Strategies for Successful Grounds Management
By Deborah L. Vence
Maintaining and managing grounds efficiently takes a trained and knowledgeable staff, having best practices in place and a regular maintenance routine.
The fact is, how healthy and aesthetically appealing the grounds are at a facility or park makes a difference in how well they are perceived.
"Prospective students [at a university] will make a decision in the first few minutes." And, how good the landscaping is and if there is litter around makes a difference, said Jeff McManus, CGM, ISA certified arborist, and director of landscape services, airport and golf services, at the University of Mississippi.
"You want the crisp and fresh spinach. You don't want the stuff that doesn't look good," he said. "Whether we like it or not, people do make judgments based on appearance."
To help keep grounds well maintained and managed, having a trained staff is essential.
"A knowledgeable staff is important when implementing an integrated management system due to [the fact that] they are going to need to know how to recognize changes in the landscape and how to react to it in the proper manner," said Keven Graham, FASLA, PLA, CLARB, COO/landscape architect, Planning Resources Inc.
"Well-trained staff will help to be more efficient and assist the officials in the education of the general public as well. As far as the type of training, it varies depending on the type of green initiatives one is pursuing," he said.
"If it is the maintenance of native landscapes, a background in ecologic practices is going to be important; aspects like management of invasive species and burn management might be important," he said. "I think knowledge in integrated pest management is important as we seem to be finding more and more issues arising. But, as I said, I think it varies depending on what the park's primary goal is in its green focus."
McManus noted that when it comes to training staff, "I believe that in the 21st century we are all being asked to do more with [fewer] resources.
"Being successful is to have incredible staff in people who are trained and developed. We created a system called The Landscape University to train our staff at Ole Miss," he said.
The Landscape University is a series of classes that are instituted by Landscape Services. The goal of the program is to develop a highly confident, motivated landscaping team. The program curriculum covers introductory material, professional responsibility, safety training, advanced landscaping and people skills.
"What we do in the system is that we find not only [that being] knowledgeable is valuable, but that motivating employees is valuable," McManus said.
For instance, Level 100 is the orientation level. On the first day, employees can take a Landscape University course. The second level, Level 200, involves core classes.
"We want everybody to know [about] such things as mixed gases, regular fuel that go into lawn mowers—what's the difference? It sounds simple, but when you bring people into a big organization, we start to teach them those basics. Once we realize that this person is going to be doing more mowing, we take them to the 300 level," and teach them the proper way to do that, he said.
Jim Cocos, senior manager, horticulture, Missouri Botanical Garden, said that "the best thing we can have are a lot of eyeballs on things. Things happen quickly. You have to be watching. You have to look up and look down.
"Because of what they are in charge of, some are centered on trees. But, we've got trained eyes out there," he added. "We have really good staff here. We have the resources to hire really good horticulturists."
The most important thing Micah Putman, park supervisor at Allerton Park & Retreat Center, University of Illinois, Monticello, Ill., looks for in hiring full-time staff is "someone who has an education in a related field and previous experience in the industry."
"The most important thing I look for in a seasonal employee is that they be teachable because I can teach them to do most of the everyday tasks at the park," Putman said. "A trained and knowledgeable staff is the most important factor in keeping Allerton Park running. Knowing when to prune a bush can mean the difference between a bush that never flowers [and] one that is completely overgrown and developing damaged branching units. To ensure a productive crew, I hold regular training meetings—either formal or informal—and keep lines of communication going at all times."
The full-time staff at Allerton Park also is made up of certified arborists and trained wildland firefighters.
"We attend conferences and classes regularly to keep up with industry best practices and to learn about new products and efficiencies we can incorporate into our operations," Putman said. "I also believe that a trained and knowledgeable staff creates a sense of teamwork, and pride in the work we do as well as boosts morale and productivity."
The use of green practices in grounds maintenance and management is growing, and there are many different ways that such practices can be incorporated.
For example, "Equipment selection (fuels), weed and turf control, and de-icing methods are a few of the many operational choices," Graham said.
"What's cool about our industry is that the many things we do are just being discovered by the rest of the world," McManus noted.
"Trees, for example, have been composted in the woods. We are doing that as well. Very rarely does natural debris leave campus anymore. It pretty much goes into our compost and allowed to compost naturally, or [you can] chip it up or reuse it for mulch," he said, adding that those are good nutrients, too.
"We have great resources to do it. The key … is having the space to do it. Most campuses and parks and recreation are limited in space. We have some space to do that here at the University of Mississippi," McManus said.
Proper design is huge, too.
"Design the landscape in a way that's maintenance and environmentally friendly," he added. "It's different for any area you are working in. It varies a little bit. You want to use plants that are low-maintenance. We like to look at native plants, first, if they will provide us with what we need; have shade to help cool a building down; reduce air-conditioning costs. Nature just does it all by itself."
At the Missouri Botanical Garden, "What we are particularly happy about is that we have a nice compost area here, where basically everything we cut, trip and snip is put into a nice pile," Cocos said.
"There's no fancy equipment. But we do keep it on site. Twice a year, we contract a company to come in and grind it into compost and [then] it goes right back into the garden," he said.
Also, certain municipal tree companies can come in and dump raw wood chips, too.
"And, we do need a good bit of mulch," he said.
In the greenhouses, "we've almost eliminated the use of pesticides, using all beneficial insects—over the last four or five years now," he added.
Having best practices in place also is important in ensuring effective grounds maintenance.
Some of those practices include "reduced weed control, use of organic/bio control products, conversion of excessive lands to natural areas [and] energy-efficient equipment," Graham said.
Over the past three or four years, the Missouri Botanical Garden has been using smart controllers for irrigation systems.
