Campus Greens on the Path to Former Beauty
Though she described an “ineffable picture,” Annabelle Hutson, a student from New Bethlehem, found the words to express her attachment to the Oak Grove and its surrounding areas in her poem, Our Campus. Hutson graduated from Indiana State Teachers College in 1929, the same year the poem appeared in the Oak yearbook.
More than 80 years later, Ryan Egan ’14 came from Robesonia, outside of Reading, to IUP. After each harsh Indiana winter, the Cook Honors College student, now a teacher in Nashville, looked forward to one thing: being in the Oak Grove on the first nice day of spring.
“The Oak Grove was packed,” he remembered. “People were having picnics, there were two or three hammocks out, people were playing music on guitars. … That was the picture of the university—everyone coming together on this one good day.”
The Oak Grove has long been a central part of life on campus. It has attracted new students and drawn them back as alumni. Yet, during the latter half of the 20th century, this IUP landmark experienced drastic declines in the very thing it’s known for—its trees.
Those declines, in both the number and diversity of trees, were largely responsible for the decision 15 years ago to make the campus an arboretum, a living museum devoted to the growth and display of trees, shrubs, and vines. Since that time, organizers of the Allegheny Arboretum at IUP have watched their efforts to restore a healthy, lush campus take root.
The thinning of the trees in the Oak Grove was obvious to Jerry Pickering. In his 35 years on the biology faculty, Pickering conducted field research both on and off campus with his students.
“When trees disappeared or were cut down for one reason or another, many times they were not replanted,” he said. “Or, if trees were planted, they were often the same type—pin oak, white pine, Norway maple. So there was a general decline in diversity.”
Top: Aerial view from 1974 of Sutton Hall and the Oak Grove; Bottom: Aerial view of campus in December 2014 (Photo by Ken Ciroli). Click the photos to view larger versions.
The numbers supported Pickering’s observations. According to studies conducted by students from different decades, the number of trees in the Oak Grove dropped from nearly 150 in 1961 to just above 90 trees in the early 2000s. In the same time period, the number of tree species fell from 32 to 16.
Pickering contrasted the Oak Grove of the 1990s with that of the 1940s and ’50s. “At that time, the school had a horticulturist, and it had its own greenhouse,” he said. “So any of the plants that were on campus the school grew itself.”
In 1999, Pickering wrote a letter to President Lawrence Pettit detailing how developing an arboretum could benefit the university. It would make the grounds more attractive to students and their parents and draw more people from the community to campus, he said. Later that year, Pettit approved the formation of an arboretum board of directors, and Pickering served as chair.
With some early grant funding, the arboretum board arranged for an arborist to work with the university’s grounds crew to prune trees, install support cables for some, and remove trees that were unstable or diseased. Gardens were planted, and mulch was added around the trees to protect roots from foot traffic. The work was the basis of a tree maintenance program that the IUP Buildings and Grounds area has continued.
The grounds staff has also assisted the arboretum board with the planting of trees. The first was a white oak purchased by Pettit and planted in the Oak Grove. To date, the arboretum board has coordinated the planting of 32 trees in the Oak Grove, 25 of which are still living. Those plantings represented 18 different species, including 12 oak varieties.
According to Pickering, the diversity of tree species is critical to one of the arboretum’s primary goals: education.
“One of the important things for me as a botanist is to be able to go out and show students these different types of trees,” Pickering said.
That type of education extends into the community, he said. For example, a person interested in planting a certain type of tree might head to campus for a better look. “And that might catalyze people to plant trees that are not normally found in our community,” he said.
Diversity also comes into play when disease decimates a tree species, which has happened with the American chestnut, American elm, and now ash trees. In Pickering’s hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, thousands of American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease over a handful of years. “You can’t believe how that changes what a community looks like when you remove the trees,” he said. “So one of the important things about diversity is it acts as a buffer to potential loss of trees because of disease.”
When choosing new trees for the Oak Grove, the arboretum board followed advice from a preservation plan the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation created for the campus in 2009. The plan recommended planting only large, canopy-type trees in open areas, to create a “cathedral-like feel.” “So we’re following that scenario of planting only things that will eventually be a good size—60 feet or more,” Pickering said.
