The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Sam Adams raises trees like healthy children at the University of Tennessee

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IMG 0122University of Tennessee arborist Sam Adams stands in front of a blooming dogwood on the campus of UTK.  Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

First campus arborist continues climb up Utree Knoxville

KNOXVILLE — Students at the University of Tennessee walk by hundreds of trees every day without thinking about them.

Sam Adams was thinking about them even before he became UT’s first arborist.

Adams, 58, has cared for trees in the field of arboriculture for decades. He’s worked privately and publicly, including as arborist supervisor for Sarasota County, Florida. He graduated with a degree in environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where he initially pursued a degree in English.

His fascination with trees began at Warren Wilson, specifically with the work-study programs that utilized the 600-acre campus forest.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the work that I was doing at Warren Wilson, because it connected so well to the things that I was learning that I really latched onto forest biology and ecology, and really latched onto tree identification,” Adams said.

He has worked with trees ever since, including 15 years with an arboriculture company in Knoxville. In 2015, he applied for a job at the University of Tennessee. He soon learned he would become the first UT arborist in the university’s history.

“You don’t get many opportunities to be the first of anything,” Adams said. “So, the opportunity to be the first arborist at the University of Tennessee, to take the kinds of talent, skills and abilities that I have, to create an arboriculture program, that really jazzed me up.”

He presently works with students Neal Vercler and Walker Fowler. Together they maintain, catalog and care for every tree on UT’s campus.

What is his job description at the state’s flagship university campus?

“An arborist is a person who is professionally engaged in the care and maintenance of trees,” Adams said. “So, however that falls into play, it could be insect and disease control, soil management such as fertilization, aeration, mulching; and moving up the trunk, branch removal, thinning, crown raising.”

He narrowed tree care to three main categories. The first is crown raising, which helps to increase visibility and prevent branches from hitting anything. The second is overall risk reduction by taking out dead or dangerous tree branches. The third is tree removal.

Other responsibilities include ensuring trees grow in evolving climates, and redirecting water toward the trees. One of Adams’ current projects involves redirecting rainwater runoff from the UT tennis courts and planting trees to collect it.

Adams said the university removed about 60 trees of various sizes in 2021. When his crew removes trees, they cut them into segments, put them into a wood chipper, and deposit the chips at the UT compost facility and UT gardens. They often fill those vacant spots with new trees.

As most university trees are still young, Adams compared cultivating trees to raising kids. Most campus trees are only about 12 inches in diameter or less.

“If 70 percent of my trees are small trees, I need to focus the majority of my time working on the younger trees,” Adams said. “And a lot of that theory is, if you prune and shave trees when they’re young, you’re setting them up for a healthy future. It’s just like raising healthy children … feed them well, treat them well, they’ll grow up well, and trees are the same way.”

It takes time, money and energy to maintain these trees, but Adams said overall benefits outweigh the initial costs. These include building a canopy of trees that covers campus and will reduce heat, capture stormwater and protect against wind.

“The offsets that the trees provide can neutralize the expenses that it takes to grow them and get them into place,” Adams said. “And over time, the environmental benefits that the trees provide will definitely outstrip the costs that it took to get them in the ground to begin with.”

Plan ahead, adapt and grow

This care requires planning. Adams’ team begins each month by determining the daily tasks ahead of them. They also decide the larger projects that they need to complete based on the season and campus activity, establishing most big plans for the summer and winter. Certain things may drastically alter the day, like a recently fallen tree needing attention.

Adams also updates the university’s online tree inventory. Although it started in 2008, no one consistently worked on the inventory until Adams became the UT arborist, and most previous records were physical documents.

Currently, the UTK inventory stands at 8,509 trees, 132 stumps and several hundred tree vacancies on campus, designated as green, brown and blue spots. Each tree spot tells you where it’s located, the scientific and common names, the diameter and the height of the tree. This accounts for the roughly 219 tree species at UT.

“I do look at our inventory as a collection of trees,” Adams said. “Tennessee has [around] 175 native species of trees. That doesn’t mean that our collection has every native tree indigenous to East Tennessee in it, but it does mean that we’ve got 219 species of tree on campus.”

Some of these indigenous trees are varieties of maples and oaks, as well as the dogwood. There are several trees on campus that aren’t native to Tennessee, like a large Virginia pine near Caledonia Avenue.

“Looking at some of our pines, we realized that we also might potentially have slash pine, which is not indigenous to Tennessee, it’s indigenous to the coastal plain of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama,” Adams said.

Some of these more unique trees are state champions, which are considered the largest tree of that species within the state, like the persimmon tree in front of Henson Hall.

