A watched Spring never boils

The problem with watching the weather is the frustration. Even my years of experience in spring anticipation somehow still hasn’t prepared me for the wait, the fits and starts of the season. The landscape waits patiently, though, and the plants are right where they need to be.

Today in blooms? Well, it’s pretty mellow. The family Betulaceae is showing it’s stuff. On campus, that would the Birch, Hornbeam, and Hop Hornbeam trees, and in shrubs the Corylus, or Hazel, genus. Michael Dirr states, of birch flowers specifically, “the birches flower in April before or with the emerging leaves; they possess a hidden beauty which is lost to most people because they have never examined or considered the birches a flowering species…” After three days of a cold rain, I’ll consider any flower.

Look for large catkins hanging from birches. They hang in clusters of three from the ends of the branches, and have been there unobserved all winter. In Birch they are male and female-in Hazel, the female flowers arise from the leaf buds.

How would I describe the flowering catkins? Ask the Dutch. Catkin comes from the dutch word katje, meaning kitten, as the flowers resemble a kitten’s tail. I’d say I’ll get around to a picture but, well, the buds are swelling on the forsythia, and I swear I saw a couple of whitish blooms on a Magnolia in front of Forest, so I probably will once again ignore the catkins. Hidden beauty is all well and good until the Magnolias start popping.

The Most Beautiful College Campuses

Forbes recently wrote an article on The World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses. A nice slide show is included in the article, if you can ignore the pervasive advertising in it. Take a look at the Middle Path at Kenyon College, or one of my personal favorites, the campus of Wellesly College, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., of Central Park fame, and, closer to home, designer of Shelburne Farms.

First Plant in Bloom-Spring?

Hopefully you’ll be suffering the vertigo as gladly as I-posting on snow removal last week, and on the first flower in bloom this spring the next.

Ozark Witch Hazel
Ozark Witch Hazel-click for close-up

We’re starting the year in blooms the same way we ended the year in blooms, with a Witch Hazel. This one is Ozark Witch Hazel, Hamamelis vernalis. A smaller witch hazel, this one should top out in the landscape at 8-10′ tall and wide. Like the others, spectacular fall colors in hues of yellow and golds. Native from Missouri to Louisiana and Oklahoma, the flowers open very early in the spring, a 4 calyx flower with the ability to close up and wait should the weather turn cold again. This can extend the blooming time for 4 weeks or more. Down south they suffer from an inability to drop their leaves, hiding the lovely flowers, but does not seem to be an issue this far north.

Many cultivars have been selected, most trending toward red. The cultivar I bought for my house (and saw blooming yesterday) is “Purpurea”, aptly named once you see the blooms. The foliage should have a purplish tint all season-I purchased it in the fall with a spectacular red purple color.

Purpurea Ozark Witch Hazel
Purpurea Ozark Witch Hazel-click for close-up

 On campus, the witch hazel is blooming just east of the Garden of the Seasons, as a cluster of three in the swale. They were only planted a couple of years ago, so, while well established, are just beginning to grow and fill out. A book I got for my birthday, Lives of the Trees, states the witch in Witch Hazel comes from wych, or wican, meaning flexible or springy, like the hazel. Furthermore, the latin Hamamelis comes from hama, meaning together, and melis, meaning apple, for their tendency to fruit and flower together. This happened on campus in the fall, but this spring we are only graced with the seed pods on the spring witch hazel scattered amongst the blooms. 

Am I making the call to say spring is here? Heck no. Am I hopeful? Yeah. Lots.

Snow Removal

It’s an odd business to be in, pushing snow around from place to place. Done well, nobody knows or cares- come to work, park the car, walk to class. Miss a storm, and it’s easy to see the mistake. Just ask a student wearing their slippers or flip-flops to Proctor for breakfast. (Yes, flip-flops, not exaggerating here) It’s a misnomer to call it snow removal, we’re only pushing it or moving it to a more convenient location. The only way I know to truly remove snow would play havoc with our carbon footprint, not to mention our stormwater catch basins. While I personally believe that snow should only be moved in snowman form, that’s not entirely possible on campus, so we move it around, stack it up, shovel it off of steps, and plow it to the side.

Snow removal starts several days before the storm, sometimes as much as a week. It’s best to not get surprised by a storm and, while it happens, is rare. The more foreshadowing involved, the better shape we are in handle the storm. So we wait, and watch. Luther Tenny, Assistant Director of Facilities Management, oversees snow removal operations, and lives and breathes the weather forecast all winter long. (And all summer, too, but for golf.) He makes “the call”, and sets the operation in motion.

If conditions are right, the day before the storm we spray an anti-icer called Ice Ban on our roads and walks. It’s a topic for another blog post-suffice to say it prevents the snow from forming a bond with the pavement, and helps clear the ground quickly and easily. The devil is in the aforementioned conditions, so while it’s a useful tool, we don’t apply all the time.

