Land Care Report: Maintaining the Arboretum Grounds

A member of the field staff coming out of a manhole that leads to a stormwater drain

Chris Kregel emerges from a manhole used to access a stormwater drain.

The field staff wrapped up the spring burn season in May and jumped right into invasive species management and seed collection. These aspects of natural area management may be familiar to many visitors, but the crew also works on many grounds maintenance tasks that are less visible. The UW Arboretum has many roads, stormwater ponds, and lawns that require maintenance throughout the year. With 1,200 acres in Madison as well as outlying properties to manage, the field staff can have a lot on their hands.

One unique task is monitoring and repairing stormwater ponds. After every moderate-to-heavy rainfall, these ponds must be checked for blockages and damage. Plant debris (usually cattails) and garbage often block the drains – once there was even a snapping turtle. To reach these areas, the crew walk through tall wet vegetation and sometimes go down manholes to clear obstructions. We use hand tools such as rakes and pitch forks to remove debris and keep the water flowing. After inspection, we report the pond condition and perceived damage to the UW–Madison Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

In addition to the main paved road, the Arboretum also has several miles of gravel service lanes that need to be maintained and repaired throughout the year. The crew uses these lanes to access different parts of the Arboretum for land management and visitors also use them as hiking trails, so it’s important to keep them in good and safe condition.

It is not unusual for trees to fall and block service lanes, and it’s the crew’s responsibility to safely remove them. Sometimes trees also fall across the main road in the middle of the night and a crew member has to come in to open the road with only a truck’s headlights to guide their work. Occasionally these fallen trees are dangerous to remove and the crew must use great caution.

Service lanes can also be damaged or washed out by heavy rain. The crew repairs them by adding gravel and smoothing it out with a tractor and box grader. An arm mower attachment as well as pruners are used to cut back intruding branches from roadsides. There are many ways a service lane can be damaged and the crew stays on top of keeping them open and usable throughout the year.

Oriental bittersweet wrapping around a tree trunk
Oriental bittersweet wrapping around a tree trunk

We are fortunate to have such beautiful natural areas in an urban city such as Madison. This comes with some unique invasive plants that find their way into the Arboretum from residential areas, including Chinese lantern plant, oriental bittersweet, porcelain berry, and burning bush. Oriental bittersweet is a troublesome and widespread invasive at the Arboretum. The vine, introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant, can smother native plants and uproot trees due to its weight. The Arboretum has spent a lot of time researching and utilizing various control methods to manage this vine. This behind-the-scenes work takes time but we have started to see some success.

A lot of invasive species work happens in places that are far off trail and away from popular locations such as Curtis Prairie. Purple loosestrife thrives in wetter habitats throughout the state. At the Arboretum, it can be found along the marshes and Lake Wingra. To control it, we hop into a canoe and paddle to areas that are not reachable on foot. Deep in Wingra Marsh, we deal with the purple loosestrife and black European alder. This marsh is full of native sedges and forbs but had experienced an increase of these invasive species over the past couple of decades. For the past few years, the crew has gone into this area each summer to manage them. We are seeing some success and have more recently observed fewer invasive species and an expansion of native species.

While the public may regularly see land care staff performing traditional restoration work, such as tree clearing, prescribed fire, and seed collection, there is also a lot of behind-the-scenes work. This is just a sampling of the summer work that the field staff do at the Arboretum. The dedicated crew works every day to maintain the grounds and restore and conserve the natural areas so that all visitors can enjoy the beauty of the Arboretum.

—Lance Rudy, Chris Kregel, Tom Bresnehan, and Chelsea Camp, land care staff