Grounds Management Adapts to a Changing Planet
Today's grounds management professionals have more worries than their predecessors.
Along with the traditional tasks of caring for lawn areas, trees, shrubs and flowers, they have to pay attention to the current and future state of the Earth's climate and its creatures.
More than ever, the care and feeding of grassy areas, athletic fields, golf courses, trees and aesthetically pleasing landscaping is guided by how best to adapt to and begin to reverse climate change and its effects on the Earth, its weather and its living things.
"BMPs (best management practices) continue to evolve with emphases on sustainability and environmental attributes, with water use and water quality at the top," said Dan Dinelli, golf course superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. "Practices that conserve water and protect water quality improve as plant genetics, tools and inputs become available."
Dinelli said golf course managers can get help with plans for their properties by using a BMP guide. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) gives guidance on BMPs tailored to a course's particular profile. Dinelli stressed that such outlines can be used for any grounds.
"A well-thought-out BMP guide helps in documentation, aids in budgeting, acts as a selling tool for needs, and provides a road map to continual improvement as it illustrates a high level of professionalism," he said. "(GCSAA) has helped many facilities demonstrate their continual improvement in safety and managing their green space within a sustainable framework.
"Golf courses, sports fields, parks and campuses all represent important open green space adding value to a community. BMPs help elevate the benefits these areas provide that contribute to a sustainable ecosystem."
The boots on the ground still execute those plans—mowing and trimming and pruning and burning and spraying—but the 21st century has seen a rise in methods for those actions that prioritize energy efficiency and survivability of species at risk. The changing world climate adds the challenge of extreme and unpredictable weather and rising annual temperatures that destroy plant life in the short term and spread invasive species in the long term.
Manufacturers of grounds equipment are interested in the move toward modernity as well. The shift is to smarter machines that are less reliant on fossil fuels.
"Technology is rapidly developing to allow for less experienced operators to perform typically senior-level tasks such as spraying—with the advent of the GPS sprayers," said Paul Schultheis, a corporate sales manager for a New England grounds equipment dealership. "Robotic and autonomous mowers will be the next step in reducing labor in this field and maximizing efficiencies of the grounds teams at golf, sports and governmental facilities.
"The biggest thing that has changed over the past 20 years is how technology has been integrated into this industry. The machines are now computer-controlled and can even be monitored remotely. There are software programs available that integrate telematics on the machines into a program that helps manage labor, chemical inventory and even an electronic job board. This can all be updated from a mobile device anywhere in the world."
More important than the technology is what humans do with it. Two grounds veterans, Scott Witte and Joe Jackson, have committed their careers to the science of grounds management in the service of the interconnections of humans with the rest of the natural world.
Witte has been with Cantigny Park and Cantigny Golf Course in Wheaton, Ill., since 1995, first as golf course superintendent and since 2018 as head of horticulture. Witte oversees 500 acres, with a greenhouse operation that covers 18,000 square feet and produces 250,000 plants annually planted throughout the grounds. Horticulture also includes a forestry department and grounds management team.
Witte said he began setting aside Cantigny land as natural areas in 2010. Now, there are 151 acres with that designation throughout the golf course and park, which also boasts a World War I museum. There are natural woodlands, prairies, stormwater retention, shorelines and wetlands.
The park is a certified Audubon Sanctuary—recertification is done every three years—and Witte has several beehives on the property after becoming a beekeeper in 2010, also the year he started the Bee Barometer Project to help educate superintendents about the value of prioritizing bees.
"I saw the plight of the honeybee," Witte said. "I never wanted golf courses, finely groomed parks, gardens or grounds to endure a bad rap if the pollinator health declined. Honeybees are a really good barometer for the health of the environment. If you have a healthy environment in your golf course, garden and grounds, then you should have a healthy population of honeybees and pollinators.
