Feature Article - September 2020
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Grounded in Best Practices

High-Demand Outdoor Spaces Require Smart Management

By Dave Ramont


On Campus

Many universities and colleges maintain rich traditions of grounds management, horticulture and arboriculture. Their grounds managers oversee a myriad of duties, from seeding lawns to removing trash; repairing a pitcher's mound to plowing snow; fixing a tractor to diagnosing a sick tree. We checked in with some of them to compare notes and gain insight into current trends and practices.

The University of San Diego (USD) website lists all the trees, shrubs, vines, flowering annuals, groundcovers, natives and other plants used on campus. Ernie Salazar is the manager of grounds and transportation at USD, where a crew of 25 oversee 180 acres, and he pointed out that their climate allows them to feature a wide variety of plants. "On our campus we have many species of trees that are native to different places from around the world." But this is not the norm everywhere, with others reporting that these days they're using primarily native plants, which can lessen maintenance.

"We're starting to plant more native plants on the perimeter of campus and the outlying areas, but they're not always as 'showy' as non-natives and not what visitors expect. As a result, we're launching an education campaign to increase awareness and try to manage expectations," said Ryan McCaughey, manager of grounds and equipment at Pennsylvania State University, where he oversees a crew of 72 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees and five supervisors. They also have a greenhouse, producing more than 40,000 plants annually for campus use, with some annual flower displays being changed up to three times a year. Some gardens mix annuals and perennials, and they have more than 400 containers as well.

At Rice University in Houston, the entire campus was designated as an arboretum, according to Assistant Grounds Director Philip Dierker. "The Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum at Rice University consists of a collection of woody plants throughout campus, and honors the Texas horticulturist who's recognized as the founder of the native plant movement in Texas."

"We only use native drought-resistant and deer-resistant species," said Mike Beaulieu, campus services ops supervisor at Central Oregon Community College, adding that they only plant annuals in hanging baskets high enough to avoid consumption by deer. "We also have extensive natural native areas that we leave untouched for the most part, other than noxious weed removal and fire reduction." With a crew of only 6.5 FTE tending to 250 acres spread across six campuses, Beaulieu said they hire work crews to help with weed control during the growing season.

In fact, many parks departments and campuses are allowing some areas to go back to their native states. Dierker said they have a three-acre natural area that includes a one-acre coastal prairie restoration. And Jared Rudy, superintendent of grounds at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said they have two no-mow fields equaling about five acres that are used for grad research and other classes.

"We've introduced several no-mow areas," said McCaughey. "It was a shock to some people at first, and we'd receive calls, but as expectations of what a landscape should look like change, people are more accepting. We've focused on trying to keep these areas weed-free and have mowed edges and paths to show that it's deliberate. We're going to start introducing meadow areas in addition to the no-mow areas."

Grounds departments typically have to tend to hardscape areas as well. "We have a variety of patios, walks and trails using mulch, screenings/stone dust, asphalt, concrete, pavers, brick, bluestone, aggregate and gravel as surfaces," said Roger Connor, a certified grounds manager at Duke University in North Carolina, where a crew of 56 oversee 550 acres. Along with walks, trails and stairs, McCaughey said they maintain 16,000 surface parking spaces and six parking decks. "We have a full-time street sweeper and sidewalk sweeper. We have an overnight crew that spends the season painting lines in lots, roads and crosswalks."

Stormwater management is a major consideration for all our contributors, and Rudy describes having more than 25 green stormwater infrastructure solutions and rain gardens throughout the Villanova campus. "We also have a contractor that does an annual audit of all our stormwater infrastructure."