Elm Tree Lawn Begins New Life

Lola Trafecanty remembers her first up-close look at the elms, in the winter of 2001, when the trees had shed their leaves. Elevated to upper-branch level in a bucket lift, Scripps’ new director of grounds was alarmed. Rain had gathered in the deep caverns between branches, causing a heavy buildup of fungus. “This was more severe than I anticipated,” she said.

For several years prior to the time Trafecanty arrived, the College had worried about Elm Tree Lawn. Planted in 1938, the elms were severely pruned, or “topped,” in the ’60s, a popular practice then, but arborists today understand this can make trees more susceptible to disease and decay as well as create weak branch structure causing new branches, or suckers, to develop from these cuts. Another painful fact is the trees are a variety of American elm, with a life expectancy of about 75-80 years in the arid Southern California climate.

A few trees began showing signs of distress in the late ’90s. The College called in the experts. Their charge: save the trees.

On the experts’ advice, the College’s Grounds Department augmented the elms’ water supply with nutrients, and cautiously pruned and closely monitored the trees. However, they couldn’t overcome a major problem: there were “bowls” between large branches that collected water during rainfall. Hollows had become home for bees and squirrels. Many of the elms were suffering from slowly progressing decay because of this.

After engaging two consulting arborists to study the condition of the elms, in December 1999, the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees decided to remove and replace trees as they neared the end of their lives or became a safety concern. The College removed one tree in 2001 and planted a 1″-diameter replacement sapling.

Unfortunately, due to Dutch Elm Disease (DED), larger specimen trees were not available or feasible. Neighboring trees usurped much of the light and nutrients, and the sapling’s small branches were inadvertently snapped off, perhaps by squirrels or an errant Frisbee.

Then, in fall 2003, the College asked Cy Carlberg, a consulting arborist and former Scripps director of grounds, to evaluate the trees. She recommended removing five trees in total. This was problematic, as it was impossible to locate sizeable elms for replacement.

Trafecanty led an effort to discover what variety of elms were right for Scripps: it had to be one highly resistant to DED in case the disease reached campus, and it had to form the classic V (or vase) shape when mature. Carlberg, Assistant Director of Grounds Fred Carlson, and Trafecanty located strong varieties called “New Harmony” and “Frontier,” which were available in 4″-diameter caliper size. However, as they visited Southern California gardens where these trees were planted, they were disappointed; these elms did not have the desired V-shape.

The search continued. Carlson recommended contacting USDA representative Denny Townsend, who was researching elms throughout the United States. He referred Scripps to a plant pathologist with a specialty in elm trees: Jim Clark, of Hort Science, based in Pleasanton, Calif.

In the summer of 2004, the College invited Clark to campus. He concluded that the trees would only continue to decline and pose increasing safety risks in the years ahead. He recommended continued close monitoring and immediate removal of the three weakest trees, as well as a stunning proposal: renew the entire landscape at once by taking out all the remaining trees and replacing them with contract-grown trees. This plan, however, would take a few years, as the trees needed to attain a suitable size for planting.

After much agonizing and discussion, the Building and Grounds Committee decided this was the responsible course of action.

Knowing it was the right thing to do did not make the decision easy. Don Johnson, chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, said, at the time: “Contemplating the removal of the trees…has been one of the more difficult topics we have faced…. The difficulty has been in arriving at an approach which will provide for the safety of all persons on campus and preserve the traditional setting for our graduation ceremonies. The adopted approach of removing any trees posing a hazard, while contract growing replacement trees, will provide the required safety and minimize the impact upon the campus.”

Joanne Keith ’63, also a member of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, said: “This is a drastic, but brilliant, solution. It’s not a happy thought [removing all the trees], but it’s what we need to do.”

Now, what trees to buy, and who would grow them for Scripps? Trafecanty determined that Princeton elms (Ulmus Americana “Princeton”) from the East Coast would be the best replacements: they are hearty and disease resistant and should eventually mirror the present elms in height and fullness. They also have a true V-shape; in time, these new trees are expected to replicate Scripps’ majestic elm canopy.

Trafecanty contacted Valley Crest Tree Company, whose 60-plus acres in Sunol, California, provide ideal growing conditions for young Princeton elms. Located northeast of Oakland, Sunol has a climate similar to Claremont, with mild winters and hot dry summers, ideal for acclimating the young trees for their eventual relocation to Southern California.

The College purchased 24 trees (six extra for insurance and future needs) in “ball and burlap” without soil, from Georgia, and had them shipped to Sunol. These Princeton elms are descendants of the original Princeton elm that thrived in a Princeton, New Jersey, graveyard and from which all of the cultivars have originated. (When the tree died a few years ago, the New York Times printed an obituary.)

