Tree Planting 2010

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.

Big Huge Icky Giant Tar Spot

Giant Tar Spot

The study of plant diseases made me terribly depressed in school, but also made me laugh on occasion. I imagined two plant pathologists walking around, looking at sick leaves. Of course, each of them wouldn’t admit to the other that they didn’t know or recognize some strange disease, so they’re making up names as they go along. Strange fungal spores on a cherry tree? Well, it looks like Black Knot, and the disease is named.

A fall arrival on campus (and occasionally in my inbox as a question) is always the blatetenly named Giant Tar Spot. (“Hey, what’s this?” “You don’t know that? Any idiot knows thats, um, Giant Tar Spot. Yeah, that’s it. Giant Tar Spot”) You guessed it, huge jet black spots on the leaves of primarily Norway Maple.  This, too, is a fungus, Rhytisma acerinum for you latinally inclined. It infected the leaves way back in early summer, but they don’t really show up until now. When it’s too late to treat.

Not that you need to. Late diseases and insects like this look terrible but, let’s face it, the leaves are only around for a couple of more weeks anyway. It’s not a bad year for it this year on campus, we’ve had it much worse. If you’re looking to get rid of it on your tree at home, rake and dispose of the trees at your neighbors…

New Planting for Pearson Hall

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.