Transforming the Campuses:

Mapping Trees and Planting Rain Gardens with Chris Guides

Friends’ Central Upper School science teacher Chris Guides has been, for many years, quietly at work across both of the School’s campuses implementing highly effective sustainability landscaping measures, both independently and with the help of students from all divisions. Along with Middle and Upper School students, he has also been documenting trees in the School’s arboretum. 

Chris Guides

Chris joined the Friends’ Central Middle School as a science teacher in 1999, and he began to turn his attention to the landscape of the City Avenue campus just a few years later. In 2013, Chris transitioned to the Upper School, where he has been teaching science ever since. He currently serves as Chair of the Science Department, and, in addition to all the curricular work he’s been doing, he has played a key role in Friends’ Central’s sustainability initiatives over the years. 

Among his particularly impactful work has been the transformation of the retention basin at the front of the Lower School into a campus feature, filled with beautiful native plantings. A retention basis is an area created intentionally to manage stormwater runoff, for protection against flooding, for erosion control, and to serve as an artificial wetland and improve the water quality in adjacent bodies of water. Most retention basins are maintained just by cutting the grass once a week in the spring and the summer. But they have the potential to be converted back into areas of native plantings, as Chris explained. This Lower School’s retention basin, thanks to Chris’ plantings, has become a perfect place for Nature Nursery students, who use it regularly for classes and play. It’s a fenced-in area, full of open spaces and wonderful native plants that the youngest students can explore safely.

The Lower School’s retention basin, thanks to Chris’ plantings, has become a perfect place for Nature Nursery students, who use it regularly for classes and play. It’s a fenced-in area, full of open spaces and wonderful native plants that the youngest students can explore safely.

On the City Avenue campus, along with documenting the trees, Chris – assisted often by students who are in Tree Club or as part of service projects – has been planting rain gardens and designating specific areas of the campus for native plantings which are now flourishing. 

We caught up with Chris for a Q&A about his various initiatives.

What inspired you to start documenting the City Avenue’s trees and taking on other landscaping projects?    

“I was looking for some on-campus service activities for Middle School students, and I was able to create my own service project. One of the first things that we started doing around 2001 – when I was a year or two into my job – is using my understanding of Geographic Information System (GIS) to identify trees on the City Avenue campus. The students and I would go out every Wednesday and take pictures of trees. We’d measure the diameter of a tree using a modified tape measure designed specifically for measuring trees given to me by Doug Linton ’68, FCS arborist. It takes the tree’s circumference and turns it into a diameter. The diameter of a tree at breast height is one of the metrics used by arboretums to determine the tree’s size. We photographed and measured the trees and made a note if a tree had been planted as a memorial and to whom and when. We were able to access older data on some trees from former Business Officer Emily Miller, whose daughter Helene Brennan ’99 had been involved in recording tree data when she was in Middle School. We tapped into Doug Linton’s expertise; we got Autocad drawings that were able to locate the trees in the GIS, and we created columns to add all of this information into the GIS system. The GIS system is basically a point on a map, and when you click on that point, information pops up about each tree.

“In those first few years within Middle School service, we really did a lot; we expanded from the tree work to start planting gardens. We planted a garden near the tennis courts in memory of former Middle School Principal Linda Hensel. From that, Doug Linton talked to me about adding more plants around campus. I’d check in with Doug to see what he needed, and we’d do anything from raking leaves to planting bushes and adding perennials.” 

Where are things now on the tree mapping project?

“There was a fairly long break in the tree mapping that began in 2001, so we have a lot of updating to do. It was just last year that we started talking about it again, because there’s now better software available that people can access online at home to look at our trees on campus. Students in the Upper School Tree Club are now actively at work, bringing the GIS up to date. They’ve done great work labeling the trees within GIS, with color-coded circles depending on the tree species and diameter of the tree. Tree Club students have also created posters highlighting the native plantings and the rain garden work.”

Chris Guides and Upper School Tree Club members looking at campus trees with the GIS

When did you expand your focus to the Lower School campus?

“When my own children started in the Lower School, we went to a Lower School party in the gym in 2017, and I was walking round the campus wondering ‘who’s taking care’ only to find it had been Lower School science teacher Peter Grove, who had recently retired. That inspired me to get involved. I started adding plants here and there, moving things around, asking teachers if they wanted to participate and getting ideas from them. I would stop off after school, when picking up my kids from Extended Day, and I’d do a couple of things. Around 2017, parents Anja and Matthew Levitties kindly donated some money to be used for a science-related project, so I purchased an infrared camera and around three hundred dollar’s worth of native plant plugs (two-inch-deep plants). It was during Thanksgiving break, and we went over to Lower School and planted a bunch of plants in the upper fields, behind the playground; that kicked things off the planting of native plants on the Lower School campus.” 

A Nursery student playing in the Retention Basin

How did your work on the Lower School retention basin come about? 

