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Shade Plantings, and a new Service Building look

Categories: Landscape

Landscape books often write about shade as a “problem”, or give chapters on “solutions” for shady locations. I think that’s crazy talk.

Shade plantings require a slightly different mindset, like stepping two feet to the left and looking at the world slightly skewed. Full sun is luxuriant-throw anything in there, and it’s bound to look good. How can you go wrong with something in bloom? But shade draws a sharper line, and making dark locations look good without relying on a full palette of blooming plants requires looking at other properties of your plants, things gardeners and landscapers take for granted in the light of day. Master planting in the shade, and the required skills will make your sun plantings all that more rich and interesting.

Like the color green. You know green, it’s all that stuff beneath the blooms on your Coneflower. Green is a color too, and without the laziness of the myriad of colors of flowers to rely upon, shade draws out an appreciation of the multiple hues of greeen. Or how about texture? Think of the huge leaves of hosta, and play that against a finely textured grass. It’s about making the plants talk about what they are for the entire season, not just the couple of weeks they are in bloom.

I bring all of this up because of one of my favorite landscape jobs this year, maybe of my entire 4+ years here so far. The service building doesn’t have a glorious name (how could it?), and the north side had an overgrown thicket of juniper, hating life in the shade, and Bayberry, a nice plant prone to suckering from the roots to over-fill any area given it. Yearly our department was asked to rediscover the sidewalk leading up to the main door, as the shrubbery in the beds nearby were eating any free space the path may have had. Once again I failed at a before picture. I actually took one this time, and deleted it by accident from my cell phone. Trust me, it was a jungle.

Here’s the after picture. All of what you see was a thicket, including the grass now on the left side underneath the White Pine. The large tree on the left is a Red Maple, which strangely enough turns a bright yellow every fall, instead of the Red of it’s name. They do that sometimes.  The bench by the door was already there, and frequently used by my wife on her breaks from the Grille working the night shift, so that was staying. (And I would have gotten to this landscape eventually anyway, but having her out there a lot certainly did move it up on my priority list. Work until 3 in the morning, I figure you deserve a nice garden to relax in…)

This was also the first landscape job where I got to work with Brad Lambert, our resident mason in facilities. Really nice guy, and more than willing to put up with my crazy ideas.  The landscape had a BFR for no known reason right at the end of the walk to the front door, and, rather than move it, we decided to build a small stone wall off from it, and we put a dwarf Weeping Hemlock (‘Cole’s Prostrate’) right at the top to cascade off of the new wall. Less work to build the wall then move the 500 pound rock out of the way.

BFR,Stone Wall, and Weeping Hemlock

Brad and I were having fun, so he stuck around and made a stone path through part of the garden. Someone stopped by, probably going upstairs to Human Resources, and leaned their bike against the wall, so a bike rack seemed in order.

We had a little extra stone, so Brad jazzed up the bench some too.

Nancy's bench

The stone is Panton stone, originally used as the low wall around the deck at Proctor, and we stole recycled it from storage.

Other woody plants in there include an Upright Yew, in an attempt to screen the parking lot from the front door, and some “Landmark” Rhododendron, another great shade evergreen with red flowers in the early spring. I haven’t planted this one before, but I’ve had good luck with other small leaved rhodies, so I have hope. There is also dwarf Japanese Golden Yew, Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’. This plant stays gold all winter long, adding some nice color near the walkway.

We left a woody plant in there, tucked behind the bench. I don’t even recognize it when I first started working at Middlebury-it’s not really supposed to live this far north.

Oregon Grape Holly

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium,  is a solid Zone 5 plant, though some people say Zone 4 with protection, which this location certainly has. Native to the west coast, this Barberry cousin has chains of yellow blooms in the early spring (the state flower of Oregon no less), and  purple grape shaped fruit in the fall. Edible, you can make jam from it, but I wonder if it’s one of those fruits that needs copious white sugar to make it palatable. The evergreen leaves are shaped like holly, and are used as such by florists.

The plant fun I had here, though, was in the perennials. Hostas are the backbone, their thick large leaves giving a coarse texture to play off of in the rest of the garden. Current plant breeding has given the hosta genus much more interest than the old fashioned green and white leaf with purple flowers your grandmother ringed all of her trees with back in the 60’s.

Guacamole Hosta

We used ‘Guacamole, an apple green and gold leaf with large white flowers late in the summer, scenting the air with a jasmine fragrance, along with my favorite scented Hosta, ‘Royal Standard’. ‘Cherry Berry’ is another hosta, put next to the pathway, with spear shaped gold and green leaves, but really planted for their dark purple blooms, followed by masses of little red seeds, hence the name.

Cherry Berry Hosta

Another hosta, massed underneath the memorial Red Horsechestnut at the end of the bed is ‘Gold Standard’, once again with gold and green leaves. This is the same hosta we planted underneath the giant Sycamore at the Deanery on College Street.

Other plants are sprinkled in there as well, included a cool variegated Carex, ‘Evergold’, and some red leaved Snakeroot, Cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’. We also stuck in some Heuchera, a new cultivar called ‘Mocha’, and a great Japanese Painted Fern named ‘Ghost’. We didn’t forget about spring, sticking in a perennial Forget me Not with the strange latin name of Brunnera, a.k.a. Siberian Bugloss. The forget me not everybody knows is Myosotis, but that’s a biennial, and hard to manage in commericial landscapes (it gets weeded and pulled quite a bit) The Siberian Bugloss has large dark leaves like a hosta, and seemingly live forever.

My favorite shade plant is next to the walkway-it’s small blooms in the fall need to be seen closely. And once you’ve looked, you’re hooked. Tiny speckled purple blooms like tiny orchids cover the plant all fall. The name, though, is unfortunate-Toad Lily. Let’s go all Latin on it, though, and call it Tricyrtis. The speckles on the blooms and leaves may make it look like a toad, but that’s rather silly. Native to Eastern Asia, from Nepal to Japan, even to the Philippines. Tricyrtis is in the Lily family, and needs shade to thrive in the south, but this far north does fine in quite a bit of sun, given proper moisture. It is only hardy to Zone 5, but I’d try it elsewhere, given sufficent snow cover. The cultivar we used is ‘Gilt Edge’, featuring gold ringed leaves all summer long.

Tricyrtis 'Gilt Edge'

Tree Planting 2010

Categories: Landscape, Trees

Of all the work we do here in the landscape department, some of the best is the tree planting.

Think of our landscape at Middlebury as a living organism, changing and evolving. Trees have a lifespan, like us, only measured not in decades but hopefully in centuries, for the best and strongest. Site vagaries not withstanding, most species live for a similar amount of time.  A mad rush of planting one year will mean that down the road a large hole may develop in the landscape, as the same aged trees all need replacing at the same time. Take, for instance, some work being done at Utah State University.

The main quad at Utah State is lined with 80 year old Norway maples, which in Utah live about 60-80 years. Plans are underway to replant the green, and to remove the Norways before they fail. This has met with some resistance, probably based more on disappointment, as the look of a beloved quad radically changes in the space of a couple short years.

We started our tree planting this year on Arbor Day, thanks to Hilary Platt and Chelsea Ward-Waller, two of my students from Winter Term, and the driving force behind getting Middlebury to become a Tree Campus. Many students helped plant trees around Bi-Hall, and near Coffrin. The focus for this area was to help define some of the space around Bi-Hall Park, as well as planting in between Coffrin and Bi-Hall to help with storm water abatement. We used Sweet Gum there, Nyssa sylvatica, and a variety of other native trees nearby, such as Hop Hornbeam, Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, and Ohio Buckeye.

Chelsea and Friends planting

More friends planting

The second focus of tree planting this year happened later, after the rush of commencement and reunion. I enjoy this so much so I almost don’t want to tell of it.

Part of a happy and sustainable campus landscape involves diversity. Having as many different species of trees as possible ensures that should the next insect (Asian Longhorn Beetle, Emerald Ash Borer) or disease come to campus, large sections of our tree population won’t get wiped out, like the aging Norway maples at Utah State.

So I prowl nurseries and garden centers, looking for healthy plants that will do well on our campus. With such a varied landscape, it isn’t difficult to find a spot to tuck in some type of tree somewhere. We focused this year on areas of the campus lacking in tree color, and used ornamental flowering varieties of trees to liven up otherwise very static green locations. An example of this is a small section of lawn right to the north of Painter Hall.

While not a large area, comparatively, it was large enough for three small flowering trees, set in a triangle. One was a Butterflies Magnolia, small yellow flowers in early spring. Later in June will come flowers from the Yellowwood nearby, followed by a small tree in bloom now, a Heptacodium, Seven Sons Flower. More on that species in a later post-it’s spectacular.

Other areas planted include North of Warner Science, where many over-mature Sugar maples are slowly showing the effects of time, as well as along the east side of Hepburn Road, and North of Gifford.

