Landscaping keeps colleges on solid ground

Maintaining the attractiveness of campuses while controlling costs and protecting the environment

The growth of a 194-acre tropical rainforest sometimes forces the 48-member University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s grounds crew to cut down branches and vines overrunning the institution’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, just 5 miles away.

“Everything grows faster here and does so 365 days a year,” says Roxanne Adams, the university’s director of buildings and grounds management. “That’s what comes with working in the subtropics.”

As the only U.S. university that operates a botanical garden in a tropical rainforest, Hawai’i at Mānoa is an extreme case.

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Still, all higher ed groundskeeping teams face challenges in keeping campuses attractive, controlling costs and protecting the environment.

These departments strive to achieve the following four goals as they prioritize a never-ending list of pressing everyday tasks as well as find time and resources for more intensive projects.

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The University of Mississippi

Acres: 1,000

Landscaping employees: 33

Fleet: 14 trucks, 16 golf carts, 3 two-ton dump trucks, 2 refuse trucks

Equipment: 12 riding mowers, 2 walk-behind mowers, front-end loader, John Deere back-end loader

Procurement approach: Buys small-engine equipment on a five-year rotation and larger, $15,000-plus equipment on a 8- to 10-year rotation. Keeps equipment purchased for over $20,000 longer.

Servicing: Two mechanics service equipment and fleet. Contracts out for installation work.

1. Improve techniques while increasing efficiency.

The University of Mississippi’s 33-member landscaping team must keep 1,000 acres of land neatly mowed.

This had taken the department 10 days to complete each cycle—but now takes only three, thanks to some simple changes implemented by Jeff McManus, director of landscape services at the university, which has earned numerous awards, including the most beautiful U.S. campus by The Princeton Review 5 years ago.

“We were never doing anything but mowing grass,” says McManus. “Now we’ve made our property mower-friendly.”

Crews moved trash cans and picnic tables to places that don’t require mowing, such as on mulch or hardscape areas. Additionally, crews changed the shape of flower beds so mowers no longer have to back up or turn at a 90-degree angle.

“We want mowers sweeping in and out of areas so they are efficient,” McManus says. “You want to keep them moving forward.”

Officials also allowed the landscaping department to move street bollards from grassy areas to the concrete a few inches away and to combine street signs, such as Yield and No Parking Any Time posts, so long as they didn’t block the view of oncoming traffic.

“It might not sound like a lot, but it adds up over 1,000 acres,” McManus says. “We call it ‘work smarter, not harder.’ ”

Other institutions, such as The University of Texas at Austin, have installed technology that saves manpower. UT Austin’s new automated water system—an intricate collection of underground flow meters and controllers—can stop the flow to areas that may have recently received too much rain, for example, and it can pump more to drier spots.

The system also generates data on sprinklers that break—which happens an average of 126 times per month. “So instead of water shooting in the air for 30 minutes, it sends an order to repair that zone immediately,” says Markus Hogue, program coordinator for irrigation and water conservation at the university.

Previously, discovering a broken mechanism involved one irrigation technician going underground and dictating readings over the phone to another worker scouting above ground. Now all four techs can attend to broken sprinklers, using mobile devices that display irrigation layout.

“I can be more efficient with my manpower, which has increased my repair rate,” says Hogue, who helped install the system and modify the irrigation database.

In installing the system, the university’s goal was to reduce water usage by 20 percent by 2020. “We have already reduced it by 75 percent,” adds Markus. “We’re golden on irrigation.”

The University of Texas at Austin

Main campus acres: 430

Landscaping employees: 79

Fleet: Pickup truck and golf cart

Equipment: 170 hand-held power tools

Procurement approach: Buys handheld power equipment that lasts for four to five years and large mowers or tractors that can last 300 to 400 percent longer if well-cared for.

Servicing: Fixes most hand-held equipment and mowers. Sends out some speciality pieces to dealer for repairs. Parking and transportation department manages fleet maintenance on a separate budget.

2. Pursue more sustainable options.

Villanova University’s 30-person grounds division continually researches the safest pesticides to apply across the institution’s 265 acres in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The cost difference between sustainable and unsustainable products is nearly nonexistent today, says Superintendent of Grounds Jared Rudy. “We’re stewards of the land, and keeping the ecosystem up and running is the way that was originally intended.”

Farther south, landscaping services at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta recently purchased a propane-powered mower after the institution began constructing a “living building” facility that produces more water and energy than it consumes.

The aim: Avoid using combustible engines, even though it’s not a campus mandate, says Hyacinth Ide, associate director of landscape services.