"I became a beekeeper in part to prove that, 'Hey, I can manage and sustain world-class turfgrasses, gardens and grounds, but also strike a balance with keeping healthy pollinators and being a part of the solution and not being the problem for sustaining pollinator health."
The park and golf course also feature more than 50 bluebird boxes, which have fledged thousands of native songbirds, and the property's purple martin colony fledged 103 birds in 2020.
"Everything we do on our 500 acres we always consider our footprint and impact," Witte said.
To certify for the Audubon Sanctuary status requires management methods that help explain how grounds operations can follow Witte's example. Attestors study things like a property's pest management, and water conservation and water quality.
Witte said he is neither for nor against the use of chemicals to control insect and plant pests. "My goal was to address those in making sure we abide by our integrated pest management systems where we're limiting chemicals as much as possible," he said. "I didn't say eliminate, I said limit. We use an integrated program so we're scouting constantly. When we use a preventive program, that means extremely low rates that are on timed intervals instead of curative, which requires higher rates. It takes a complete integrated approach as well as an educated approach.
"I never wanted the headline to be, 'Golf course superintendent sprays chemicals, kills bees,' because we've seen those for farmers. Farmer goes out and sprays, beekeeper next door loses 100 hives. He sprayed the wrong thing on the wrong day and the wind was blowing the wrong direction. I'm neither pro- or anti-chemical. I'm right in the middle.
"They are and continue to be a part of sensible management regimes all over the country, in particular to control invasive species. If you're too anti-chemical, you may take away some of the best tools we have for managing the plethora of invasive species."
There needs to be an effort to make all stakeholders understand the commitment, Witte said. He sells honey from his hives in the gift shop and pro shop. Not only does the revenue go toward the Audubon mission, it also sparks curiosity from customers, and that's a chance to educate.
"Honeybees have a strange and powerful allure that draws people in," he said. "People start asking questions and we can say, 'Well thanks for asking, this is our effort at being more sustainable. We hope you're enjoying your game of golf, and when you see these areas over here that might seem weedy it's a honeybee happy zone, and that's on purpose.'"
Witte said the communications aspect of making properties healthier is paramount. He said there are more than 5,000 golf courses in the United States that occupy 3.2 million acres of what he calls "valuable greenspace." He said the change to using some of that space for pollinators should be gradual and transparent.
"A golf course superintendent and avid golfer can look at this situation with a little bit different perspective and understand that we need to move a little bit more toward sustainable landscape designs and be tolerant of some areas where we don't spray copious amounts of herbicides or that are far off in the rough or in areas that are not high-profile," said Witte.
"Who's to say dandelions, clover and what many people call weeds are in the wrong place if they're off in the distance not disrupting play or disrupting aesthetics in many portions of the parks and golf courses?"
Start with one acre of whatever size the property is, said Witte. Devote that to a rich and diverse ecosystem for pollinator habitat with native prairie plants. He said that puts golf courses in the proactive position.
"These are opportunities for sustained pollinator health and it creates oases for all types of pollinators, not just honeybees, but native bees and flies and hummingbirds and bats, butterflies," Witte said.
Witte said little steps can be done with a small budget. He's used Eagle Scout requests for several projects; one built 25 bluebird boxes, one made a pollinator garden for which nurseries donated nearly 1,000 plants. Neither project cost Cantigny money.
"Start small and show your stakeholders what you can do when you do it right," said Witte. "What you don't want to do is go too big and end up with an acre full of weeds. Do a few thousand square feet near a tee box or clubhouse where golfers say, 'Hey, what's going on here,' and you can tell the story."
Less visible but in line with the overall mission: the Cantigny greenhouse is in its fourth year of nearly 80% reduction in chemical use, said Witte. Instead, they use beneficial bugs and microorganisms, along with soaps and oils instead of insecticides.
"We haven't completely eliminated use of insecticides, but we've made our greenhouses more friendly to beneficial insects and been able to manage most of our pests with products that are much more environmentally friendly," said Witte.
