AU’s 20-Year Bloom Boom

Over the past two decades, American University has morphed from a province made mainly of hard and gray to one replete with soft vistas of color. It is as if a botanic bomb dropped and blew up in slow motion with foliage and blossoms.

Michael Mastrota guided the blast. A landscape architect, Mastrota arrived at the Northwest Washington, D.C., university in 1997 and now manages the AU Arboretum & Gardens.

On the evening of April 26, Mastrota appeared before nearly 80 people in the meeting room of the Tenley-Friendship Public Library to recount the transformation for the 2017 Henry Mitchell Lecture. Mitchell, a longtime Washington Post garden columnist who lived nearby, died in 1993 at age 69, with J.Y. Smith’s obituary calling him “a courtly, soft-spoken, chain-smoking son of the Deep South” who took death threats while covering civil rights, opposed U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, and “illuminated the triumphs and disappointments of the human condition through columns about gardening and everyday life.”

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MASTROTA GARDENER: Michael Mastrota, who oversees the American University Arboretum & Gardens, didn’t know landscape architecture was an option when he started at Virginia Tech. He was close, though, thinking he wanted to be an architect and sitting in a freshman studio class. At his side, as it happened, was a student already pursuing the option and who turned on the light. “It seemed like a good path for me so I adjusted my major,” Mastrota, a native of Northern Virginia, said in an interview with The “It was a good decision, as it turned out.” Mastrota got his degree and spent 10 years with a private firm, working on residential, commercial and government projects, and earning a master’s degree in environmental planning from the University of Virginia. He moved to the National Park Service for a 3.5-year stint, working in places like Cape Cod, Gettysburg and the George Washington Parkway. Mastrota said that in 1997 — about three years into the AU presidency of Benjamin Ladner and with beautification of the concrete-laden, car-coddling campus part of the strategic plan — he took on a new position at the university of landscape architect. “Pretty much anything you could do would make the place look better than it did. That was somewhat of a relief, I guess,” said Mastrota. “But it took time to build confidence because they already had a way of doing things, and we had to change the culture and kind of make a name for ourselves with a new administration.” Tuition was going up, he said, ripening conditions for some to ask why the university was “wasting money on all of these plants.” But the hole in the bottom line lay elsewhere. In 2005, the AU board of trustees evicted Ladner under a storm of complaints about lavish university spending to support his executive lifestyle. The Mastrota buds bloomed on. “Slowly, over time, as we did more and more, people started to see the difference and appreciate it.” Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Mastrota ran through a series of slides charting the campus transition. Surface parking lots became cozy, lush gardens. Plain grass hillsides grew forests. Rooftops turned green.

At AU’s beginning, it appeared the school chartered in 1893 would reflect the eye of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of iconic venues like New York City’s Central Park and the U.S. Capitol Grounds. But Mastrota said AU founder, Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst, hired the great man but then rejected Olmstead’s diffused, terrain-cleaving concepts in favor of greater formality.

AU’s development over the years included serving as a World War I-era locus for development and burial of sinister munitions like mustard gas. The inadvertent excavation of weaponry residuals at times has plagued the community.

The transformation of Mastrota’s focus began with an AU strategic plan that included beautification of the campus. AU aimed to affordably turn the landscape into an attractive place that would engage learning, promote the university and draw the community beyond the borders. The results entice.

“I’m trying to bring back some of the Olmstead ideas,” he said, adding that he likes sweeps of tall grasses. “I love to get rid of old concrete walkways.”

The campus is classified as a Level 2 Arboretum by the professional association ArbNet, which includes the requirement that the site have at least 300 varieties of woody plants. Mastrota said the arboretum total has reached more than 400 varieties, with a total of about 3,000 trees, including one that came from the White House grounds. Mastrota said a Jackson magnolia seedling, given by President Barack Obama, now sits outside the AU president’s office.

An AU staff of about 25 keeps up with the campus landscape of roughly 85 acres, which is divided into six zones, each with a leader who is a certified landscape technician. “They get to know their zone really well and what the requirements are,” Mastrota said. About 70 percent of the landscape is irrigated automatically, aided by a campus weather station that is tied into a central computer. The crew is responsible for the athletic fields, too.

To minimize costs, Mastrota said plants are purchased wholesale or directly from growers. He prefers to leverage staff instead of outside contractors, though he noted that a consultant was brought in to design the landscape of the newly opened law school.

Contractors mow lawns, which are no longer chemically treated. “Students are constantly out on the grass, so we don’t want them hanging out with pesticides,” he said. “We have a beekeeping society and a lot of clover and we don’t want to be poisoning our bees either.”

The weed killer Roundup occasionally is used in places, he said, but “that’s really about it.”

Many other universities have come to see what they can learn from the landscape, among them Georgetown University, where the new campus plan includes emphasis on adding trees and green space.

AU students oversee a campus community garden. A farmer’s market operates on Wednesdays. Surveys of students suggest the value of the flowering surroundings, he said. One student reported AU’s grounds did not influence their decision but other options had been eliminated because they “looked so bad.” Another called the setting a “huge factor” in their choice to attend AU.

“I love reading these,” he laughed, and “pushing those comments to the administration.”

Mastrota said he notices the payoff. “It’s really rewarding for us to see the students out using the landscape.”

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GREEN SCENE: American University’s Arboretum & Gardens. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

© 2017 John A. Bray