From the Ground Up

Best Practices in Grounds Maintenance for Parks and Golf Courses

By Deborah L. Vence

Park grounds and golf courses need regular maintenance if they're going to stay in tip-top shape. Watering, planting, mowing and tree trimming all make up the essential tasks of grounds managers to ensure landscapes and greens remain first-rate.

But, behind maintaining grounds, it's equally important to have best practices in place to ensure the job gets done right—every time.

"Regarding best practices for maintaining parks, I am not aware of many game-changing innovations. [But], I've found that the better maintained park areas are the ones which receive consistent application of sound practices," said Todd Cochran, Certified Grounds Manager (CGM), County Park Superintendent, County of Bergen, Hackensack, N.J.

Cochran became a Certified Grounds Manager through the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), an organization that was created specifically to help advance the jobs of certified grounds managers. The CGM program is deemed the premier program of its type in the Green Industry.

Solely dedicated to advancing grounds maintenance, the PGMS—originally created in 1911—is an individual membership society of grounds professionals advancing the grounds management profession through education and professional development. The majority of PGMS members are institutional grounds managers who work for organizations such as colleges and universities, municipalities, park and recreation facilities, office parks, apartment complexes, hotels and motels, cemeteries, theme parks and so forth.

And, it is grounds managers like Cochran who discussed some of the best practices and green practices of regular grounds maintenance, as well as how ongoing challenges are dealt with.

Best Practices

Whether you are working to keep park grounds clean, healthy and safe, or repairing divots, raking sand bunkers and managing putting greens at golf courses, having consistent and reliable enforcement of sound practices is the best way to maintain grounds.

"No magic, but scalable results. Perhaps consistent application of sound and basic principles is a best practice," Cochran said.

For instance, when it comes to lawn care, "I am constantly reminding staff to keep mowing height for general/informal turf areas at 2.5 inches to 3 inches and never take more than one-third of the blade," Cochran said.

In the past, he said, some workers would mow at near scalping heights, rationalizing that they wouldn't have to go back as often to mow.

But, "Come summer the lawns either turned to dust or crabgrass," Cochran claimed. "Other staff would mow with no regard to height, but rather the day of the week. [For example], 'It's Tuesday so we have to mow Field No. 3.

"With proper mowing in recent years," he added, "lawns are holding up to stresses, have fewer weeds, and make the parks more attractive and inviting."

On the golf course, best maintenance practices are similar to those of parks, noted Monica D. Higgins, 2nd assistant superintendent at Naples Lakes Country Club, Naples Fla. The country club, which offers an 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course, is a gated Toll Brothers development situated on 490 acres. Full golf and country club membership is included with every home.

"Practices to consider include maintaining proper irrigation, fertilizing at the proper times for health of the turf and the environment, and pest control using the least toxic materials at the proper time and with proper application," Higgins said.

"In addition, we are cognizant of where materials we apply could end up and are careful that these materials don't get into lakes or streams where they could potentially cause problems," she added. "We also utilize native plant materials whenever possible and keep plantings mulched to reduce water use and control weeds."

Going Green

Creating no-mow zones, which are sowed with wildflower seed to benefit wildlife, eliminating mowing cost and providing visitors with some eye candy.

Applying green, eco-friendly approaches is important in regular grounds maintenance, too.

For instance, some of the green initiatives that have been implemented in the County of Bergen dovetail with its cost-saving initiatives.

"In our buildings and restroom facilities, we've installed occupancy sensors for lighting and restroom fixtures," Cochran said. "We've eliminated most of the multitude of cleaning products and substituted an all-purpose, citrus-based cleaner. Not only has this saved money, it is non-toxic, eco-friendly and reduced the amount of products to report under new Jersey's Community Right to Know laws.

Other ways the county is working in a more environmentally and visitor friendly manner include:

  • Adding wide area mowers that save man hours on the mower, and save fuel, maintenance and repairs by using fewer mowers for the same acreage.
  • Creating no-mow zones, which are sowed with wildflower seed to benefit wildlife, eliminating mowing cost and providing visitors with some eye candy.
  • Investing in a vacuum sweeper with an onboard pressure washer to keep pathways free of debris. Previously, paths were cleared with turbine blowers, backpack and walk-behind blowers. The vacuum sweeper is much quieter, and does not create dust or flying debris.
  • Downsizing the fleet both in number and size of vehicles. UTVs have replaced many pickups and have proven to be far less imposing when transporting staff and gear along park paths and drives.

