Maintenance Series: Grounds

Caring for Growing Places
Grounds—and Their Crews—Require Careful Attention

By Dawn Klingensmith

When the weather promises to be nice, people are drawn to parks and green spaces to bask and play. That means maintenance crews need to get an even earlier start to give the impression the grounds are as unspoiled as a fresh spring day.

"You want to have facilities user-friendly as early as possible," said Todd Cochran, parks superintendent for Bergen County in New Jersey.

The objective: "It should look like nothing happened the day before."

That's a tall order. Pathways need to be blown off and flower beds must be well-defined. Lawns must be manicured and ball fields groomed. Such attention to detail is what separates adequacy from excellence in groundskeeping, Cochran said.

Finding a way to maintain high standards and tend to details in the face of budget constraints is a major challenge faced by grounds managers today. Trying to achieve cost and energy savings in turn drives efforts to be greener.

And continuous attention must always be paid to employee retention and motivation, without which all other initiatives are bound to suffer if not fail.

Big-Picture Success Comes Down to Details

By definition, groundskeeping is the practice of tending an area of land for appearance and functionality. Often, aesthetics and functionality overlap. For example, depending on the season, there can be "little things dropping" from trees that not only make paths look unkempt but also create safety hazards, Cochran said. "Rollerbladers don't like to hit acorns and sticks," he added.

Properly groomed playing fields are necessary to prevent injuries caused by uneven surfaces or debris.

But sometimes, keeping things neat and tidy is not about functionality and safety so much as user comfort and satisfaction. Though people can't necessarily point out where maintenance crews have allowed things to slide, they may still register the effects, perhaps as a disinclination to return to the facility.

Groundskeepers are paid to notice and address things like "wells under the swings where kids have kicked the playground mulch out," Cochran said.

Indeed, groundskeepers in fictional books and films often exhibit "obsessive" or "compulsive" personalities, according to Wikipedia. Remember Bill Murray's monomaniacal attempts to rid the Bushwood Country Club golf course of a gopher in Caddyshack?

But details matter, from the color coordination of flowers to the cleanliness of restrooms. "It all dovetails together," Cochran said.

The practice of "staggering" groundskeeping duties can have sloppy results. It's important that certain things—mowing, bed edging, weeding—get done all at once for optimal overall appearance, said Will Meeker, assistant director of campus services at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

Aesthetic appeal is critical on college campuses, where first impressions and environmental psychology are deemed important factors for student recruitment and retention. When prospective students and their parents visit a campus for the first time, "If they get the impression you take care of the grounds, they'll see what else you have to offer," said Bob Trevino, supervisor of landscape services at Texas Woman's University in Denton.

"If we can get them to campus, they'll be sold just by walking around the grounds," said Sean Dallas, assistant director of university relations at Kutztown University.

Both colleges received a 2010 Green Star honor award from the Professional Grounds Management Society.

For every park and green space, there will be target dates when grounds managers "want everything to be all lush," including peak growing seasons when crews do their utmost to showcase and enhance nature's pageantry, and peak event seasons when walkathons, sports tournaments and other festivities draw big crowds, Cochran said.

At Kutztown University, the May commencement ceremonies and Opening Day in August are when grounds crews "make sure the campus is at its peak," with or without nature's cooperation, Meeker said. "Those two target dates drive how we structure our entire program."

Meanwhile, though, crews need to make certain paths are kept clean, lawns are mowed and fields are groomed. The key to staying on top of things is making sure no one area gets out of hand.

Again, it all comes down to details.

Cosmetic Appeal

Cochran said for beauty on the cheap, it's not hard to take better advantage of seasonal color: Plant showy annuals and perennials in "strategic places," and a modest space can blossom into a vibrant focal point. Seasonal color can also enhance a place that already has its own merits, making it all the more attractive.

Kutztown University, for example, decorates the Main Street corridor of campus with its "basket program," consisting of 42 hanging baskets that are changed five times a year to introduce seasonal colors and themes. Pansies typically kick off the procession, followed by a variety of bright annuals and trailing vines through the summer. Chrysanthemums bring additional color as the leaves change, and evergreen cuttings and trailing ribbons add a festive touch during winter.

Even when budgets are tight, every outdoor gathering place should have at least one pride point or showcase area. It need not be large or showy, necessarily, but it should be meticulously tended, photogenic and always ready for its close-up.

Texas Woman's University boasts an azalea garden and more than 400 flowering redbud trees. When in bloom, these features "are just a beautiful sight," Trevino said, adding that people from surrounding communities come to capture the fleeting seasonal burst of fuchsia and pink on film.

Even when budgets are tight, every outdoor gathering place should have at least one pride point or showcase area.

The University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is rightfully proud of its Exposition Park Rose Garden, just across the street from the main campus. The park features sports arenas, a natural history museum, a science center and an African-American museum, but its most impressive natural element is the 7-acre rose garden.

Previously, the land had been used for camel, dog and horse races and was the site of a bustling brothel at the turn of the century. Today, it is one of the largest rose gardens in the world, showcasing more than 20,000 rosebushes in 200 different varieties. Besides the plantings, the garden features sculptures and fountains, providing a soothing escape for students seeking a break from their studies.

Colleges and universities in most cases have a certain feature or features that stand out and leave a positive impression on prospective students and their parents. Needless to say, these features should play a prominent role in live and virtual campus tours.

Public parks should be planned and laid out so "when you go around a corner and change your line of sight, there should be something aesthetically pleasing," Cochran said. Likewise, "when you exit a park, there should be something pleasing that sticks in your mind."

