Grounds Forces

The latest challenges and strategies in grounds maintenance

By Mitch Martin

Canada geese are proving to be one of the
proverbial thorns in the side for
grounds managers.

Unfortunately for the science and art of grounds maintenance, the stereotypical image of the groundskeeper is closely linked to Bill Murray's Carl Spackler from the 1980 film "Caddyshack," a character "licensed to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations."

In reality, the modern Superintendent of Grounds is closer to an executive in overalls, often in charge of a seven-figure budget, hundreds of employees and thousands of pieces of expensive equipment.

The seemingly simple job of making grass grow, as most recreation administrators know all too well, has never been easy. As usage rates climb for grass surfaces amid increasing sports diversification, keeping a well-groomed playing surface is a serious challenge.

And now economics and ecology are two other subjects that are complicating the professional life of the superintendent.

Nature, or at least human beings' effect on nature, is promulgating several invasive pests that soil, rip up and devour the grounds of recreational facilities. At the other end of the stick, governmental regulation, public pressure and new sensitivities among the grounds maintenance profession are restricting the tools available to keep those grounds lush and well kept.

"Our membership wants to be known as leaders in the proper use of chemicals," says Thomas Shaner, executive director of the Professional Grounds Management Society. "At the college and university level, there is a lot of demand from the student base to be truly green in issues such as the use of pesticides and recycling."

Two possible bright spots for the industry are an increasing labor pool given the current economy and a new generation of laborsaving, riding power equipment. Experts, however, caution that there are limits to both these opportunities, particularly since the increasing unemployment rate has had only limited impact for groundskeeping.

Still, grounds superintendents interviewed for this article appeared generally upbeat and energized about the challenges facing them. They, after all, often get to work where the sun shines.

"The knowledge our members are seeking constantly is, 'How do I do my job better?' and 'How do I motivate and manage my employees to get the best out of them?'" Shaner says.

Getting goosed
The Rockford Park District in northern Illinois
ran an intensive program in the summer of 2000
to mitigate the Canada goose population,
particularly on park-district property along
the Rock River.

If Carl Spackler went looking for a nemesis in the year 2002, it very well might be a Canada goose. As the human population continues to impact other creatures' habitats, several nuisance animals and insects have cropped up on the well-manicured lawns, trees and golf greens of the United States. Newer threats such as the gypsy moth and the Asian Longhorn Beetle could become dominant problems in the future. But at the moment, there is no more implacable nuisance than Branta canadensis.

Canada geese are attracted to golf courses and many other areas at recreational facilities that provide water formations and food in the form of grass. Sean Kelly, assistant chief of U.S. Fish & Wildlife's Division of Migratory Birds, says despite dozens of strategies used in recent times, the goose nuisances are actually getting worse.

International treaty makes it illegal to kill Canada geese without a federal permit, but the problem has gotten so difficult that the federal government is now allowing a handful of states to issue permits for egg-addling and other lethal strategies without dealing with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

Most superintendents are trying, with limited success, to manage the goose problem without lethal means. Below is a partial list of the most popular strategies:

 Border collies and other dogs: Golf courses in particular have used border collies to chase away geese from courses. Many grounds managers says this is one of the most successful strategies. However, it requires constant use of the collies (or other birding or shepherding dogs) to condition and recondition geese to stay away from the courses.

Border collies and other dogs used to harass
geese are often outfitted with specially
fitted life preservers for the dogs' own safety.

"I think it's very effective on golf courses, or other places where your people are out there all the time," says Kevin O'Donnell, superintendent of grounds for Villanova University. "We found that it wasn't cost effective for us because at many of our areas, we don't have our guys on site for those kinds of hours."

 Harassment devices: Others have used all manners of noisemakers, including pyrotechnics and fireworks to scare away geese. Long grass along water forms tends to put geese ill at ease for fear of lurking predators. Another interesting technique is to use rubber "dead" geese to frighten away the geese. Perhaps the most novel techniques are kites made to resemble eagles and "scare windmills" with blades covered with ultraviolet paint.

 Lethal and extraordinary means: Some organizations move entire geese populations to an area where they are more welcome. By federal or state permit, professionals can be hired to shake goose eggs or coat them with a chemical to cause the eggs to break open. In some states, organized hunting parties shoot geese and donate the food to local shelters. Some animal rights groups still strongly object to the measure, however.

 Chemical means: Chemical repellents can either produce a bad taste or change the visual appearance of grassy fields to make them unappealing. A chemical called Flight Control is one of the newer, widely used agents. Grounds maintenance supervisors say such products are at least moderately effective.

Todd Cochran, assistant county park superintendent for the Bergen County Department of Parks in northern New Jersey, advises colleagues not to be afraid to use a panoply of techniques.

"Do everything you are allowed to do, and everything you can afford to do," he says.

Say it, don't spray it

If groundskeepers are adding tools for handling the geese problem, then they are reaching into a smaller quiver when it comes to maintaining ornamental and performance grasses.

Public pressure and increasing governmental regulation have caused grounds professionals to curb the use of herbicides and, particularly, pesticides. Instead of depending on chemical applications, disciplined prevention programs and some natural agents can help. But grounds professionals say the need for communication about ecologically friendly programs is also important.