An added benefit to many of these green methods? Cyclists, roller-bladers, joggers and pedestrians all have benefited from cleaner, quieter parks.

Managing Challenges

Sometimes challenges can arise, which calls for the right plan to overcome them.

For instance, one challenge is keeping golf courses well maintained—especially in Florida.

"Our main golf season is from January to April, and we can have as many as 200 rounds of golf each day," Higgins said. "Although we are semi-tropical and, thus, warmer than the North, this is still winter and the grass grows much slower. To have our busiest time of year when the grass is trying not to grow makes for problems."

And, "With that much traffic you have to be more aggressive with fertilization and pest control. But, since it's so busy, it's hard to actually have access to the course to make those applications," she added. "Plus, our soils are sandy so we have to be careful with applications so materials don't leach into our waterways."

To boot, Higgins said that winter is their dry season. "We can receive as much as 80 inches of rain in a year, but usually only get 1 inch per month in the winter," she said. "So, irrigation has to be on point to keep the grass green and to be able to water in applications when they are made."

Having sufficient, capable human resources is an ongoing challenge as well, Cochran noted.

In fact, one of the ways that Bergen County has been supplementing its full-time and seasonal staff is through partnerships with nonprofit and volunteer groups.

"The New York/New Jersey Trail Conference marks, maps and maintains the miles of trail throughout our 5,000 acres of reservation land," Cochran said. "Mahwah Environmental Volunteer Organization (MEVO) performs regular litter patrols, assists in recycling and helps control illegal dumping. Hackensack Riverkeeper helps keep our shorelines clean and, along with Bergen County Audubon Society, gets involved with habitat enhancement and wildlife programs."

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has been partnering with parks since 1920 to create, protect and promote a network of more than 2,000 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep the trails open, safe and enjoyable for the public.

Beat the Budget

Develop a sustainable budget by pricing your services as if you were a contractor. Predictable budgets enable better resource management.

For parks dealing with budget constraints, Keith Hoverstad, business manager, government sales of the Agriculture and Turf Division of a manufacturer of grounds equipment such as lawnmowers and more, suggested three tips to better manage it.

The first, he said, is to reduce per-hour production costs:

  • When upgrading machines, select the next wider mower. For example, going from a 54-inch to 60 inches is an increase of 11 percent on each pass. This enables more work to be done in the same amount of time.
  • Newer machines have the horsepower, drive system and mower decks that allow for faster processing of grass. Increasing your mowers forward speed one-half mile per hour is about a 10 percent gain in production, likely without a loss in cut quality or a sacrifice to safety.

The second is to work within an operating budget:

  • Develop a sustainable budget by pricing your services as if you were a contractor. Predictable budgets enable better resource management.
  • Equipment leasing can enable better resource usage. It minimizes downtime potential by reducing the average fleet age, and increases the time in which machines are within their warranty period. In addition, newer machines may feature technology that can lower operating costs (i.e., EFI gas engines provide improved fuel economy).

The third is to use mulch-on-the-go mower decks:

  • Returning fine clippings to the soil reduces the cost and need for fertilizer.
  • You can direct how clippings will flow without stopping production. Keeping grass clippings off paths and drives reduces labor spent with power blowers.

Similarly, Higgins discussed that when it comes to budget limitations, one of the biggest expenditures is fertilization.

"We are careful to make applications when the grass requires it and make sure it is applied only where it is needed," she said. "Our fairways, greens and tees are kept fertilized because this is where we get the most traffic. Roughs require less."

And, to make sure that the fertilizer use is maximized, she added, "we keep our grass as healthy as possible. This means aggressive aerification and topdressing. Plus, fungicides and pest controls are applied as needed. We scout for pests before making applications and make sure the chemical only goes where needed. We maintain buffer zones along our lakes to keep chemicals out of the lakes.

"Whenever we can, we take areas of the course that are not in play and naturalize them. We remove the turf to reduce maintenance and fertilizer costs and replace them with native plants which require less input," she said. "We are proud of our efforts at Naples Lakes Country Club. Our management personnel have all achieved Certification in Best Management Practices for Golf from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection."

Higgins went on to say that the club now is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary through Audubon International.

"This program follows closely the guidelines for Best Management Practices and in addition enhances habitats for wildlife," she said. "Through this certification we feel we are being the best stewards of the land while providing great golf for our members."

The Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program is an education and certification program that helps organizations and businesses protect our environment while enhancing their bottom line. The "plan-do-check-act" approach of the program offers information and guidance to implement an environmental management plan that improves efficiency, conserves resources and promotes conservation efforts.

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