Elmhurst College In Depth

Beautiful and High Tech, Too

Computer software brings new sophistication to the care and maintenance of the arboretum and its 120-plus species.

Paul Hack, the College’s grounds supervisor, calls himself “a hands-on guy” who would rather be working outside than sorting data on his office computer. “It kills me to sit here,” he said in his office late one morning when warm, sunny weather made the great outdoors all the more inviting.

Still, office time can be productive for Hack, especially now that he has access to state-of-the-art computer software containing specific, detailed, crucial data on the hundreds of trees around the arboretum campus. With a few keystrokes, he can pinpoint the location of every oak or maple or gingko on campus. What’s more, he can readily identify individual trees that need pruning, spraying or a shot of water during a dry spell.

“This means we can treat a specific species exactly at the right time,” said Hack. “In the spring, for example, we treat crabapple trees. We spray them with a fungicide to prevent apple scab, a leaf fungus. If we don’t treat them at the proper time, they won’t have any leaves by August.”

Hack’s new digital green thumb enabled Elmhurst this year to earn the prestigious Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation. It also is helping the College save some of the money it used to spend maintaining its forty-eight-acre campus arboretum. For example, the institution previously hired an outside firm to apply fungicide to the 22 campus crabapple trees—usually three times a year, at an annual cost of $2,400. The task is now done by College staff; the annual cost is down to $200.

Hack’s database contains information gathered in the fall of 2010 by arborists from Bartlett Tree Experts, who used GPS devices and geographic information system (GIS) technology to assemble an inventory of campus trees. The electronic mapping initially counted and logged about 500 trees south of Alexander Boulevard. The area north of Alexander was mapped this past fall, adding another 300 trees to the inventory.

A database at his fingertips
When a tree is entered into the database, it is assigned a number, and a blue metal tag with the number is attached to the trunk. The database lets Hack sort the trees by species and scientific name, and estimates the tree’s replacement cost, based on type, size and age. A black walnut with a thirty-six-inch diameter trunk tops the list at $28,625. A thirty-three-inch sugar maple is valued at $27,825.

Elmhurst is one of about 150 colleges and universities in the nation to earn Tree Campus USA status. The honor requires each institution to fund an annual tree-care program, to adopt a plan for planting and maintaining trees, and to involve students in related service-learning projects. Most of this program was in place before Elmhurst even applied for the award. Hack said having a database of trees at his fingertips helps him to document the institution’s efforts.

He can enter the dates when a tree is planted, pruned, treated for insects or disease; and schedule when it will need attention again. Previously, plantings were recorded on handwritten notes, inserted into a three-ring binder. The pruning schedules weren’t so precise. “The campus was broken into sections, and we would do one section per year,” Hack said. “That meant we might be doing trees that really didn’t need pruning.”  

A certified arborist, Hack earned an associate degree in horticulture from Joliet Junior College and worked 10 years for a tree-care service before joining the Elmhurst staff in 2008. He works with two additional full-time employees; one is a certified arborist like himself, and the other is studying to become one. His office employs 12 students during the summer.

Even with the sophisticated GIS map and computer program, Hack said there is no substitute for keeping personal tabs on trees and shrubs the old-fashioned way: by walking the campus. “You still have to do some visual inspection,” he said. “We’re always outside looking around, making a list of things that need doing.”

State-of-the-art software contains specific, detailed, crucial data on the hundreds of trees on Elmhurst’s arboretum campus. The new technology helped the College earn a prestigious designation from the Arbor Day Foundation, and also saves money.

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