He speaks for the trees: Van Otterloo and maintenance department trim the grounds

Dayna Wichhart—Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Dayna Wichhart

On a Tuesday morning in January, Craig Van Otterloo zipped up his brown coveralls over a worn, black sweatshirt. In the maintenance shed located on the west side of campus, he and the maintenance staff prepared for the day’s work. They laughed and heckled each other, opening the garage door and exposing themselves to Northwest Iowa’s crisp, cold air. 

Van Otterloo climbed into a red truck stocked with chainsaws, hatchets, and clippers. With the turn of a key, the truck roared to a start. He and his crew drove out to the campus’ trees and began cutting.

For the past month, students’ walks to class have been interjected by the whir of chainsaws and the snap-whoosh-thud of falling tree limbs. Van Otterloo is the man behind the operation.  

Van Otterloo, a graduate from Norwest Missouri State with a degree in wildlife/conservation management and a minor in biology, is new to the maintenance department. After working periodically throughout the fall of last year, he joined the team full-time in December. Since then, Van Otterloo has made changes to the grounds of Dordt University. 

“Denny, [Dordt University’s Head Groundskeeper], is the turf man, and I guess now I’m the tree man,” Van Otterloo said. “We complement each other well and we are learning a lot from each other.”

Prior to his employment at Dordt, Van Otterloo worked as a park manager for 33 years at Lake Pahoja in Lyon, Iowa. There, he planted new trees every year and trimmed them in their early stages of growth. This practice allows for healthier, more structurally sound trees.

When he arrived at Dordt, Van Otterloo noticed the trees, not trimmed for over ten years, first: “Oh, my goodness these things are a mess.” 

He wanted to return the trees to a healthy condition: “For a tree, trimming is like getting your hair or fingernails cut.”

While the practice encourages trees to produce bigger leaves for a fuller appearance, Van Otterloo and his team also removed dead and dying branches that posed a risk to students and property. In addition, Van Otterloo will also cut down a few trees entirely, given their insurance and safety risks. 

When trimming, Van Otterloo operates with one rule: “If I do take a tree down, I make sure I replace it.”

He’ll plant new trees in the spring to replace those cut down throughout the winter.

Van Otterloo is optimistic about the future of the younger trees on campus. The older trees however, are less likely to become structurally sound, even with their “haircut.”

This year, the maintenance department registered over 400 hours of labor between two trimmers and around a half dozen work study students. Their chainsaws have dug their teeth into over 100 trees and bushes, amounting to over 130 truckloads of branches. In future years, this number will decrease. 

Van Otterloo has divided the campus into three sections. Each year, the maintenance team will trim the trees in a different section, operating on a three-year rotation.

Before Van Otterloo, low hanging branches scraped across the roofs of busses and food delivery trucks as they drove through campus. After Van Otterloo, these vehicles can roll down the roads without obstruction. 

Photo Credit: Sam Landstra

“Right now, the trees look odd with all the fresh cuts, Van Otterloo said. “Once the cuts begin to heal and the leaves come in, people will see why we needed to do it.” 

In addition to tree trimming, he and Denny Veldhuizen have plans for landscaping. They aim to reimagine the beds outside of the Recreation Center, using the landscaping designs from two senior agriculture students.

Nicole Van Roekel and Sarah Holmberg designed six landscaping beds across campus for their Senior Directed Study Project. They included flowers and plants such as Prairie Dropseed, Little Bluestem, Pink Aster’s, and Coral Bells. 

“The goal for our designs was to create landscapes that are attractive to pollinators,” Van Roekel said, “Pollinator habitats and populations have decreased in recent years, and we wanted to do our part to help improve them.”

Van Otterloo enjoys working with college students: “I did it in Lake Pahoja and I’m glad to do it at Dordt. I think it is a great way to incorporate the classroom and seeing their work in real life.”

As the cold bit at the rosy cheeks and chapped nose of Van Otterloo, he loaded the red truck with his tools and drove back to the shed in search of warmer jobs for the remainder of the day. 

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