Snow removal gears up at 2 AM, about the time students are wrapping up for the night, and starts with the big iron. A loader, a back hoe, and a single axel tandem truck plow snow on the major arteries of campus. These include Old Chapel Road, Porter Field Road, the Service building, Stewart Hill, CFA, Bicentennial Hall Road, and other places I’m sure I’m forgetting. The early start time ensures when staff start arriving at 4 AM to start their day they can arrive safely, and have a plowed lot to park. It is also nice to have main roads open for not just ourselves, but for the town of Middlebury as well.

At 4 in the morning things get more interesting. 6 snowplows on one ton trucks head out, and start plowing driveways, parking lots, loading docks, and other places too small for the large equipment. I’ll outline a typical route-all of them are about this long. Ready? Emma Willard, both front and rear parking lots. Storrs Ave.-the small faculty staff lot, and hop across the road for the library loading dock while you’re in the neighborhood. 3 South, then Twilight Hall, 125 Main Street (Public Safety), then the Meeker parking lot, then go down South Main Street and do 121, 119, 99/105, 100/102, 104, 106, and 108/110. Now head up Franklin Street, and do The Mill, 91, 115, and 131. Still Snowing? Repeat.

Also at 4 the sidewalk tractors join the fray. 4 people, in a couple of types of tractors, and a Trackless, head out and plow our 10 miles of walkways. In square footage, it’s over 8 acres of mostly concrete sidewalks. All the tractors have a small sander on the rear, spreading sand to keep the walks from becoming too slippery. These operators are really the unsung heroes of the snow removal team. Think of the  first snow of the year, with no snow banks as reference points, and how hard it is to remember not only where the walkways are, but where are the lips, bumps, manhole covers, trash cans, and other obstructions are, and you’ll get a feel for what they are up against.

6 Am comes, and the light is beginning to break. Unless there is a tremendous amount of snow, the sidewalk tractors have opened enough up for the shovel crews to head out in gators to all the buildings. 43 people in facilities, ranging from electricians and plumbers, to floor crew, Recycle center staff, general services, landscapers, and carpenters, to anybody else we can rustle up, load up the gators with shovels, sand, salt, other ice melters, and ice scrapers, and go shovel out all campus buildings on 10 different routes. Not just main entries, but every fire door, wheelchair ramp, garage door, fire escape, basement hatchway, and front and rear door need to be shoveled clear.

On a normal storm, most routes are done by 9:30 or so. Everybody goes back to the service building, cleans their equipment, and scrounges some coffee or hot chocolate. Then they go back to their regular job for the rest of the day.

The landscape crew stays on the snow detail, for a couple of days sometimes.  The sidewalks may need to have snow pushed back more, to make room to push off the next snow. Fire hydrants, oil fill spigots, and propane tanks need to be found and cleared. Unoccupied houses still need to be shoveled, along with decks, plazas, and roofs. Even most of the Bicentennial Hall roof gets shoveled off, with a pair of electric snow blowers, so the building doesn’t fill with fumes, and many shovels. Kohn field is cleared of snow for early spring practices and the track is cleared as well.

On average, snow events number about 15 a year. Even a 1 inch storm demands some response-the tolerance on campus is considerably lower than an average driveway. And come spring, all the sand and torn sod needs to be picked up as well. It’s great fun, actually, being part of such a large team of diverse individuals all coming together to move snow. At least for the first couple of storms…

Campus Tree Map updated

I’ve posted a new export of the campus tree map Google Earth file, on the Campus Tree map page. I’ve added quite a few more campus trees to it, and the official count now stands at 2279. There are a couple of more locations I would like to map, and quite a few more pictures I’d like to find the time to take. This iteration, though, is pretty close to complete.

I risked the potato chips in the keyboard, brushed off my math skills, and starting looking at our tree population in Excel over lunch(es). I’m no spreadsheet guru, but the information I pulled out is interesting, and tells me we’re pointed in the right direction in our urban forest here.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before…An urban forest population such as ours should have no more than 30% of the population from one family, 20% from one genus, and 10% from one species. Some sources say 15-10-5%, but that’s hard this far north. (Brief refresher- Roseaceae is an example of a family, and includes many types of plants, from roses, to crabapples, to Shadblow, etc. A genus is one type of tree, like Maple. A species is a specific type of tree, like Sugar Maple.)  The reasons for a diverse population make sense-let’s look at an example. Emerald Ash Borer  (pdf) is on it’s way to Vermont, as quickly as  a couple of years. Most recently is has been found 30 miles north of the border in Carigan, Quebec.  It attacks the Ash genus, consisting of both Green and White Ash here on campus, and they make up 8.7% of our population, and 8.3% of our canopy cover. Losing our Ash on campus would make a big dent in our population, but imagine if Ash made up greater than 20% of the population, as it has in some urban street tree populations elsewhere.

