Feature Article - September 2022
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Solid Grounds

Savvy Strategies for Managing Diverse Spaces

By Dave Ramont


There are many spaces that we interact with daily that require oversight when it comes to maintaining the grounds: an urban pocket park or streetscape; a rural forest preserve or prairie; a suburban bike trail or soccer field. And while grounds managers oversee many facets of maintaining these spaces, their strategies and tactics tend to morph, driven by budgets and resources, new technologies and innovations, sustainability concerns, and the evolving priorities of their communities.

Restoring Natural Landscapes

Born in 2008, the Green Kirkland Partnership is an alliance between the City of Kirkland, Wash., nonprofit partners, businesses and the community to restore more than 500 acres of natural areas, including parkland such as forest, meadows, wetlands, streams and shorelines. The "urban forests" provide a refuge for wildlife habitat, a place for people to connect with nature, and valuable ecosystem services such as cleaning the air, filtering water, sequestering carbon, preventing erosion and reducing stormwater runoff.

Jodie Galvan, parks supervisor for natural areas and the Green Kirkland Partnership, explained that while the program is supported by employees of the City of Kirkland Parks and Community Services, many of their restoration efforts are accomplished by dedicated volunteers. "We regularly have more than 2,000 volunteers contribute more than 10,000 hours over the course of a year. Volunteers remove invasive, non-native plants; build healthy soils by applying arborist chips to restoration sites; and install native trees, shrubs and groundcovers."

The partnership also supports 40 Green Kirkland Stewards—volunteer superstars, according to Galvan—who lead volunteers in the restoration of natural areas. "They receive approximately 12 hours of training at the start of their position and have access to many additional training opportunities throughout the year. Volunteering for this program is a great way to build on-the-ground experience in the natural areas restoration field."

Galvan said that most of their plants and trees are purchased from about a dozen regional nurseries. Additionally, "We do have a nursery where we (keep) the plants and trees until we're ready to install them and where we grow some specialty groundcovers and shrubs from seed and/or cuttings."

She said they work in a variety of city parks and open spaces both to restore native plant communities in undeveloped areas as well as to naturalize more developed spaces. "An example of the latter is our ongoing effort to convert 10 acres of mowed grass—a prior golf course—to a pollinator meadow at Juanita Bay Park."

"We're an active partner in the Green Cities Network, as well as the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration," said Galvan. "We're constantly sharing information, tools and contracted crews with our neighbors."

She said many cities, counties and school districts in their region are working to restore natural areas. "Many… are working with the nonprofit organization Forterra to launch their own Green City Partnership." Forterra works in partnership with municipalities in the Puget Sound area to "develop achievable goals, shared visions, long-term plans and community-based stewardship programs to care for the valuable forests and natural areas in urban environments."

And while every city might not be tackling full-on restoration projects, more locations are choosing to leave certain areas un-mowed, allowing them to revert back to more natural states. Kevin Mercer, a grounds manager at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, reported that they've increased their no-mow areas, overseeding them with wildflowers annually.

Pete Kormos, grounds crew manager for the parks and rec department in Broadview Heights, Ohio, said, "There are areas that I like seeing more natural, and that gives us an opportunity to plant wildflowers, etc. We had a raingarden constructed in the last year, which will be a nice addition to our property. However, around our play areas, fields, playgrounds, etc., we keep things well-manicured, mainly to keep ticks away."

As more communities support the idea of letting certain sites revert back to more natural states, it's important to communicate to residents the realities of these endeavors. Brandon Haley, a grounds manager with SSC Services for Education, a firm specializing in facilities services for K-12 school districts and higher education, believes these practices need some perspective. "While a trend is to turn areas into no-mow or wildflower areas, expectations need to be managed. We find it common for stakeholders to still expect weed-free results, which is quite difficult in these situations. If you're trying to allow for wildflowers to reseed, you cannot pre-emerge against noxious weeds, causing all control to be through post-emergent herbicides. It's doable, but is not as much of a labor saver as may be thought."

Galvan said that greener operations require communities to understand and accept that landscapes will look wilder if pesticides, fertilizers and mechanical equipment such as gas-powered leaf blowers aren't used to maintain the highly manicured landscape that some residents and visitors desire. "If the community can come to embrace the natural aesthetic, then we can provide beautiful recreational spaces that also provide many valuable ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water and a more stable climate."

The practice of planting local and native species continues to be a trend, which can help lessen maintenance as well as attract pollinators, which benefits us all. "We do try to incorporate perennials and natives into our planting plans," said Meg Angevine, park operations supervisor for the city of Redmond, Wash. "Our most recently renovated park includes many natives and a butterfly/pollinator garden area which is still in the establishment phase."

"For pollinator gardens, we use local nurseries or grow from seed directly in the area intended to be a garden," explained Haley. "We try to use native species whenever possible in pollinator gardens. The local pollinators—insects and birds—have particular plants they prefer, and we try to match our plantings to the needs of the local ecosystem."