My Latest Heartbreak

No, not the song by the 22-20’s.

The plant vandalism on campus continues. We’re on year four, and I’ve been trying to document all the cases. The tally stands at 62 incidents in the last four years, 10 in 2009-2010, 25 in 2010-2011, 9 in 2011-2012, and 18 so far this school year.

Will Henriques wrote an excellent article for The Middlebury Campus on our spate of tree and  plant vandalism, after interviewing both myself and Brian Marland, a student in my winter term course who wrote a term paper on tree vandalism.  The thrust of Brian’s paper was how plant vandalism is an inherently violent act, and how this is more than likely related to alcohol consumption. Not even consumption by the vandals. Studies he found show an increase in violent tendencies by people not even drinking, but merely in the presence of alcohol or alcohol advertising. Brian writes, “aggression is no longer viewed as an unwanted result of drinking, but instead is seen as an expected condition.  Therefore, students may be committing vandalism in order to meet these expectations and produce a reputation among their peers.  When surrounded by a drinking culture, these expectations of aggression may fuel behavior that would not occur otherwise among these college students…While living in an environment where alcohol consumption on the weekends is common such as a dorm, a college student does not even need to consume alcohol to be subject to the aggressive thoughts and behaviors that may follow alcohol cues such as a beer bottle.  This revelation is instrumental in understanding the acts of tree vandalism that plague the Middlebury College campus.  After drinking, many students travel in groups to parties in other locations, and even if a person in this group had not been drinking, their behavior will still be subject to aggressiveness from exposure to alcohol cues.  They will be much less likely to interfere with or report senseless acts of vandalism in this heightened state of aggression.  Therefore, in an environment of alcohol consumption on a college campus, all students exposed to the environment may be suspect to increased aggression.”

I’ve written about the violence against the trees in the past, and we continue to see the same acts again this school year. The classic example would be an elm tree planted 2 years ago for the Atwater landscape project, rocked back and forth, and the 300 lb. root ball pulled up out of the ground and left on top for an entire weekend.

Elm Tree at Atwater

Elm Tree at Atwater

Sadly, this wasn’t the only tree torn from the ground this year-two more that were planted last spring were pulled during winter term.

As Will’s article alluded to, and Brian summarized well in his paper, the damage seems to be focused not necessarily around party locations (little damage is seen in Ridgeline, for example), but seems to be on pathways to and from these locations. I recently mapped the locations of the incidents for the last four years, and have included it below.

Tree Vandalism 2009-2013 Click for larger size

Tree Vandalism 2009-2013
Click for larger size

I continue to struggle with solutions. Some communities post signs next to the damage. I hestitate, thinking about how within the next year I’ll be going on school tours as a parent. Surely the article in the Campus is a great start, as will be our annual tree planting for Arbor Day (May 14, mark your calendars now). We’re a small community, we have to take care of each other, and that would include our campus forest as well.

Pruning 101

Students that have taken my class will probably remember how disdainful I was about (well, lots of things, but in this case) books on pruning. They probably still line bookstore walls, but I avert my eyes fastidiously, so don’t quote me. Large tomes on pruning trees and shrubs, each plant type seeming its own chapter. How do I prune a lilac? A maple? A ninebark?
The books are worthless. A little plant biology under your belt, some tools, and we’ll have you all set to go in no time at all.


George Aiken famously said the best time to prune was “whenever the saw is sharp”. He’s close to correct. There is no bad time to prune, only better times. Most orchards are pruned in the winter. Why? Long winter, nice to get outside. We prune our shade trees on campus during the winter as well, and for the same reason. The only time I would not recommend pruning is early spring, as the buds are swelling and starting to pop open. Trees and shrubs are working so hard this time of year, pushing new growth without their leaves ready to replenish themselves by photosynthesis, so they are using all their stored energy, and could possibly be weaker and less able to recover from pruning. That being said, if that’s the time you’ve got, then so be it.The evil pruning books will also go on about timing, giving large charts about when to prune various flowering trees and shrubs. One rule of thumb will cover all that, though. Prune immediately after flowering. Spring flowering things, like lilacs and crabapples, have set their flower buds last year, so a winter pruning will cut them off before they had a chance to flower. Summer and fall shrubs will probably flower on new wood, so pruning them with the lilacs in June will probably cut those buds off as well. After flowering covers just about everything.


Anything you got that’s sharp will be just fine. I prefer Felco pruners ( and Silky handsaws ( but this is what I do, so I’ll spend a little more on something that cuts well and will last. Try and avoid what are called Anvil pruners, the kind with the blade that stops on a flat piece of metal, as opposed to moving past the bottom piece (bypass pruners). The flat piece of metal crushes the live wood around the cut, possibly injuring the branch protection zone.
If you feel like you need rope to climb a tree, or a chainsaw to prune, back away slowly. You’re reading the wrong post. By all means don’t use a chainsaw on a ladder or in a tree. Spend some time on You Tube if you don’t believe me.


The hardest thing to explain is the necessity of a plan. Why are you pruning this plant? Is it in the way? Funny looking? Too tall? Most plants really don’t need to be pruned, we just think they do. Probably because we planted them in the wrong place, or they have a hazardous condition we would like to remedy. But before hacking away on the poor thing, you owe the plant a couple seconds of your time to stand back and make a plan. And step back often while pruning, checking yourself.
Starting in, remember the 3 D’s, Dead, Diseased, and Dumb. Start by pruning out all the dead wood from the plant. It’s dead, the plant doesn’t need it. (Maybe the ecosystem does, but that’s another blog post.) Also, this prevents you from making a bad mistake a little later on. I’ve pruned much live wood out of a tree to free up a beautiful branch in a direction and location I liked, to later find that branch was actually dead. Once you’ve gotten everything dead, start looking for diseased wood. Little white fishscale fungus, bark peeling away, there are all sorts of little clues that tells you that branch is probably on the way out and will join the ranks of deadwood shortly. Like truly dead wood, no sense to save it, or to count on it when pruning for structure.
2 D’s down, now the fun one. It won’t take a PhD in plant biology to recognize that plants aren’t the most intelligent creatures out there. Sometimes a branch will grow straight down. Cut it. Sometimes a branch will grow right into its neighbor. Cut it. Look for branches that are crossing, rubbing, growing in the wrong direction, growing parallel to one another, or anything else that just plain looks dumb, and get rid of it.
Now that you’ve gotten everything that shouldn’t be there, you can start to prune for structure. That’s a little more than an intro blog post will cover, but here’s a good start. For trees, read . Pay particular attention to the section on where to make a proper pruning cut. For shrubs, a good basic rule would be to remove any large woody stems-plants bloom and look better with young, vigorous wood. Like lilacs-every year I like to take out a stem or two that are larger than 2”, leaving the younger thinner ones. This has the advantage of keeping the plant a little smaller (so you can reach the blooms to cut them for a vase), a little less gangly, and a little more manageable.
Our department will be pruning trees in the library quad for the next month. Feel free to stop and ask questions.