10,000, and an invitation

The site stats section of the blog just claims I reached over 10,000 page views (What does that mean? I have no idea. Maybe 9000 views by the “Google”, 500 people searching for “most beautiful college campus”, and then there is the rest of you in bloggerville. Welcome, come right in.) Like having a child, now I’m feeling this mantle of responsibility, but without the diaper phase. So the invitation is simple-ask away. Walking across campus I’m frequently stopped and asked questions, like advice on fruit trees, or tomatoes. I’ve been gardening and landscaping since about 6th grade, and while I have nowhere near all the answers, I at least know where to look. (And as you may have picked up on, I’ve got opinions. Lots of opinions.) So post some feedback, ask some questions, or send some pictures of your gardening accomplishments. I’m a landscaper, and although it hasn’t felt like it yet, it is May, so give me some time to respond. And thanks for listening.

A Commencement Day

4:30 comes early. I like to say I’m a morning person, but the alarm goes off, it’s summer, it’s dark, and well, that’s just too early. I drive to campus, and park behind Kenyon Arena. All facilities staff park there, so the incoming guests can park closer, and we walk to the Service Building, not talking a whole lot. I’m mainlining coffee. The walk towards campus feels a bit like a fish swimming upstream, as most of the senior class is walking away from campus, towards Alumni Stadium to watch the sunrise. Both sets of people, though, look a little bleary eyed and tired. They get to go take a nap later.

The work day starts at 5, with all hands walking the campus picking up any trash we may find. It’s never really all that bad, more like sweeping the front porch before 6000 guests arrive. We walk our snow shovel routes, with others dispatched to hot spots. I like this time of day, the calm before the storm. I also like ending up near the stadium as the sun rises. The shouts, whoops, and hollers of the graduating class as the sun comes up quickly gets subdued, and all becomes quiet, maybe as the reality of the light of day hits-it feels like an end, and a new beginning for them.

At 6 or so the swarm of workers descend to the commencement site, the main quad below Mead Chapel. The tents were erected previously in the week, including the main tent, technically called the clamshell. Some in Facilities spent part of yesterday setting chairs in front of the tent. It’s a delicate balance. While it’s nice to have some of the many many thousand chairs we need to place already up, we could spend a large chunk of the morning drying them off from dew or, even worse, rain. Towels work best, although we have resorted to backpack blowers in the past.

My day begins in earnest as well. My job is to set up the flowers in front of the commencement tent. There is a giant seal of Middlebury College right in front of the stage, and 300 red geraniums are placed at the base. First secret exposed? I leave them in the trays, and mound mulch around them to make them look like a planted bed. All life is a stage.


To give you some idea of how long Facilities plans the commencement ceremony, I first get asked to order the geraniums in September. I say you bet, but I don’t worry about them all too much. (perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this?) I buy the geraniums from a local wholesale grower, so 300 is just a tiny little drop in the bucket. It doesn’t even make a dent in the greenhouse. He gets the stress though, and the fact that they have to be right shade of red, so he doesn’t pick on me too much when I’m ordering plants 9 months in advance.

While I’m there working, I’m also watching the second coolest job for the day, the hanging of the flags. Behind the tent, hanging off of Voter Hall, are flags of every country represented by the graduating class. I was told we had to buy 9 new ones this year. I counted 59 flags when they were done, but I was supposed to be working, not counting, so there may have been more. They use a lift truck, 65′ boom, and I bet it takes them a good hour or two. One year, someone in Facilities that was attending the festivities looked up, and noticed one of the flags was for the Boston Red Sox. Oh, the horror, and the humor. Mostly horror, but we had to admit it was pretty funny. We got into the student’s room, where he thoughtfully leaned the correct flag against the wall after he leaned out his window and made the switch.

The lift truck hanging flags

I also rent some shrubs to do a fake little planting where the tent guy lines get staked in front of the clamshell. When I first arrived on campus, I noticed a plethora of White Potentilla and Dwarf Garland Spirea planted here, there, pretty much any little corner. You see, they used to come buy them off me when I worked up the road at Greenhaven, for the very same purpose I now use Ivory Halo Red Twig Dogwood (not white flowers, but a pretty variegated leaf). I don’t want to fill the campus exclusively with a plant that looks for great for two weeks in the spring, so I just rent them and bring them back to Greenhaven the next week. They don’t make a habit of it, but I still have a little bit of influence. (I also tend to help a customer or two while I’m there-old habits and all)

There is a huge amount of activity taking place around me. It’s too much for a blog post, it could be it’s own blog. The brunt of it, though, is chair setting. Some chairs get set the day before, but the bulk are set this morning. And by bulk, I’m talking thousands. We have a tractor trailer we keep filled with chairs, I think it’s about 4000. The trailer is parked on the road, and trucks and gators are used to ferry them to the setters, following the lead of the string setters, who assure the chairs are placed in straight lines.

