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  November 20, 2000

Plant Census to Form Foundation
for Campus Landscape Plan

From the burnished brilliance of fall foliage and the silhouetted shapes of winter to the profusion of blossoms in spring, trees and shrubs are integral to the identity of the Storrs campus. Just imagine musing in the Benton Museum courtyard, strolling around Mirror Lake, or striding out across the sweep of the Great Lawn in front of Beach Hall without the trees.

Yet the trees and shrubs represent more than just the beauty of nature - they're also a living resource for teaching and research and a central design feature of the campus landscape.

Small wonder, then, that the loss of some specimens to construction - welcome though the new buildings are - has been cause for concern to many.

Proactive Approach
For the past two years, however, a group of faculty and students has been working to turn a challenge into an opportunity. In an effort to protect the trees and plan for the future, the group has been compiling a detailed census of each specimen on campus that will serve as the foundation for an arboretum master plan.

"We want to take a more proactive approach to planning for the arboretum, instead of complaining every time a tree gets cut down," says Kristin Schwab, the assistant professor of landscape architecture who is co-directing the project. "We are developing a plan for both protecting and enhancing the campus landscape."

Schwab estimates that up to 5 percent of the significant plants on campus have been either necessarily or accidentally lost to UConn 2000 work.

Carol Auer, an associate professor of plant science, is one of the faculty members who uses the arboretum extensively for classes, teaching weekly lab sessions that introduce students to many of the woody plants that grow in Connecticut.

"My lab is basically all of campus," she says. "Every tree, shrub and vine that grows on campus is something I could potentially use as a tool for teaching,"

With all the construction that's going on, says Auer, one of three principal investigators on the plant census project, the availability of specimens can change from week to week.

The plant census project, an offshoot of the Arboretum Committee, is funded by the facilities department, with in-kind support from the departments of plant science and natural resources management and engineering.

"Larry Schilling (University architect and head of the facilities department) asked us what he could do to help, and came up with the funding," says Greg Anderson, professor and head of ecology and evolutionary biology, one of the co-chairs of the Arboretum Committee.

Begun in 1999, the plant census is now two-thirds complete. Nearly 5,000 specimens have been surveyed, tagged, and recorded in a database that includes information about the site of each specimen in relation to the buildings, as well as the plant's health, cultivation requirements and rarity. Much of the work has been done by students from various disciplines.

"It's been a fantastic opportunity for students to go out and put skills to work right here on campus in a project that can be completed in a reasonable time," says Tom Meyer, an assistant professor of natural resources management and engineering who teaches mapping and cartography. His students have been responsible for mapping the trees on campus.

"The database is a very powerful tool for planning," says Meyer, a principal investigator on the project. "We are now able to load construction maps into the same system and see exactly which trees are threatened."

The remainder of the inventory is being compiled by Tom Kashnig, a graduate student in landscape architecture. The database, together with development of a master plan for the arboretum and management guidelines, will form part of his master's thesis project.

A Well Balanced Collection
Schwab says the plan will balance the needs of design, teaching and research, and maintenance.

"We need a well balanced collection of species that grow well in this climate," says Schwab. "We also want to compile a good selection from an environmental standpoint, by developing a collection that is more representative of native and non-invasive plants, modeling the kinds of things we are teaching and researching."

Another consideration is maintenance. "Our landscape staff are excellent," she says, "but they have only so many hands, and design decisions in the past have sometimes made their job more difficult."

Already, the group and the Arboretum Committee are playing an important advisory role, as UConn 2000 construction continues. That role includes making recommendations about protecting trees during construction.

Many trees have been lost because their roots were compacted by construction equipment. Tree roots are mostly near the surface, for better access to nutrients and moisture, and they often extend twice as far as the branches. Simply protecting the trunk during construction is not enough, Kashnig says.

Construction is not the only threat to trees and shrubs, however. Many of the 100-year-old specimens on campus are beginning to die out from natural causes. One of the last American elms, for example, was recently lost to disease. "We need to think about continually regenerating the arboretum," says Schwab.

UConn 2000 has already generated significant new plantings on campus in the past few years. More detailed planning for such plantings, Schwab says, will help ensure that they contribute to the overall campus and enhance the arboretum.

Places to Be
"Our plan will reinforce the master plan for the campus that exists now, creating planting zones for corridors and areas of special identity, such as the pedestrian Academic Way," she says.

Planning for the arboretum will include user surveys to gather information about the places people find meaningful. "A plant collection contributes to the memorable quality of a place," she says. "Take the Benton Museum garden, for example. It's a destination - to eat lunch, listen to music, be quiet and contemplate - a place to be, not just a place to walk through."

Meg Malmborg, director of the Lodewick Visitors Center, says the campus is widely appreciated. "Visitors comment favorably on the campus, especially alums who have not been here for a few years," she says. "It's not just UConn 2000 and the buildings, but the general appearance of the campus, and that has a lot to do with a conscious effort to plan for green space.

"Trees add a human scale and break up the straight lines of buildings," she adds.

Some of the trees have considerable value. "We're not talking of value in terms of turning red oak into floorboards," says Anderson, "but in terms of education, history, and a feeling for the campus."

Many specimens were planted in memory of people who played an important part in the University community. The plant census will help identify where each of these is located, says Auer.

Sometimes monetary value can also be placed on particular specimens. When a copper beech outside Gulley Hall was threatened by construction this summer, the Arboretum Committee opted for compensation instead of trying to transplant the tree. As a result, $15,000 will be invested in developing a dwarf conifer collection, a wetland edge planting for Swan Lake, a vine collection at the edge of the woods behind the cemetery on North Eagleville Road, and a woodland shade garden behind the new Foundation Building, says Schwab.

"We lost one tree, but we will be putting in many, many others," says David Schroeder, professor and head of natural resources management and engineering, a co-chair of the Arboretum Committee.

The plant census project has helped bridge the gap between those whose work is with plants and those who work with buildings.

"It's working out and I think it will be good for the University in the long-term," says University architect Larry Schilling.

"Because of the cooperation between the committee and the facilities department, UConn 2000 is going to provide tremendous benefit to the arboretum," says Schroeder. "There's no way you can avoid the loss of some trees during this type of construction, but overall we will probably have an arboretum that's more beautiful, more diversified and more valuable to the teaching programs as a result."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu