Solid Grounds

Savvy Strategies for Managing Diverse Spaces

By Dave Ramont

There are many spaces that we interact with daily that require oversight when it comes to maintaining the grounds: an urban pocket park or streetscape; a rural forest preserve or prairie; a suburban bike trail or soccer field. And while grounds managers oversee many facets of maintaining these spaces, their strategies and tactics tend to morph, driven by budgets and resources, new technologies and innovations, sustainability concerns, and the evolving priorities of their communities.

Restoring Natural Landscapes

Born in 2008, the Green Kirkland Partnership is an alliance between the City of Kirkland, Wash., nonprofit partners, businesses and the community to restore more than 500 acres of natural areas, including parkland such as forest, meadows, wetlands, streams and shorelines. The "urban forests" provide a refuge for wildlife habitat, a place for people to connect with nature, and valuable ecosystem services such as cleaning the air, filtering water, sequestering carbon, preventing erosion and reducing stormwater runoff.

Jodie Galvan, parks supervisor for natural areas and the Green Kirkland Partnership, explained that while the program is supported by employees of the City of Kirkland Parks and Community Services, many of their restoration efforts are accomplished by dedicated volunteers. "We regularly have more than 2,000 volunteers contribute more than 10,000 hours over the course of a year. Volunteers remove invasive, non-native plants; build healthy soils by applying arborist chips to restoration sites; and install native trees, shrubs and groundcovers."

The partnership also supports 40 Green Kirkland Stewards—volunteer superstars, according to Galvan—who lead volunteers in the restoration of natural areas. "They receive approximately 12 hours of training at the start of their position and have access to many additional training opportunities throughout the year. Volunteering for this program is a great way to build on-the-ground experience in the natural areas restoration field."

Galvan said that most of their plants and trees are purchased from about a dozen regional nurseries. Additionally, "We do have a nursery where we (keep) the plants and trees until we're ready to install them and where we grow some specialty groundcovers and shrubs from seed and/or cuttings."

She said they work in a variety of city parks and open spaces both to restore native plant communities in undeveloped areas as well as to naturalize more developed spaces. "An example of the latter is our ongoing effort to convert 10 acres of mowed grass—a prior golf course—to a pollinator meadow at Juanita Bay Park."

"We're an active partner in the Green Cities Network, as well as the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration," said Galvan. "We're constantly sharing information, tools and contracted crews with our neighbors."

She said many cities, counties and school districts in their region are working to restore natural areas. "Many… are working with the nonprofit organization Forterra to launch their own Green City Partnership." Forterra works in partnership with municipalities in the Puget Sound area to "develop achievable goals, shared visions, long-term plans and community-based stewardship programs to care for the valuable forests and natural areas in urban environments."

And while every city might not be tackling full-on restoration projects, more locations are choosing to leave certain areas un-mowed, allowing them to revert back to more natural states. Kevin Mercer, a grounds manager at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, reported that they've increased their no-mow areas, overseeding them with wildflowers annually.

Pete Kormos, grounds crew manager for the parks and rec department in Broadview Heights, Ohio, said, "There are areas that I like seeing more natural, and that gives us an opportunity to plant wildflowers, etc. We had a raingarden constructed in the last year, which will be a nice addition to our property. However, around our play areas, fields, playgrounds, etc., we keep things well-manicured, mainly to keep ticks away."

As more communities support the idea of letting certain sites revert back to more natural states, it's important to communicate to residents the realities of these endeavors. Brandon Haley, a grounds manager with SSC Services for Education, a firm specializing in facilities services for K-12 school districts and higher education, believes these practices need some perspective. "While a trend is to turn areas into no-mow or wildflower areas, expectations need to be managed. We find it common for stakeholders to still expect weed-free results, which is quite difficult in these situations. If you're trying to allow for wildflowers to reseed, you cannot pre-emerge against noxious weeds, causing all control to be through post-emergent herbicides. It's doable, but is not as much of a labor saver as may be thought."

Galvan said that greener operations require communities to understand and accept that landscapes will look wilder if pesticides, fertilizers and mechanical equipment such as gas-powered leaf blowers aren't used to maintain the highly manicured landscape that some residents and visitors desire. "If the community can come to embrace the natural aesthetic, then we can provide beautiful recreational spaces that also provide many valuable ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water and a more stable climate."

