Love at First Sight
The Southern Methodist University grounds give a great first impression
|Photos Courtesy of Kevin Dilliard.
|Annual flowers are still used in certain high-visibility areas, lending color and the all-important aesthetics that helps create a positive and lasting impression of the campus.
Appearance matters, and
that’s especially true for colleges and universities competing
against each other for students and enrollment dollars. So, it was a great
source of pride for Southern Methodist University in Dallas to be honored
by the Professional Grounds Management Society (www.pgms.org) in the
University and College Grounds category of its 2008 Green Star Awards. The
group cited the school’s efforts to overcome challenges posed by its
heavy native soils, while dramatically improving the appearance of the
campus by adding new plants and grasses.
|We've done a lot of air spading on campus, says Kevin Dillard. In addition to fixing
girdling roots on trees, the tool also helps to condition soils in shaded areas prior to
installation of planting beds.
This wasn’t an overnight transformation, but
rather the result of years of work and planning. Kevin Dilliard,
SMU’s associate director of landscape and grounds, arrived at the
school seven years ago and started maintaining the 175-acre campus.
“My position was created in response to concerns from donors and
alumni,” he recalls. “When I arrived, the staff size was small;
they basically raked leaves, picked up trash and trimmed hedges. Now, the
staff size has doubled, to 19, and we do all the landscape design and
installation, irrigation design and installation and other maintenance
As a result of this concerted effort, the campus
landscaping has been much improved and is also more consistent throughout
in terms of design and plant species. Dilliard says he has had strong
support from school administrators throughout the process. “The
admissions office has told us that the appearance of the campus is number
three on the list of reasons why a student picks a university,” he
says. “It gives students and parents a first impression as soon as
they visit. I also hear from the athletics department that it also helps
them in recruiting—the look of the campus ‘sells’ itself,
and they can just focus on ‘selling’ the athletic program. It
also helps with donors; when they give money, they want to know that
it’s being used wisely and that the campus is being taken care
of.” That campus has become a source of pride in all quarters.
One of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the soil.
“It’s a heavy clay, and where that doesn’t exist,
there’s a lot of limestone rock,” says Dilliard, noting that
the problem is exacerbated by compaction from the 11,000 students—not
to mention visitors and attendees at sporting events. Even the use of
trucks and utility vehicles by various departments at the
school—especially if drivers cut corners or drive on the
grass—adds further damage and compaction.
“We started by addressing the planting beds.
Either we amended the soils, or we removed and replaced it,” he
states. “Then, in the turfed areas, our primary concern was
compaction. So, with the administration’s support, we were able to
prohibit certain activities on certain parts of the campus. For example,
the main Quad—the biggest open area in the middle of the
campus—was used for summer camps and other activities. That’s
no longer allowed, and has helped us to really reduce our compaction
The SMU campus boasts many live oaks, which hold their
leaves regardless of season. This limits sunlight and further adds to the
challenge of growing grass, something he has worked to correct since he
came on the job. “There was just too much shade to grow grass. It
wasn’t a problem when the trees were smaller, but as they grew and
the shade increased, it just wasn’t working.” Instead, he has
begun adding groundcover beds instead of turf beneath trees.
Dilliard found one good way to accomplish this
changeover—and combat the heavy soils—was by using a tool
normally utilized in tree root excavation. “Wherever we
couldn’t get grass to grow, we’ve been doing air
spading,” he says. “This eliminates girdling roots, but also
cultivates the soil so we can have large mulch rings and do a lot of
groundcover plantings in the shade. It works great, especially in shaded
areas below trees so we don’t have to use a tiller.”
He’s found that for best air spading results,
the soil has to be moistened slightly first. “If it’s too dry,
the clay is too hard. It has to be moist, but not wet—just the right
mix. In areas where the soils are particularly heavy with clay, compost
amendment is added. Then, we work the compost in with the air spade.”
Adding planting beds and mulch beneath trees has also helped reduce runoff
problems that had occurred in areas with thin turf and, in turn, has led to
less mud being tracked into buildings.
|In heavily shaded areas beneath mature trees, the SMU grounds staff frequently installs
landscape beds rather than trying to grow turf.
