Green Practices in Grounds Management
By Emily Tipping
When you get everyone on board with greener practices in grounds management, you can not only save the environment, you can also save time, effort and maybe even your budget. We talked with Kevin Mercer, grounds manager at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association about his pioneering ideas in environmental practices for grounds and athletic facilities.
Mercer came to Vassar from St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he created a sustainability program focused on three main areas: reducing greenhouse emissions through less mowing; recycling grass clippings and yard waste, as well as creating a compost program; and stormwater retention and reusing rainwater for irrigation systems. Recently, Mercer has instituted a similar program at Vassar College.
With a little more than 1,000 acres of grounds, Vassar College has about 15 acres of sports turf, Mercer said, with about 13 acres of natural grass sports turf, and two acres of synthetic turf. In addition, there are more than 200 trees in the college's arboretum. The grounds team is also in charge of several playgrounds, as well as residential complexes on campus.
Caring for this diverse array of sports fields, high-profile and naturalized areas, playgrounds and more requires a range of practices. Making those practices greener begins with analysis. "Everyone is different, but the model can be the same," Mercer said. "The first thing you have to do is look at your inputs and outputs. Then, you can figure out how to reduce your outputs."
Once at Vassar, Mercer said he held a townhall meeting and became involved with the college's sustainability committee. Getting all the stakeholders involved right away, he said, is crucial to success. "Most everyone has a sustainability committee," he said. "You have to work together. And you have to have the right people at your table—your finance people, the people who make decisions, grounds people, people spearheading sustainability. If you don't have all those players, it's a constant battle."
"I had to explain that turfgrass serves a function; it's not just aesthetics," he said. The committee might have wanted to do away with herbicides and pesticides, but doing so, he explained, could lead to problems.
To drive this point home, Mercer treated one lawn with herbicides and fertilizer, and left another lawn alone. The treated lawn, he said, held up to traffic. "And of course, on the fields that were not treated with herbicide, they could hold up to the high-mass traffic and went to dirt."
For managing turf in a greener way, Mercer said he starts with the seed. At Vassar, he's using a phosphorus-coated seed. He added that they mow at 3 ¾ inch. "It's pretty high, but it crowds out the weeds and can take a lot more punishment," he said. Before events, the team blankets the turf with potassium.
While managing water is less important in the Northeast than in drought-ridden areas of the country like the Southwest, Mercer said they use a smart irrigation system throughout the campus, and keep an eye on stormwater.
One big benefit to going greener with grounds management is that it can also help reduce costs. For example, "Having naturalized areas reduces your field cost and your overall fertilizer use," he said.
Overall, Mercer said, managing grounds in a greener way is the responsible thing to do. If grounds and turf managers continue with the status quo just because it's the status quo, they're missing an opportunity.
"It's time to be responsible for our own actions," Mercer said. "We can have functional turfgrass. WE just need to break the way we do things. All of the lawns do not have to be perfect. We can talk to our neighbors and ask, 'Why are you doing that to your yard?' Educate them. Be teachers. Your yard does not have to be like a sports field. All of us can get the point across by educating."
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