were filled out. The next year, the plants were all mushed together. Cound’t tell they were perfect anymore.

7. Use perennials and shrubs.

Annuals are expensive. And they don’t come back. And while large beds are nice, and massing flowers makes the most impact, budgets don’t always allow. So selective use of perennials and shrubs can fill in a lot of space and still give a flower garden effect.

Here’s a good example from a bed on Court Street-notice the Shasta Daisies in the center of the bed. That’s a good choice, as they bloom in the middle of the summer, and, with one deadheading (see below) they will rebloom in the fall. Even not in bloom, they stay an attractive green providing a nice backdrop.

Another example is in front of the Johnson Art Building. This is a large bed, in an area of campus that desperately needed a splash of color. Planting this bed strictly in annuals would be cost prohibitive, and a bear to maintain, so we planted the center. Sticking with the bright color idea, that’s a Bloodgood Japanese maple in the center, with a gold Juniper at it’s base, and a matching set of a dwarf Blue Spruce, flanked by a dark blue Salvia. It’s enough of a color palate that we aren’t hemmed in each year in color choice.

It’s tough to see in this picture, but the gold Juniper is offset , slashing diagonally across the bed. This gives four zones in the bed, a large and a small, so we can can go with two different color schemes and not have them clash. Pink, peachy, and purple on one side, and then golds and reds on the other.The blue spruce is the separator between the two.

8. Take care of your plants.

I’m a firm believer in tough love. I water new landscape plantings infrequently (water less, but more at one time). Annuals, though, live a coddled life in the greenhouse, with water and fertilizer daily. Taking them from an oreo and pop tart diet to the harsh realities of real soil can be difficult for them, like learning to do your laundry freshman year. In the fall we remove bark mulch from the annual beds, and put on about 3″ of compost. Over the winter cold earthworms draw the compost down into the soil, and we are able to plant right into compost/soil next spring.

Water. A lot, then a little. This year I watered twice the first week, once the second (rain or not, it didn’t matter), then the rest of the growing season if it hasn’t rained for week I’ll water. And we’re talking a real rain, more than a half of an inch. Anything less doesn’t count.

I don’t get too worked up about fertilizer. The compost does a good job of that. If I had to make an inorganic recommendation, though, I’d say something in a slow release.Organic fertilizers are wonderful, but if your annuals are deficient, you probably don’t want to be waiting for the right soil temps, enzymes, and mineral breakdown of organics.

9. Avoid cliches.

Not only planting the base of a flagpole, but I’m talking about the tipped planting pot with flowers in the ground “spilling” out of it, the cast iron bed frame in the ground  making a “planting bed” (bed? Planting bed? Get it? Huh? Huh? Get it? Huh?), the toilet bowl filled with flowers (Route 125 in Hancock), or the death march of marigolds lining a walk to a front door.

Cliches can be a more subtle, too, but just as tiring. Like rock plantings. Here’s a local example-

A rock in the middle of nowhere, and two each of the three most popular perennials-Silver mound Artemisia, Autumn Joy Sedum, and Stella D’Oro Daylily.

10. Ask a grade school kid about the color wheel.

It takes a LOT of flowers in a small area to be able to safely ignore color combinations, more than you are willing to plant. And the range of colors found in annuals now means that just because a color wheel says the two go together, it may not.

I will admit to landscaping like a guy. I’m just not very subtle. Bright, contrasty colors are my signature in flower plantings. Like yellows and golds next to Middlebury Blue college signs, or tacky reds and pinks underneath a Japanese maple. My favorite colors in perennials seem to be peaches and apricots. My favorite annual colors seemingly come out of a kindergarteners crayon box.

This goes back to the audience concept as well. All flower books seperate “hot” colors like red and orange from “cool” colors like blues. What they don’t say? Hot, bright colors look good from a distance, like shocking reds. Pale subtle colors look good closer up.

How about one color? Like Morning Star Grass, a green grass with a bright white streak up the center, with a white Bacopa at it’s base.