Hoopsii Blue Spruce north of Gifford

Paperbark Maple north of Gifford

Maackia amurensis north of Stewart

Other fun varieties planted were a “Discovery” hybird Elm, Red Obelisk Beech, “Katsura” Japanese Maple, Kousa Dogwood, and Yellow Birch (the kind they make Birch Beer from). 4 Different varieties of Magnolia were planted, one red, one pink, and two yellow. In all, 32 trees have been planted so far, and a couple more are still on the way. The Tree Karma count? Not exactly sure, with all the storm damage, but I’m thinking it’s still holding at 3.5 to 1 or so.

New Planting for Pearson Hall

Categories: Landscape

One of my frequent failings in landscaping is my overall excitement when starting a job, especially here at Middlebury. So much of the work we do in the department for new plantings is ripping out large, overgrown, outdated landscape shrubs. Crank up the chainsaw, get the backhoe in position, and dive right in. The failing? I never stop, take a deep breath, and take some interesting ‘before’ pictures.

You’ll just have to trust us. The east (Battell beach) side of Pearson Hall consisted of 8′ evergreen yew hedges, smashed in the center from snow over the last several winters, with a large Burning Bush sticking out of the center, easily reaching into the second story of the building. I’m sure it was all quite lovely many years ago, but foundation plantings of that era relied overmuch on frequent clipping and shearing to maintain proper size, and even then, can only be maintained at manageable levels for so long.

(Most shrubs need to grow, of course, and lose their inner leaves or needles as time goes on. Even if you clip most of a yew back each year, that new inch of so adds up over the decades. The only exception I have heard to this rule is boxwood hedges around temples in Japan, pruned to the same exact shape for so long that a child can walk atop, the growth being so dense and congested.)

Many of the landscapes we’ve redone over the last five years have been that of almost total removal, with smaller, more manageable plantings at key locations. Not only does this lower maintenance, but, if you haven’t noticed, we’ve got some spectacular buildings on campus, and removing the multistory vegetation surrounding them allows the architecture to shine like the day it was born.

Pearson Hall was like that. A great building, hidden in plain sight. The challenge here, though, was that what we call ‘north campus’ is relatively plain,views notwithstanding. So the goal was to make a great planting, bring some color to a new area of campus, while still showing off the facade of Pearson. Dave Berthiaume, the crew chief for North campus, and I made several sketches of the front entrance, trying and failing to install a flower garden and show a building at the same time. Finally, we came up with the idea to pull the planting out, and put all the color in front of the building, in a new bed next to the sidewalk.

New Planting in front of Pearson

Not the greatest picture, but let’s just go with it. On either side of the door are two large shrubs, Seven Son Flower, surrounded by Mugo Pine (hopefully a dwarf variety, but one should never turn their back on a Mugo Pine.) The large shrubs will grow up and over the door, framing the entrance, but not overpower the building.

It’s the bed out front with all the color. The little red thing in the middle is actually a tree,  a Japanese Maple. Readers from the south may not understand how special this is to us up here, but we love the red leaves, and try and fill the few microclimates we have available to us with this little marginally hardy tree. And imagine the red leaves in front of the building. It’ll get about 12′ tall and wide in the north country here, 20’+ further south.

Surrounding the little tree are some shrubs, and filling the holes in between are perennials. It’s a trick I use all over campus. One of the secrets to landscaping is a rule: If it looks good when it goes in, it’s too crowded. Trees and shrubs need room, more room than impatient idiots like me want to give them, so instead of wasting plants I give them proper room, and fill the spaces in between with perennials. As the shrubs grow, the perennials can be dug and divided, moved forward in the bed, or put somewhere else on campus.

Even with all of the flowers gone some day, the shrubs Dave and I picked will easily stand on their own. A couple of dwarf conifers anchor either end. A ‘Jane Kluis’ Japanese Red Pine, and one of my favorites, a ‘Sherwood Frost’ Arborvitae, like the White Cedar in the swamps around here, but with new growth emerging a snow white.

'Sherwood Frost' Arborvitae

A couple of deciduous shrubs round out the structure, a blue leafed form of Fothergilla (‘Blue Shadow’), and another favorite of mine, Compact Summersweet.

'Blue Shadow' Fothergilla -Leaf closeup

Compact Summersweet-mature ones in front of Emma Willard

The rest of the space is filled with perennials. It is tricky to buy perennials for a planting. The temptation is to grab everything that looks good, thereby assuring a glorious two or three weeks of color, and a lot of green leaves the rest of the summer. We tried to pick a broad range of plant times, but the German language school in session when we planted this may have a bit of a bonus.

