By Barbara Hatchel and Carla Leonard
From the October 2023 Issue
The management of grounds, whether on college campuses, surrounding office buildings, or outside of retail stores, is a critical and often overlooked facet of facility maintenance. Well-maintained grounds have a prominent influence on the experience of residents and visitors and can act as the means for drawing people into a place or setting. As impactful as quality resilient groundskeeping can be, ensuring the sustainability of landscapes and grounds is a comprehensive task that is not always straightforward. In order to develop a sustainable management plan that reduces the environmental footprint of a grounds area, factors including operations and maintenance, soil conditions, water requirements, and wildlife and climate all need to be approached with the same level of dedicated importance.
Operations And Maintenance
Operations, or long-term sustainability, should be at the top of any groundskeeping planning list. When establishing a grounds area, what currently takes place at the location, how circumstances might change, and potential future uses for the space will influence overall environmental impact. On a college campus, activities like group gatherings, students passing on foot in groups, and celebrations should be taken into consideration to inform landscaping decisions such as limiting plant overgrowth to accommodate crowds.
In order to develop a sustainable management plan that reduces the environmental footprint of a grounds area, factors including operations and maintenance, soil conditions, water requirements, and wildlife and climate all need to be approached with the same level of dedicated importance.
Green technology has made tremendous strides in recent years and is another factor when planting an area. An exponential growth in sustainable tools and innovations makes sustainability a vital piece of a groundskeeping plan. Battery-powered equipment, as opposed to equipment powered by fossil fuels, has the advantage of being quieter and more lightweight, often making it easier to use, in addition to being more environmentally-friendly.
The process of expected routine maintenance also dictates the sustainability of grounds, with certain layout configurations and the plant types within them requiring more work than others. To be most environmentally conscious with maintenance, overall mowing and trimming needs for different grass species should be assessed before planting, as well as varying needs in relation to sunlight, soil, and water. When planting turf, it’s important to choose the correct panel size and appropriate species to keep upkeep manageable. And, at the recurring times of grass and plant growth, proper pruning techniques will allow air to flow through and over plants and reduce the risk of disease—time well spent to maintain grounds regularly.
Soil conditions are an imperative part of keeping plants alive and anchored within a grounds space. Before beginning a project, soil tests are a necessary step in determining the types of plants and trees to introduce in certain areas, as they provide insight into the nutrients and pH of the soil. Aside from testing, checking the soil’s drainage quality and hardiness and becoming educated on all soil in the broader grounds area will inform the need for and type of fertilizer. After the installation of plants, periodic testing of plants and trees keeps grounds managers acutely aware of nutritional needs for greenery.
Water requirement analysis should also be a top priority, a process that is often connected directly to soil type. Analyzing how much water each plant or tree needs helps with planning for a grounds area to include adequate rainwater capture or one of the many types of in-ground irrigation. As with soil testing, water testing is also essential for minerals and salinity levels.
Placing plants with similar watering requirements in the same plant zones is also key in water management. For instance, a drought-tolerant Rudbeckia, or coneflower, would not succeed with the same amount of water as a thirstier Bermudagrass, if situated in the same zone.
Wildlife And Climate
Soil conditions are an imperative part of the grounds. Visitors are drawn to physical layouts and greenery—both made more vibrant and plentiful by insects and small animals. By creating welcoming wildlife environments, habitats are encouraged, which lead to the growth of fruits and seeds for animals as well as the necessary nutrients for beneficial pollinators, such as honeybees. One way to incorporate wildlife care in a green space is to set aside an area specifically for native wildflowers, which grow easily to become beautiful plants that also provide the useful function of offering pollinator food.
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Native plant use, in addition, reduces the need for extensive water usage and excessive fertilizers. These plants are already accustomed to the soils and water conditions of their area, making routine maintenance less intensive.
Climate is also an important consideration before planting, in order to anticipate the effects of weather and sunlight on new and existing plants. Plants need to obtain enough partial or full light for photosynthesis—essential in the creation of oxygen and energy so plants can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—so making sure plants are well-positioned will help to ensure successful growth.
Sustainability, the “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance,” is a practice all grounds management professionals aim to achieve. While each facet of landscaping operations and maintenance play a role in the overall environmental impact of a grounds area, sustainable groundskeeping comes down to balance. When planning and implementing a groundskeeping program, taking all of these factors under careful consideration will foster a long-lasting, functional and eco-friendly outdoor green space. A sustainable grounds program not only helps the current environment, but also allows the hard work of our generation to be enjoyed by those that follow.
Carla Leonard is the Grounds Manager at Texas A&M University, SSC Services for Education.