Three Sustainable Groundskeeping Ideas

Campus landscape operations go greener with incremental changes.

By Daniel G. Schied, CGM
From the February 2021 Issue

As individuals charged with the maintenance and stewardship of either entire facilities or aspects within them, when facilities professionals hear the word “sustainable” we often wonder what the cost associated with that effort may be. We think about our budgets and bottom lines.

In many instances this can be a false way to look at this since some efforts may be cost-neutral, or may even save valuable resources of labor and materials. Let’s look at some opportunities within grounds operations that may provide some low hanging fruit allowing both environmental and fiscal prudence.

Sustainable Groundskeeping
At Cornell University, engineering students designed a solar powered trailer for the grounds department’s use. (Photo: Daniel G. Schied)

1. Mowing Practices. Does your site have some areas that are challenging to mow safely? Have you considered a meadow? A meadow can be a fancy term for just letting the grass grow, while encouraging some naturalism and supporting pollinators in the process. I am not qualified to comment on the challenges our pollinator populations are facing, but that should not suggest that simple efforts to assist their activities can’t be found. Celebrate your effort with signage while giving the pollinators a place to thrive!

Another simple approach to benefit pollinator populations is to consider a “No Mow May.” Are there sections around your facility in which you could allow the lawn areas to grow for the month of May, encouraging pollinator habitat? This initiative could also be extolled with signage highlighting your team’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and support local honey production. This would require a gradual reduction in mowing height over the first few cuttings as you should not mow this longer grass back to its normal height with the first cut.

2. Alternative Power Sources. Something to consider is to replace gas-powered landscape tools with battery powered equipment. We have likely all seen articles about the percentage of pollutants created by gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment (GLGE) and gasoline-powered landscape maintenance equipment (GLME); a quick Internet search can share the scale of this.¹ Also, the noise created by both GLGE and GLME equipment is contributing to many communities considering bans on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers.² Not only are battery-powered landscape tools quieter (and a little better on the ears), they do not create the pollutants created by their gas-powered counterparts.

This is not to suggest that battery powered equipment can replace all the needs of the landscape crews, but the technology is improving rapidly. Since the smaller battery tools are competitive from a price point and productivity standpoint, you may want to reviewed the options when making new purchases. Larger battery-powered lawn mowers are not yet at a price point that compares to traditional equipment, but life cycle costs are worth a look.

If you work at a college or university, you may be able to create an opportunity for engineering students to create plans for a solar-powered trailer or charging stations to recharge batteries. Here at Cornell University, a group of students designed a solar-powered trailer one semester, and built it the next. You can design in the same manner as traditional trailers and use interchangeably with your GLGE, while maintaining the opportunity to go off the grid.

3. Reuse And Repurpose Materials. If you have space available for short-term storage, consider repurposing many of your construction project material “waste.” I state “waste” in quotations as many projects haul reusable materials off site, sometimes to a landfill.

Common and easily repurposed materials include road millings and roof ballast. Both of these items can be used to create firm surfaces for storage or secondary parking and roof ballast can also be an interesting addition to creative landscapes.

Meanwhile, organic wastes, such as leaves and bed edgings, can be composted into a product to enhance landscape soils and even used as a mulch in garden plantings. Creating leaf compost does require some effort as the pile should be turned and blended with a loader a few times throughout the year to enhance the decomposition process. And, because there is no exact schedule that the effort to turn your organic piles requires, this task can be performed during slow times or rainy days.

The three areas of opportunity discussed in this article support many of the principles of sustainable practice from an economic, social, and environmental standpoint. And, many of these possibilities actually save money. Reusing or repurposing many of these materials saves the costs of hauling and disposal fees and provides additional savings when these materials are used in place of those we have to purchase and pay to be delivered. We are keeping these materials from the landfill and reducing the need to produce new materials which often utilizes carbon-producing activities in the process.

With initiatives like the ones outlined here, grounds and facilities departments make a statement that we care about practices that are both economically and environmentally viable while demonstrating to staff and stakeholders that we can make a difference. Starting with simple, cost-effective opportunities may lay the groundwork for future ideas that can have greater implications that result in becoming a more carbon-neutral organization and world.


¹ Banks, J., & McConnell, R. (2015, September). National Emissions from Lawn and Garden Equipment.
² Fallows, J. (2019, April). Get off my Lawn.

Sustainable GroundskeepingSchied is the director of grounds at Cornell University, a position he has held since 2015. The Grounds Department is part of the university’s Facilities and Campus Services. Prior, Schied was manager of horticulture and grounds at the University of Rochester for 22 years, after 14 years in the private sector as President of Custom Development Associates, Inc., dba Melrose Nursery and Custom Landscape and Design. He is a Lifetime Certified Nursery Landscape Professional and in 2011 completed the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) Certified Grounds Manager program. He is a regular presenter at state, regional, and national industry conferences.

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