“We’ve got a really nice hedge maple over at Hodges Library,” Adams said. “I think that’s Acer campestre, and it’s considered a state champion. It’s one of the largest specimens of one I’ve ever seen.”

He said that since these trees aren’t native, somebody had to have planted them. He enjoys finding and planting these unique trees across campus.

“I tell my guys that sometimes finding a unique specimen that we can plant someplace is kind of like setting out Easter eggs for the people that come after us, because I know that somebody before me did the same thing,” Adams said.

These trees occasionally require special maintenance since they aren’t native to Tennessee. From the soil to the climate, they try to find the right conditions for these trees to grow.

“If you’ve got a tree that’s been planted outside of its region, it may not like your soils really well or your climate is maybe too humid or it’s too hot or we don’t get cold enough winters,” Adams said. “Those kinds of factors do come into play. At times, you just have to be a little bit more watchful.”

Adams is also trying to account for climate changes. He says that trees growing in the current climate might not grow so well 30 years from now. 

“We are at a time where we’re having to confront environmental change a lot,” Adams said. “Climate change is something that we have to think about. We’re in a transition zone for a lot of different species in the temperate region of North America. So species that are doing well in this climate of East Tennessee may in 30 years not be doing so well because our climate is going to be changing.”

Adams said that the university will increasingly have to find species that adapt and grow within that changing climate to ensure their survival. By planting these trees, they not only benefit campus, but also remind people of the environment around them.

“They give us that link to the environment and conservation,” Adams said. “They allow us at one moment to look into the past and know that sometime in the past that somebody did something, and that right now we’re raking the benefits of it, and we also know that somewhere in the future somebody else will benefit from this too. It’s a three-way win.”

Starting from scratch after Civil War

Although they link to the past, the trees on campus are too young to fully connect with the history of UT’s campus. Knoxville historian Jack Neely, director of the Knoxville History Project, points out there weren’t many trees on campus at all during the Civil War era.

“Anyone who’s seen photos of campus (the Hill, really) knows that the tall trees on the Hill don’t date back to any time before 1863,” Neely said. “UT was near the Union army’s largest fort, and the army cleared a large part of the west side of town of all trees to eliminate obstacles and hiding places. The Hill, which had a gun emplacement itself, was denuded of them.”

Professors or homeowners planted most of the postwar trees, since most of UT encompassed residential areas before the campus expanded.

“Circle Park, which has big trees, those were residential homes,” said Jim Cortese, a well-known arborist consultant in Knoxville.

“So much of the campus, the really big trees that are there (were planted), because of urbanization and the development from being farmed areas to a residential area to becoming a university.” Cortese speculates that most of the older trees still on campus are less than 100 years old, and most were planted in the 1920s.

Ceremonial trees in honor of a person or an event were also planted over the years. Most of those trees weren’t maintained well, and are gone.

“I believe there was one planted in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on the old front lawn of University Center, but it may have vanished even before the big construction project for the giant new student union,” Neely said. “Planting memorial trees always seems a great idea on the front end, but Knoxville in general, and maybe the human race in general, has a terrible record for maintaining them.”

Cortese confirmed that tree was indeed planted, but the dawn redwood has since been taken down. He talked about other memorial trees on campus, including a plaque that was given to him by the late director of UT horticulture, Don Williams. The plaque was placed for the descendant tree of the tree under which George Washington took command of the Continental army. It was planted for Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932.

Cortese plans on digging through his records for more tree-growth data. He wants to offer this data set to Adams and other Knoxville arborists so that they can determine the ages of trees without harming them.

“If you understand how much the average annual growth increment of a tree is, then you can prorate that to the diameter of the tree today,” Cortese said. “And the only way you can get that data is you have to have had trees that were measured 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, and I will have 20 and 30 and 40 years of growth records on hundreds and hundreds of trees.”

This will help Adams and future arborists, especially as the tree population on campus, and campus itself, continues to grow. 

Adams plans on working for a few more years, or at least until he can no longer climb trees. He hopes to continue doing the work that he’s doing every day, like caring for these trees, updating the online inventory and even accounting for new emergencies and climate change. When he does retire, he hopes that the second UT arborist will make the nascent program their own.

“I want them to know … that this is a very young program and it’s theirs for the molding and it’s theirs to develop into what it should be, but don’t ignore what’s been done ahead of you,” Adams said.

“I can come back here 30 years from now and see trees that I’ve planted this year and the year before and the year before, and have that satisfaction of knowing that I did that,” Adams said. “That just really hits a deep spot for me. I would never look back and change anything about it.”

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