A severe storm ripped through the University Park campus June 15 with near-hurricane force winds, fatally damaging two stately elms in back of Old Main. A large limb from the tree in the foreground fell on a neighboring elm, and both trees, estimated to be nearly 100 years old, had to be removed. The University plans to replace the trees with some relatively large specimens.
Photo: Greg Grieco
Photo: Courtesy of University Archives
After Old Main was rebuilt in 1930, the University brought in several well-established American elms -- estimated to be about 30 years old at the time -- to landscape the area. The tree shown being planted in this archival photo is one of the elms that still graces the entrance of Old Main. The elms now require great care to keep them thriving, such as the mulching being done in the photo below to the now nearly 100-year-old specimen shown.
Photo: Greg Grieco
|By Anne Danahy
nutritious snack for plants
Increased funding, detailed planning and diligent monitoring mean that the number of trees being planted each year at the University Park campus has outgrown the number of trees lost to disease, age and drought.
"Although we've lost many trees in the past couple of years, we've been planting a lot," said Kelleann Foster, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture. "And we've rounded the corner of that decline curve. So, 50 years from now, it won't be a barren campus, it'll be much greener."
Right now, the University Park campus has about 12,000 trees of infinite variety planted in what are known as "stands," a group of a particular type of tree. From 1989 until 1997 the number of trees lost each year outweighed the number being planted, resulting in a downward spiral in the total number of trees. Following the winter storm of 1995 that toppled trees, knocked out power across the state and dumped 32 inches of snow in some regions -- tree numbers tumbled to a low of about 10,900.
Since then, an increase in funding has helped turn the tide, with more than 600 trees planted in 1998; nearly 200 rooted in 1999; and 101 planted so far this year. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year budget, $278,000 was earmarked specifically for maintaining the trees compared to $148,000 in the 1996-97 fiscal year.
In both 1986 and 1996, the senior class gift was dedicated to saving the elms. The class of '86 spearheaded the Elm Re-Leaf campaign and spent $13,210 purchasing elm trees. Students from the class of 1996 voted in record numbers to help preserve the aging elms on the campus -- one of the last great American elm stands in the country. The class created an endowment for maintenance, upkeep and replacement of the stately giants.
But despite the best efforts for replanting and maintenance, all trees do naturally succumb for a variety of reasons over time, according to Jeff Dice, supervisor of grounds maintenance.
"The important part is to have trees of all types and ages, which in a forest occurs naturally through seeding," said Dice, who supervises the four arborists responsible for the campus' 12,000 trees. "By planting trees, we try to accomplish the same thing."
This idea came to life two weeks ago when high winds from a thunderstorm caused tree damage around campus including the destruction of two aged elms at the rear of Old Main. On June 15, winds of up to 62 mph -- just 10 mph short of what is considered hurricane level -- ripped through the region tearing a mammoth limb from one of the elms. The large limb then fell on another elm that sits closest to the building. The damage was severe enough that both trees had to be removed. An elm on the mall, which had been damaged in the 1995 snowstorm, also buckled from the wind of the recent storm and had to be taken down.
Much like people, as trees age their immune systems weaken making them more susceptible to diseases. In 1999, beech trees just behind the College Avenue wall were found to be infected with a fungus known as phytophthora, that can cause root and stem rot in plants, and were treated using a two-prong strategy. First, fungicide was applied. Then, arborists created an environment that emulates a forest floor by adding a humus layer of organic materials, known as mulch, which also helps to reduce the soil compaction that results from being walked on. One beech tree had to be removed and the others are still in guarded condition.
Recently, similar action was taken with the two familiar elms marking the front of Old Main. The elms were planted on the lawn when Old Main was rebuilt in the 1929-1930 school year. Not babies when moved there, the two elms are now approaching their centennial birthdays. Add to this a few years of drought and heavy foot traffic on the roots, and they began showing signs of stress, like browning tree tops, which could be precursors to Dutch elm disease -- well-known culprit on campus
"Two of the most important elms we have on this campus have suffered severe stress over the last two or three years as a result of soil compaction and drought conditions," said John Joseph, senior landscape architect in the Office of Physical Plant. "Mulching and watering will go a long way to increase the longevity of these trees. At their age, they need all the help we can give them. With a little TLC, we should get another 100 to 150 years out of them, especially, if we can keep them healthy and vigorous enough to fend off attacks by insects, diseases and environmental changes."
To help get the trees on that healthy path, the Office of Physical Plant, in conjunction with recommendations from the University Tree Commission, decided to mulch around the elms that grace the Old Main entrance and other areas and have added post-and-chain fencing to discourage passersby from resting on the elms' fragile, aging roots.
"I would argue that we're making a subtle change in the look at the ground plane to avoid a major change of losing altogether the trees that frame Old Main," said Foster, who chairs the tree commission. "So it's a tradeoff."
The value of that tradeoff can be seen in the 300 elms and 11,700 other trees on campus, not only in the aesthetic beauty they bring but as living laboratories for academic fields such as plant pathology, botany, horticulture and forestry -- not to mention making excellent subject matter for art students and bringing a reduction in the University's summer air conditioning bill. Most importantly though, many believe, is the collective value of the trees and the vision they will bring to campus now and for another 100 years.
For a slide show of campus trees, visit the About Penn State Web page at http://www.psu.edu/ur/about/trees.html
What began as a grass-roots initiative from students and employees to reuse waste from the University Park campus dining halls, has since grown into a well-orchestrated campus-wide composting program, which is not only environmentally friendly but economically beneficial.
In spring 1997, Housing and Food Services decided composting waste from the dining halls was an idea worth trying and began a pilot program involving one dining hall. Since then, the program has grown to include all seven of the dining halls on the University Park campus, as well as The Nittany Lion Inn, The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel and the Penn State Cedar Child Care Center.
Compost is organic matter that has decayed and can be mixed in with soil to act as a fertilizer. In the dining halls, students' napkins and waste from the kitchens are put in bins for pick-up from the Office of Physical Plant. On an average day when classes are in session, the pineapple tops, stale bread, napkins and other food that can't be used collectively weighs in at 1 ton. Waste from students' plates is not part of the composting program yet, although a pilot program for that is under way. The next step is taking the waste to the College of Agricultural Sciences' farm operations, where, by combining the waste with things like manure from on-campus dairy farms, leaves and soybean fodder, it becomes compost. After that, the Office of Physical Plant distributes it to places like campus research plots, flowers beds and horticultural trial gardens.
The project has saved the University money in waste disposal fees and the costs associated with water and electricity for food that would normally go down a garbage disposal. It also reduces the amount of waste being put in landfills. And the nutrient-rich organic material helps make the soil healthier and the plants happier .
-- Anne Danahy
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