Greener Than Ever
The Latest Trends in Grounds and Turf Management
By Chris Gelbach
As recreation managers work to continually improve their operations, grounds management is providing a fertile opportunity for reduced costs and better performance. New turfgrass varieties, ever-improving maintenance practices and disruptive technologies are reshaping grounds maintenance—and foretelling a future for parks and fields that's greener than ever.
Grounds managers are making a variety of choices that enable them to successfully maintain their fields and spaces in a more sustainable way, starting with the turfgrasses themselves.
"There are always new varieties of turfgrass being introduced," said James Bergdoll, CSFM and director of park maintenance at the City of Chattanooga Department of Public Works. "Down here in the South, there's a Bermuda grass that takes less water, less input but also has the same visual appeal as a traditional widely used variety."
In his work, Bergdoll has chosen some of these new grasses versus some of the choices for tall fescues that had previously been used in area parks, and that had required significantly more water. "I think it's an example of trying to match environmentally what makes sense and trying to manage how much time and water we're putting into something as well."
Given Chattanooga's location at the low end of the transition zone, Bergdoll is also seeing more recreation departments opt for hybrids that include a mix of Bermuda and Kentucky bluegrass.
In some cases, some of the newer varieties can create problems of their own for grounds managers who are not ready to maintain them. "The two grasses commanding a lot of attention in our world now are TifTuf and Tahoma 31, and they're both going to add to our repertoire for cold-tolerant high-quality Bermuda grasses," said Mike Goatley Jr., professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech University. "And my caveat is always, can you maintain them? Because those are grasses that are going to require a lot of mowing to keep up."
At the University of Mississippi, Director of Landscape Services Jeff McManus, a CGM and ISA Certified Arborist, has focused on increasing sustainability in part by reducing the mowing that needs to be done on campus.
As recreation managers work to continually improve their operations, grounds management is providing a fertile opportunity for reduced costs and better performance.
According to McManus, this was done both by reducing mowing frequency and by taking some high-traffic areas for turf out of play by replacing them with mulch or pine straw. "It used to take us 10 full days to mow, and we've lowered it down to four days, which is absolutely incredible," McManus said.
Another tactic McManus and others are using for reducing mowing and maintenance concerns is using native plantings where appropriate. But Goatley cautions that opting for natives and wildflowers does require inputs on the front end.
"I tell people, if you need to use pesticides for suppression of weeds and invasives when you establish these things, you shouldn't have to apologize. Because your long-term goal is to step away from these things and to not use a lot of synthetic chemistry," Goatley said. "If you don't at first, though, you're going to be in for a big-time disappointment because there's a lot of weed seed that will get a jump on all of that expensive wildflower pollinator-type plant."
Over time, these choices can increase the overall numbers of pollinators and wildlife in general in park spaces. According to Goatley, an underutilized resource that can help in this effort—often at no cost to recreation departments—is your local birding society.
"I've been blown away by how cooperative our Virginia Bluebird Society is," Goatley said. In his work with the local group, the society has installed the boxes where they should be based on bluebird habitat, they maintain the boxes, collect all the data on what birds are nesting in the boxes, and also clean the boxes. The collaboration helps reinforce to the public the natural benefits of these park spaces, while the influx of birds also helps with insect control.
"It's a slow battle to get people to understand that it's not going to cost you anything other than to give these people the opportunity to put these birdhouses in if you work with these people," Goatley said, "It's low-hanging fruit, and I think it's definitely something to explore."
Using Less, Achieving More
Using less inputs and resources when maintaining turf is becoming a bigger priority as part of the push for greener spaces. "When you're reducing your need to water and you're reducing your need to fertilize, that's actually the bigger picture when you're talking about environmentally sound practices and being more sustainable," Bergdoll said.
At Ole Miss, McManus has seen big results in improved water management through the switch over to a centralized water system with a weather station that includes soil moisture measurement and other water-saving features. "That's probably the biggest thing that's changed for us over the last five years. We're much more water-wise," McManus said.
