The pristine Vietnam Memorial now has turf to match

A military dress uniform is a study in impeccability. Any wrinkle or stain would quickly stand out and detract from the overall appearance of formality and precision. Those same high standards are warranted when honoring the members of the military represented on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. That’s why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, created in 1979, recently directed an effort to refurbish the grounds surrounding the memorial. Over time, the quality of the turf there had begun to detract from the overall appearance of the memorial, and attention was needed to restore the lawns to the standards demanded at this solemn site.

Capital Irrigation and Lighting repaired and upgraded the irrigation system surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Here, a repair is made right next to the top edge of the wall.
Photos courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Thanks to a recent turfgrass refurbishment project, the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., now provide a fitting surround to the wall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial sits on the National Mall, surrounded by the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and many other such landmarks. The entire mall is cared for by the National Parks Service. The quest to keep the grass green and lush is an ongoing challenge, both in terms of agronomics and budgets. So, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund stepped forward to help the National Parks Service improve the conditions on one especially important area of the mall. “We understand that the upkeep of a park as big and as heavily used as the National Mall is an expensive undertaking. The Memorial Fund is happy to help and will set a new standard for lawn care on the National Mall,” explained Jan Scruggs, the group’s founder and president, in announcing the effort.

Architect J.C. Cummings, who had helped oversee installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, and has more recently directed design changes and improvements at the site, explains that the number of visitors to the memorial (as many as 3 million annually) far exceeds what was initially envisioned. “When the wall was built, a small amount of large granite pavers were installed in front of the wall, about 4 feet away from the wall,” he explains. “What quickly became obvious was that nobody was content to just stand there and look at the wall, they wanted to touch it. It’s very different than any other memorial, and it’s a tradition that began even before the wall was completed.” Additional pavers and cobblestone were soon added to help direct visitors toward the wall and accommodate them on their journey along the wall.

Cummings says the vast majority of visitors are respectful of the grounds, and treat the entire site with the reverence it deserves, but the sheer amount of activity takes a toll on the turf. While various methods, including a mesh fabric and constant overseeding, were attempted to keep the grass growing, bare spots and weeds often won out. “It’s a built object. Like anything else, such as a home, it requires maintenance. For example, volunteers wash the wall every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. The smallest mar, no matter how temporary, really makes a difference,” he explains.

The wall itself was kept in pristine condition, but it eventually became apparent that the surrounding grounds needed the same level of attention, more than the National Parks Service was able to provide. That’s when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund stepped in to improve the aesthetics of the lawns and landscaping. The group, using private funds, contracted with Ruppert Landscape (in Maryland) to refurbish the turfgrass and Capital Irrigation and Lighting (in Hanover, Pa.) to rework the irrigation system.

“The feeling was that the quality of the turf there just wasn’t acceptable,” explains Jack Jones, branch manager for Ruppert Landscape and a former Marine drill sergeant. In all, about 10 acres were addressed. Jones says that a detailed plan for all of the various phases of the project was created, which helped keep everything organized and on track, with a goal of being done by Veteran’s Day.

The work began in September 2009, but most of the work took place in October. The turf immediately surrounding the wall was in the best shape, says Jones. “We did not disturb any of that turf.” The rest of the site needed much more attention.

The first step was to take soil samples from throughout the area in question and have those samples tested. “We also did a very aggressive aeration. We started by moistening the ground to make it workable and then core-aerated it four times in four different directions. We really believe in aeration as a way to fight soil compaction that results from the heavy equipment used to build the site, as well as foot traffic and maintenance equipment over time.”

While the cores were out, the soil was amended based on the soil tests. “The pH was high in many places, so we used lime and that really helped the turf there,” explains Jones. Then the turf was power-seeded and a starter fertilizer put down. “We power-seeded with a slit seeder in three different directions, and then we watered everything in.”

Some areas of turfgrass at the site were completely shaded, which made it difficult to establish strong, healthy grass. “The two biggest challenges on most sites are soil compaction and shade. If you can fight those two factors, you’re going to have a better stand of turf,” says Jones. That shade had helped contribute to a high weed content in the turf. “The balance between weeds and turf in some areas was definitely slanted toward the weeds. There was an understandable sensitivity to the use of chemicals, so we couldn’t use any herbicides to eradicate weeds, so we had to come up with some alternate strategies,” he explains.

In particular, two sections of turf totaling about 1.4 acres, were in need of extra attention. The decision was made to resod, but the presence of many mature trees in those areas made it impossible to get in heavy equipment to remove the vegetation. “That would have posed too much danger to the root systems of the trees,” says Jones. The solution arrived at was to use walk-behind, plastic, deep-thatching machines, which had the effect of stripping away the vegetation.

About 20 cubic yards of topsoil was brought in carefully using a skid steer to help regrade the area. “The goal was to achieve a natural, flowing grade that wasn’t so abrupt in places,” Jones explains. Sod, a bluegrass/turf-type fescue blend that met National Park Service specifications, was then installed.

After the work was completed, Ruppert Landscaping oversaw irrigation to help the grass become established before winter. It will resume that work in spring 2010. “We want to make sure everything really gets established really well,” says Jones. A late-fall fertilization was also applied to help boost root health. “That’s really the only time when the fertilizer benefits go to the root system. Through the growing season, most of the benefits go to the leaf of the plant,” he explains.

The results of all the work were quickly evident, says Jones. “There was a lot of color change in the turf, probably more than anticipated based on the time of the year. We were very please by the turnaround in the quality of the turf, and next spring there is going to be a much denser grass.”

Ruppert Landscape first took soil samples. An aggressive, four-way core aeration was then completed to help fight soil compaction.

Jones says he and his crew were “deeply honored” to be involved in helping improve the grounds at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “It’s hard not to take a little extra pride in your work at a site like this,” he says.

The Wall

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by Maya Lin, an undergraduate student at Yale. While the unconventional design generated some controversy at first, it quickly became seen as a simple, yet powerful, tribute to those who died in the Vietnam War. The memorial has become one of the most recognizable, and most visited, in the country, and is seen as among the most significant landscape sculptures ever created.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund explains that, “Lin conceived her design as creating a park within a park, a quiet, protected place unto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. To achieve this effect, she chose polished black granite for the walls. Its mirror-like surface reflects the images of the surrounding trees, lawns and monuments.”

In her design submission, Lin wrote: “Walking through this park-like area, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth, a long, polished, black stone wall, emerging from, and receding into, the earth. Approaching the memorial, the ground slopes gently downward and the low walls emerging on either side, growing out of the earth, extend and converge at a point below and ahead. Walking into this grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial we can barely make out the carved names upon the memorial’s walls. These names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying these individuals into a whole.”

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.