"We had traditional clocks, but [now use] smarter controllers that utilize connections to the web," Cocos said.
You then can get a download of evapotranspiration rates, which show how much water plants are using based on the weather.
You can find out, based on the weather, if plants lost any water, or how much water they got if it rained, and whether you should be using less or more water. "We think that, overall, they see a 20 to 30 percent savings of water," he said.
At Allerton Park, safety always is No. 1.
"Whether we are pulling weeds, making sure to avoid poison ivy or during tree removal operations, double-checking rigging knots and other equipment hazards, safety trumps everything else," Putman said.
"One different practice we do at Allerton is high mowing," he said. "Taller grass is healthier and combats compaction and promotes healthy roots to weather the winter. We use infrequent, heavy watering when needed. We also compost all organic waste on site for reuse in our planting beds. Integrated pest management is also very important and my staff [is] all licensed to apply pesticides. We do not plant invasive species, even in our formal gardens with various planting displays."
Ongoing, regular grounds maintenance requires everyday care—such as watering, weeding and trimming.
Putman said that everyday maintenance of Allerton's grounds involves mainly landscape work, but includes many other maintenance activities as needed.
"On any given day you will see Allerton's crew mowing, weeding, watering, mulching, edging, trimming hedge and many other regular landscape jobs," he said.
"We have about 100 acres of developed grounds to take care of inside the 1,500-acre park that also includes forest and prairie land. The developed grounds consist of 4 miles of road, 15 formal gardens, five parking lots, multiple open fields, tree groves and picnic areas," Putman said.
"Every year we trim over a mile of linear hedge, cut down about 200 hazard trees, plant 100 trees, 400 mums, 1,000 bulbs and over 10,000 summer annuals, and we buck and split 40 cords of firewood. We also handle all the snow removal, and maintain a water tower and water treatment facility as well as a wastewater treatment facility," he added. "We also help with some of our events doing setup for our summer concert series and helping move wedding chairs on weekends when the park is busy. The grounds crew will also assist the buildings maintenance crew when needed."
McManus also noted that he looks at ways to lower maintenance requirements so workers are not out there all the time. "We want a plant that we don't have to touch every week. So, we want to work smarter, not harder. Maybe a plant that doesn't need as much water in the summertime. A plant that's not going to overgrow a window, that's a high-maintenance plant," he said.
"When we're mowing our lawns, we put clippings back into the lawn. [There's] 130 acres of turf and so we don't want to be hauling those clippings around. We don't do a lot of fertilizing here, so we want those going back into the earth," he added.
Equipment is key, too. McManus said that mowers are purchased with mulching blades. "We get a lot of leaves that fall off the trees. We want to speed nature up. Chop that up really fine. They will [lie] on the ground and decompose inside the grass," he said.
The campus also has close to 30 acres of shrubs and groundcover. "We have 20,000 seasonal color, annuals, flower beds, focal points, at entry signage points," he said.
Also, for irrigation, Ole Miss uses a smart system that has a weather station. The system monitors the weather, the humidity, the soil and moisture content and evaporation, and it lets the readings into account, based on what's needed for the plants and how long for the water to run and for the systems to be on.
"The smart systems are reading the environment. That's what our industry is trending toward," McManus said.
"More campuses, parks and recreation facilities are going to these systems. It saves resources," he said. "There is an initial investment, but typically a year or two years in saving expenses. The one thing I like about it is that if you get a break, [such as on] a sprinkler head, the system comes on. The system is reading that too much water is leaving the water through the pipes. It will send an e-mail [that there is a] problem with such and such zone. It will generate the e-mail," he explained.
Sometimes challenges arise in grounds maintenance, but experts say there are ways to deal with them.
For example, Graham said you can deal with budget constraints. "Through the reduction of chemical use—and that does not mean complete elimination—a reduction in operational costs can be seen. We have also assisted park districts in evaluating the useable space needed for the higher, more active programming needs.
"The purpose is to evaluate where and how much land is needed for programmed events and uses and then to consider converting other lands to lower-maintenance options like passive ground or potentially native grasslands that may offer other benefits to the community," he said. "The converted lands may help maintain stormwater, provide pollinator landscapes and in doing so reduce the need for energy and man hours in their maintenance."
Meanwhile, Putman noted that the biggest challenge in grounds maintenance at a public park is counteracting certain cultural practices and the physical wear and tear of use by park visitors.
"Driving across turf areas can be damaging, as well as soil compaction due to hundreds of people trampling various areas throughout the park. Improper training can also take a toll as over-mowing, over-fertilizing and over-watering can be very damaging for plantings and turf areas," he said.
"Educating not only the grounds staff but the larger staff group at the park, such as wedding staff and caterers, about some of these challenges we face can go a long way in combating some of the damage done to the grounds," Putman said.
"We also use physical barriers to control pedestrian traffic and build up our plantings with watering, fertilizer and other maintenance practices as much as possible so they withstand the high use of the park," he said.
Another challenge is "perception."
"Many residents have an idea of what parks should look like," Graham said. "When the appearance is altered they may voice a differing opinion. Also, the competition between sports groups and efforts to maintain areas in a more natural means has caused some battles as well."
McManus noted, too, that to help avoid challenges in keeping up the grounds, choosing the right mower is important.
"Use sharp blades so you're not tearing it. Sharpen blades every day. That will cut it straight," he said.
He also believes the key to dealing with any challenges or problems is to get solutions from your staff, too.
"Don't think the managers have to be the ones with all the answers. We're under the false illusion that we're the smartest person in the room," he said, adding that it is important to empower the staff. "You get better buy-ins and answers."
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