Grounded in Best Practices
High-Demand Outdoor Spaces Require Smart Management
Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic first started causing businesses and schools to shutter and people were largely stuck at home, many of those people started spending more time outside—visiting parks, grounds or any greenspace close to home.
Lauren Barry, landscape supervisor at the North Carolina Art Museum in Raleigh, said that even though the museum is temporarily closed, they've seen a large increase in the number of visitors to their 164-acre Museum Park, which features environmentally sustainable landscapes, colorful gardens, a terraced pond, art installations and miles of paved and unpaved trails.
"In March, April and May of 2020, we welcomed about 300,000 visitors, doubling the 2019 numbers during that same time frame. The grounds crew has continued necessary maintenance, but are working a reduced schedule to minimize interaction and maintain social distancing with the public," said Barry.
Stephanie Bruno, executive director of the nonprofit Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), said she's noticed challenges in the industry with regard to the pandemic, including the need for different engagement strategies to keep staff motivated, and, for members in higher education, developing and implementing alternatives to virtual learning, including outdoor classrooms. But she agreed that the situation has drawn people outdoors. "As a positive for the industry, we've seen an increase in public support and understanding across the country for the support and value of greenspace, especially during the era of social distancing."
At Museum Park, Barry said, they employ a full-time grounds manager and a four-person crew, handling basic maintenance including mowing, planting, weed management, watering and seasonal leaf removal, along with larger specialty projects. "These include planting a large field of sunflowers for visitors to enjoy each summer, and the development of new garden spaces like our pollinator garden in partnership with Burt's Bees and Bee Downtown," a firm that installs and maintains beehives on corporate campuses.
Perennials are used almost exclusively at Museum Park as they're more sustainable than annuals, according to Barry, who said they're also working to establish a native meadow composed of wildflowers and grasses. "We also have about 40 acres of un-mowed fescue that typically has patches of milkweed, asters, clover and more that volunteer within this space, attracting butterflies as well as honey bees from the apiary."
Invasive species, such as kudzu and blackberries, can threaten other wildlife such as native trees, and Barry explained that invasive species management in the wooded areas of their park has become a big focus. "We've been fortunate enough to have been awarded grants that have allowed us to have contractors help us make progress in these areas so that it's at a level our grounds crew can manage in-house."
Barry said their unpaved trails require regular maintenance, especially following big storms. "The trails are inspected daily by the grounds crew to ensure the public's safety and to ensure any problems are caught and repaired before they become worse."
Water management is a big focus at the museum. "Our West Building is a LEED-certified gallery that allows for water catchment, as well as four bioretention swales around the building that collect stormwater runoff from paved surfaces. All of this water is stored in a 90,000-gallon cistern that we use to irrigate our landscape and fill the three reflecting pools around the perimeter of the building."
She also described updating the street-front landscape and parking area, installing a two-acre water swale to collect stormwater runoff from the parking lot and filter out heavy metals and nutrients before being directed to the on-site pond. "We've also planted drought-tolerant native grass species to replace large areas of mowed grass throughout the formally managed landscape to reduce mowing and irrigation needs."
Many universities and colleges maintain rich traditions of grounds management, horticulture and arboriculture. Their grounds managers oversee a myriad of duties, from seeding lawns to removing trash; repairing a pitcher's mound to plowing snow; fixing a tractor to diagnosing a sick tree. We checked in with some of them to compare notes and gain insight into current trends and practices.
The University of San Diego (USD) website lists all the trees, shrubs, vines, flowering annuals, groundcovers, natives and other plants used on campus. Ernie Salazar is the manager of grounds and transportation at USD, where a crew of 25 oversee 180 acres, and he pointed out that their climate allows them to feature a wide variety of plants. "On our campus we have many species of trees that are native to different places from around the world." But this is not the norm everywhere, with others reporting that these days they're using primarily native plants, which can lessen maintenance.
"We're starting to plant more native plants on the perimeter of campus and the outlying areas, but they're not always as 'showy' as non-natives and not what visitors expect. As a result, we're launching an education campaign to increase awareness and try to manage expectations," said Ryan McCaughey, manager of grounds and equipment at Pennsylvania State University, where he oversees a crew of 72 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees and five supervisors. They also have a greenhouse, producing more than 40,000 plants annually for campus use, with some annual flower displays being changed up to three times a year. Some gardens mix annuals and perennials, and they have more than 400 containers as well.
At Rice University in Houston, the entire campus was designated as an arboretum, according to Assistant Grounds Director Philip Dierker. "The Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum at Rice University consists of a collection of woody plants throughout campus, and honors the Texas horticulturist who's recognized as the founder of the native plant movement in Texas."
"We only use native drought-resistant and deer-resistant species," said Mike Beaulieu, campus services ops supervisor at Central Oregon Community College, adding that they only plant annuals in hanging baskets high enough to avoid consumption by deer. "We also have extensive natural native areas that we leave untouched for the most part, other than noxious weed removal and fire reduction." With a crew of only 6.5 FTE tending to 250 acres spread across six campuses, Beaulieu said they hire work crews to help with weed control during the growing season.
In fact, many parks departments and campuses are allowing some areas to go back to their native states. Dierker said they have a three-acre natural area that includes a one-acre coastal prairie restoration. And Jared Rudy, superintendent of grounds at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said they have two no-mow fields equaling about five acres that are used for grad research and other classes.
"We've introduced several no-mow areas," said McCaughey. "It was a shock to some people at first, and we'd receive calls, but as expectations of what a landscape should look like change, people are more accepting. We've focused on trying to keep these areas weed-free and have mowed edges and paths to show that it's deliberate. We're going to start introducing meadow areas in addition to the no-mow areas."
Grounds departments typically have to tend to hardscape areas as well. "We have a variety of patios, walks and trails using mulch, screenings/stone dust, asphalt, concrete, pavers, brick, bluestone, aggregate and gravel as surfaces," said Roger Connor, a certified grounds manager at Duke University in North Carolina, where a crew of 56 oversee 550 acres. Along with walks, trails and stairs, McCaughey said they maintain 16,000 surface parking spaces and six parking decks. "We have a full-time street sweeper and sidewalk sweeper. We have an overnight crew that spends the season painting lines in lots, roads and crosswalks."
Stormwater management is a major consideration for all our contributors, and Rudy describes having more than 25 green stormwater infrastructure solutions and rain gardens throughout the Villanova campus. "We also have a contractor that does an annual audit of all our stormwater infrastructure."
So-called green practices are an ever-evolving part of grounds strategies, and we examined some sustainability initiatives being implemented.
At USD, Salazar said they have a central control system operating the irrigation system. "The system receives weather data that includes air temperature, humidity and evaporation rates. With this information, our system then regulates the duration of our watering cycles."
Beaulieu said their system is also centrally controlled now, "maximizing efficient water use, minimizing waste and reducing repair time and minimizing landscape damage from faulty components. And we recently launched a biocontrol program to utilize flower and root weevils for helping to reduce spotted knapweed populations."
McCaughey explained how they work with their Turf Research department and extension office to use fertilizers that provide the longest slow release with minimal product. "We're able to apply one time in the spring and get season-long coverage with no leaching or flush of growth while also increasing soil health. We looked into organic products but it would've been more detrimental and less sustainable."
Penn State was also one of the first universities to compost food waste from dining halls. "We also compost all the green waste on campus, which is then used back on campus as mulch, compost or blended soil."
McCaughey also said they've switched out all their two-stroke engine equipment and hand mowers to battery-powered versions, and they've started changing their zero-turn mowers to battery-powered versions as well. Plus, they have solar offset for the charging stations. "With these changes we reduced our fuel use (from 2018 to 2019) by almost 1,800 gallons, not to mention the reduction in noise pollution and fuel spills."
They've also started reducing the size of their vehicles—from dump and pickup trucks to utility vehicles—and they're using multi-use equipment that utilizes different attachments and bodies for one piece, reducing their fleet further.
The Right Stuff
Equipment can help groundskeepers work more efficiently, and the experts at a Moline, Ill.-based company manufacturing lawn & garden, construction, forestry and agriculture equipment described some popular choices for grounds maintenance, including the zero-turn mowers, good for mowing large areas. Some feature self-sharpening blades, a relatively new innovation. "They're particularly efficient in areas with lots of objects to mow around, like trees and landscaping."