It is important to note that the purchase of the Princeton elms and their nurturing was made possible by generous and timely grants from the Sarah A. Stewart Foundation, which provided $40,000 in support of Elm Tree Lawn restoration.

Leslie Alari, a graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, with 18 years in the nursery business, has been project manager at Valley Crest for the young Scripps trees and has kept an eagle eye on each sapling. “I enjoy doing fun and unusual projects,” she said last November, during one of the College’s regular visits to inspect and monitor the trees’ growth. A mother of two, her loving care of Scripps’ trees can be described as maternal.

Alari keeps a spec sheet on each tree and oversees judicious pruning after the leaves have fallen off, in late December to early January, to promote a horizontal as well as vertical growth for the traditional V-shape of an elm. Without this pruning, she explains, the trees would be taller, but narrower, and not provide a proper canopy. With the assistance of Clark and Trafecanty, decisions were made in the nursery as each tree was pruned of any co-dominant leaders (two branches that might be competitive with one another and cause a crack in the trunk) so only the stronger remained. Trees were pruned to establish an appropriate canopy height for vertical clearance once planted at Scripps; pruning also ensured that the trees’ shapes would be as similar as possible to form a strong allée.

In early 2007, Trafecanty flew to the Bay Area to see if the sapling elms had matured enough to travel to campus and be transplanted that following summer. Keith had also stopped in to view the trees on a visit to the Bay Area.

Trafecanty found the three-year-old trees were doing well, but because of intensive shaping, had not yet achieved sufficient fullness to replicate a proper Elm Tree Lawn. Trafecanty worried that their size and shape might be a visual shock to the Scripps community, which had grown used to the full canopy created by the mature elms. Ideally, the youngsters should have an additional year of monitored growth in Sunol by Mother Leslie.

There was a hitch in this plan: The trees had outgrown their 48″ boxes. Larger boxes were desperately needed, but were expensive, and not in the College’s budget. Trafecanty reported her conclusions to the Buildings and Grounds Committee. Happily, trustee Gloria Holden stepped forward and offered to donate the necessary funds to transplant the trees to 60″ boxes. Thanks to Ambassador and Mrs. Glen Holden’s generosity, the trees would get another year of nurturing!

Last fall, Trafecanty visited Valley Crest again, right before the leaves turned, the best time to view the trees’ height and shape. Seeing they were close to 25 feet tall and forming attractive Vs, she decided the elms were ready to be planted right after Commencement, in May 2008.

The College will do plenty of preparatory work first. A local tree removal company will take down the current elms, with a portion of “the best of the wood” (wood suitable for future use) saved and stored by the College for uses to be determined. The remainder will be ground into mulch to be returned to the environment.

Then, the ground will be thoroughly reworked so that all roots are removed, and additional soil and nutrients will be brought in. “We need to make sure no disease is spread to the new trees,” said Trafecanty, who will take soil samples to verify this.

In addition, the College will install underground electrical lines and circuits to eliminate above-ground electrical cords that are used during special events. A drainage system also will be added to this area.

The new trees will travel in flatbeds from Sunol to arrive sometime in June. Trafecanty will oversee the removal, groundwork, and replanting, starting in mid-May, and estimates work should be completed by mid-summer. Thus, the College won’t skip a beat in having commencement exercises continue under the elms, in 2009 and beyond.

Trafecanty cautions that members of the Scripps community should not expect immediate replication of Elm Tree Lawn. But, at their current height of 25 feet, it won’t take many years. The young trees are vibrant and already beautiful in color and shape.

The original elms, when planted in 1938, were smaller than the trees the College will plant in the summer of 2008. Ruth Ashton Taylor ’43 remembers the original young trees, but only as part of a beautiful whole. At Scripps, she said, “If you can’t find a place that’s beautiful, you just aren’t looking.”

Jean Tarr Fleming ’48 recalls watching seniors graduate at the first commencement on Elm Tree Lawn, before walking down the center path herself a year later. “I remember it being shady, even in our bleachers,” she said. She views the College’s renewal decision as appropriate and wise. “The idea is to maintain the campus at its very best,” she adds.

Scripps’ commitment to its environment, as part of Miss Scripps’ vision that the College’s architecture and landscape should reflect and influence taste and judgment, remains intact. Future generations of students will be inspired by the beauty of the elms and will continue to celebrate beneath them as undergraduates. They are sure to return again and again as alumnae to a very special place.

Incipit vita nova, Elm Tree Lawn.