The practice of planting local and native species continues to be a trend, which can help lessen maintenance as well as attract pollinators, which benefits us all. "We do try to incorporate perennials and natives into our planting plans," said Meg Angevine, park operations supervisor for the city of Redmond, Wash. "Our most recently renovated park includes many natives and a butterfly/pollinator garden area which is still in the establishment phase."

"For pollinator gardens, we use local nurseries or grow from seed directly in the area intended to be a garden," explained Haley. "We try to use native species whenever possible in pollinator gardens. The local pollinators—insects and birds—have particular plants they prefer, and we try to match our plantings to the needs of the local ecosystem."

New Alternatives

Many in the grounds management industry are also looking at alternatives when it comes to fertilizers and pesticides. Mercer described a few alternatives they've had success with lately: "We're using pine straw mulch to aid in reducing weeds from coming up and propane torches to burn weeds and basic IPM (integrated pest management) principles before we apply pesticides. We are also on a carbon organic fertilizer program using food waste."

"Our parks department has been using an organic 8-0-2 turf fertilizer almost exclusively for many years after several years of using a synthetic/organic blend," said Angevine. "Topdressing with a sand/compost blend after turf renovations also helps boost the soil nutrient content. One of the benefits we've experienced is a more consistent green color without the heavy flushes of growth that occur with traditional synthetic fertilizers. We've significantly reduced our non-organic herbicide applications over the past decade-plus through changing maintenance practices such as applying two to three inches of arborist chip mulch instead of dark fine (more fertile) mulch and choosing groundcover plant material that is taller and will shade out or hide weeds." She said that radiant heat and flame weeders are used where possible, and organic herbicides such as horticultural vinegar and citrus/clove oil blends are utilized.

Angevine also mentioned an herbicide-free weed control solution they've added which "uses steam and a plant-based foaming agent that traps the heat and increases its effectiveness, and can be used year-round in most weather conditions."

Newer technologies are aiding grounds managers in other ways as well. "GIS (geographic information system) has made our work much easier," said Haley. "It is so much easier to properly order materials and manage large campuses if you know exactly what you're managing."

Mercer agreed that technology can be a great asset, and mentioned video mapping for roads and sidewalks, and ET-irrigation as examples. ET (evapotranspiration) systems calculate irrigation schedules to replenish only the water that is actually needed for plant and soil conditions.

Maintenance equipment also keeps evolving, helping entities become more sustainable. "We continue to explore and demo available equipment using alternative fuel options and have some battery-powered equipment such as backpack blowers, hedgers and utility vehicles in our inventory," said Angevine, adding that they also have a propane-powered mower.

"Electric equipment is slowly taking over the marketplace," agreed Haley. "Electric handheld equipment is as powerful as gas machines and electric zero-turns are quickly catching up. I expect that we will soon see the marketplace flip to electric-dominant."

Forests & Trees

Trees are of course a huge asset to any landscape, and some entities are taking a much closer look at their tree populations. A few years ago, officials at Texas A&M University—with assistance from Haley's firm—set out to document all the trees on campus, around 15,000 trees. The goal is to restore and preserve the health of older trees and to ensure that new trees and shrubs that are planted as part of the project can thrive. Each tree's precise location is recorded via GPS, and its type, height, circumference and overall health are also documented. Grounds crews also selectively prune, aerate and fertilize trees, paying special attention to those that are unhealthy. In addition, to ensure that young trees have a long and healthy life, crews have focused on training in everything from selecting the right trees to planting techniques to soil preparation, drainage and pruning.

While more grounds departments are striving to have certified arborists on staff, the city of Cheyenne, Wyo., has taken it up a notch. The Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division works within the parks department and is charged with maintaining all city-owned trees. To improve their urban forest, they work with citizens, businesses, government agencies and tree care professionals. Their tree care services include planting, mulching, watering, insect and disease identification and treatment, pruning and removals.

"In Wyoming, it's rare for a municipality to have a forestry division with more than one to two full-time staff who focus solely on trees," said Mark Ellison, manager of the Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division. He said they're fortunate to have nine full-time ISA-certified arborists (International Society of Arboriculture), plus four seasonal staff and one year-round part-time staffer. "Other forestry divisions are forced to rely on staff from other divisions to help out or rely on contractors to do the heavy lifting. Luckily for me, my predecessors were successful in lobbying for staffing increases as our city grew."

