Feature Article - October 2021
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Growing Greener

Grounds Management Adapts to a Changing Planet

By Joe Bush


Today's grounds management professionals have more worries than their predecessors.

Along with the traditional tasks of caring for lawn areas, trees, shrubs and flowers, they have to pay attention to the current and future state of the Earth's climate and its creatures.

More than ever, the care and feeding of grassy areas, athletic fields, golf courses, trees and aesthetically pleasing landscaping is guided by how best to adapt to and begin to reverse climate change and its effects on the Earth, its weather and its living things.

"BMPs (best management practices) continue to evolve with emphases on sustainability and environmental attributes, with water use and water quality at the top," said Dan Dinelli, golf course superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill. "Practices that conserve water and protect water quality improve as plant genetics, tools and inputs become available."

Dinelli said golf course managers can get help with plans for their properties by using a BMP guide. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) gives guidance on BMPs tailored to a course's particular profile. Dinelli stressed that such outlines can be used for any grounds.

"A well-thought-out BMP guide helps in documentation, aids in budgeting, acts as a selling tool for needs, and provides a road map to continual improvement as it illustrates a high level of professionalism," he said. "(GCSAA) has helped many facilities demonstrate their continual improvement in safety and managing their green space within a sustainable framework.

"Golf courses, sports fields, parks and campuses all represent important open green space adding value to a community. BMPs help elevate the benefits these areas provide that contribute to a sustainable ecosystem."

The boots on the ground still execute those plans—mowing and trimming and pruning and burning and spraying—but the 21st century has seen a rise in methods for those actions that prioritize energy efficiency and survivability of species at risk. The changing world climate adds the challenge of extreme and unpredictable weather and rising annual temperatures that destroy plant life in the short term and spread invasive species in the long term.

Manufacturers of grounds equipment are interested in the move toward modernity as well. The shift is to smarter machines that are less reliant on fossil fuels.

"Technology is rapidly developing to allow for less experienced operators to perform typically senior-level tasks such as spraying—with the advent of the GPS sprayers," said Paul Schultheis, a corporate sales manager for a New England grounds equipment dealership. "Robotic and autonomous mowers will be the next step in reducing labor in this field and maximizing efficiencies of the grounds teams at golf, sports and governmental facilities.

"The biggest thing that has changed over the past 20 years is how technology has been integrated into this industry. The machines are now computer-controlled and can even be monitored remotely. There are software programs available that integrate telematics on the machines into a program that helps manage labor, chemical inventory and even an electronic job board. This can all be updated from a mobile device anywhere in the world."

More important than the technology is what humans do with it. Two grounds veterans, Scott Witte and Joe Jackson, have committed their careers to the science of grounds management in the service of the interconnections of humans with the rest of the natural world.

Witte has been with Cantigny Park and Cantigny Golf Course in Wheaton, Ill., since 1995, first as golf course superintendent and since 2018 as head of horticulture. Witte oversees 500 acres, with a greenhouse operation that covers 18,000 square feet and produces 250,000 plants annually planted throughout the grounds. Horticulture also includes a forestry department and grounds management team.

Witte said he began setting aside Cantigny land as natural areas in 2010. Now, there are 151 acres with that designation throughout the golf course and park, which also boasts a World War I museum. There are natural woodlands, prairies, stormwater retention, shorelines and wetlands.

The park is a certified Audubon Sanctuary—recertification is done every three years—and Witte has several beehives on the property after becoming a beekeeper in 2010, also the year he started the Bee Barometer Project to help educate superintendents about the value of prioritizing bees.

"I saw the plight of the honeybee," Witte said. "I never wanted golf courses, finely groomed parks, gardens or grounds to endure a bad rap if the pollinator health declined. Honeybees are a really good barometer for the health of the environment. If you have a healthy environment in your golf course, garden and grounds, then you should have a healthy population of honeybees and pollinators.

"I became a beekeeper in part to prove that, 'Hey, I can manage and sustain world-class turfgrasses, gardens and grounds, but also strike a balance with keeping healthy pollinators and being a part of the solution and not being the problem for sustaining pollinator health."

The park and golf course also feature more than 50 bluebird boxes, which have fledged thousands of native songbirds, and the property's purple martin colony fledged 103 birds in 2020.

"Everything we do on our 500 acres we always consider our footprint and impact," Witte said.