This has even extended to smaller conservation efforts that include the placement of a rain barrel under a large air conditioning unit on campus that was dripping. According to McManus, about 55 gallons of water each day is collected that way, and the condensation water is used whenever the maintenance team needs to mix application for the turf.
Goatley is seeing the increased use of compost and biosolids as another means both to reuse a carbon-based waste product and to benefit soil health. "I can't think of anything better you can do than to bring compost applications in and stick to that program for two to three years," Goatley said. "You're going to see some really solid improvements in soil. And when you get the improvements in soil you're going to see improvements in the turf and plant material, as well."
Over the past several years, McManus and his team have additionally experimented with alternate fuels and battery-powered options as additional ways to use cleaner fuels and reduce noise pollution. Many of the alternatives currently available come with tradeoffs.
For instance, Ole Miss experimented with propane gas mowers, which run cleaner, but found that they required more work operationally because of the need to have propane tanks on hand and bring them out into the field. The university had more success with biodiesel—but problems finding a reliable ongoing source for the fuel.
"We tried biodiesel a few years ago and really liked it. We would go to it tomorrow if we cold find a source for it in our area," McManus said. "A local professor was using biodiesel for some of his research, and we used it for a summer and found it to be very clean. The joke was that the exhaust smelled like French fries. He was reusing the oil out of the fryers up at the cafeteria."
Ole Miss found that the approach reduced their fuel consumption and that the biodiesel also worked as a great cleaning agent for the parts and engines of their mowers.
The university's experiments with battery-powered blowers have had more mixed results. It can still be difficult to find equipment with a long-life battery that still provides the power and RPMs to get the job done quickly. "Nothing has replaced that gas-powered backpack blower yet in my opinion, but I'm looking forward to that noise going away one day," McManus said.
Improved Maintenance Practices
Grounds managers are also seeing more widespread attention to better grounds maintenance practices. Combined with turf advancements, these practices are helping turf managers further stretch the playability of their natural turf fields.
"It's really more about what you're doing in the off-time of the grass," said Ren Wilkes, tactical marketing manager for a leading manufacturer of lawn equipment headquartered in Moline, Ill. "You're seeing a lot more aeration, a lot more cultural practices done in the off-time. It might mean mowing after play is done or immediately aerating that night." In particular, Wilkes is seeing turf managers pay more attention to goal mouths, center areas and other high-traffic zones to help the turf recover quickly and maintain good condition.
Goatley likewise is seeing this as the continuation of a long-term trend. "We've preached that forever. When you're trying to stretch your dollars as far as you can, you don't need to maintain every square inch of those fields. You're working between goal mouths, between the hashes, the other areas to keep it clipped. Put your resources toward where the traffic is," he said.
He is also seeing more and more recreational facilities pay more attention to the need for field rotation in the design stage of larger projects, with developers sometimes opting to use a little more space to accommodate additional fields. "Finding the absolute best way to optimize this piece of land to get the most play should always be on the front end of any design, because we're not going to see the use demands decline," Goatley said.
Grounds managers are also seeing more widespread attention to better grounds maintenance practices.
In Chattanooga, Bergdoll is seeing similar discussions about stormwater management and water quality informing upfront planning decisions, and creating additional, marketable benefits for the community in the process.
In terms of mowing practices, fraise mowing is continuing to gain prominence as a method for renovating certain kinds of turf such as Bermuda grasses. "What an awesome tool to renovate Bermuda turf and almost turn a Bermuda grass field that's just kind of showing its age into a new turf by removing all that material from the surface," Goatley said.
In terms of mowers, Wilkes is seeing more grounds managers move to reel mowers from rotary mowers to achieve more precision mowing. Like many trends, Wilkes initially saw it in the professional leagues and it is now moving down to parks, soccer complexes and schools, whether through leased equipment, used equipment or lower-horsepower mowers that deliver many of the other traditional benefits of this equipment.