Wide-area mowers—with three mower decks—are also good for large areas. Front mowers are popular too, and can be equipped with attachments to tackle other tasks, such as snow blowing and plowing. For maintaining sports fields, the new reel mowers feature a high-performance electric reel drive. The control display enables users to input commands such as mow speed, turf speed, transport speed and service timers, while also capturing on-board service diagnostics.
The company's Material Collection Systems, equipped with heavy-duty blowers, are ideal where leaves or grass clippings need to be collected. "(We) offer two types of systems," said a company spokesperson, "a three-bag option as well as a dump-from-seat solution."
Where visual appeal is critical, striping kits are useful. "The operator can mow in a specific direction and the kit will move the grass blades, creating a striped pattern."
Compact utility tractors are the "Swiss army knife of equipment." There are hundreds of implements available, transforming the tractor to tackle many tasks including mowing, aerating, grading, loading, snow removal, digging and trenching. Utility vehicles are ideal for transporting people, equipment and materials, and like the tractors they can accommodate a wide variety of attachments for tasks like spraying or seeding, and can be customized with a heated cab for winter.
As far as new technologies benefitting the industry, Bruno at PGMS said robotics is a growing trend, including "autonomous mowers, electric equipment and drones, continued opportunities with ARC-GIS for tree inventory, charge carbon to enhance microbial activity in soils, and not-as-new but continued alternatives to reduce pesticide usage." She mentioned a couple sessions that will take place at their October conference, including an Innovation Roundtable, to help members explore new technologies.
Back on Campus
Over at Rice, Dierker said he expects the pandemic will likely advance their use of new technology. "For example, we're considering robot mowers, an autonomous paint machine for our fields, and we'll be retrofitting our campus trash containers with smart technology—volume sensors. We expect to increase our use of battery-powered equipment in the next 12 to 18 months as well."
All of our college grounds contributors had sports fields to maintain, and they discussed some of the challenges involved, including wear and overuse, invasive weeds, drainage and irrigation issues. "Field marking—which can be elaborate and ever-changing depending on the game—is a challenge, especially later in the season when it's colder and wetter, as it takes the paint longer to dry," said McCaughey.
Beaulieu discussed their multi-use soccer field, which is surrounded by a running track: "We recently finished a complete overhaul of the irrigation system to significantly increase distribution uniformity and ensure head-to-head coverage, resulting in lush, green turf and elimination of stress areas."
And what do those working in cold climates do in the winter? "We have many projects in the winter months," said Connor. "This is a great time to open up the air flow in shrubs and trees by pruning them, adding to details of edging, filling in holes, removing rocks, removing weeds from back doors of buildings that don't get first-class care during the growing season, woodland cleanup and off-season overhaul of equipment."
Of course, all the cold climate dwellers mentioned snow and ice removal as a main task, and other duties mentioned included leaf pickup, painting and repairing site furnishings, prep for the next growing season, ornamental and perennial bed cleanup, furniture and event setups, trash/recycling removal, litter and debris pickup, storm drain cleaning and office moves.
Sharing information is extremely beneficial, and McCaughey said that due to their size, many look to them for ideas, and they host tours and conferences of other schools and grounds professionals. And they also visit other places to see what others are doing. "We work with vendors, students and professors to demo new products and experiment with new techniques. We call campus a living lab. Because we have so many areas of concern, we need to network with many different groups and organizations to do our job well."
"Networking and collaborating with others in the industry is how we grow and continue to get better at our jobs," said Rudy.
"Networking is continually cited as PGMS' best member benefit," according to Bruno. The organization also offers education opportunities through their School of Grounds Management, available in virtual and live formats.
Our contributors all related ways that the pandemic has affected their work, including staff reductions, funding cuts, new projects and installations being put on hold, less in-person communicating and more equipment cleaning. But green things keep growing, people keep venturing outdoors and grounds managers everywhere are working to keep their properties beautiful and sustainable even with fewer resources.
"COVID has prevented many of us from performing all the duties of the job," said Connor. "We spent half the summer with split crews working every third day. The university looks good, but details are missing that we pride ourselves in completing."
Indeed, pride was the common thread in our conversations. "As grounds management professionals, we support our university's teaching and research through our stewardship of the campus' natural resources," said Dierker, "while recognizing the importance of the campus landscape in creating first impressions of our institution." RM