As in other grounds-related fields, continuing education and training are important, according to Ellison, as practices, equipment and standards are ever-changing. "To maintain our ISA certification, we must acquire 30 continuing education units every three years." He said they work most closely with parks, cemeteries, golf courses and botanical gardens. "We maintain all trees on city property, so we get requests for tree work from all these divisions and others within the city."

The forestry division also enforces professional standards for tree care businesses and requires licensing for tree care services such as pruning tress, removing trees and applying pesticides and insecticides to trees and shrubs. "To obtain a license, a company must have adequate insurance and have an ISA certification, which ensures a basic level of tree care knowledge, skill and safety awareness," as well as a code of ethics, according to Ellison. "Being part of a professional organization such as ISA gives tree care businesses a network of information and tools to do their jobs better and safer."

Ellison said they're always examining ways to do their jobs in a more environmentally friendly manner. "To reduce our herbicide use, we've increased the amount of wood chip mulching we do in landscaped beds and around trees. This helps to reduce unwanted vegetation and subsequent spraying, but it also has the added benefits of improving soil moisture and oxygen levels, increasing organic matter in the soil and helping to insulate the soil from extreme hot and cold temperatures."

He also said they've reduced insecticide foliar spraying to reduce chemical drift and the associated negative effects to plants and beneficial insects. "We do more soil drenches, trunk sprays and injections than we do foliar spraying."

Much of the forestry division's work in Cheyenne is dependent on particular seasons, though Ellison explained that as their workload has increased due to a growing community and aging tree canopy, "we've had to adjust our schedules so they're not only based on season but demand from our constituents." He feels it's very important for cities to up their games when it comes to the health of their tree populations. "With a changing climate, trees are so valuable for so many reasons, and to not have a division focused solely on trees and forest management is really selling your community and its residents short."

Teamwork & Networking

Grounds managers wear many hats, and oversee many operations that require specialized training, including their communities' sports fields. "One of the biggest challenges we're facing now is meeting the demand for field and court space for sports such as cricket, lacrosse and pickleball," said Angevine. "The demand is increasing faster than our ability to meet it."

Hardscape areas are another facet of many groundskeepers' duties, which might include trails, walkways and parking lots. "Picking up trash alone can be a full-time job most days," said Kormos, "then add in weed control in these areas and patching holes and sealing cracks. Fortunately we have great support from other departments of our city to help. Facilities would be difficult to maintain without teamwork."

Many departments utilize outside help on occasion to assist with specialized tasks or to simply get some breathing room. "We contract out enough work to have a full-time contract manager," said Angevine. "Some of the work is specialized such as pest control and security services, but it also includes a large amount of right-of-way maintenance that we have limited ability to address in-house."

"If we're not equipped to do a job or don't have the expertise needed, we outsource to contractors to ensure quality work," said Haley. "During the growing season, there are times we'll outsource work to keep up. This has become more common lately with the difficulties hiring employees."

Indeed, as with many industries and businesses, our grounds sources reported that staffing has become a struggle. "In 2022 our supplemental employee budget was restored to pre-pandemic levels, but hiring has been challenging," said Angevine. "We've been fortunate to get good people, however, we're not able to hire as many employees as we sought to, and did increase the base rate of pay to try to better compete with other local agencies."

All the managers we spoke with related how important networking is to their profession. "There's always interaction to solve problems, brainstorm, etc. Getting feedback, ideas and advice from your friends is a great way to fix or get ahead of some situations," said Kormos.

Ellison discussed a tree managers group in Wyoming comprised of city, county and state foresters and arborists that meets quarterly, as well as other organizations, workshops and conferences. "I'm fortunate that there are several networking groups available to me that are often invaluable."

"Networking is probably the best way to get new information," said Haley. "There are so many smart managers out there with unique circumstances. The wider your reach, the better your chance of having a contact with an answer. This is where organizations such as PGMS (Professional Grounds Managers Society) excel. Having an entire organization of like-minded people in your profession makes networking easy and fun!" RM



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