Our potential problems lie in the Aceraceae family, or maples. We’re ok on the family level, with 22.7% of our trees in the Maple family. The maple family only consists of one genus, Acer, making the genus population a worrisome 22.7% as well. Sugar Maple as a species makes up 12.3% of our trees, and 15.2% of our tree canopy cover (shade), so that is a possible weak link in our forest, should some insect or disease come along to target specifically Sugar maples.

Other statistics aren’t cause for alarm, but are worth noting. The Pinaceae family, Spruce, Pine, and Fir, make up 22.6% of the population, White Pine alone clocking in at 6.6%. Crabapples are 9.3%, close to the 10% species limit.  Slightly more than half, (54.2%) of our tree canopy cover on campus is made up of only 10 species of trees-Norway, Red an d Sugar Maples, Paper Birch, White and Green Ash, Crabapples, Norway Spruce, and White and Austrian Pine.

Another set of data gleaned is the age of the forest. I’m an advocate of planting trees every year, to keep a mixed age population. I measure this not from true age (can’t really know that without cutting trees down), but simply by looking at trunk size, a measurement called Diameter at Breast Height. Young trees, less than 6″ in diameter, are 31% of the population, 6-12″ teenagers are 33%, 12-18″ trees make up 21%, 18-24″ at only 7.6%, and the grand trees larger than 24″ are 7.5% of our population. (There are 34 36″ + trees on campus, 1.5% of the population. I’m thinking of naming them individually) This seems to be a good mixed age population-we wouldn’t want all the trees reaching old age at the same time.

So in all, a good mixed age population, and fairly good species diveristy. Im still open to planting Sugar Maples even, though I’ve been leaning towards oaks in the last couple of years. And I’m always looking for trees we don’t have. This year’s new tree species is  Amur Maackia, I’ve already got one tagged for us at a local nursery. I’m open to locations…

Wind Damage

I’m happy to say that Middlebury didn’t suffer much for tree damage from the storm I wrote about last week. Peak wind gust was only 34 MPH, but power was still out on campus for the better part of the morning. From what I understand a tree fell on a line near a substation. I’ll bet it was nice to have a half of a snow day-bet you thought you out-grew those once you graduated high school. It was nice to see the students making a productive use of their time. And yes, the guys in our landscape department feel bad when we have to plow some of them over. Like real estate, people, it’s all about location, location, location. Think before you sculpt, please.

We lost some branches here and there, notably in some White Pines near Hadley House and Perkins. Some large dead wood also fell out of Sugar Maples near Warner and Starr. Our vigorous pruning of trees on campus prevented a lot more damage, though, as most wood that falls out of trees is dead wood, and we remove much of that before it falls. Two trees did break some live wood, and I feel badly for them.

One is a rare (for this zone) Lacebark Elm in the front quad. You can see the broken tree as you drive south on Route 30.

Lacebark Elm
Lacebark Elm

This is a special little tree, and fortunately the break, while large, probably won’t permanently disfigure the tree. The damage was primarily one large scaffold branch breaking away from the main trunk, and was not surprising. This union between branch and trunk was a weak one, characterized by included bark growing between the two. As the bark on both stem and trunk expand through the years, it pushes against each other, causing the separation to widen. As you can see in the trunk close-up, the dark colored wood was always exposed to outside air-it is the light colored wood that was the sole attachment, and that is where it broke.

Closeup of damage
Closeup of damage

Proper pruning when this tree was young would have prevented this from occurring. Unions like this are easy to spot, and when removed young cause no permanent damage to the tree.

The other significant damage that occurred was more surprising, and also more sad. The wonderful Russian Olive tree just north of the new McCullough plaza lost a couple large branches on the right side, and will be much more noticeable when removed, disfiguring an admittedly funny tree-possibly the state’s largest.

Russian Olive
Russian Olive

This small tree is more often a large shrub-making this specimen quite old. The damage on the left side was from excessive end weight. As the snow collected on the tips of the branches the main stem could no longer hold it, and it broke. The species is not known for very strong wood; being a shrub at heart that is not very surprising.

Damage on the Russian Olive
Damage on the Russian Olive

We’ll prune away the damaged branches as best we can, and attempt some pruning on the other side to balance the rest of the tree out. I’ve been asked about replanting more of this species, but the plant is considered an invasive species, and is currently on the watch list by the Vermont Invasive Exotic Plant Committee.  It’s wonderfully fragrant creamy yellow blossoms in June and July are followed by fruit widely spread by birds, replacing native plants. While birds do love this plant, better bird species richness is found in native plant stands. There are plenty of other fragrant trees and shrubs to pick from in June and July, but I do like the silvery leaves of this one.