Seriously, we use string and stakes to set chairs. Not because the person setting chairs is a civil engineer, although that helps, but because looking at 5000 chairs set out, well, they just NEED to be straight. For a great video picture diary of chair setting, view the pictures taken by the communications department of the (very wet) day before.

The early arrivals for the ceremony begin arriving around 8 or so. There’s a couple key places to sit, and they usually go first. One  is the area around a Red maple, which offers some key shade most years. The other isn’t in the chairs at all, but up the hill towards Gifford, where the day beforehand the landscape department sets all the Adirondack chairs out. Watching commencement while reclining in a comfy chair? Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it.

Graduates start arriving soon as well, and get staged east of Old Chapel. I usually run into Matt Biette, the extraordinary head of dining, for the first of several times today, handing out water and breakfast sandwiches to the seniors. Starch and re hydration-Matt’s a genius.

Time to pull out, get out of Dodge, and pretend we aren’t even there. Some years, the landscape department goes and pulls weeds, radio close by. I have another semi-official job, though, that of weather-boy. Luther Tenny, Chair General (you did click that link on chair setting above, right?) calls me occasionally, wondering what the weather radar looks like. I’m the local weather geek, next to Luther, who is in an information tent on site, so isn’t close to a computer. I was watching this year by Android phone, as it was a spectacular day to pull weeds. The year Bill Clinton was the speaker several thunderstorms were forming in upstate New York, and I was freaking out. 6000 plus guests, and a storm on the way? I deferred to the experts, and called the National Weather Service in Burlington, who thought I was nuts, until I explained just exactly why I was calling, and they set my mind at ease. It rained for about 3 minutes, and then the sun came out and all was well. So, really, I’ve never seen the ceremony.

11:30 all the workers start traipsing up the hill towards Mead Chapel, where we get fed. All parents and graduates get fed by Matt Biette and crew, and that’s another blog post all together. Middlebury has an amazing home-grown dining service, and the food is great. They are brave feeding the landscape crew before the guests, but they certainly cook enough. Second Matt sighting-right below Mead Chapel telling guests walking up the hill that food is on both sides of Mead, and the lines are never too long. It seems like almost every student stops to talk to him.

The lure of the food works, and the chairs and stage empty soon enough, and facilities goes berserk in reverse. It’s easier to take things apart than put them up, and the chair trailer fills again. We also store chairs all over campus, so trucks are dispatched to places I haven’t even seen yet in my 5 years here. It’s a logistical nightmare, and always goes off without a hitch. I take apart the flowers, and plant them in the coming week by Admissions.  We’re done by 3 or 4 PM most years.


Arbor Day, the film

When some friends from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and the University of Vermont came to my winter term class to see our group project on Emerald Ash Borer, one of the things that impressed them the most was the diversity of experience in the classroom. We take it for granted at a liberal arts school, but to them it was quite novel to have Studio Art and Religion majors in the same classroom with Biology and Environmental Studies.

I’ve also discovered another delightful fact about teaching here at Middlebury-the sometimes painful truth that all of the students are more intelligent and creative than I could ever hope to be. It’s a great feeling to have your simple little course on trees extended into other work across campus, in liberal art ways you would have never thought.

So in that spirit, I want you all to watch Arbor Day, the movie. Created by the incredibly talented Joanie Thompson for Sight and Sound I in the Department of Film and Media Culture, it made my whole day. As I’m sure happens often at Middlebury, the teacher becomes the student.

The video below is password protected on Vimeo, so here it is on the blog. Hopefully she won’t mind if it’s posted here!


Arbor Day from Joanie Thompson on Vimeo.


Become a Vermont Tree Steward

This comes to me from a friend of mine-a Kate Forrer, of the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program, UVM Extension. There are over 350 SOUL graduates throughout the state, and everyone I know that has taken it has loved it. Through Vermont Interactive Television the course can be taken in Middlebury, and Kate says if there is room at the site she will open it up to Middlebury students at no charge. I’d take it if I were you…


Don’t Delay- Register Now to Become A Vermont Tree Steward

Early Registration Deadline Extended until Friday, January 13th for statewide course 

Are you passionate about trees?

Do you want to learn more about them and how to care for them?

Do you want to make a difference in YOUR community?

