Landscapers practicing natural selection management technique

Contact: Jeanne Baron
Mitchell and Gooch finish planting a whip by adding fresh mulch.

Student employee Louis Mitchell, left, and Gooch work on the Sangren Hall hillside during this year's Arbor Day.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Instead of mowing a lawn on steep slopes, landscape services staffers at Western Michigan University are using a proven landscape management technique—ecological restoration, which includes planting hundreds of trees.

In part, the practice calls for planting a variety of unbranched tree seedlings, or "whips," on problematic inclines rather than trying to maintain lawns there.

"Slopes are difficult to mow and have a lot of erosion," WMU horticulturalist Nick Gooch says. "Planting whips and letting nature take its course is a way of managing the landscape other than mowing and blowing."

Down the road, plots reforested that way mimic nature because the trees that survive are randomly spaced. Additionally, WMU's goal is to propagate plants that provide genetic diversity so self-sustaining populations are created as sites mature.

Whipping up the crowd

WMU explained its updated tree-planting practice in landscape restoration during the 2019 Arbor Day celebration, held this spring on the hillside that runs along the Sangren Hall parking lot opposite the Sindecuse Health Center.

"Using small trees and whips gives you more bang for the buck," Gooch told the assembled crowd. "You can buy 600 of them for roughly $1,000 or four or five caliper-size landscape trees for $1,000."

More than 500 whips were planted along the Sangren Hall hillside and other campus slopes as part of the Arbor Day event. The species added include birch, aspen, white pine and walnut trees along with a mix of shrubs.

Signature tree for 2019

People withdrawing whips from buckets.

As in past years, free trees were given out during WMU's Arbor Day celebration.

Activities associated with this year's Arbor Day celebration included President Edward Montgomery and other WMU administrators helping to plant a small signature tree, a pecan tree (Carya illinoisensis).

This tree can grow as large as 145 feet tall and have a 100-foot crown and 5-foot diameter.

Stephan Keto, the University's natural areas and preserves manager, reported that the pecan is the largest, fastest growing, most valuable and most widely planted of America's native hickory trees.

Sometimes called the Mississippi nut or Illinois nut, it used to grow along the tributaries and rich bottomlands and flood plains of the Mississippi river basin, growing in primeval forests from Illinois to Texas.

"Planting a pecan tree in Michigan has not been the norm," Keto said. "But with climate changes in mind, it will do well and become the perfect permaculture tree for our area."