'Jethro Tull' Coreopsis

'Morning Light' Miscanthus

'Rozanne' Perennial Geranium

There is more in there, but I took the best pictures. I keep obsessive records on what we plant, like what I wish I’d done at my own house (50+ varieties of daylilies, some with names…), so if you ever have the need to know what something is, just get in touch.

More Vandalism

Categories: Trees

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime

I read with interest the recent article in the Middlebury Campus on the increase in vandalism this year, as I completely agree. We’ve recently lost another tree to senseless idiocy, this one a rare Silverbell. We’d only planted this tree about a year and a half ago, and it was ripped up out of the ground about 2 weeks before it was due to flower. I could see the little flower buds shriveling up and dying right before my eyes. Not only was this tree ripped up out of the ground, but it was snapped in half at the base as well, I guess in case the first injustice wasn’t enough. This was outside of Allen Hall.

Close up of root system

Close up of root system

That same weekend, someone felt the need to do a little pruning on a paper birch outside of Battell.

The branch as found outside Battell

The branch as found outside Battell The tree

Maybe what concerns me the most is the possibility that, because most of the plant vandalism seems to be taking place outside of freshman dorms, we may be in for 3 more years of this. Once again, any ideas are welcome on how to fix this as a community.

Most Beautiful Parking Lot, Ever.

Categories: Landscape, Trees

Is there a contest out there for most beautiful parking lot? I can’t seem to google one, but if one turns up, I’m nominating the the Mahaney Center for the Arts parking lot-the big one off of Porter Field Road. Monocultures are verboten in the arboricultural world, but this singular planting of ‘Snowdrift’ crabapple transforms a blacktop wasteland with nice views of the Green Mountains to something totally magical for a week or so in the spring.




Snowdrift Crabapples have a great shape, with almost no variation in the population, making it predictable, and therefore enjoyed by landscape architects who don’t trust their plantings to trees that may take any old shape they want. The cultivar gets a nice dull gold fall color, and reddish orange fruit that birds wait and eat in the spring (at least in my yard, returning Robins mostly). While the name may have come from the flowers on the tree, I prefer to think it was named for the petals as they fall on the ground, all at once, blowing against the curbs and tires.


More Art in the Landscape

Categories: Outdoor Art

While I’ve already proven my failure as an Art Critic, I still enjoy the end of the term, when outside art projects start appearing overnight, and I feel like I should share them with you. Very rarely do we in the department ever find anything out about the works-we don’t even know the class or professor. Many have to do with trees, so sometimes I worry. Like last year, when I took a close look at a yellowwood tree on the south side of Coffrin, and found tiny bits of yarn left on many, many twigs. The yarn must have been nylon, for while it appeared old and weathered, it was still quite strong, and not starting to rot and fall off. All of this had to be removed, before the yarn started choking the branches and killing them. The term isn’t over, but here our some that have appeared.

This was a fun one, on a Japanese Maple tree outside of Johnson. I was over by Battell, and it drew my eye from that far away. Those are little bits of paper scotch taped to the branches, right around when the Magnolias were blooming. It was gone by the next day, with only a couple of errant tape pieces left to remove.

This piece caught my eye. I meant to forward this picture to Matt Biette, asking him for a reward on dishware retrieval. Notice the bottle at the top of the hill, like the plates are cascading down around the spectacular Red Oak tree.

My favorite, though, goes to one I actually know more about, thanks to Carrie Macfarlane of Armstrong Library fame (thanks Carrie!). Jue Yang, ‘11.5, made this spectacular sculpture for the Spring Symposium, based on her work in the “Art on the Land” Winter term class with Eric Nelson. You, dear reader, must see this in person to appreciate it-the size and layout preclude great photography, at least by me (any volunteers? I’ll post them) Walk on the Bicentennial Hall side of Freeman International Center, past the patio, and down around the back. The beginning (?) of the sculpture starts low, almost like a fallen tangle of branches, and builds as it wends through brush and trees. All the wood was local to the immediate area, so the piece grows almost organically like the landscape around it, working in a tree, and playing off the topography. Meet me at our Arbor Day celebration on Friday the 7th and I’ll point you in the right direction. (click on the picture to download a larger-one is now my desktop background on my laptop)

Overall View

Close Up

Close Up



Leaves Emerging

Categories: Trees, Uncategorized

“What a rich book might be made about buds and, perhaps, sprouts!”

