Chatham Views

campus community profile: Kristen Spirl

(l to r) TreePittsburgh Director of Urban Forestry, Matt Erb; two visitors from Perm State University in Russia; Chatham gardeners James Rue and Mike Schneider; Kristen Spirl (second from right); Chatham gardener David Bell

This year, Chatham’s Woodland Road campus has reached its twentieth anniversary of being designated an arboretum by the American Public Garden Association. We talked to Kristen Spirl, grounds department manager, about her work in making sure our campus stays so beautiful year in and year out.

What brought you to Chatham? How long have you been here?
I came to Chatham for graduate school in 2009 and enrolled in the Landscape Architecture program. I received a Master in Landscape Design & Development in August 2012, and shortly after joined the Grounds department! My first day was September 4, 2012.

What’s most exciting about your job?
There are so many things I find exciting about my job. For one, my office is generally outdoors! And no two days are the same. Surprises occur constantly, as Mother Nature answers to no one. I get to create with living plants, making something beautiful, functional, and sustaining. I love that I get to work with students and people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. The tools of the job—tractors, chain saws, skid steer loaders—are pretty fun, too!

What season does campus look the most beautiful?
This is such a hard question! I love every season and enjoy what each period has to offer, but if I must have a favorite… campus looks the most beautiful in the fall… though, winter showcases the structure of the trees—their simple beauty, with minimal colors and textures. The spring has so much color and texture as everything awakens from its nap. Throughout, the interactions of flora and fauna are never the same.

Landscape designer and photographer Rick Darke and Kristen Spirl

What kind of difference do you see yourself making or would you like to make on campus?
I love having volunteer events. Many of the volunteers have had little or no experience being a steward of the land and it may be their first time placing their hands in the earth or planting something that they can watch grow and flourish.

My hope is always that they return in the future with their friends and family to what they’ve planted and get to share in what they’ve added to the world.”

What’s your favorite part of campus?
The Kentucky coffee tree forest and pond adjacent to Mellon Center is really unique. These are old trees, and seeing them and wildlife interacting is very special. The woods between the AFC and Berry Hall is where my favorite White Oak tree is located.

What work have you done on campus that you are most proud of
Collaborating with organizations on campus for volunteer activities is always a big one—planting trees and flowers throughout the year, with “Oc-tulip-fest”, Arbor Day, and our University Day’s Buckets and Blossoms event. Of course I’m especially proud of our Tree Campus USA status! We authored a Campus Tree Care Plan for the University and Arboretum, ensuring the five standards set forth by the Arbor Day Foundation were met for recognition. This will be the 5th year we received the honor. And throughout all of our activities, creating relationships is always special, whether within the campus community, the Woodland Road residents, the City of Pittsburgh Forestry Department or TreePittsburgh.

If you were to pick a favorite plant or animal on campus, what would it be?
I don’t know if I would be able to narrow it down to just one! Kitty is my Integrated Pest Manager, and my favorite campus cat. Blue, the white English retriever, is my favorite off-campus dog. And then there’s… ALL THE DEER! The heron that visits and feeds from the pond. ALL THE BIRDS! Bunny squirrel. ALL THE SQUIRRELS! The White Oak in the woods across from Berry Hall. ALL THE OAKS! The apple tree behind Anderson towards the Carriage house. The saucer magnolia by Dilworth Hall. ALL THE MAGNOLIAS!

See, it’s hard to pick just one!

Follow the arboretum on Instagram. 

With elements designed for the Andrew Mellon estate by the renowned Olmsted Brothers, Chatham’s 39-acre campus encompasses a 32-acre designated arboretum featuring 115 different varieties of species, including dawn redwood, bald cypress, yellowwood, katsura tree, cucumber magnolia, and Carolina silverbell. The arboretum provides an outdoor classroom for students and an inviting place to stroll and to meditate.