Geese volunteers and the Winnebago County
authorities helped with the nonlethal effort.

O'Donnell says he has worked hard to improve communications with athletic department personnel about how allowing a natural recovery time on sports fields will help alleviate the need to resort to chemical applications. By working with coaches and administrators, he also tries to strike an intelligent balance between safeguarding the real performance of grass playing fields and more aesthetic concerns.

"We try to tell them why we're spraying when we spray, why we don't when we don't," O'Donnell says. "The concept is that when you are relying on fungicides or herbicides, you're really throwing the whole natural balance off. If we can work together, we can often avoid that to a large degree."

And beer can help.

Charles Leeds, the horticultural supervisor at Villanova, says one particular new product that has helped maintain that balance is the use of brewery compost. Literally the bottom of the barrel in the liquor business, the dregs of the beer-brewing process recently have been found to make an effective top-dressing material. The brewery compost is mixed in with regular compost to form the top dressing.

Leeds says the yeasty, leafy material promotes better soil structure. In addition to resupplying lost organic material, it also has a strong disease prevention function. The compost is expensive, but well worth it, Leeds says.

"It works so well, I'm not sure I want to tell anyone about it," he jokes.

In the private sector, communication may be even more important. Gene Pouly, the president of the landscape management firm E.F. Pouly Company in Orville, Ohio, says some clients are often reluctant to pay more for less use of chemical spraying.

"A more potent material may be less safe environmentally, but the alternative may require a lot more trips for the same efficacy," Pouly says. "Some are OK with that, some aren't."

Tools of the trade
The Great Lawn area of Overpeck County
Park in Leonia, N.J., is subjected to a variety
of uses by hundreds of daily visitors and
special events with 15,000 visitors and more.
Department of Parks staff create a
bulkhead along a shoreline to deter Canada
geese from grazing on lawn areas.

Another change in the tools of the trade is the small revolution in recent years in the variety of motorized grounds care equipment available to crews. Skid-steers, mowers, aerators and utility vehicles can now perform more specialized turf care tasks. Greater articulation and some computerization have allowed even such complex tasks as logging to be done in a more mechanized fashion. In general, the range and quality of attachments allows each platform to do more.

Because grounds maintenance is such a labor-intensive industry, Pouly says the trend in the industry is the purchasing of more equipment.

"It's all being driven by labor costs," Pouly says. "A good piece of equipment can run 24 hours a day, and it doesn't charge overtime."

The savings are not just in straight salary costs, either.

"I think it will help with the longevity of the skilled labor you do have because the equipment makes the work much easier on their bodies," he says. "And that also means less injuries and less workmen's (compensation) claims and that sort of thing."

Cochran says while he thinks such equipment can be helpful, he is concerned about the expense and true utility of it. He says his 9,000-acre park district is taking advantage of the attachments but tends to use the implements off the back end of traditional farm-style tractors.

"I think that equipment is more appealing to the landscape maintenance contractor," Cochran says. "It's not as applicable to the type of thing we're doing."

He says he is somewhat concerned that the multi-use machine might make a day's work too vulnerable.

"You have one piece of equipment that's a do-everything machine with 20 attachments on it," Cochran says. "What happens if that one machine goes down? It's kind of an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket thing for me."

Labor market
Fishing Derby for the disabled at Ramapo
Valley County Reservation in Mahwah, N.J.

The quality of the machines, of course, will be useless if there is no one to operate them. Finding and retaining skilled employees remains a critical issue for grounds maintenance supervisors.

Just a year ago, the labor market was tight across the country in almost every industry sector. But the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment at 5.8 percent in December. That is the highest unemployment rate in more than six years. The general expectation among economists is that number will continue to tick up slightly through at least much of the second quarter of 2002.

However, grounds managers tend to say the employment situation for them has only stabilized, instead of improving.

"If 45,000 people get laid off at Ford, it doesn't do us any good because those people aren't skilled in the areas we need for them to be good employees for us," Pouly says.

When American Elms
succumb to Dutch Elm
disease, park staff replace
them with resistant varieties.

The labor pool situation hasn't improved as much as it has become less bad.

"The one sort of possible improvement is people aren't being drawn into other fields just because of some high-paying opportunity," Pouly says.

O'Donnell says a Villanova program that gives a free education to employees continues to give him a distinct advantage. The program allows him to hire more highly motivated and skilled people than he might otherwise have. And he says he is willing to live with the fact that many won't make a career out of grounds maintenance after they receive their degree.

"I think in the end it's really helped us," O'Donnell says. "I'd rather have a really great employee for five years than an average one for 10 years."

Cochran says hiring for his 125 full-time positions has been stable in recent years, but the critical seasonal hirings appear to have improved in the same time period. Cochran says he draws on high-school and college students for much of his summer staff. He has also looked to recent retirees for seasonal and part-time staff.

"I think a lot of the people we get are just drawn to the good conditions," Cochran says, "and a lot of them want to be in the golf environment you get at the jobs on our courses."

Economic conditions can only provide so much help for grounds maintenance jobs because they are really not about the money to begin with.

"The bottom line is that in this particular industry, you don't get into it to be a millionaire," Pouly says. "You do it because you really enjoy it."

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