Then you may be interested in the Stewardship of the Urban Landscape (SOUL) course offered by the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program. The course prepares participants to become stewards of the forest in which they live by covering topics from tree identification, biology and planting to resource assessment, landscape design and conservation planning.  Through a series of eight evening sessions, offered through Vermont Interactive Television and three Saturday hands-on sessions, participants will gain 40 hours of instruction and become part of an invaluable community forestry network. This educational opportunity is based on fifteen years of SOUL Tree Steward programs which has graduated more than 350 Vermonters!

Winter Course Dates: February 11 through May 12, 2012- including eight Wednesday evenings; 6pm-9pm, and three Saturdays: February 11th, March 10th and May 12th

Locations: Evening sessions offered via Vermont Interactive Television at the following sites: Bennington, Brattleboro, Johnson, Middlebury, Montpelier, Newport, Randolph, Rutland, St. Albans, White River Junction and Williston. Saturday sessions in nearby location. 

To Register: Visit http://www.uvm.edu/extension/environment/soul/

Questions: Contact Kate Forrer, Program Coordinator, via e-mail soul.treesteward@uvm.edu or call 1-866-860-1382.

Flower Show-Sneak Preview

I spent yesterday helping set up the Central Display for the Vermont Flower Show-it’s my spring training like baseball players have in Florida. Shoveling mulch came easier this year than some past years, must be all of the snow shoveling. WCAX did a blurb on the news about the show, and in the interest of tempting more people to go this weekend (it’s going to rain all weekend, what else you gonna do?), I took some poor pictures with my cell phone camera. The theme (that Ed let slip in the WCAX video is thought of by a “past board members kids and wife”)(I’m saying nothing, but we’re thinking the next one should be “Tangled Up in You”) this year is “Sweet Dreams”, and Ed came up with a great design.

Here’s some pictures, but you aren’t going to get a good feel for the scale of the central display. Suffice it to say that it would just about fit on the ice at Kenyon. Click on the picture to view a larger size.

Lou Nop of Nop’s Metal Works in Middlebury made a metal bridge for part of the display, and it sits over a pond in a tropical setting.

Here’s some of the tropical garden. That’s a giant Banana plant in the center.

We forced an entire vegetable garden.

This is a 20′ “bird nest” complete with paper mache eggs. It was constructed with the help of the Urban Forestry program at the Northland Job Corp in Vergennes. Took them about a half of a day. And here’s a great Middlebury College connection-the branches making up the nest are leftovers from the harvesting of the Willow project out on Route 125.


Middland all a-twitter

I seem to be on Twitter. I’d been resisting for days, weeks, even months. Readers of this blog probably have picked up on the fact that I don’t even sneeze in less than a half a paragraph. However, a recent re-reading of Strunk and White, rule number 13, Omit Needless Words, got me thinking that maybe I should challenge myself. 160 characters in a tweet is plenty to make a fool of yourself, but more challenging to be useful and informative. And Patio Furniture Day, the day the landscape department puts out all the outdoor furniture for the summer just begged to be tweeted to the students.

The final revelation was the ability to tweet pictures from my cell phone, via TwitPic. One of my reasons for starting this blog was the sharing of plant pictures, as I see much more of the campus than most of you, and there are some beautiful things on this campus you really ought to see, and maybe even walk to at lunch. Putting pictures on a blog, though, is a process, one I’m readily willing to go through most of the time, just not in the growing season. See the dilemma? Heck, I’ve still got pictures of every type of crabapple blossom on campus on my desktop computer, from May 2009.  Today’s twitter picture was a Catalpa blossom, on a tree across from Emma Willard. Took a quick picture, sat down at lunch and sent it as a text/picture message to twitpic, and presto.

My cell phone isn’t too fancy, and I don’t text with the dexterity of my 13 year old, so don’t expect much. But come on over, if you’re a fellow twit (wait, that’s not what i meant…), twitter, oh, whatever.  http://twitter.com/middland.

Middlebury Landscape History

Over on the Turf Battle Atwater Landscape Contest Blog, I just posted a short new piece readers of this blog might find interesting. I was fooling around in ArcGIS one day, when I came across some historical aerial photographs of the town of Middlebury, including areas of the campus. I exported 3 pictures from the map of the Atwater section of campus, from 2006, 1974, and 1942. I like seeing the differences in canopy cover from year to year, and am amazed how young some “old” trees we have on the north end of campus actually are. Expect more pictures like this soon-this is really cool stuff.

Not exactly Gardening News

In the spirit of Tim Spear’s blog post “Not Exactly Administrative News: 10 great albums of 2010“, I thought I’d write about what’s been captivating me sonically for the last year.

