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

Quality at a Lower Cost

From park districts to college campuses and even country clubs, grounds managers are faced with such severe staff shortages and budget constraints that it's hard just to stay on a consistent mowing schedule. Yet standards remain high, so grounds managers try to make up for shortages with improved efficiencies and technologies.

Cochran has consolidated his crews in the field. For example, the county has a 6-mile riverside park that used to be maintained by three crews: one on each end and one in the middle. Now, there are two crews that work from either end until they meet in the middle.

Bergen County also replaced two 72-inch mowers with one 11-foot mower, which uses less fuel and requires fewer man hours and less maintenance. With the new mower, "One person can be more productive than two," Cochran said.

In cooperation with a local university, the county this year is initiating a lawns-to-meadows conversion, transforming large fields into "informal areas" to save on energy and labor.

Kutztown University also is converting large expanses of lawn into wildflower meadows. These types of conversions reduce the need for chemical applications, as well.

Bergen County has also launched a pilot program "to decommission as many gas vehicles as possible," Cochran said, "because fuel prices are going through the roof."

The county will make biofuel from used cooking oil sourced from a county-owned hospital, which would otherwise need to pay to get rid of the waste.

"Cooperation is not hard in these economic times," Cochran explained. "There's a lot of sharing and a lot of effort made to solve problems collectively. Everyone's looking for creative ways to make a difference."

Kutztown University also is recycling cooking oil from campus dining halls. Other green initiatives include incorporating more boulders and rocks into the landscape. "From an aesthetic standpoint, they add more depth and character to the beds," Meeker said, and of course, they don't require water.

"We're also using a lot of ornamental grasses and Knock Out roses," a patented family of roses that is disease-resistant and easy to grow and maintain, Meeker said. "Some of the newer hydrangea species offer a lot of bloom, a lot of color, but are also fairly low-maintenance."

Grounds crews are using more eco-friendly de-icing products and methods to minimize the amount of sodium chloride that ends up in stormwater systems. And in the summer, to save money and labor, a dyed-mulch product is used in beds. "It stays darker much longer, so we can scale back on usage and still keep a fresh, dark, moist appearance," Meeker said.

There are certain practices and products that have gone by the wayside due to budget constraints, including pre-emergent weed suppression. It's still in use in the "core campus areas," Meeker said, "but in far outlying beds we haven't used it for close to three years."

Another sustainable practice at many universities is to turn some land over for community gardens, which can be run by student organizations and volunteers.