Witte has a staff of between 30 and 35, including seasonal, full-time and part-time. By Thanksgiving the staff is down to 15 full-timers who stay year round. In the late fall the staff uses a combination of mowing and controlled burning, but Witte said nothing is set in stone with living things.
"Sometimes we do fall burns, sometimes we do spring burns, sometimes we choose just to mow, sometimes we choose just to leave the plant material as habitat because the overwintering insects and animals need cover in the wintertime," he said.
"We utilize a variation of techniques, but we do constant stewardship whether in-house or contracted to make sure invasive species and other weeds don't come in."
Those invasive species are getting a boost by the warming of the world's climate, said Joe Jackson, who has been in grounds management since 1977. Jackson owns his own consultancy now but his most recent jobs working for others were 18 years as head of grounds and sanitation at Duke University and seven years as assistant parks superintendent for the city of Winston Salem, N.C.
After 30-plus years in the field, he earned a master's degree in environmental management.
Jackson said August's climate report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is just the latest alarm for humans to start to alter habits so the Earth is hospitable to future generations.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said after the report, "If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today's report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses."
Jackson said grounds managers are on the front lines for that change.
"It's very real," said Jackson. "I've seen how things have changed. Insects that are prevalent. Plant hardiness shift. Plants that can only thrive in Florida year-round and parts of Georgia and South Carolina are now doing quite well in Washington, D.C., or Louisville, Ky.
"It's because of warmth. Because of the extension of warm months and the soil temperature increasing in certain areas. When plants bloom, their blooming sequence, it's changed over time. The patterns of severity of weather. Ice storms that seem more admixtures of ice and snow instead of an event of all snow. That's one of the predicted byproducts of the increase of heat going on across the world."
Jackson said simply by the nature of the jobs they do, grounds managers have an important role to play in improving rather than adding to the effects of the warming. Equipment that uses batteries rather than fossil fuels can be added to an organization's fleet; chemical spraying can be limited; minds can be changed by educating workforces.
He is an advocate of climate change science and for annual plans for grounds management, and said the two should be as one.
"Grounds managers are looking at the changes taking place and doing all they can to address them as well as the importance of doing things that don't contribute to the putting of particulates or greenhouse gases that's adding to the problem," said Jackson. "The way we run our equipment and our irrigation systems, all those things tie into doing the right thing to mitigate what's going on with climate change.
"Environmental sustainability principles come to mind right away. We need to be concerned about invasive trees and shrubs and weeds. And beneficial insects and pollinators. We need to look at things native in our planting selection and adaptive and not invasive to a particular landscape design or site."
Jackson said grounds management involves year-round multiple tasks, regardless of what region, and the fact that there may be different weather, trees, shrubs and grasses doesn't diminish that reality. An annual work plan is a comprehensive month-to-month calendar of site-specific maintenance tasks responsive to owners, stakeholders, customers and users.
He said the workforce should have the right skillset and there should be continuous and ongoing training. That training must be science-based and not conjecture, Jackson said.
"There's a science to every task you do in grounds maintenance, whether it's pruning trees, identifying a particular pest in its lifecycle so you can apply your pesticide correctly, whether it's a hybrid grass or not," he said. "Not, 'This is the way it's always been done, or I know a guy who's a plumber who told me how to cut this tree.'"
Jackson said perhaps the most important current challenge in grounds maintenance is the lack or breakdown of communications. It's more than just relaying orders on tasks and accepting feedback, said Jackson. Education in the moment is vital, especially for organizations that want to help fight climate change.
"Let 'em know why it's important what they're doing—blowing debris away from storm drains because you don't want it in the drainage system, or you make this cut this way and this cut this way because it encourages the plant to respond in a certain way," Jackson said. "We don't do enough of that. People want to feel that what they're doing is important. We want to make sure we don't lose sight of the fact that our greatest natural resource is people." RM