The grounds staff also uses air spades to condition
the soils after construction projects around buildings where heavy
equipment has compacted the soil. Building construction and renovation
projects are perpetual parts of life on the bustling campus, so
there’s a nearly constant need for the grounds staff to work around
or recover from construction work. However, they use that to their
advantage, taking the opportunity in those areas where building work is
being done to conduct major landscape renovations. “That way,
it’s not so obvious that we’re making a mess—it’s
all part of the bigger project,” Dilliard explains. “Or, if the
construction project tears up beds, they’ll pay to repair them, so we
take that opportunity to make improvements to the soils and so
Also, the SMU grounds staff now has some input in
campus construction projects. “One of the biggest changes is that
we’ve been able to become involved in the projects. In the past, we
weren’t consulted about the design or implementation of
landscapes—we weren’t involved until it was done and time for
it to be maintained. Then, we had to resolve any problems,” says
Dilliard. “Now, we have a chance to approve contractors and plans and
plant selections, and we try to get involved as early as we can. That
allows us to correct most problems in the design phase, and we monitor
projects as they go along, to correct any problems that come up. So, when
we take over maintenance, we don’t have to look around for problems.
That’s one of the biggest inroads we’ve been able to make, and
it’s been with the support of the project managers.”
|The Southern Methodist University's
grounds department contracts out tasks
such as mowing, freeing it up to focus
on maintaining and improving the
planting beds and the rest of the
In some cases, the grounds staff must maintain the
landscapes around new buildings according to certain environmental
standards. “Every new building going up has to be LEED-certified
[through the U.S. Green Building Council], so depending on the level of
certification, for example, we have requirements for gray-water use,”
Dilliard explains. The school recently installed a campus-wide centralized
irrigation control system, allowing Dilliard to control specific buildings
or areas and monitor flow meters to see how much water those areas are
Water conservation is a consideration throughout the
campus. “We’re always mulching—it’s part of our
water-saving plan. We use a cedar mulch,” says Dilliard. The grounds
staff also follows an IPM program, scouting for pests and diseases. It uses
an outside contractor to apply applications when needed.
A contractor is also used for mowing, the only major
aspect of grounds care the SMU staff doesn’t handle in-house.
“It frees up our time to focus on the rest of the grounds, and we
just don’t have the mowing equipment. It would cost us a lot of money
to gear up to be able to do the mowing, and we’d have to hire more
people. It’s just more efficient to contract the mowing—it
works very well,” Dilliard explains. The mowing crews are on-site
nearly every day, with each part of the campus being mowed at least once
per week, and sometimes twice.
|The use of Texas-adapted
perennials has largely replaced the
use of annuals on the SMU campus.
Dilliard says that when he first came to SMU, he used
a lot of annual plantings to add color to the campus. Today, he relies
mostly on perennials. “We use a lot of different Texas-adapted
perennials and keep our colorful annuals [in] just a couple high-impact
areas,” he explains. Normal bed care, such as dead-heading, is also a
constant maintenance task to keep the flower beds looking their best.
On a less glamorous, but no less important, front,
trash pickup is an important daily chore for the ground staff. “Leaf
collection is also another big issue,” says Dilliard. He purchased a
large Billy Goat vacuum to help in the collection, and leaves are then
taken to an off-campus compost facility. “We pull the vacuum behind
our chipping truck, so the vacuum blows it right into the truck. We
don’t drive it around on the turf, but it works great when we can get
the leaves over to a curbside area.”
The staff also handles the majority of the tree work
at SMU, contracting out only when necessary. “We have a staff of two,
including a certified arborist who climbs,” says Dilliard.
The grounds crew starts at 7 a.m., but cannot complete
work around residential buildings until 9 a.m. “As long as they tell
us, we’ll also work around events or when outside groups are
visiting,” says Dilliard. Of course, there are extra precautions
taken to ensure students are not disturbed during exam periods.
Dilliard says that the PGMS gives him a chance to talk
with other grounds managers around the country about landscaping challenges
and solutions. He’s also a member of a Texas-based group of college
grounds managers that meets once each year, and conducts an online chat
forum as well. “Any time you pose a problem, everyone is quick to
offer a suggestion,” he says. “It works out great.”
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has
covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is
based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.