Making Landscapes Shine

Award-winning grounds care departments offer insights for efficiency and effectiveness

By Renee L. Shroades  

What makes a grounds care department successful? Managers might not agree on the answer to the question. But successful departments share one characteristic — they enhance the appearance of their facilities. Three such organizations, recognized by the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) for exemplary performance, offer strategies managers can use to streamline operations and enhance their facilities.

Adjusting to Changing Demands

Grounds care departments are likely to face challenges when their organizations experience rapid growth or change.

“So much has changed on campus in the last 15 years,” says Mary Gratsch, grounds manager of horticulture at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio). “There is hardly anything on campus anyone would recognize anymore.”

Over the years, the university has torn down and built several buildings, requiring it to relandscape several large areas. It also has eliminated roads that ran through campus and added large patios and sidewalks. These changes created a variety of challenges for Gratsch’s department.

For example, accessibility has been a problem in some areas.

“Instead of being able to get into some areas with a pick-up truck, we now have to use a golf cart to do tasks, such as empty trash cans,” she says.

The university also added large perennial beds and hills that require different techniques and strategies for mowing, fertilizing and pruning. Some new landscaped hills are 30 feet tall and feature 2-to-1 pitch slopes.

Faced with such changes, the department often had to find more efficient ways of working, Gratsch says. Part of the solution was to specify equipment designed for specific grounds care tasks.

“Instead of cutting ground cover with a hand shears like we used to do, we use long shears that are on a pole shaft,” she says. “We also bought a four-cycle mower that workers can use on steep hills. We raised the frame on it so we could cut as much as possible.”

Thanks to the mower, a four-person operation now has become a two-person operation, she says.

Equipment and operational changes also required the department to expand employee training.

“We now have a landscape that is much more intense and requires employees to have more skills,” Gratsch says. “You just can’t have employees behind a mower and have them cut a nice flat lawn. Now, they have to prune and fertilize ground cover on a steep hill.”

Responsibilities, such as maintaining rooftop gardens, also require specific training.

Green roofs “can be difficult to maintain because the drains can get plugged if you add too much water,” she says.

In short, efficiently adjusting to landscape and equipment changes has been essential.

Says Gratsch, “One of the keys to our success has been having competent and dedicated employees who are willing to learn new techniques.”

University of Cincinnati (OHIO)

Award: 2006 PGMS Grand Award
Staff: 64 full-time workers
Acreage: 194 acres; more than 100 acres of turf and 78 buildings
Landscape: Naturally hilly with many mature trees; steep landscaped hills; waterscapes; and 17 acres of display beds

Quality: An In-house Strategy

Walt Bonvell, grounds foreman for Xavier University, attributes much of his department’s success to its ability to complete tasks in-house. By enhancing employees’ skills, the department has been able to increase quality and lower outsourcing costs, even as its workload has grown.

Several years ago, the department hired contractors for many projects, such as installing holiday lights and winterizing the irrigation system. The department began relying less on contractors when a new director took over about four years ago.

“He felt that there were enough talented people here that we could do many of the projects that we contracted out,” Bonvell says. At first, workers hesitated to take on projects.

“But as you do it and get better at it, you get a feeling of accomplishment,” he says. The added responsibilities also have given workers a greater sense of job security.

To help workers expand their skills, the department now offers a variety training options, including access to the university’s educational offerings.
“If you are a grounds person and want to take classes in horticulture, Xavier will pay for you to go to school in the evening,” Bonvell says. The university also supplies employees with books and will pay them $100 for every A they earn.

Expanded employee skills have become more valuable as the university grows, Bonvell says. For example, about eight years ago, the campus had two irrigation systems to winterize. Now, it has about 30 systems.

“It would now cost us $10,000-$12,000 to hire contractors to winterize our system,” Bonvell says. “But we can do it in-house for about $5,000.”
Despite the department’s growing responsibilities, its staff hasn’t increased. Teamwork and education has enabled the department to keep up with the rising demands.

“Everybody wants to feel that they are part of a team,” Bonvell says. “That encourages them to do a better job.”

Xavier University, Cincinnati, OHIO

Award: 2006 PGMS Grand Award
Staff: 12 full-time workers and three-four seasonal workers
Acreage: 170 acres and 57 buildings
Landscape: An array of plants to highlight seasonal changes; athletic fields, including a baseball field primarily maintained by a contractor; a soccer field with synthetic turf

Sticking to the Basics

“If you can’t do the basic things right, you can’t excel,” says William Monan, assistant director of landscape services at the University of Maryland–College Park. “It is easy for a department to get excited about a new project and neglect the day-to-day stuff.”

One of Monan’s strategies has been to hire contractors for special projects rather than assigning in-house staff for the task. Doing so has helped ensure that workers don’t neglect the fundamental tasks, such as mowing and pruning.

“If we decide to do a project, such as plant 45,000 flowers on campus, we must realize that workers won’t be able to complete their regular tasks for a week,” Monan says. “It would be better to put the project out on contract so the employees aren’t pulled away from their basic tasks.”

"Adds Monan, “If you don’t do those basic things consistently, it won’t matter how sexy you look on other things.”

University of Maryland-College Park

Award: 2006 PGMS Grand Award
Staff: 58 full-time workers and up to eight temporary workers.
Acreage: Main campus is 1,200 acres, which includes 500 acres of turf. The department also oversees 15 off-site properties.
Landscape: The campus features 6,000 trees, 22 miles of sidewalks, 22 acres of mulch and flowering beds, and 12 miles of roads. A separate department oversees the athletic fields, which consist of about 40 acres.

Contact FacilitiesNet Editorial Staff »

  posted on 12/1/2006   Article Use Policy

Related Topics: