Campus beautification: Notable areas and tree care

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Updated Jul 19, 2018
Stairway at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum. Photo: Beth HyattStairway at the Donald E. Davis Arboretum. Photo: Beth Hyatt

This is part two in a three-part series. Click here to read part one. The final article will publish on TLC tomorrow.

Campus beautification

Campus beautification is sometimes not placed in as high of a priority as it could be, but Justin Sutton, superintendent of Facilities Management Landscape Services at Auburn University, and Brittany (Britt) Foster, greenhouse coordinator, both believe it to be one of the most important aspects of working on a college campus.

Photo: Beth HyattPhoto: Beth Hyatt

Since the landscape of Auburn’s campus is one of the first visuals visitors see when coming to the university, Sutton and Foster believe the grounds need to be in top condition at all times. Whether a student knows without a doubt that he/she will go there or if he/she is undecided, Sutton says the campus should always invite visitors in and give them the desire to stay.

Foster believes that it doesn’t matter if a campus has the best classes, clubs, sports teams and more; if the campus isn’t attractive and inviting, no one will want to attend.

“We’re the first thing they’re going to see before they enter any kind of building, and we’re oftentimes the last thing they see when they leave,” Sutton noted. “(The) landscape could be a deciding factor, so you have to keep that in mind.”

Sutton says that the landscape of a university can be a big recruitment tool, but since it’s not typically associated with the stereotypical idea of “recruiting,” it can sometimes be an afterthought to some universities.

Notable areas

Some of the most notable and frequently trafficked areas on campus are the famous Toomer’s Corner, Samford Park, Ross Square, which includes the Centennial Gardens, and the Memory Garden adjacent to the Donald E. Davis Arboretum.

With a tranquil pond located in the center, the Memory Garden gives visitors the chance to sit and relax in a secluded area of campus. Photo: Beth HyattWith a tranquil pond located in the center, the Memory Garden gives visitors the chance to sit and relax in a secluded area of campus.
Photo: Beth Hyatt

For Sutton, the Memory Garden is one of his favorite areas on campus because of its natural elements and tranquil location. With a peaceful pond, ample seating, abundant plant life and more, this location features a wall monument to the university with the school’s creed inscribed along is, which runs beside a landscaped pathway.

What was once the university’s first football field, Ross Square/Centennial Gardens now serves as a quintessential spot during university tours, as it is where the War Eagle story is told. Foster says this square is high-profile and is an important area on campus for annual color.

Serving as one of the higher foot traffic and visitor areas on campus, Foster says Samford Park has the highest concentration of annual beds in that section of campus, which she says leads to an aesthetically pleasing focal point.

This area is home to the famous Auburn oaks, which is where Auburn conducts its tradition of rolling the corner with toilet paper after a sports victory.

Foster says the previous trees were older and had some health issues due to age and the frequency of use during sporting event celebrations, and their health was being monitored when she came on staff.

After being notified that the two live oak trees at Toomer’s Corner, estimated to be more than 130 years old at the time, had been poisoned in November 2010 by a rival fan, soil samples were conducted and sent to the Alabama State Pesticide Residue Laboratory on campus in January 2011 for analysis. It was confirmed a few days later that the trees had been doused with the herbicide Spike 80DF (tebuthiuron), which can be used to kill trees.

Alex Hedgepath, the university’s first arborist, says the poisoned trees were removed and replaced on Valentine’s Day in 2015. Those trees, unfortunately, did not survive. Hedgepath says the first tree died within four or five months and was replaced in July 2015.

The second remained for a short time, but Hedgepath says it was declining every year. In September 2015, he inherited those two trees, and after another series of unfortunate mishaps, both of the trees were replaced again in February 2017. Those trees still stand at Toomer’s Corner today, and descendants of the original Toomer’s oaks are now planted along the walkway in Samford Park, keeping the legacy alive.


Hedgepath began his journey with Facilities Management in 2015. Before his arrival, he said there really wasn’t much active tree management for the campus, but that soon changed.

Photo: Beth HyattPhoto: Beth Hyatt

In his daily routine, Hedgepath says two of the big arboriculture metrics he focuses on are canopy coverage across campus, which refers to areas where the shade comes directly from the trees, and species composition. From an urban forestry perspective, he says the current canopy coverage is expansive, as it currently reaches about 18 percent.

When seeing the campus from an aerial view, Hedgepath says this type of coverage is measured by looking at the spaces as, “tree, not tree,” which means it is viewed as treescape versus everything else, like hardscapes, buildings, etc. Ideally, Hedgepath would like to see the canopy coverage reach 40 percent in the future.

Currently, Hedgepath says the university does an excellent job of keeping the tree planting and removal ratio at one-to-one, with a focus more on field-grown trees. He adds that the campus also works diligently to uphold the five standards set by Tree Campus USA, of which Auburn is a member.

The five standards are as follows:

  • Must have a campus tree advisory committee.
  • Must have a campus tree care plan.
  • Must have a campus tree program with dedicated annual expenditures.
  • Must observe Arbor Day.
  • Must service a learning project.
Pictured is the Founders’ Oak, located in the Donald E. Davis Arboretum. Photo: Beth HyattPictured is the Founders’ Oak, located in the Donald E. Davis Arboretum.
Photo: Beth Hyatt

“I really believe in Tree Campus USA,” Hedgepath said. “I always sound like a goofball when I talk about it because I really think that if you do these five things and you do have a management plan, the rest will fall into place if you stay committed to the management plan.”

Hedgepath says in order to keep the older trees on campus healthy and thriving for years to come, one main focus for his team needs to be soil management, which will ultimately slow down the declination process of the trees. In terms of urbanization, Hedgepath says slowing down the growth process of the tree is a positive step.

“In the urban setting, people think that big trees are great,” Hedgepath said. “And they are because we want big trees. But when we already have an existing large tree, applying a Performance Growth Regulator (PGR) to slow the growth rate down and thereby slow the declination down, slowing the deadwooding and deadwood pruning down is absolutely an objective.”

One of the main aspects Hedgepath and his crew deal with is removing “high-risk” or “unsafe” trees, as he is qualified in tree risk assessment.

“You could advance risk assessments to the extreme,” Hedgepath said. “With an urban setting, and especially a campus setting, where you have all different kinds of dynamics, you have to err on the side of caution.”

With this in mind, Hedgepath says the department has been aggressive with pruning, deadwooding and tree removal when necessary. Removal, he says, is always a last resort, so it takes careful planning and time to decide on a course of action when the safety of the students is involved.

When it comes to removing trees because of upcoming infrastructure, there’s a mitigation process that must be followed carefully. According to Hedgepath, when buildings are being added on campus and trees must be removed because of it, the value of that tree needs to be factored into the budget for planting trees back on the site.

Photo: Beth HyattPhoto: Beth Hyatt

The landscape services department will place a monetary value on the tree/trees removed, and these trees should be placed close to the building or in the immediate area where the old trees were originally located. While this isn’t an official policy at the moment, Hedgepath says the university is very compliant with the mitigation, which greatly helps with maintaining canopy coverage.

“If we keep prioritizing trees and allocating funds, we’ll get there,” Hedgepath said. “If we continue to do what Tree Campus USA’s standards say to do and we’re just constantly working at it, we’ll get there.”

Check back tomorrow for part 3 of this series, where we’ll hear industry experts on staff at Auburn sound off on what they think is in store for the industry’s future. 

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