Maybe a brief explanation would be in order first. I don’t listen to music much, mainly All Things Considered (and some of them even talked about) on the way back and forth from work. I do run, though, with an iPod Nano (read a great explanation of the system at the Middlebury Trailrunner), so to distract myself from the fact that I’m running I play loud obnoxious Alt-Rock. It’s probably a midlife crisis thing. Most of my inspiration comes from WEQX out of Manchester, one of many good radio stations near us (also see WMUD and WRMC). I’ll listen to music once in a while when working, or when the news isn’t on. (Like the Old Chapel Road annual planting? Brought to you by the last album I bought: The Pierces- 13 Tales of Love and Revenge) I hear a song I like, I download it from iTunes, and presto. So the list won’t be best albums, as I mostly buy songs. And I have no idea if they came out in 2010 or not, but that’s when I bought ’em.

99 Problems-Hugo. Banjo is like bluegrass in general; a little bit goes a long ways. This remake of a hiphop song has the perfect amount of bluegrass funk. One of my kids likes the song cause she’s got one of those Middlebury Quidditch shirts that says “I’ve got 99 problems and a snitch ain’t one”.

Percussion Gun-White Rabbits. It’s all about the drums sometimes, and this one is much better than the other song I’ve been hearing a lot, Kick Drum Heart.

Crystallized- The xx. I’m not sure if this is a love song or not. It’s a heck of a duet, though, with almost contrasting harmony miraculously sounding good, almost great together.

Blue Blood Blues-The Dead Weather. I’m a sucker for Jack White-he’s good in everything he does. Dirty, nasty, old fashioned rock here.

The Ghost Inside-Broken Bells. Most listeners would probably recognize their first popular song, The High Road, but this one’s better. Half of this group was in The Shins, so that’ s probably why I subconsciously liked it.

Oh My God-Mark Ronson featuring Lily Allen. iTunes says this came out in 2007, but I’m including it on my 2010 list because I still run to it quite a bit. Take a good song, add some killer brass riffs, and presto, instant classic.

Dog Days are Over-Florence and the Machine. This song was starting to get WAY overplayed, until I saw a YouTube video of a baby in a car seat loving it. Now I can almost hear it constantly.

Cobrastyle-Robyn. This one came out in 2005, but I just heard it this year. I had been running to the origninal, by the Teddybears, and that’s good too, but this is a great cover.

Latest Heartbreak-22-20’s. Remember above about the drums? Same comments here.

Ruby-Kaiser Chiefs. This is the first song on one of my running mixes-it’s swift kick in the keister when you’re not in the mood to run. The Kaiser Chiefs also did the original to the Lily Allen song above, but she did it better.

You Got Me-The Crash Kings. Grungy.

Dominos-The Big Pink. Another good starting song.

Help I’m Alive-Metric. Unfortunatly, much of my running takes place at 5 in the morning, and this song is great in a super-creepy-in-the-dark sort of way. The first time my kids heard this song they thought she was singing”Help I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hamburger”

Kids-MGMT. I bought this one for my kids, ironically. Good beat.

Battleflag-Lo Fidelity Allstars. This is an older song, I think late 90’s. More electronica dance than anything else, but good running pace.

Handlebars-Flobots. Rap is definitely where my mid-life crisis shows through, but this is a rap song with plucked violin and trombone, so there.

Cupid’s Chokehold/ Breakfast in America-Gym Class Heroes. I’m really showing my age when I admit I’m a sucker for a good Supertramp remix, aren’t I?

Airstream Driver-Gomez. I’ve saved one of the best for last. Well done.

That’s enough I guess. What am I missing?


The talk in our landscape department this morning was the peeper emergence lasts night. Being outdoor types, most of us sleep with the windows open, even with the woodstove blaring. It paid off last night, as the sound of peepers from my pond filled my bedroom.

Proving once again biologists have a sense of language, Spring Peepers are a variety of “chorus frog”. I always reach for the latin names, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Pseudacris crucifer crucifer is the Northern Spring Peeper. Pseudes (false) and akris (locust) for the sound, similar to a real locust insect. Crucifer meaning cross bearer, named for the cross like markings on the underside.

Peepers hibernate near ponds, and the males start making noise early in the spring seeking mates. Smaller than one inch, they are nocturnal, so hard to find, and although equipped with large toe pads for tree climbing, are more comfortable on the ground, hiding in the grass. I’ve learned they can tolerate freezing of some of their body fluids, so that explains their ability to have such an early life cycle in the spring.

Plants of a (mis)Spent Youth

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? Continue reading Plants of a (mis)Spent Youth