Henry David Thoreau

Red Maple

Red Maple

Norway Maple

Norway Maple

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Katsura Tree

Katsura Tree

Camperdown Elm-Flowers

Camperdown Elm-Flowers



White Spruce

White Spruce


Plant Vandalism

Categories: Landscape, Trees

The final straw came late last week, at about 3:15 in the morning.

Nancy my (wonderfullypatientforputtingupwithme) wife, is a night cook at the Grille. While she was crawling into bed after work, she must have thought I was awake, so she said, “Tonight I saw a student carrying a tree into the Grille.” More

Plants of a (mis)Spent Youth

Categories: Random Thoughts

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

Landscape Department Wins Award

Categories: Landscape

Four of us just got back from the winter meeting of the Green Works- the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association. Our landscaping department at Middlebury won the Grand Honor Award for 2009 forLandscape and Garden Commercial Maintenance.  We submitted picutures and a narrative shortly before Thanksgiving last year, and a panel of 6 industry professionals and landscape architects met in December.  Projects were judged according to difficulty, proper horticultural practices, craftsmanship, and contributions to the quality of sustainability to the environment.

Green Works/Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association is a non-profit, statewide organization representing Vermont’s garden centers, greenhouses, landscapers, landscape designers and architects, nurseries, arborists, plant maintenance experts, turf care and irrigation specialists, horticultural educators and researchers, and other plant professionals.  For more information visit http://www.greenworksvermont.org/. (small disclaimer-I am jsut stepping down from being president of this organization for three years, but had nothing to do with the contest, and none of the judges knew of my involvement )

Our department was recognized by the judges not only on the outstanding job the crew does on maintaining the extensive grounds here at Middlebury, but for some of landscape planting and environmental initiatives we are underakting. the justdges coments were included, “Good beginning ato sustainability systems”,  “..no-mow meadows are a common sense, sustainable practice.”, “”excellent maintenance of site as concerns public”, and “for size of campus attention to detail good”.

I can’t begin to tell you all how happy I am we were recognized by the green industry in Vermont. While I am the one with the big mouth blog, it is really the dedication of all 12 individuals in our department that make the Middlebury campus as spectacular as it is. They are the hardest working guys I know, and it is a great honor and pleasure to work alongside them on a daily basis.

Below are the 12 pictures we submitted to the judges, along with the description provided, as well as the project narrative written as well. Enjoy.

Project Description

 Our main campus is over 200 acres, with over 75 acres in lawn, 89 acres of athletic fields, 21 acres of parking lots, 16 miles of sidewalks, and 4 miles of roads. The landscape department is 15 people, with 3 dedicated to the athletic fields, and the remaining tasked for the main campus.

 All of our grounds maintenance is done in house, including lawn mowing, fall cleanup, new plantings, and snow removal in the winter. We maintain an urban forest of over 2300 trees, including the northeast’s largest heritage Elm collection. (Elms maintained with help from Bartlett Tree Experts, Manchester, Vermont) Much of the tree care is done in house, including fertilization and pruning. New seeding and sod is done by our department as well.

 Recently, all new plantings, including tree replacement and landscaping around new construction and renovations are done in house. Landscape design work is done in house, occasionally with help from Landscape Architects for sidewalk and other hardscaping. Plant material is purchased locally.

 Our college prides itself on its environmental leadership, and the landscape department is no exception. We’ve recently begun a ‘no-mow program’, where 20 acres of lawn was chosen to let go, in effort to begin a more natural meadow. This has saved over 1000 hours of labor, as well as over 700 gallons of fuel. Research this year has also shown an increase in plant diversity, pollinator and other insects, as well as wildlife. A student group has recently collected seeds from locally growing wildflowers, and these will be sown in a greenhouse in the spring and planted out into the no-mow meadows.

 We have in place an Integrated Pest Management program, and have greatly reduced pesticide and herbicide use in the last 4 years. Invasive plants such as honeysuckle and buckthorn are actively removed from campus grounds, and all potentially invasive plants are not planted in new landscapes.

 Due to the diverse population of our college, as well as the 24 hour nature of any institution such as ours, we have particular challenges to remove snow, and to get the sidewalks and roads bare as quickly and safely as possible. We use a de-icer product as a pretreatment on the roads and walks before a storm-this all natural material greatly reduces our use of salt as an ice melter, as well as reducing our fuel and energy use in snow removal, and results in safer surfaces with less impact to the environment.