Feature Article - October 2018
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Greener Than Ever

The Latest Trends in Grounds and Turf Management

By Chris Gelbach


In terms of mowers, Wilkes is seeing more grounds managers move to reel mowers from rotary mowers to achieve more precision mowing. Like many trends, Wilkes initially saw it in the professional leagues and it is now moving down to parks, soccer complexes and schools, whether through leased equipment, used equipment or lower-horsepower mowers that deliver many of the other traditional benefits of this equipment.

With the trend, however, comes increased maintenance requirements. "It does take a higher aptitude of knowing how to repair and maintain the equipment, which gets people out of their comfort zone a little bit," Wilkes said.

In turn, Wilkes is seeing ongoing maintenance contracts for the equipment increase in popularity. "It's just like cars—as it gets more technology-based, you've got to keep up with that more," Wilkes said. "We're seeing a lot of parks and sports complexes come back to their dealers and ask for service contracts that allow them to then use the more specialized equipment."

Technology for Better Turf

The issue of technology figures to play a bigger role moving forward, for everything from various areas of grounds maintenance to even how grounds departments are managing their people. "We're using some technology that's available for managing our daily routines and doublechecking our staff to make sure they're where they're supposed to be," Bergdoll said.

Bergdoll is also seeing increasing interest in robotic, GPS-driven sprayers, remote-controlled mowing equipment, drones for aerial visuals and mapping of parks and field, and digital soil and moisture meters for more accurate irrigation monitoring.

Goatley is also intrigued by the potential of linear compaction devices that enable aeration of the soil to 6, 8 or 10 inches in a way that you barely know that it's been done. He also agrees that robotic mowers and other similar technologies will transform the field.

"I think one day this industry will see more of that," Goatley said. "You look at GPS and drones and mapping for disease, for weed pressure, for turf health, and we're in the infancy stages. And I think that's all coming." As the nation moves toward self-driving vehicles, a future of robotic mowers also seems likely sooner rather than later.

As society becomes more data-driven, Wilkes also expects technology to be used more to analyze trends in things like water management, cutting and aeration to pinpoint optimal approaches. "I think probably the biggest key is looking back at the past when you've had a successful year to see what you did to make sure you can replicate that in the future," Wilkes said.

Training for Change

As they change their grounds management practices, these leaders are also preparing their employees to adapt and grow. "We're training our staff to understand why we're doing things a little bit different than maybe we have done them in the past," Bergdoll said.

One area of focus for Bergdoll's team is training on the importance of native use and invasive plant management. "We're just trying to make the parks a better place for people to go, but also make them better for the environment and avoid environmentally damaging practices," he said.

At Ole Miss, staff development has become such a priority for McManus that he has written a book on it, Growing Weeders Into Leaders. He has also established an in-house training program called Landscape University. "We try to make sure people know they are very important to our operation, so we set them up for success and teach them how to be successful," McManus said.

He even teaches a course every April focused on teaching others how to establish their own in-house training program. "We teach them how to create the classes, make them entertaining and fun, and get buy-in from their staff so that their front-line people are engaged in it," McManus said.

In training his own people, McManus focused both on building job skills and on developing interpersonal skills that help people work together better as a team. "I found that if I spent 80 percent of my time growing people, then the other 20 percent of growing the plants really takes care of itself," McManus said.

As technology and practices for turfgrass management continue to advance, it will require recreation managers to continually re-evaluate the merits of automating certain tasks, of considering service contracts for increasingly complex equipment, and of developing managers who can succeed in this complex landscape.

Ground managers are successfully doing more with less and providing more community benefits while doing so.

"Technology is a major disruptor in almost every industry," McManus said. "The landscaping and the parks and recs, we're probably some of the last to see the disruption. But it's coming. Robotics may never take over everything we do, but we're going to be using them more in the next five, 10 years."

Despite this disruption, managers who can make the right decisions and serve as responsible stewards of the environment and their parks will remain in demand. "Nothing's ever going to replace the eye of the superintendent or manager as he or she walks in," McManus said.

Whether it be through better training, technology advancement, environmentally sustainable choices or more strategic turfgrass management, ground managers are successfully doing more with less and providing more community benefits while doing so.

"It's just about trying to be environmentally conscious and being good stewards of the earth and also good stewards of the public tax base," Bergdoll said. "We need to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for our buck out of the money the city gives us to maintain these spaces."