Another example-Rainbow’s End Dwarf Alberta Spruce, a rare spruce where the new growth comes out gold, with a gold Bidens crawling around the base.

11. Fuss a little bit.

If you are making an investment in annuals, you are going to have to invest in some time into them as well. It’s worth it. A mid-summer haircut goes a long ways to keeping the plants looking fresh and happy for the haul to fall. Some modern annuals don’t need deadheading (removing spent flowers), but chopping off flowers and seedheads at once scares them into better blooms in a week or two. Petunias will branch and flower more if trimmed.

12. Use something big once in a while.

Start with something tall, and work down from there. Unfortunately, many annuals all seem to be about the same height, and that gets dull. Mess around with some grasses, or old fashioned plants like Datura or Night Flowering tobacco. Not only will they fill up a lot of space (cheaply!), but they’ll provide a focus point for the whole bed. Here’s a night flowering Tobacco in a pot with an Oxalis at the base. Even in the daytime, green is a color, and theOxalis has plenty of presence on it’s own.

12. Have some fun.

Humor in the landscape can, and shoud be subtle. (remember what I was saying about cliches?) Annuals are such a broad catagory, that it’s easy to have fun with them, and like a joke, doesn’t need to live from year to year. I’ve seen all Black flowered gardens, for example, or all blue beds with one red “accidental” flower in the center. Or this-a funky grass called King Tut-an Egyptian Papyrus, that I decided to plant in front of the formal stone entrance to Old Chapel Road. It looks like I’d lost my mind. Naturally, I have.

13. Steal ideas.

Horticulture has a grand tradition of theft. One of my favorite plant combinations I ever used was actually just discovered by the plants on a greenhouse bench being adjacent to one another.

Steal ideas Draw inspiration from other sources, like art. Remember about the color wheel above? Ignore it, like that hack Claude Monet, and be brave enough to pair blues with pinks, or even use a surfeit of silver, even though it’s not on the color wheel at all.

14. Ignore everything I say.

I thought this coleus would look good in a bed.

A Wednesday Thunderstorm

Categories: Trees, Weather

Last wednesday we had a rip-banger. Thunderstorms developed in the hot summer air over Northern New York, and built as they tracked across the lake. The line continued to build once across the lake, and erupted on top of Middlebury.

I was sitting at home, (I was at work early), watching lightening strike all around us, many up on the ridge of Snake Mountain, some in the fields below. The wind was howling, and sheets of rain poured down. The Middlebury weather station recorded a 20 degree temperature drop in less than a half of an hour, and more than a half an inch of rain in the same amount of time. Peak wind gust came in at 40 mph.

The college weathered the storm ok, but 3 trees took it quite hard. A Green Ash behind Emma Willard (Admissions) took a lightning strike-that was interesting, as it was the shortest tree around, but it was all by itself in the center of the back yard.

Another tree we lost, not surprising, but still sad, was a large Weeping Willow on the northwest side of Battell Beach (the upper Quidditch Pitch). We almost always see Adirondack chairs underneath this tree. The center two stems of this tree had a fast moving fungus that caused a rot in the sapwood of the two center trunks. The sapwood is what carries water upwards to the branches, as well as nutrients throughout the tree, so having this vital structure rot away was a irrecoverable death in waiting. High winds torqued one of the trunks, and broke it away to lean against one of the remaining ones. We removed the tree the next day, before it broke further on someone sitting in a chair.

The final tree may or may not be a casualty, time will tell. One of the large Norway spruces we left in the Main Quad Tree Removal, the most southern one, was hit by lightning. Friends at work in the service building told me it was the most impressive lightning strike they’d heard in a long time. The tree shows a classic spiral scar from the top of the tree all the way down to the bottom root flare. Bark like shrapnel was scattered all over the quad in long 3′ strips, and filled the back of one of our gators. The prognosis of the tree is unknown. The roots seem to be intact-while there is bark peeling on the root flare, it does not seem too bad. Certainly I’ve seen trees recover from worse. We’ll know in a couple of weeks-if the tree is going to die quickly we’ll know soon.