The department plans to purchase additional units to reduce their carbon footprint if the person who operates the mower, which is on state contract, comes back with a positive report. This operator will assess the ease of operation, the cost and frequency of fueling, noise reduction, maintenance cost and productivity.

At the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, grounds management’s employees recycle about 75 percent of the waste from fallen trees using a tub grinder. The material has been used for various objects over the years, from a conference table to artistic bowls made by students. “This way we’re remembering the tree and honoring its service,” says Adams.  

The University of Iowa

Acres: 1,900

Landscaping employees: 43

Fleet: 24 trucks, 16 utility vehicles, 3 tractors, 11 mowers, 9 skid loaders, 3 telehandler loaders

Equipment: 16 blowers, 14 trimmers, 3 sod cutters, 4 tillers, 2 aerators, 3 sprayers, 4 concrete saws, seeder

Procurement approach: Leases mowers for a four-year period. Obtains vehicles through university fleet services. Purchases skid loaders, utility vehicles, JCBs and tractors on a 6- to 7-year rotation.

Servicing: Two mechanics service and repair equipment, with costs falling under the shop budget.

3. Keep walkways safe.

Higher ed institutions must also cut down trees when they become dangerous to drivers and pedestrians. The University of Iowa—which maintains 8,000 trees on its 1,900-acre campus—started a five-year project in 2016 to remove 740 of its ash trees. The issue: an emerald ash borer infestation.

“The ash borer burrows around, cutting off moisture and nutrient circulation, killing off the tree, limb by limb,” says Scott Gritsch, associate director of landscape services.

To keep the campus attractive, arborists are cutting down every second ash tree and planting a new one in its place. Workers will remove the remaining trees once new saplings have grown tall enough. This process sometimes requires landscape services to reroute pedestrians.

At Georgia Tech, an arborist and two outside companies use resistographs, electronic needles used to find internal defects of trees, to identify if trees are low, medium or high risks to public safety.

When a tree is determined to be in the medium-risk category, landscaping services staff will usually prune first. Then they will seek approval to cut them down from the landscape review committee, which includes Georgia Tech’s executive vice president.

Some campus trees have grown into institutional icons. At UT Austin, for example, landscape services continuously maintains three historic oak trees that predate the Civil War. Named the Battle Oaks, these landmarks are approximately 300 years old. 

“These trees are very special, here before the University of Texas even existed,” says Jennifer Hrobar, supervisor of urban forestry at UT Austin.

Recently, the oaks showed signs of stress, so crews added nutrients to the surrounding soil. The university will install posts and chains around these trees to prevent pedestrians from walking through the area, which could impede root growth.

University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

Acres: 305 acres

Groundskeeping employees: 48

Fleet: 14 pickup trucks, 20 golf carts, 2 rear-load refuse trucks, 2 hook loaders, street sweeper, 2 bucket trucks, forklift

Equipment: Skid-steer, 2 tractors, backhoe with front-end loader, chipper, tub grinder

Procurement approach: Leases pickup trucks and buys larger trucks, mowers and other equipment. Life cycle of equipment is “longer than it should be.”

Servicing: Mechanic crew services lawn mowers, golf carts and small-engine equipment. Does not handle larger trucks with complicated emissions controls.

4. Maintain a full capacity staff and retain employees.

At Hawai’i-Mānoa, understaffing in human resources spread to grounds management. HR doesn’t have the means to provide lists of eligible employees, resulting in Adams not being able to hire more workers for her department.

“Our tree maintenance program got hit hard,” says Adams, who now employs two arborists instead of four, and hires contractors as funding permits. “The money comes and goes but the trees keep growing, so we are trying to show the university that this shortage is going to affect our campus.”

Last winter, high winds knocked branches down in on-campus areas that have little traffic. Luckily, the debris didn’t damage any structures, but management could have responded more effectively if they had been operating at full capacity.

Adams has assigned her crew to a three-tiered priority system. Now, groundskeepers who used to mow once a week “may do it every other week or every third week, depending on the other priorities,” she says.

Georgia Tech’s landscaping team also struggles with employee shortages, which are caused by constraints on the salaries it can pay and its difficulty in finding skilled tradespeople, says Ide. His department uses its own funds to boost the salaries offered by the university.

UT Austin recently increased base salaries for entry-level groundskeepers and other positions. The “equity adjustment” initiative was self-funded through the facilities services department, says Jim Carse, manager of landscape services. “It was an important step in keeping up with market rates and paying our staff fairly.” 

Steven Blackburn is associate editor.

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