War Eagle Extra

Auburn committed to making Toomer’s Corner ‘whole again’ with new oak trees

A local television reporter interviews Auburn horticulture professor Gary Keever, right, in front of the oak tree on Magnolia Avenue at Toomer's Corner Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.
A local television reporter interviews Auburn horticulture professor Gary Keever, right, in front of the oak tree on Magnolia Avenue at Toomer's Corner Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn wants to make the famed entrance to the university at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Aveneue “whole again.”

The tree on Magnolia Avenue was damaged in September when Jochen Wiest lit it on fire.

With work to remove and install new oak trees at Toomer’s Corner starting Saturday at 6 a.m., Auburn professor of horticulture Gary Keever held a press conference from the location to discuss plans for the location, which also includes replacing the tree on College Street.

“This (College Street) tree was one of the original replacement trees for the Toomer’s Oaks that was removed in 2013,” Keever said. “It was a very large tree. It’s gone through a gradual decline since it was installed on Valentine’s Day in 2015. There’s very little foliage in the canopy. It’s simply signs that the tree is not doing well.”

The trees installed in 2015 were chosen to match the original ones poisoned in 2013, which turned out to be a challenging set of parameters.

“The (South Carolina) nursery had actually been abandoned in 2007,” Keever said. “The trees had not been root pruned, which is vital for concentrating the roots close to the trunk in at least 10 years. The trees had not been managed. They hadn’t been under irrigation.”

Keever said the replacement trees two years ago “were the nicest looking trees we could find that were appropriate,” but the slightly smaller trees going in Saturday have a much different pedigree.

“We looked at them; the canopies are full on them we expect them to arrive that way and we think that the transplant smaller tress with a greater root system will work to our benefit,” Keever said.

The university decided to replace both trees to maintain the “symmetry” of the location.

“With this being where town meets gown, we needed matching trees to frame this entrance to campus,” Keever said.

Keever admitted the latest setback for the trees at Toomer’s Corner was “painful.”

“I went through those years after the poisoning with very little to say that was positive about the condition of the trees,” Keever said. “When we finally replaced the trees it was just kind of an exuberance that the corner was made whole again.”

University officials spent little time discussing alternative options including the possible use of artificial trees at the location.

Keever cited the results of an online survey the university sent out in 2015 for continuing to use real trees.

“The overwhelming support was to go back with large trees and we’re going to continue that as long as we think it’s feasible,” Keever said. “I think the university is behind us here in wanting there to be vibrant, healthy trees on this corner, because I think it reflects the character and image of the university, particularly this part of the campus.”

According to campus planner Ben Burmester, costs are still being “figured out.” Burmester estimated the university would spend between $15,000 to $20,000 replacing each tree.

While Auburn planted a backup tree on campus when replacing the original oak trees, there are no current plans to install an extra tree on campus.

Fans won’t be allowed to roll the replacement trees until they are “established” in their new location. Keever didn’t rule out the 2017 football season, but doesn’t know what the exact timeline will be.

Keever is optimistic changes at the location — including a different type of soil and advanced moisture sensors — will help speed the process along.

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra