Feature Article - October 2018
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Greener Than Ever

The Latest Trends in Grounds and Turf Management

By Chris Gelbach

As recreation managers work to continually improve their operations, grounds management is providing a fertile opportunity for reduced costs and better performance. New turfgrass varieties, ever-improving maintenance practices and disruptive technologies are reshaping grounds maintenance—and foretelling a future for parks and fields that's greener than ever.

Strategic Sustainability

Grounds managers are making a variety of choices that enable them to successfully maintain their fields and spaces in a more sustainable way, starting with the turfgrasses themselves.

"There are always new varieties of turfgrass being introduced," said James Bergdoll, CSFM and director of park maintenance at the City of Chattanooga Department of Public Works. "Down here in the South, there's a Bermuda grass that takes less water, less input but also has the same visual appeal as a traditional widely used variety."

In his work, Bergdoll has chosen some of these new grasses versus some of the choices for tall fescues that had previously been used in area parks, and that had required significantly more water. "I think it's an example of trying to match environmentally what makes sense and trying to manage how much time and water we're putting into something as well."

Given Chattanooga's location at the low end of the transition zone, Bergdoll is also seeing more recreation departments opt for hybrids that include a mix of Bermuda and Kentucky bluegrass.

In some cases, some of the newer varieties can create problems of their own for grounds managers who are not ready to maintain them. "The two grasses commanding a lot of attention in our world now are TifTuf and Tahoma 31, and they're both going to add to our repertoire for cold-tolerant high-quality Bermuda grasses," said Mike Goatley Jr., professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech University. "And my caveat is always, can you maintain them? Because those are grasses that are going to require a lot of mowing to keep up."

At the University of Mississippi, Director of Landscape Services Jeff McManus, a CGM and ISA Certified Arborist, has focused on increasing sustainability in part by reducing the mowing that needs to be done on campus.

As recreation managers work to continually improve their operations, grounds management is providing a fertile opportunity for reduced costs and better performance.

According to McManus, this was done both by reducing mowing frequency and by taking some high-traffic areas for turf out of play by replacing them with mulch or pine straw. "It used to take us 10 full days to mow, and we've lowered it down to four days, which is absolutely incredible," McManus said.

Another tactic McManus and others are using for reducing mowing and maintenance concerns is using native plantings where appropriate. But Goatley cautions that opting for natives and wildflowers does require inputs on the front end.

"I tell people, if you need to use pesticides for suppression of weeds and invasives when you establish these things, you shouldn't have to apologize. Because your long-term goal is to step away from these things and to not use a lot of synthetic chemistry," Goatley said. "If you don't at first, though, you're going to be in for a big-time disappointment because there's a lot of weed seed that will get a jump on all of that expensive wildflower pollinator-type plant."

Over time, these choices can increase the overall numbers of pollinators and wildlife in general in park spaces. According to Goatley, an underutilized resource that can help in this effort—often at no cost to recreation departments—is your local birding society.

"I've been blown away by how cooperative our Virginia Bluebird Society is," Goatley said. In his work with the local group, the society has installed the boxes where they should be based on bluebird habitat, they maintain the boxes, collect all the data on what birds are nesting in the boxes, and also clean the boxes. The collaboration helps reinforce to the public the natural benefits of these park spaces, while the influx of birds also helps with insect control.

"It's a slow battle to get people to understand that it's not going to cost you anything other than to give these people the opportunity to put these birdhouses in if you work with these people," Goatley said, "It's low-hanging fruit, and I think it's definitely something to explore."