The Great Lawn helps define Union University campus

Graduation ceremonies fill a large portion of Union University’s Great Lawn, a large, open turf area designed for special events.
Photo by Abigail Harris, Union University.

Graduation weekend recently came and went at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., with typical fanfare. While many colleges opt to hold their ceremonies indoors or on a sports field, Union University conducts the event outside on the school’s appropriately named Great Lawn.

“We set up about 5,800 chairs on the Great Lawn this year,” says Robert Cox, director of the grounds crews for Union University’s facilities management department. “We really worked hard to get everything ready, and it went off good.”

The three to four-man grounds crew is a big part of the effort to get ready for graduation, but also works behind the scenes year-round to keep Union University’s campus in top condition. For starters, there are more than 150 acres to mow, a task accomplished using a fleet of John Deere and Kubota zero-turn mowers, as well as two four-wheel-drive John Deere units with 7-foot front decks. About 100 acres of that overall area is fine turf that is irrigated and mowed frequently.

The maintained turf is bermudagrass, and Cox says that mowing continues until the grass goes dormant, usually in October. “It really just depends on how much rain we get,” he explains. “Trimming is another very big thing, we do a lot of that,” Cox adds. Stihl commercial trimmers are used for that, as well as for edging.

In February 2008, a tornado struck the Union University campus, leaving 51 hospitalized and 80 percent of the school’s dorm buildings destroyed or severely damaged. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, and the school has worked quickly to recover. “It’s been a rebuilding process ever since. There’s been a lot of new buildings going up, and we’re building three more dorm buildings right now,” says Cox.

For the facilities crew, that has meant working around construction projects and sometimes repairing inadvertent damage caused by heavy equipment and builders. “We recently had our irrigation wiring line cut in two places,” says Cox. “That was a total of 80 wires in one pipe that runs all the different heads and systems, so we had to fix it twice. And, if you don’t put them back exactly the way they were, you have problems with different zones running at the wrong time.”

More routine irrigation system maintenance and upgrade work is handled in-house during the winter months. “We really try to do a lot of stuff in-house. It saves money, and most of us have been here a long time, so we can do a lot of different things,” says Cox, who has been at Union for 30 years himself.

With some 100 acres of bermudagrass to mow, the grounds crew has a fleet of eight mowers to get the job done as quickly as possible.
Photo by Matthew Diggs, Union University.
The Great Lawn is just one of the large, open areas on the scenic Union University campus.
Photo by Jim Veneman, Union University.

The grounds crew starts work at 7:30 a.m., and try to mow the area around the Quad, which is by the main building on campus, before there’s much activity. “We really are careful when we’re mowing and there are students around,” says Cox. “And, we use mulching mowers that don’t throw trash or anything out the side, so nobody will get hurt.”

The same care is used with trimming, and Cox has found that sending two-man trimming crews out helps in that regard. “If students are around, we’ll shut the weed eaters off until they pass. But, if a student is coming up behind you when you’re trimming a walkway, you can’t see them, so we’ll have one person working on one side of the sidewalk and another on the other side, so they can see both ways and let the other person know if someone is coming.”

In addition to putting their best effort into the campus for students and their parents, the Baptist-affiliated school also houses the LifeWay Christian Bookstore, which also brings many visitors to campus. “We’ve gotten quite a few nice comments, especially at graduation, about how nice the campus looks. That was nice to hear, especially since we had gotten about 16 inches of rain leading up to that week. It set us back a little, but when we get in a situation like that we have eight mowers, and we can pull people from other areas to help us out,” Cox explains.

The Great Lawn is the only part of campus (other than athletic fields, which are maintained by a separate department) that receives regular fertilization. “The rest of the grass grows fast enough by itself,” says Cox. Because of its high profile, the Great Lawn receives extra attention. Cox says that in recent years that area has begun to look better and better. “We’ve overseeded it with good sand and aerated it with a power aerator. We use a little ammonia and some slow-growth fertilizer in the spring that really makes the bermudagrass go. We’re getting to the point where it’s really looking good,” he says.

In addition to countless hours of trimming work, the grounds crew also uses a sprayer to keep weeds at bay.
Photo by Matthew Diggs, Union University.

The Great Lawn is reserved for special occasions in an effort to keep wear and tear to a minimum. There’s plenty of other open space on campus for students to relax and recreate, explains Cox.

During the winter, the grounds crew helps with interior remodeling and construction projects, while also keeping up with outdoor work. Around Christmas, for example, there’s a huge lighting display to install and then take down. “We do get a little bit of snow, but usually not that much,” says Cox. The grounds crew does have a plow mounted on a tractor to clear snow if it accumulates. “We’ve also used a hand-held power broom on smaller areas and that really worked well,” he adds.

No matter what the season, Cox says that the high level of activity on the campus means that things have to be manicured at all times. “Looks are so important to people,” says Cox. “In addition to the lawns, we’ve got a lot of flower and shrub beds that need to be maintained. We have plenty to do to keep us busy.”

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.