Feature Article - September 2020
Find a printable version here

Grounded in Best Practices

High-Demand Outdoor Spaces Require Smart Management

By Dave Ramont


Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic first started causing businesses and schools to shutter and people were largely stuck at home, many of those people started spending more time outside—visiting parks, grounds or any greenspace close to home.

Lauren Barry, landscape supervisor at the North Carolina Art Museum in Raleigh, said that even though the museum is temporarily closed, they've seen a large increase in the number of visitors to their 164-acre Museum Park, which features environmentally sustainable landscapes, colorful gardens, a terraced pond, art installations and miles of paved and unpaved trails.

"In March, April and May of 2020, we welcomed about 300,000 visitors, doubling the 2019 numbers during that same time frame. The grounds crew has continued necessary maintenance, but are working a reduced schedule to minimize interaction and maintain social distancing with the public," said Barry.

Stephanie Bruno, executive director of the nonprofit Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), said she's noticed challenges in the industry with regard to the pandemic, including the need for different engagement strategies to keep staff motivated, and, for members in higher education, developing and implementing alternatives to virtual learning, including outdoor classrooms. But she agreed that the situation has drawn people outdoors. "As a positive for the industry, we've seen an increase in public support and understanding across the country for the support and value of greenspace, especially during the era of social distancing."

At Museum Park, Barry said, they employ a full-time grounds manager and a four-person crew, handling basic maintenance including mowing, planting, weed management, watering and seasonal leaf removal, along with larger specialty projects. "These include planting a large field of sunflowers for visitors to enjoy each summer, and the development of new garden spaces like our pollinator garden in partnership with Burt's Bees and Bee Downtown," a firm that installs and maintains beehives on corporate campuses.

Perennials are used almost exclusively at Museum Park as they're more sustainable than annuals, according to Barry, who said they're also working to establish a native meadow composed of wildflowers and grasses. "We also have about 40 acres of un-mowed fescue that typically has patches of milkweed, asters, clover and more that volunteer within this space, attracting butterflies as well as honey bees from the apiary."

Invasive species, such as kudzu and blackberries, can threaten other wildlife such as native trees, and Barry explained that invasive species management in the wooded areas of their park has become a big focus. "We've been fortunate enough to have been awarded grants that have allowed us to have contractors help us make progress in these areas so that it's at a level our grounds crew can manage in-house."

Barry said their unpaved trails require regular maintenance, especially following big storms. "The trails are inspected daily by the grounds crew to ensure the public's safety and to ensure any problems are caught and repaired before they become worse."

Water management is a big focus at the museum. "Our West Building is a LEED-certified gallery that allows for water catchment, as well as four bioretention swales around the building that collect stormwater runoff from paved surfaces. All of this water is stored in a 90,000-gallon cistern that we use to irrigate our landscape and fill the three reflecting pools around the perimeter of the building."

She also described updating the street-front landscape and parking area, installing a two-acre water swale to collect stormwater runoff from the parking lot and filter out heavy metals and nutrients before being directed to the on-site pond. "We've also planted drought-tolerant native grass species to replace large areas of mowed grass throughout the formally managed landscape to reduce mowing and irrigation needs."