A park is like a story unfolding: "Greet visitors at the entrance with something attractive to get their attention, bid them farewell with something pretty that will stick in their minds, and include some pleasant little surprises along the way," Cochran advised.

Try as they might, grounds crews sometimes fall behind in tending to little details, but if a park's overall and parting impressions are truly memorable, guests may "forgive" any number of minor oversights or fail to notice them in the first place, Cochran said.

Climate, Construction and Other Challenges

One of the primary challenges faced by grounds crews at Texas Woman's University is working around ongoing construction projects. "Three buildings on campus are under construction, and we're constantly working around them to make the campus look well-maintained" despite the dust being kicked up and the mess made when rain enters the equation, Trevino said.

Weather has also been particularly challenging. Denton was hit by uncharacteristic snowstorms for two years in a row, forcing the campus this past winter to shut down for four days as crews dealt with ice and snow. Crews worked tirelessly to sand walkways and parking lots and to remove tree branches felled by heavy snow. Such snow events are a regional anomaly—"We rarely have them," Trevino said—yet crews must be prepared to handle them.

Hundreds of miles north, Minot, N.D., received so much snow this past winter that the springtime melt saturated the soccer and baseball fields and delayed the start of league sports. In late April, the park district's soccer fields were "still swamped with snowmelt," and three-quarters of the municipal golf course was underwater, grounds manager and horticulturist Steve Wharton reported at the time.

Responsible grounds maintenance sometimes results in patrons' displeasure, Wharton said: "As soon as the snow is gone, people want to get on the fields. But the field needs time for the water and moisture to soak down into it. Teams are not allowed on the fields if they're wet or frosty."

Because playing on wet fields can wreck the turf, "Someone needs to be in charge and make the call when the fields are ready," Wharton continued. "You have to be careful because the amount of traffic you allow on the turf early on can make or break your entire season."

That means no triple-headers early in the season. "Fields need a break from usage," Wharton said.

Fields also get "tired" and need to be refreshed, but with teams clamoring to make the most of North Dakota's short summers, "it seems like no one ever gets off the fields long enough to dress them up," Wharton said.

It's important that grounds managers, coaches and athletic directors work together to monitor the condition of the fields. Communicating why it's necessary to let the fields rest on occasion is essential for cooperation and forbearance. "It's frustrating for everybody, when people can't get out there and do what they want to do," Wharton said.

Quality at a Lower Cost

From park districts to college campuses and even country clubs, grounds managers are faced with such severe staff shortages and budget constraints that it's hard just to stay on a consistent mowing schedule. Yet standards remain high, so grounds managers try to make up for shortages with improved efficiencies and technologies.

Cochran has consolidated his crews in the field. For example, the county has a 6-mile riverside park that used to be maintained by three crews: one on each end and one in the middle. Now, there are two crews that work from either end until they meet in the middle.

Bergen County also replaced two 72-inch mowers with one 11-foot mower, which uses less fuel and requires fewer man hours and less maintenance. With the new mower, "One person can be more productive than two," Cochran said.

In cooperation with a local university, the county this year is initiating a lawns-to-meadows conversion, transforming large fields into "informal areas" to save on energy and labor.

Kutztown University also is converting large expanses of lawn into wildflower meadows. These types of conversions reduce the need for chemical applications, as well.

Bergen County has also launched a pilot program "to decommission as many gas vehicles as possible," Cochran said, "because fuel prices are going through the roof."

The county will make biofuel from used cooking oil sourced from a county-owned hospital, which would otherwise need to pay to get rid of the waste.

"Cooperation is not hard in these economic times," Cochran explained. "There's a lot of sharing and a lot of effort made to solve problems collectively. Everyone's looking for creative ways to make a difference."

Kutztown University also is recycling cooking oil from campus dining halls. Other green initiatives include incorporating more boulders and rocks into the landscape. "From an aesthetic standpoint, they add more depth and character to the beds," Meeker said, and of course, they don't require water.

"We're also using a lot of ornamental grasses and Knock Out roses," a patented family of roses that is disease-resistant and easy to grow and maintain, Meeker said. "Some of the newer hydrangea species offer a lot of bloom, a lot of color, but are also fairly low-maintenance."

Grounds crews are using more eco-friendly de-icing products and methods to minimize the amount of sodium chloride that ends up in stormwater systems. And in the summer, to save money and labor, a dyed-mulch product is used in beds. "It stays darker much longer, so we can scale back on usage and still keep a fresh, dark, moist appearance," Meeker said.

There are certain practices and products that have gone by the wayside due to budget constraints, including pre-emergent weed suppression. It's still in use in the "core campus areas," Meeker said, "but in far outlying beds we haven't used it for close to three years."

Another sustainable practice at many universities is to turn some land over for community gardens, which can be run by student organizations and volunteers.

Employee Retention and Motivation

At Texas Woman's University, Trevino has five crews taking care of 270 acres. Each crew has a primary function—basic maintenance; tending the greenhouse and flowerbeds; irrigation; landscape installation; and maintaining the athletic fields. "I cross-train and try to rotate staff members throughout crews," Trevino said.

That way, they stay engaged and learn new things.

Employee satisfaction and engagement is critical to the success of a grounds maintenance program, Trevino said: "It's important that staff members each have a sense of pride and ownership. That starts by setting clear expectations, and then giving crews a lot of freedom." Trevino performs occasional "spot checks" and points out where improvements could be made, but mistakes are tolerated as part of the learning process and good work also is recognized.

"Communicate with employees and make them feel appreciated," Trevino advised. "They're the ones who make us shine."

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