Feature Article - July 2011
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Maintenance Series: Grounds

Caring for Growing Places
Grounds—and Their Crews—Require Careful Attention

By Dawn Klingensmith

When the weather promises to be nice, people are drawn to parks and green spaces to bask and play. That means maintenance crews need to get an even earlier start to give the impression the grounds are as unspoiled as a fresh spring day.

"You want to have facilities user-friendly as early as possible," said Todd Cochran, parks superintendent for Bergen County in New Jersey.

The objective: "It should look like nothing happened the day before."

That's a tall order. Pathways need to be blown off and flower beds must be well-defined. Lawns must be manicured and ball fields groomed. Such attention to detail is what separates adequacy from excellence in groundskeeping, Cochran said.

Finding a way to maintain high standards and tend to details in the face of budget constraints is a major challenge faced by grounds managers today. Trying to achieve cost and energy savings in turn drives efforts to be greener.

And continuous attention must always be paid to employee retention and motivation, without which all other initiatives are bound to suffer if not fail.

Big-Picture Success Comes Down to Details

By definition, groundskeeping is the practice of tending an area of land for appearance and functionality. Often, aesthetics and functionality overlap. For example, depending on the season, there can be "little things dropping" from trees that not only make paths look unkempt but also create safety hazards, Cochran said. "Rollerbladers don't like to hit acorns and sticks," he added.

Properly groomed playing fields are necessary to prevent injuries caused by uneven surfaces or debris.

But sometimes, keeping things neat and tidy is not about functionality and safety so much as user comfort and satisfaction. Though people can't necessarily point out where maintenance crews have allowed things to slide, they may still register the effects, perhaps as a disinclination to return to the facility.

Groundskeepers are paid to notice and address things like "wells under the swings where kids have kicked the playground mulch out," Cochran said.

Indeed, groundskeepers in fictional books and films often exhibit "obsessive" or "compulsive" personalities, according to Wikipedia. Remember Bill Murray's monomaniacal attempts to rid the Bushwood Country Club golf course of a gopher in Caddyshack?

But details matter, from the color coordination of flowers to the cleanliness of restrooms. "It all dovetails together," Cochran said.

The practice of "staggering" groundskeeping duties can have sloppy results. It's important that certain things—mowing, bed edging, weeding—get done all at once for optimal overall appearance, said Will Meeker, assistant director of campus services at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.