He cultivates the campus’s ‘urban forest’ with an eye on the future

One of Stephen Schneider’s priorities as the new arborist is improving record-keeping of plant collections to benefit researchers decades from now. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

It is a sticky, tropical day in August, making the Boston campus feel like an open-air blast furnace. Good thing Northeastern has nearly 1,500 trees to absorb some of the heat, or it could feel a lot worse, says Stephen Schneider, the university’s new chief arborist.

“One of the more beneficial aspects of this urban forest that we have on campus is the offset of what would typically be an urban heat island,” says Schneider, who took over all landscaping duties in June from a Northeastern legend, Chuck Doughty.

‘I want to bring more departments together―faculty, staff, and students―using the arboretum as that catalyst,’ says Schneider. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“If you were to take the temperature of our campus versus two blocks away where there’s more concrete and fewer trees, the temperature difference would be immense,” Schneider says.

Granted, he was interviewed within the air-conditioned confines of Shillman Hall in West Village, but his point was clear―there is a strategy behind Northeastern being the only university in Boston to have an arboretum on its campus. And he plans to do more with the campus now that he’s in charge of putting its best botanical face forward―all 70 acres of it.

One of Schneider’s priorities is to improve record-keeping of plant collections to benefit researchers. Impeccable records “are what makes an arboretum an arboretum,” he says. “We’re not just planning for the now, we’re planning for 50, 100, 200 years into the future.”

An arboretum is like a museum where people go to learn about the past, Schneider explains.

“So think about somebody 50 years from now who is going to be interested in the evolution of our urban forest. Records show not only which plants lived, but which ones didn’t live. Having that dead layer in your record-keeping is just as important as the living record.”

It will be one more point of pride that puts Northeastern’s urban campus on the map, along with its wide variety of plantings.

The university currently has 149 different plant species on campus, including nearly 5,500 shrubs, all of which now fall under the watchful eyes of Schneider and his team. Keeping the plants healthy and thriving can be a challenge when rainfall has been higher than normal coupled with all of the building construction and renovations.

“Anything that’s happening on either the facade of the buildings or the underground utilities can have an impact on the plantings,” he says. Dying plants by Richards Hall, for example, were an early indicator that something was wrong underfoot.

“It turned out there were a couple of steam line leaks,” says Schneider. “When you have 160-degree steam cooking root systems, the plants generally don’t respond well and they go brown.”

The broader challenge beyond individual plants is maintaining a green campus in the middle of a bustling city and its miles and miles of underground utilities.

“The two typically don’t mix,” he says. “The hard work that my team does is to make sure that they can actually live in harmony.”

Along with improved record-keeping and dealing with the challenges of an urban environment, Schneider has to deal with a changing climate. Younger trees absorb carbon better than ones that have been around a long time because the older ones are growing at a slower rate and are less vibrant, he says.

Trees store carbon dioxide in their fibers, helping to clean the air and reduce negative effects on the environment, according to the U.S. Forest Service. One mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange.

hand holding a metal tree tag in northeastern arboretum
Schneider points out a tag on one of the many trees in the arboretum on campus. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“We don’t have old-growth trees on our campus, we have mature trees,” Schneider says. The mature ones, he adds, combine well with the university’s newer plants. “They’re young, they’re vibrant, and they want to grow. The younger the tree, the more carbon it tends to capture.”

Schneider was familiar with the Northeastern campus long before he got the top job in its arboretum. He came here as an undergraduate to study biology, with the intention of fixing teeth and filling cavities for a living.

“I had this dream of being a dentist since I was in the third grade,” he says. That ambition stayed with him until he arrived on campus, but he also wanted to explore different aspects of the life sciences. “I was glad that I did that because we were in a quarter system back then,” says Schneider, who started at Northeastern in 1995.

“In my second quarter you had to take, as a biology student, biology one, two, and three. In the second portion, which was in the winter session, it was all botany. And that’s when I got hooked. I pretty much abandoned over a decade of hoping to be a dentist to work with plants,” he says, bursting into laughter.

Schneider, who is from Massachusetts, also spent time in the family’s vegetable garden in the backyard, an experience that he is replicating for students at Northeastern.

“We’re going to have student vegetable gardens on campus, and that construction [by Snell library] is nearly finished,” he says. There will be 15 growing boxes each measuring four feet wide by four feet long, and two feet high. He is working with a local company, Green City Growers, to choose the right soil and plants.

A fall pilot program will include autumn staples such as cabbage, kale, and other items. Students can help themselves to the produce, much as they do with the herb gardens on campus.

Ultimately, he wants the vegetable garden to be run by students. He has been speaking with a number of them who have a collective interest in gardening but come from multiple educational disciplines beyond life sciences.

“Without the garden or without being interested in plants, these folks might never have crossed paths. So I want to bring more departments together―faculty, staff, and students―using the arboretum as that catalyst.”

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