Drew Rojek has been the Keuka College Grounds Manager for just over a year. With Rojek’s leadership, the College recently celebrated its first year as a Tree Campus USA, one of just 22 in the state of New York. Originally from Buffalo, Rojek lives in Canandaigua with his wife Dana and two daughters—Ava, 4, and Lainey, 18 months.
Rojek received his BS in Biology from Gannon University in Erie, PA, and his Master of Landscape Architecture from Morgan State University (MSU) in Baltimore, MD. While pursuing the latter, he worked on the grounds department of MSU and after graduation worked for a design-build company as an LA doing mostly residential design work.
Please tell us a little about Keuka College.
Drew Rojek: Keuka College is located in Keuka Park on Keuka Lake. It is located in the Finger Lakes region in the northern part of the Appalachian Plateau in the Great Appalachian Valley. It is a very rural area with a large local Mennonite population. Much of the surrounding area is made up of wooded low mountains, farms, and small scale wineries. Keuka College has 122 acres and features a main academic campus, an athletic complex, and an adventure/ropes course that we in the grounds department maintain.
Can you tell us about Keuka College’s tree assets?
DR: When I first stepped into my current position here at Keuka, one of the biggest issues I saw was the condition of the trees; most of the trees were unhealthy and unsafe. Trees are meant to create the stately, welcoming canopy of a campus landscape and to symbolize the grandeur of academia. Keuka was lacking in tree coverage and I estimate the oldest dozen trees would only be around 60 years old, which is young for a college that just celebrated its 125th birthday.
We have a very slim variety of trees dominated by Bradford pears, crabapples, red oaks, and honey locusts. Through some investigating, I found that most of these trees had significant health issues. Some had root rot from being in too-moist soil, while others were fighting problems related to volcano mulching. We had very thin tree canopies and pruning had not been done in years. And of course, the Emerald Ash Borer is also an unwelcome guest at our campus and has decimated what little population of ash trees we had.
Analyzing the condition of each tree combined with the importance of its location gave me my priority list. I look at everything through function and aesthetics; the trees that were on main campus and seen the most were at the top of my list. We began to work on the trees with the capabilities and resources we had; this included correcting mulching mistakes and pruning damaged trees. We removed any remnant plastic and girdled roots along with cutting an even circle around the trunk for a mulch ring, making it easier to maintain.
After we got the buy-in from several campus departments after educating them about what we were doing, we moved onto large-scale pruning and treatments. After many years of improper care to the trees, I wanted to create a new culture around why these trees are so important, which justified all of our care efforts.
What are the noteworthy specimens?
DR: Our most iconic trees on campus would be our row of pin oaks (Quercus palustris) that line the walkway to Norton Chapel. This is where we hold summer weddings and it is the location of the College’s annual commencement ceremony. I estimate these trees are the oldest ones at campus (about 60 years).
Last year I started to see an issue with the health of these oaks. Because they are the main focal point of campus, we needed to address the situation quickly. After we took care of the issues we were capable of, we had a contracted arborist prune each tree with a 60-foot bucket truck. I worked closely with the arborist and we found that the roots had been invaded by a pathogenic fungus. As a result, the phloem tissue was deteriorating, resulting in degenerative dieback. We then implemented a monthly treatment program that we hope will control the fungus. All last year we fought a drought and in order to get optimum uptake of the fungicidal treatments, we had to do countless hours of watering these trees. This spring, I am anxious to see the improvements and am hopeful that these oaks will be around for decades to come.
What has becoming a Tree Campus USA meant to you and for Keuka College?
DR: Becoming a Tree Campus USA (TCUSA) means that we are changing our tree culture on campus. Not only has our department recognized the importance of trees, that awareness is rapidly spreading to faculty, staff, and most importantly, to students. It is great when my phone rings and it is an alumna/us or a group wanting to donate a tree or efforts towards tree care.
To me, TCUSA status means a continued commitment to making trees a priority. We have implemented a 1:2 tree loss to tree replacement planting program as well as dedicating ourselves to using more native species on campus.
I believe that there is beauty in simple perfection and trees allow us to achieve that. We do not need an elaborate planting to create a great design. One of my favorite sites on campus is seeing a single tree that is appropriately pruned and mulched sitting in the middle of lush grass, a less-is-more approach.
I am honored to be a part of an organization with a growing commitment to our tree collection. I look at other campuses and towns and get motivated to try to do even more. We will continue to strive for perfection when it comes to tree care. Sometimes all of these tree issues can be discouraging but having (and maintaining) TCUSA status drives us to keep moving forward with tree care, which results in greater beauty for Keuka College. I believe it will also have positive reverberations within the surrounding community.