Feature Article - September 2022
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Solid Grounds

Savvy Strategies for Managing Diverse Spaces

By Dave Ramont


New Alternatives

Many in the grounds management industry are also looking at alternatives when it comes to fertilizers and pesticides. Mercer described a few alternatives they've had success with lately: "We're using pine straw mulch to aid in reducing weeds from coming up and propane torches to burn weeds and basic IPM (integrated pest management) principles before we apply pesticides. We are also on a carbon organic fertilizer program using food waste."

"Our parks department has been using an organic 8-0-2 turf fertilizer almost exclusively for many years after several years of using a synthetic/organic blend," said Angevine. "Topdressing with a sand/compost blend after turf renovations also helps boost the soil nutrient content. One of the benefits we've experienced is a more consistent green color without the heavy flushes of growth that occur with traditional synthetic fertilizers. We've significantly reduced our non-organic herbicide applications over the past decade-plus through changing maintenance practices such as applying two to three inches of arborist chip mulch instead of dark fine (more fertile) mulch and choosing groundcover plant material that is taller and will shade out or hide weeds." She said that radiant heat and flame weeders are used where possible, and organic herbicides such as horticultural vinegar and citrus/clove oil blends are utilized.

Angevine also mentioned an herbicide-free weed control solution they've added which "uses steam and a plant-based foaming agent that traps the heat and increases its effectiveness, and can be used year-round in most weather conditions."

Newer technologies are aiding grounds managers in other ways as well. "GIS (geographic information system) has made our work much easier," said Haley. "It is so much easier to properly order materials and manage large campuses if you know exactly what you're managing."

Mercer agreed that technology can be a great asset, and mentioned video mapping for roads and sidewalks, and ET-irrigation as examples. ET (evapotranspiration) systems calculate irrigation schedules to replenish only the water that is actually needed for plant and soil conditions.

Maintenance equipment also keeps evolving, helping entities become more sustainable. "We continue to explore and demo available equipment using alternative fuel options and have some battery-powered equipment such as backpack blowers, hedgers and utility vehicles in our inventory," said Angevine, adding that they also have a propane-powered mower.

"Electric equipment is slowly taking over the marketplace," agreed Haley. "Electric handheld equipment is as powerful as gas machines and electric zero-turns are quickly catching up. I expect that we will soon see the marketplace flip to electric-dominant."

Forests & Trees

Trees are of course a huge asset to any landscape, and some entities are taking a much closer look at their tree populations. A few years ago, officials at Texas A&M University—with assistance from Haley's firm—set out to document all the trees on campus, around 15,000 trees. The goal is to restore and preserve the health of older trees and to ensure that new trees and shrubs that are planted as part of the project can thrive. Each tree's precise location is recorded via GPS, and its type, height, circumference and overall health are also documented. Grounds crews also selectively prune, aerate and fertilize trees, paying special attention to those that are unhealthy. In addition, to ensure that young trees have a long and healthy life, crews have focused on training in everything from selecting the right trees to planting techniques to soil preparation, drainage and pruning.

While more grounds departments are striving to have certified arborists on staff, the city of Cheyenne, Wyo., has taken it up a notch. The Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division works within the parks department and is charged with maintaining all city-owned trees. To improve their urban forest, they work with citizens, businesses, government agencies and tree care professionals. Their tree care services include planting, mulching, watering, insect and disease identification and treatment, pruning and removals.

"In Wyoming, it's rare for a municipality to have a forestry division with more than one to two full-time staff who focus solely on trees," said Mark Ellison, manager of the Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division. He said they're fortunate to have nine full-time ISA-certified arborists (International Society of Arboriculture), plus four seasonal staff and one year-round part-time staffer. "Other forestry divisions are forced to rely on staff from other divisions to help out or rely on contractors to do the heavy lifting. Luckily for me, my predecessors were successful in lobbying for staffing increases as our city grew."

As in other grounds-related fields, continuing education and training are important, according to Ellison, as practices, equipment and standards are ever-changing. "To maintain our ISA certification, we must acquire 30 continuing education units every three years." He said they work most closely with parks, cemeteries, golf courses and botanical gardens. "We maintain all trees on city property, so we get requests for tree work from all these divisions and others within the city."

The forestry division also enforces professional standards for tree care businesses and requires licensing for tree care services such as pruning tress, removing trees and applying pesticides and insecticides to trees and shrubs. "To obtain a license, a company must have adequate insurance and have an ISA certification, which ensures a basic level of tree care knowledge, skill and safety awareness," as well as a code of ethics, according to Ellison. "Being part of a professional organization such as ISA gives tree care businesses a network of information and tools to do their jobs better and safer."

Ellison said they're always examining ways to do their jobs in a more environmentally friendly manner. "To reduce our herbicide use, we've increased the amount of wood chip mulching we do in landscaped beds and around trees. This helps to reduce unwanted vegetation and subsequent spraying, but it also has the added benefits of improving soil moisture and oxygen levels, increasing organic matter in the soil and helping to insulate the soil from extreme hot and cold temperatures."

He also said they've reduced insecticide foliar spraying to reduce chemical drift and the associated negative effects to plants and beneficial insects. "We do more soil drenches, trunk sprays and injections than we do foliar spraying."

Much of the forestry division's work in Cheyenne is dependent on particular seasons, though Ellison explained that as their workload has increased due to a growing community and aging tree canopy, "we've had to adjust our schedules so they're not only based on season but demand from our constituents." He feels it's very important for cities to up their games when it comes to the health of their tree populations. "With a changing climate, trees are so valuable for so many reasons, and to not have a division focused solely on trees and forest management is really selling your community and its residents short."