4 FM quick reads on grounds care
1. Looking Ahead to Winter Weather
The arrival of warmer weather means grounds operations in institutional and commercial facilities are entering their most active phase. Grounds crews are focused on the mowers, utility vehicles, skid steers, and smaller pieces of equipment they will use to maintain turf, trim, edge, and plant.
But for most grounds managers, warmer weather also means it is time to start preparing the department for the cooler weather of fall and, all too soon, winter. With equipment and plants accounted for, managers next can turn to the essential steps in preparing crews for their fall and winter responsibilities.
"Snow removal and inclement weather procedures and responsibilities are reviewed with staff," says Susanne Woodell, historic gardens manager for the 8,000-acre Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., which is also a commercial and hospitality facility. "Emergency heating procedures for greenhouses are reviewed. As newer staff is exposed to seasonal tasks, procedures and safety measures are reviewed and someone works with them for training."
New employees unfamiliar with both the equipment and the terrain can present a particular planning challenge for managers.
"Training is a key component for new people who come into the snow plan, so we use our group leaders — the people who are actually out in the field — to help train these new employees on how to operate the pieces of equipment," says Gerry Dobbs, park services superintendent with the Cordova Recreation and Park District in Rancho Cordova, Calif., who also worked at Michigan State University. "It's also important that we map out their route so they actually have a picture of their route. We do spend a fair amount of time preparing for the winter and training staff on how to respond to winter."
As institutional and commercial facilities tear down outdated buildings, construct new ones in their place and otherwise alter the landscape, managers need to incorporate changes — both small and large — into their planning and procedures. For this phase, they also can rely on their staffs, as well as other departments.
"We ask the front-line staff to make us aware of any changes," Dobbs says. "For the two universities I worked at, it also was extremely important to keep close ties with engineering and architectural group so we were aware of any road changes or any construction changes that are important so we can adjust our snow-removal schedule. It was also important for us to have a working relationship with the police department at both universities. We also worked with security, as well. From them, we learned the primary road access we needed to open up first, as well as sidewalk access."
2. Savings from the Grounds Up
When the University of California-Davis started converting turf areas into sustainable landscapes, the process did more than influence current and prospective students attracted to the campus because of its appearance. It charted a course for the university to become one of the most sustainable campuses in the nation.
Over the last decade, the university has transformed about 600 acres of turf to sustainable landscapes. Planting more than 12,000 trees and 200 acres of shrubbery and other native plants has helped the university significantly reduce mowing time for grounds crews. It has saved thousands of gallons of water by reducing irrigation needs, and it has turned turf areas that were costly to maintain into drought-tolerant landscapes that students, staff and visitors can enjoy.
Thanks to a team approach that embraces the ideas and suggestions of many campus departments, adding sustainable landscapes has produced tangible savings for the university in the last decade — most notably, a 10-15 percent reduction in mowing costs and a 20-25 percent reduction in water costs.
The campus offers plenty of space for the design team to work. At 5,300 acres, the university is the largest campus in the University of California system. Only about 150 acres of the campus is devoted to turf, and about 50 of those acres are used for athletic programs. Sustainable landscapes that incorporate campus-generated mulch from tree and shrub pruning, along with native Northern California plants, have replaced other turf areas.
Adding sustainable landscapes has produced savings related to mowing, irrigation and energy. For example, over the last decade, the university has realized savings of 10-15 percent in mowing costs.
"We used to mow twice a week," Avery says. "Now, we mow once a week, and we'll go back and sweep where we need to sweep when there's excess build-up. We've reduced some workload in terms of mowing but at the same time increased (it) in terms of weeding and manual labor with the landscapes."
One of the university's current projects involves converting a mile-long median of a campus road from turf, which required regular maintenance, into a sustainable landscape that features drought-tolerant plants. Avery says the university expects maintenance costs for that area to drop by 40-50 percent, or $40,000-$50,000 a year.
3. Savings from Centralization for One University
The phrases "Beaumont Depot" and "bottom line" probably were not used in the same sentence very often before 2009. But difficult financial circumstances and more than a little foresight combined to turn the little-used parcel of land on the Michigan State University campus into a central storage and staging area for an array of services and projects on the campus — and a triple win for its landscape services department.
First, it streamlined the process of overseeing the flow of materials for supervisors who must think like business people.
"We're held accountable in terms of how much material is actually being charged to the job, as well as the hours," says Gerald Dobbs, who is the university's landscape services manager. "Our challenge is to be the best buy here at the university for this type of service. So by keeping it centralized, we're able to reduce costs. That's been a real big boon for us.
"We're able to keep track of the materials and keep them secure, and we're better able to account for what we've got. If we have to respond rapidly and supply materials, we're able to do that because we know exactly where they're at. We also have the equipment available to load it. It's helped us in developing a service for the university so we're able to be a service provider of choice in this respect."
Second, Beaumont Depot has brought greater efficiency to the process of performing day-to-day landscaping activities.
"With everything being centralized in one location, we've cut down on a lot of effort of going from spot to spot on campus trying to locate enough material to do a particular job," Dobbs says. "We're more accurately able to account for and charge accurately to the work orders for the materials we need. We're also able to reduce labor costs because instead of charging the work order for several hours spent trying to locate materials in various parts of campus, we have it all in one location."
Third, the expanding operations have made the department more competitive — campus departments can choose to bring in off-campus contractors instead of hiring in-house departments, such as landscape services — and it has created more work. But it also has created jobs.
"It has provided quite a bit of extra work for our staff," Dobbs says. "We've been able to bring extra revenue to our department, and we've been able to hire a few extra people, who now have full-time jobs with benefits, in order to help us run this operation."
4. The Light Construction-Grounds Care Link
Grounds managers looking to improve the appearance, maintainability and sustainability of exterior landscape and turf areas often undertake renovations to achieve these goals. These projects can require a major commitment of time and resources, including the need to either buy or rent light-construction equipment, such as compact track loaders, skid-steer loaders, and backhoe-loaders. To deliver cost-effective, successful renovations of landscapes using such equipment, managers first need to determine project needs.
Construction equipment that is the appropriate type, size and capacity can turn labor-intensive, time-consuming landscape projects into more easily manageable work. But the equipment needs to allow managers work within tight budgets.
Specific equipment needs depend on the tasks at hand. Removing debris and grass clippings from turf areas during the growing season requires rotary mowers and gang mowers with mulching blades and baggers. Controlling pests and applying fertilizers requires spreaders. Pruning and shaping evergreens, ground cover, trees and shrubs requires electric or gas-powered clippers and trimmers. Trimming turf adjacent to borders and sidewalks requires edgers. Leaf and branch removal require power saws, blowers, vacuums, chippers, and mulchers to prepare the material for recycling around flower, plant and tree beds.
Crews also need dozers, motor graders and dump trucks to handle turf, dirt, rock and gravel and perform grading operations. Tillers and aerators prepare soil for seeding or laying sod, which is a quick way to produce a professional look for large turf spaces without waiting for seeds to germinate. Laying sod is also a good way to start turf on sloping areas without the risk of washout.
Snow removal from sidewalks, driveways and parking lots requires a variety of equipment, some of which departments can store on the property for the winter season. Examples of the snow-removal equipment that crews might need, depending on the size of the property, include: trucks with 9-foot plows; skid-steer loaders or track loaders with 1-yard buckets; rubber-tire loaders with 3-yard buckets; snow throwers; salt trucks with attachments for spreading and plowing; push plows with 10-, 12-, and 16-foot blades; and 1- and 4-yard snow buckets.