With the trend, however, comes increased maintenance requirements. "It does take a higher aptitude of knowing how to repair and maintain the equipment, which gets people out of their comfort zone a little bit," Wilkes said.
In turn, Wilkes is seeing ongoing maintenance contracts for the equipment increase in popularity. "It's just like cars—as it gets more technology-based, you've got to keep up with that more," Wilkes said. "We're seeing a lot of parks and sports complexes come back to their dealers and ask for service contracts that allow them to then use the more specialized equipment."
Technology for Better Turf
The issue of technology figures to play a bigger role moving forward, for everything from various areas of grounds maintenance to even how grounds departments are managing their people. "We're using some technology that's available for managing our daily routines and doublechecking our staff to make sure they're where they're supposed to be," Bergdoll said.
Bergdoll is also seeing increasing interest in robotic, GPS-driven sprayers, remote-controlled mowing equipment, drones for aerial visuals and mapping of parks and field, and digital soil and moisture meters for more accurate irrigation monitoring.
Goatley is also intrigued by the potential of linear compaction devices that enable aeration of the soil to 6, 8 or 10 inches in a way that you barely know that it's been done. He also agrees that robotic mowers and other similar technologies will transform the field.
"I think one day this industry will see more of that," Goatley said. "You look at GPS and drones and mapping for disease, for weed pressure, for turf health, and we're in the infancy stages. And I think that's all coming." As the nation moves toward self-driving vehicles, a future of robotic mowers also seems likely sooner rather than later.
As society becomes more data-driven, Wilkes also expects technology to be used more to analyze trends in things like water management, cutting and aeration to pinpoint optimal approaches. "I think probably the biggest key is looking back at the past when you've had a successful year to see what you did to make sure you can replicate that in the future," Wilkes said.
Training for Change
As they change their grounds management practices, these leaders are also preparing their employees to adapt and grow. "We're training our staff to understand why we're doing things a little bit different than maybe we have done them in the past," Bergdoll said.
One area of focus for Bergdoll's team is training on the importance of native use and invasive plant management. "We're just trying to make the parks a better place for people to go, but also make them better for the environment and avoid environmentally damaging practices," he said.
At Ole Miss, staff development has become such a priority for McManus that he has written a book on it, Growing Weeders Into Leaders. He has also established an in-house training program called Landscape University. "We try to make sure people know they are very important to our operation, so we set them up for success and teach them how to be successful," McManus said.
He even teaches a course every April focused on teaching others how to establish their own in-house training program. "We teach them how to create the classes, make them entertaining and fun, and get buy-in from their staff so that their front-line people are engaged in it," McManus said.
In training his own people, McManus focused both on building job skills and on developing interpersonal skills that help people work together better as a team. "I found that if I spent 80 percent of my time growing people, then the other 20 percent of growing the plants really takes care of itself," McManus said.
As technology and practices for turfgrass management continue to advance, it will require recreation managers to continually re-evaluate the merits of automating certain tasks, of considering service contracts for increasingly complex equipment, and of developing managers who can succeed in this complex landscape.
Ground managers are successfully doing more with less and providing more community benefits while doing so.
"Technology is a major disruptor in almost every industry," McManus said. "The landscaping and the parks and recs, we're probably some of the last to see the disruption. But it's coming. Robotics may never take over everything we do, but we're going to be using them more in the next five, 10 years."
Despite this disruption, managers who can make the right decisions and serve as responsible stewards of the environment and their parks will remain in demand. "Nothing's ever going to replace the eye of the superintendent or manager as he or she walks in," McManus said.
Whether it be through better training, technology advancement, environmentally sustainable choices or more strategic turfgrass management, ground managers are successfully doing more with less and providing more community benefits while doing so.
"It's just about trying to be environmentally conscious and being good stewards of the earth and also good stewards of the public tax base," Bergdoll said. "We need to make sure we're getting the biggest bang for our buck out of the money the city gives us to maintain these spaces."
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