“In 2017, Alice McBee (fourth grade teacher) suggested I start planting on the upper fields of the Lower School, in part as a way to create a natural boundary for students to play in. However, that area is fairly dry and shaded by trees, susceptible to deer browsing. So I transplanted a lot of those plants that weren’t doing so well over to the retention basin at the front of the Lower School campus. In 2018, I worked with some eighth graders students for their Earth Force project with Dr. Zaradic to plant in the retention basin. In the spring, we planted several trays of plants that I’d bought. The following spring, on the City Avenue campus, we started working on the hillside between the FCC and the language building, creating an area of native plantings. With Dan Kallan, we pulled up all the grass and weeds. That kicked off some larger plantings, and I was able to bring some of the extra plants to the Lower School. As the plants were getting bigger, I was splitting them and bringing them to the Lower School. A lot of the plants on that campus are plants that we had on this campus or I had on my own property or through donations from other interested people’s gardens. Some plants grow really quickly in a season; others take a long time. It took a while before some of those plants were big enough to transplant to the Lower School.” 

How much upkeep does the retention basin require?

“I feel like I spend as much time tending the area as it would take to mow the grass in that whole area, sitting on a lawn mower. I’ve put plants along the fence, so it doesn’t need to be weeded and trimmed.

“There’s a movement away from driving or pushing internal combustion engines over lawns every week through the spring and summer.. Lawn mowers typically don’t have sophisticated exhaust systems that filter out pollutants. And, on top of that, you have the weedeaters and the gas-fueled blowers that are even worse polluters because they contain a mixture of gas and oil  

“I always check in with Harry Stead (Lower School Physical Plant team member) when I want to add native plants to additional areas, and he’s always been fully supportive and let me carry on. We’re now at a point where there’s so little turf grass [in the retention basis] that I could potentially cut it with my own lawn mower every two weeks or so.” 

When did you create the first City Avenue rain garden?

“Two springs ago, my first group of seniors, as the service component of their senior project, dug out a trench along the edge of the parking lot. (They used the golf cart, which made them really happy!). They relocated the dug-up soil to another part of campus. They then helped me plant some native plants all along the parking lot fence line. This was part of my Hendrie Stipend to create rain gardens.”
(Chris has received other Hendrie Stipends, including one for a trip to San Diego to present the work the Middle School students originally did with the tree-mapping project).

Have you integrated your landscaping work into your curriculum?

“In my Upper School Atmospheric Science and Climate Change class, at the beginning of this semester, we were talking about the flooding in California. We went into the City Avenue parking lot to learn about the flooding that also happens on our campus and how beneficial it is to capture rainwater. We’re learning about steps that we can all take – schools, businesses, homeowners – to try to reduce the amount of quickly flowing water into storm systems that then ends up in our local streams. How can we get it to flow slowly back into the ground instead? We’re talking about creating another rain garden in the parking lot some time in the spring. The Upper School Tree Club is interested in that service project. We need to do some maintenance work on the current rain gardens as well.”

Chris Guides talking to the third grade in October about the Lower School’s water system and how it works with the local watershed

What are some of the ways you work with students and teachers in each of the divisions?

“With Lower School students, we planted a variety of seeds in the retention basin this fall. Last year, we planted  some native grasses, which have grown nicely and are ready to be divided. Over the years, I’ve worked with Suchita Fiorillo and Meredith Woods (Nature Nursery teachers), Taylor Salvitti (third grade teacher) and Natalie Martin (Pre-K to second-grade science teacher).  In addition, we have coordinated with Tiffany Borsch (Lower School science teacher) on plant sales, the proceeds of which have gone to the Friends’ Central Annual Fund for Tuition Assistance. Last year, we contributed a number of plants that we dug out on the City Ave campus and put in pots to sell at the Lower School plant sale.

“At the Middle School, science teacher Patty Zaradic knows what I’m doing and will sometimes send kids my way. And they do quite a bit of sustainability work within their service learning. 

Planting native species on the City Avenue campus

“In the Upper School, students are regularly involved through service and senior projects and the Upper School  clubs. In 2018, our first work with students, together with Miriam S, Dan Kallen, and Doug Linton. We wanted to create areas of native plantings on small peripheral areas of the City Avenue campus – places not being used by students or sports fields. The first one we planted, in the spring of 2018, was at the front of City Avenue, on top of the stone retaining wall, near the softball field.  We removed non-native daylilies and planted an unknown native for shade called Carex plantaginea. In the spring of 2019, we began to transform the slope between the FCC and the Language Building into an area of native plantings with the help of Mary Lynne Jeschke and students from the Sustainability Club

“John Gruber and Claire Roberts (Forest Manager and Environmental Research Coordinator) have been doing great work with students removing non-native species and planting even more native species in the City Avenues wooded areas and along a creek behind our track. We sometimes coordinate with one another, if, for example, we have extra plants that need replanting. The 22-acre campus allows for many peripheral areas where native species can flourish, so there’s plenty of opportunity for a range of wonderful ongoing and new sustainable landscaping projects.”

Share this Article:

chevron-down closefacebookmailrsssearchtwittervimeoyoutube