The bees are on the goldenrod, but the poplar tree has seen better days. The peonies are nicely pruned and the sprinklers release a rainbow arch of water in the morning light.
The University of Montana campus spreads a verdant green, and while it’s not yet 9 a.m. the grounds crew is hard at work pruning trees, cutting grass and pulling weeds.
Adam Coe, an arborist with the UM grounds crew, pulls up in a truck and points to the poplar, its limbs nearly devoid of leaves. Keeping the campus in park-like shape, trees included, is a full-time job that starts over as soon as it ends.
“They’ve completed a campus tree inventory – a count of all the trees, condition and species,” Coe said. “We’ve got 1,900 trees and more than 100 species. Around 1,200 of our trees are climbable. We climb them for pruning and inspection.”
The UM campus serves as the Montana State Arboretum, providing for the scientific study and public exhibition of trees and shrubs. State law also directs the arboretum to establish and maintain a living collection of plantings for public education, student instruction and a natural biological legacy.
Most of the trees planted across campus are selected by a committee and used as an educational tool by the College of Forestry and Conservation. Many of the trees are native to Montana, but not all, and Kristen Csorosz knows exactly where they grow.
In the shade behind Main Hall she steps to a gingko tree, one of several on campus. Nearby, she finds the arboretum’s only magnolia, a non-native species that’s doing well in the windbreak of Main Hall and the trees around it.
“We try to do what we can with natives, but we’re also the State Arboretum,” Csorosz said. “We have a lot of variety of trees. We have pine areas and deciduous areas. There’s an arboretum plan for the whole campus.”
New trees ring the Oval, the focal point of campus. More than a dozen young elms were planted three years ago, replacing the mature elms that were removed after a bought of Dutch elm disease killed them off.
A handful of double-stranded lilacs also grow near the Mansfield Library. Csorosz, a horticulturist by trade, salvaged the lilacs from the historic Prescott House during a construction project several years ago. She also saved the peonies and replanted them nearby.
“They tore out a lot of the plants that were there,” Csorosz said. “I went over and rescued a bunch of them. I planted them around campus in
Csorosz returns to her task of pruning weeds from her prized peonies. Across campus, crew member Mike Avery and others are tackling the weeds outside the Payne Family Native American Center, a painstaking task given how native landscaping was selected for the new building.
Amid the bunch grass grow weeds by the thousands. Of all the spots on campus, it’s here where the grounds crew will consolidate its forces in an attempt to stamp out the weedy invasion.
“They put in native grasses and they like to grow wild, but the weeds grow wild, too,” Avery said. “I’ve been here for 16 years and the campus has gotten greener. When I first started, the lawns were brown.”
The number of buildings on campus have increased dramatically over the past decade. The green space, while less than it was at the start of the new millennium, still includes 50 acres of grass and shrubs.
“They’ve taken out a lot of stuff putting in all the new buildings,” Avery said. “But we’ve added a lot of stuff, too.”
Mark Fryberger, one of the crew’s most senior members, can’t remember how long he’s been working to maintain the campus. He places the number at more than 20 years, but it may be closer to 30, according to his peers.
Like Fryberger, each crew member brings his or her own skill set to the team. Csorosz knows her plants up and down. Greg Potter is described as a master mower and an artist with the snow plow. Roberta Mistrick is handy in the garden. Michael Rollins runs the irrigation and Fryberger is handy on the tractor.
“There are quite a few of us who like to work outdoors if possible,” said Fryberger while pulling weeds. “Because we do snow removal in the winter time, it’s a year-round job. That’s the coolest thing, getting to work outside in Montana year-round.”