Landscape supervisor Bob Biles ’74 is tagging Whitman’s trees—about 1,600 of them

Bob Biles '74Whitman Magazine: Why is it necessary to document each tree on campus?

Bob Biles: The reason it’s important is an old business adage: you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We currently don’t have a good baseline. We want to know what kinds of trees we have, how many we have, how old they are and what condition they are in. So it seemed important to get that baseline.

WM: Has the tagging program been successful?

BB: We’ve defined zones on campus. There are 25 zones, I believe. Each tree within each zone has a number, and so each tree will eventually have a little tag like this (holds up a metal tag with a letter for the zone and number for the tree). It will make it pretty simple for us when we go out to service a tree. We will also be placing some name placards on some of our most significant trees with the common name, scientific name, region of origin and its approximate age.

WM: How many trees grow on campus?

BB: We have about 1,600 trees on campus. We have two arborists and eight full-time groundskeepers—four or five of us do most of the tree work—so if we can service 300 trees per year it will take us five years to get around the campus. That’s a long time. So in that process, we found ourselves asking, “Did we work on this tree last year or was that two years ago?” Now we can do a better job of managing the canopy.

WM: So you’re taking inventory to compile a database?

BB: By having this database, I can tell you that in that last 20 years we’ve planted 849 trees and we’ve identified about 175 different genus and species of trees.

WM: Are they all still living?

BB: If they’ve got a tag on them then they’re still living. Some of the trees that we’ve planted fail and then we take them out and replant them. For the most part, we don’t lose too many. From the database, I’ll tell you that we have 181 trees that are over 50 feet tall. We also have 122 trees that are in poor condition. This database helps us recognize what needs to be done.

WM: Business Insider has ranked Whitman’s campus the third best in the nation. What’s the most difficult aspect of maintaining the campus landscape?

BB: In terms of the campus environment, we maintain lawns, flowerbeds, shrub beds and then we have this tree canopy. There are huge technical challenges in dealing with trees in an urban environment. They need to be closely monitored and cared for. With flowers, you plant them and they grow and die on their own accord, but if you have a tree and you don’t take proper care of it and it dies, you’ve lost 20 years on a significant plant. The trees are by far the most significant part of the environmental ecology and they are the cornerstone of the landscape.

WM: The tree canopy isn’t just about aesthetics. It has utility, correct?

BB: Think about what the trees do. In the spring, the ornamental trees are beautiful; they are fragrant, provide pollen for pollinators, shade the campus, cool the air, sequester carbon and produce oxygen. We’ve also been working on other things like improving water efficiency and integrating the entire campus, so that when you move through the space there’s a kind of graceful elegance—simplistic, peaceful, but colorful.

WM: Will students have access to the tree catalog?

BB: I’m hoping that in the future we can develop a Whitman Tree App students could use to identify trees that they see around campus. For example, they could take a picture of the tree and then a bunch of information about that tree would come up. Hopefully with the advent of the new technology program there will be some good ideas on how everyone can easily access the campus tree data base.

WM: A smartphone app for trees?

BB: There’s a Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” I think trees symbolize hope in the future. I think there’s a correlation with students going here because they are the hope for the future.