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The trees of Queen's: the legacy of Project Green

The trees of Queen's: the legacy of Project Green

A student tree-planting initiative that took root in 1975 is still a source of inspiration for campus landscapers.

In the mid 1970s, the landscape of Queen’s campus underwent dramatic changes. New concrete buildings, like Mackintosh-Corry, Harrison-LeCaine, and Goodwin – stood among the older limestone ones. A parking garage was built under the playing field on Lower Campus. Worn pathways of grass and gravel were replaced by lockstone walkways. And the 70-year-old elm trees around campus, hit by a virulent fungus, were being cut down.

In 1973, the class of Artsci’75 ran a “Queen’s Forever Green” campaign, which raised money for evergreens to be planted around campus as its graduation gift to the University. The cause was picked up by other students, who created “Project Green” as an AMS club the following year. Its aim was to raise money for trees and other landscaping, and to raise awareness about the need to create a green Queen’s campus.

Dave Gordon, Sc’75, founded Project Green. One of the driving incentives for the group’s activities was the new Mac-Corry building, which had had its landscaping budget slashed in light of soaring building costs. In 1975, students voted to give $1 of their activity fees every year for five years to Project Green to help the group make the campus greener. These funds enabled Project Green to purchase 60 trees and planters to soften the grey exterior of Mac-Corry. Project Green then turned its sights on the rest of campus.

In the 1900s, scores of elm trees were planted on University Avenue, Campus Road, and Union Street. Over the years, they grew to provide a magnificent canopy over the streets of Queen’s. By February 1975, only four elm trees were left. The rest, rotted by Dutch Elm disease, had to be cut down. Karl Duttle was the head groundsman at Queen’s at the time. He estimated that that almost 200 elm trees had to be cut down all over campus. “Campus Road, from Union Street to Theological Hall, used to be completely lined with elm trees. We tried to replace them with other varieties.”

Project Green also involved alumni in the green renewal of campus. The Class of Arts’49 donated two trees. A white oak tree was planted outside Mac-Corry in honour of Thelma Boucher, BA’27, LLD’73, as part of the Kingston Award for 1974. And, beginning in 1975, red crabapple trees were planted in front of Ban Righ Hall and along the median of University Avenue. Donated by Dr. Robert Dunsmore, BSc1915, an avid supporter of Project Green, the crabapples were chosen to bloom in time for Spring Convocation.

Lou Bruce, BA/PHE’56, heard about the growing initiative, and offered up the resources on his tree farm to Project Green. 24 students, accompanied by Karl Duttle, made the trek to Shawville, QC, to bring back 19 black spruces and four pines. “They were mature trees,” says Duttle. Most of the spruces were at least 20 feet tall. “But there were enough students there that we could dig the trees out by hand.”

Seven teams of students worked to dig trenches around the trees, and then wrap the rootballs in burlap. The group hired a crane and a lift-truck to get the trees back to Kingston, where holes were blasted in the concrete court between Grant and Ontario Halls to create room for the new trees. “Moneywise, the University probably could have bought the trees for the same price,” says Duttle, considering all the time, labour, and equipment costs to get the trees back to Kingston, “but it was a good idea as far as it got students involved. Since they did all the work, they also kept an eye on the trees [once they were planted on campus].”

“The spruces lasted thirty years,” says Dave Gordon. “But they didn’t look quite right. The 1970s style of landscaping involved putting clumps of evergreens together.” These days, Gordon is a professor at the Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. He teaches planning history, community design and urban development. “We spent years trying to grow trees in pots in sidewalks. Trees in pits in limestone covered in concrete just don’t grow well.”

These days, new trees at Queen’s are planted in grass or in mulch. Gordon says that that landscaping on campus from the 1990s onward has been much better, taking into account both safety and visibility issues for pedestrians on campus, as well as encouraging larger expanses of grass, planters, and native trees.

The crabapple trees planted on University Avenue failed to thrive; they were not hardy enough to stand up to heavy foot traffic, encasement in concrete and exposure to street salt. They were dug up during the University Avenue redesign in 2008. However, the same year, crabtree saplings of the same variety were planted in a grove between Ontario and Grant halls. There is a plaque honouring Dinsmore’s contributions in the crabapple grove.

Of the 19 black spruces brought back to campus by the Project Green team, one behind Ontario Hall is still standing. In the last five years, though, the philosophy of tree planting at Queen’s has been to focus on other native species, such as Kentucky coffee, pin and red oaks, or sugar maple. However, Dave Swinton, Queen’s grounds manager, says that the campus’ unique microclimate due to its proximity to the lake, means that “we can push the boundaries a bit,” and plant trees that usually flourish in more temperate climates. An example is the large Dawn Redwood, planted just to the west of Fleming Hall. A coniferous tree, this redwood loses its needles annually like a deciduous tree, and is seen more often in BC than in Ontario.

Swinton says that a great deal of thought is put into using trees to create welcoming spaces on campus. “People can walk out of a building and into a small green space. Like on Agnes Benidickson Field; here, people play Frisbee, they sit in the sun. The trees create a framework for the space.”

Planting a diverse range of trees avoids the pitfalls of monoculture, such as the ability of one fungus to wipe out an entire species, as happened with the elm trees of Queen’s in the 1970s. Today, Queen’s groundskeepers keep in mind the natural lifespan of different species, but must be aware of other dangers, such as pollution, and natural disaster.

The trees of Kingston and Queen’s were badly damaged in the 1998 ice storm. Many of the silver maples on campus were lost. Even some trees that survived the ice storm had to be trimmed of their damaged limbs, and thus were also susceptible to other infections or damage. A current concern in Canada is the Emerald Ash borer, a highly destructive insect that destroys all varieties of ash trees. The borer has taken hold in Ontario, and Queen’s is not planting new ash trees for the foreseeable future.

These days, students and alumni can still contribute trees to Queen’s, as class gifts, or in honour of a classmate, spouse or teacher. The Queen’s Annual Giving department offers a Benches and Trees program. In recent years, about 30 trees have been purchased through the program in honour or in memory of someone. Dave Swinton can give advice on what types of trees will thrive, and fit in with the campus urban forest. The grounds around Summerhill and Theological Hall – site of the Queen’s arboretum -- is the most popular spot on campus to add a tree.

The trees planted on University Avenue over the past two years are still just small saplings. But in the years to come, the slow growing but strong varieties, like Freeman maple and red oak, will develop a towering canopy over the avenue, just as the elms used to.

To learn more about the trees on Queen’s campus, visit http://www.queensu.ca/pps/grounds/arboretum/

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]