While the Oak Grove may be the most distinctive campus green space, the Allegheny Arboretum encompasses all 374 acres of the Indiana grounds. The board has organized a total of 230 tree plantings across campus. Of those, 185 trees (80 percent) have survived.
One tree of every species is marked with a plaque, and each of those is a stop on a self-guided tour of the arboretum. In addition, each tree the board has planted is labeled with an accession tag identifying the tree and, if the tree was a gift, the name of the donor and honoree.
Since the start of the arboretum, supporters have donated roughly 50 trees and 29 benches—replacing all of the existing benches in the Oak Grove. Pickering stressed that although the arboretum is part of the university, it is funded through private gifts. “And we’re very appreciative of those gifts,” he said. “Without people donating to the arboretum, it would not exist.”
In addition to the plantings it coordinates, the arboretum board makes recommendations on the types of trees to be planted around new buildings on campus. That expertise has expanded into niche gardens and green spaces.
The board worked with the Evergreen Garden Club on the installation of the Heritage Garden in 2011 between Keith Hall and the Northern Suites. The garden’s predecessor, the Touch and Smell Garden, was razed for construction of the suite-style residence hall. More recently, the board proposed a green space called “Fern Hollow” to accompany a proposed building for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Jerry Pickering, in the arboretum office in Robertshaw, has continued as board chair since his retirement from the Biology Department in 2004. (Photo by Keith Boyer)
“This unique green space would concentrate on ferns and other native plants of western Pennsylvania, so it would be educational as well as aesthetically pleasing,” Pickering said. He added that the board is fortunate to have the expertise of biology faculty member Holly Travis, who cowrote The Ferns and Fern Allies of Pennsylvania with retired professor and former board member Thomas Lord.
Another area the board is targeting for improvements is the part of Oakland Avenue that borders the campus to the north. Pickering noted that the corridor provides the only public view by vehicle of the Oak Grove.
The board began by talking to owners of properties along the route, including Pizza House. “We wanted to have bright colors there, identifying the Oakland Avenue corridor, like the painted houses you see in San Francisco and other places,” Pickering said, “so we tried to convince them to put a little color in their homes. We’ve had some success with that.”
The board is considering other changes as well, such as new entrances to the Oak Grove and additional tree plantings, “so when you approach IUP, you’ll know…this is the campus,” Pickering said.
Other projects board members hope to take on include developing the green space south of the Kovalchick Complex and revitalizing the East Lawn, once a hub of campus activity. “A long-term goal is to try to have a donor fund the re-establishment of the old fountain in front of Sutton Hall,” Pickering said. “But things take time…and money.”
The need to guide the future of the arboretum was one of the reasons the board pursued Level 1 accreditation through the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program. Based on self-assessment and documentation, the program awarded the arboretum accreditation last July.
“Accreditation tells us that what we’ve done, we’ve done properly,” Pickering said. “We’ve done the right things to meet the basic requirements of being an arboretum. It also gives us direction. If we want to move to the next level, it tells us the things we need to address.”
To achieve the next level of accreditation, the arboretum would need to beef up its community outreach programs and have a paid, identifiable executive director. Pickering’s role with the arboretum is voluntary—a commitment he made in his early discussions with Pettit.
As part of that role, Pickering took two sabbaticals in the years preceding his 2004 retirement and visited 29 arboreta, mostly on college campuses. His intent was to see how they operated. “I found out that there is no cookie cutter formula for the administration of an arboretum on campus,” he said. “Every place is different, but every place made it work.”
Through his work with the arboretum, Pickering is hoping to create for students and alumni a relationship similar to what he experienced with his undergraduate university, Iowa State. “When I was a student walking around, I would stumble on these little niche gardens, these little green spaces, and it was really nice to find your little pocket of serenity,” he said. “Many times you don’t necessarily remember buildings or some professors, but you remember the space, the campus itself.”
Drawing inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, Pickering believes that changing the environment—in this case creating or improving green spaces—will change the reactions of the people in that environment. “We all seek serenity,” he said. “We all have our little green space in our backyard. That’s what we’re trying to do here, for students.”