Weather variations present challenges at National Cowboy Hall of Fame

Regions of irregularly shaped lawns require the use of small trim mowers.

Founded in 1965 as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is visible from the renowned Route 66 in Oklahoma City, Okla. It is located a short distance from the Chisholm Trail, which played a major role in western heritage.

Thomas McBride, a native of Oklahoma and the museum’s grounds manager, has a staff of six to maintain 239 acres of turfgrass, plantings and trees. With its transition zone location, the grounds experience not only hot, dry winds, but also winter ice storms. The two extremes create a challenging setting for turfgrass and plantings.

Buffalo Bill, a bronze statue by sculptor Leonard McMurry, standing on the south lawn has drawn the attention of Route 66 travelers since 1975, but is now almost obscured from the highway by mature trees. The entrance to the museum on the opposite side is highlighted by redbud trees and other plantings. The lawns and gardens behind the museum invite visitors to wander about and are highlighted by extensive trees, flower beds and water features. Native plants, bronze statues and trees shelter and protect the beautifully designed museum that welcomes visitors into the West that is a significant part of America’s heritage.

Just a few years short of the 50th anniversary, the museum has grown tremendously in scope as a showcase of the American West. Generous donors have contributed to preserve an important heritage through collections that illustrate that heritage and also supported the establishment and maintenance of the manicured gardens that invite visitors to explore the outdoor setting. The museum hosts about 227,000 visitors annually, with numerous special events that include an international art exhibition and sale, Chuck Wagon Gathering and a number of other special events.

Rock-lined streams lead to ponds that feature koi and native fish.

Irrigation combats effects of Oklahoma winds

Turfgrass includes tall fescue, U-3 bermudagrass and 419 Tifway bermudagrass. Tifway 419 is known for wear tolerance, and it serves well at the museum where heavy foot traffic is the norm. Seasonal changes require differing approaches to the grounds, and the wide weather variations within those seasons are most challenging. “Our hot, drying winds present real challenges,” McBride said.

Water is the lifeblood of the West, and despite periods of high humidity and heavy rainfall, irrigation water is absolutely essential for the lush, green turf and bright plants seen at the museum. Grown on native clay-based loam, an underground Rain Bird irrigation system is computer controlled and includes Rain Bird pop-up heads. While the irrigation system is computer controlled, extensive attention is required. “We have so many zones with our different grass, trees and plantings,” McBride said. Seasonal changes are required, and modifications are made as needed depending on weather conditions. The highly shaded areas may require less water, but that can quickly change due to the winds. The irrigation is serviced by Sprinkler Specialists in Edmund, Okla., and city water is the irrigation source.

Weather challenges

While there is significant heavy traffic throughout the grounds, weather presents the most challenges to maintaining the turf and plantings. An established program of preemergents, fertilizers and weed control is actually scheduled by weather conditions rather than the calendar.

Despite the frequent hot winds, Oklahoma City may experience low temperatures at night during the spring when the bermudagrass is just coming out of dormancy. “We need our low temperatures to be in the upper 60s for our bermudagrass to do well,” McBride said. Spring mowing begins in March when heavy rains usually fall. “We scalp our bermuda in the early spring, down to .75 inch,” he said. That height may be maintained for about four to five weeks before being increased up to around 1.75 inches as summer heat and winds move in. Fescue is mowed in early spring to a height of about 2 inches. The fescue height is eventually taken up to about 4.25 inches. “We use commercial-grade, Snapper self-propelled, walk-behind mowers. We can’t use riders with our compact gardens,” McBride noted. Extensive trimming is required in the gardens, and Stihl trimmers are used for that job.

Managing both warm and cool-season grasses requires some juggling. McBride said, “We have areas where our tall fescue and bermudagrass are right against each other and require special attention.”

Mowing heights are adjusted up as heat and drying winds increase in summer.

Gardens highlight grounds

Frederic Remington’s bronze statue Coming Through the Rye is a focal point of the Western States Plaza adjacent to gardens that highlight the grounds. The huge bronze illustrates the spirit of the West with its action-poised horses and riders. The Western States Plaza features the flags of 17 western states.

The Hambrick Garden is highlighted by fountains surrounded by beds that include yucca plants and perennial flowers. The Atherton Garden is designed as a secluded retreat that includes native flowers and greenery. The Norma Sutherland Garden was added in 1997 to complement a newly constructed wing of the museum. Jack and Phoebe Cook Gardens include wide expanses of fescue, shrubs and ornamentals under the heavy shade provided by oak, pine and cypress trees. Flower beds contain caladiums, impatiens and other plants. Flagstone walkways lead to various monuments honoring horses and bulls important to the western heritage of riding and rodeo events.

Three streams highlight the gardens, and a rock-lined streambed leads into a pond filled with koi fish. A separate pond is home to native bass, crappie and perch. “We treat ponds weekly to manage algae,” McBride said.

McBride came to the museum seven years ago from a horticulturist position with Oklahoma City. He has an associate degree in horticulture from Oklahoma State University.

He redesigned the plant makeup to include more perennials while focusing on native plants. “I’m trying to do a sun/shade mix,” McBride said. “We’re using yuccas and sage, for example. Along with that we have some crepe myrtles to add interest.” McBride noted that it is important to select flowers and shrubs that can survive the weather extremes the area faces.

The increased number of perennials reduces the amount of manpower required in planting annuals. As in many grounds management settings, labor continues to be a significant concern. “No matter how much I explain the outdoor work, it’s still hard for some people, and some just can’t do it,” McBride says. “We do a lot of hands-on training.” He noted that the grounds crew members are trained on all jobs and are rotated among the various grounds jobs. McBride is a hands-on manager, working with his crew on the various tasks.

Snow and ice removal is also the responsibility of the grounds crew. “We come in even if the museum is closed due to ice,” McBride said. “We have to be sure all our walkways are cleared.”

Pathways wind among turf and flower beds, inviting visitors to explore the grounds, which include a delightful collection of ornamentals and trees.

Trees require attention

While trees are an important part of the landscape surrounding the museum, winter’s ice followed by spring storms can mean major trimming and cleanup are required, along with weather-related attention to the turfgrass. Some of the native post oak and white oak trees that fill the hillside are more than 100 years old. “With maturity, some of the trees decline, and we have a lot of dead wood to remove and debris to clean up,” McBride said. “We do preventive trimming to try to avoid damage from our Oklahoma winds. We’re doing some tree placements, too.”

Replacing a number of Bradford pears with native redbud trees has not only increased the focus on native plants that survive more easily, but also increased the visual appeal and helped ensure color throughout the changing seasons. “People are just amazed in the spring at the combination of the white Bradford Pear trees with our native redbud trees,” McBride said.

Museum Founder Chester Arthur Reynolds noted, “I have never gotten away from my boyhood ambition of wanting to be a cowboy and rancher.” The museum boasts grounds that invite visitors to explore the collections that keep that western heritage alive.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.