To the keen observer, Middlebury’s campus landscape looks a bit different this fall. In a move driven by both ecology and economics, the College is mowing about 20 fewer acres of its 75 acres of lawn, a move that will save an estimated 1,000 hours of labor and nearly 700 gallons of fuel annually. Yet while the prospect of dollars saved and carbon emissions cut are popular line items during this time of budget and carbon reductions, Middlebury horticulturalist Tim Parsons says that the initiative has as much to do with ecological soundness as anything else.
On his blog, The Middlebury Landscape , Parsons writes: “While at Middlebury we pride ourselves in having beautiful grounds, ecologically [the campus] is a desert. Large shade trees and lawn give next to no habitat for pollinators, migrating songbirds, insects, amphibians, even what I call the ‘rotters,’ the worms, fungi, and other organisms responsible for breaking down dead plant matter. Having areas of campus grow up in meadow, albeit non native plants, increases diversity, and provides refuge and habitat above and beyond a green expanse of lawn.”
Parsons describes the following scene: “Picture stepping out of Bicentennial Hall, turning south and heading towards Pearsons. Immediately in front of Bi Hall is lawn, with some Adirondack chairs, a pollinator garden around a large pear tree, and [the] Smog [sculpture]. As you walk south, though, the lawn stops, and on either side of the sidewalk are large grass and wildflowers, with a break on your right, a mown area around a pair of yellowwood trees, creating a little park, and another break at the top of the ridge, creating an overlook park with a magnificent view over Battell Beach looking east towards the Green Mountains. So now, we are highlighting one of the most spectacular trees on campus, and emphasizing a view that may have been so ubiquitous in the past that it was ignored.”
Parsons acknowledges that these “no-mow” meadows are populated with non-native species that were previously existing in the lawn and that the College’s master plan calls for many of these meadows to be populated with native meadow plants. Because of the expense—which would require removing what is there and planting plugs of native meadow plants—such an extensive undertaking probably won’t take place for a while. Still, with the current meadow initiative already underway, native plants can be emphasized in these areas, and nature, well, can take its course.