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Virginia Tech arborist branches out on Blacksburg campus

Beneath the canopy of a bur oak on Virginia Tech’s campus, Jamie King kneels, analyzing dirt.

Using a device called a slide hammer, he’s taken a sample of soil from near the tree. Metal sleeves capture the dirt as it appeared in the ground. He works diligently, cutting a sample with a short-blade knife onto a sheet of foil. King will later determine whether the soil around the oak is too dense and needs to be broken up.

“That can be detrimental to tree health, because this site is very different from where this tree evolved to live in the forest, where soil has a natural system that keeps it loose,” King said by the iconic oak outside Burruss Hall. “Because this tree is growing somewhere where it didn’t evolve to grow, it needs a little extra help.”

King now provides that help for all trees across campus. Last month he became Tech’s first-ever arborist.

A university arborist assesses trees’ health, maintains their growth, and plans for the future of the area’s so-called urban forest. Tree experts on campus have been calling for the university to establish such a position for at least a decade.

“It would be like not having an engineer,” said John Seiler, a Tech professor and tree physiology specialist. “If they found a crack in the Torgersen bridge going over the mall, they wouldn’t call one of the civil engineering faculty: ‘Hey, come look at this crack.’ They’d have the people in place to come do that.”

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