Contracted turf maintenance helps Tarrytown House staff manage the grounds

Just 25 miles north of Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River, sits a unique retreat. Two historic mansions serve as the heart of Tarrytown House Estates & Conference Center, which recently underwent an $11 million renovation to restore the mansions, while updating the hotel’s more modern facilities. Today, Tarrytown House boasts 212 guest rooms and 30 meeting rooms, totaling 30,000 square feet of meeting space, not to mention a fully equipped fitness center and recreational amenities that include indoor and outdoor pools, as well as tennis, volleyball and basketball courts.

The égreat lawn,_ first added to the property in 1922, provides a shining example of how turf quality at Tarrytown House has been dramatically improved over the last several years.

As impressive as the buildings are, it’s the property itself that separates Tarrytown House from other hotels and conference centers. Where others might have just a few flower gardens or a patch of lawn, at Tarrytown House there are 26.3 estate-like acres of landscaped grounds. It’s this setting that attracts guests to the property, and therefore the grounds must be kept in finely manicured condition.

Norm Christian, director of engineering, is responsible for maintenance and grounds at the historic facility. “Some of the grounds work we do ourselves, but much of the maintenance is contracted out to a landscaper,” he says. The arrangement, he adds, allows the hotel to lower costs by assigning its own staff to handle certain projects, while also taking advantage of the grounds maintenance expertise of an outside group.

Christian is entering his third year at the Tarrytown House, and much of his background in building operations and engineering has been in high-rise facilities in New York City. Obviously, the landscaped grounds of Tarrytown House present a much different management challenge. “Now, I have an irrigation system!” he jokes. While he opted to bring some tasks, like snowplowing, in-house since arriving on the job, he decided that the landscaping wasn’t an area he wanted to tackle. That would mean expanding the size of the grounds staff and bringing in a groundskeeper with turfgrass and landscaping expertise. “And then, what would happen if that person left in the middle of the summer some year?” Christian worried.

Instead, the decision was made to search out a top-notch landscape maintenance firm to handle the contract. The firm chosen was Alfredo LDC, based in Armonk, N.Y., a full-service landscape company handling both construction and maintenance. Alfredo’s point person on the account is Mike Ascenzi. “The lawns were nearly 80 percent nutsedge, and it was loaded with crabgrass and broadleaf weeds,” Ascenzi recalls of his first visit to the site. “It was also infested with chinch bugs. We went in with a Talstar application. We hit most of the nutsedge areas with Manage. On the crabgrass we used Acclaim postemergent, and we also fertilized. In the first couple of months, we got the grass healthy and started to be able to see a turnaround.”

In the second season, turf areas received a preemergent application and four fertilizations, as well as broadleaf weed control and fungicide treatments. “We also put down Merit for grub control and a Talstar application in July, and that really turned all of the turf around,” Ascenzi says.

Christian says he doesn’t pretend to know the technical aspects of turf management, but it was easy to see a difference in the appearance of the grass after Alfred took over the turf: “I know what green looks like; I know when grass looks nice. Last year I said, ‘The grass looks great,’ and Mike said, ‘Well, not yet.’ And I love that attitude.”

The estate-like landscape is part of what separates Tarrytown House from other hotels and conference centers. Not surprisingly, many attending meetings at the facility choose to gather outdoors.

The quest for perfection continued with the landscape beds and flowers on-site, which also needed significant attention. In the past three seasons, those critical aesthetic areas have seen tremendous improvement. Alfredo has also gone beyond merely maintaining the property by suggesting and implementing several design changes, including the addition of walkways and some landscape beds.

“We have our own design team within the company, and landscape construction crews. Everyone is specialized. The guy who is mowing one day isn’t going to be building a wall the next day. It really takes specialization to do the best job possible,” says Ascenzi.

Alfredo sends a crew of about 10 men on Thursdays to handle mowing, trimming and other maintenance tasks at Tarrytown House. “We use a large crew, because it’s a large property,” explains Ascenzi. “There are about seven guys mowing and trimming, and the other guys handle bed work.”

Mowing is done with Scag zero-turn units. Ascenzi says the mowers work well at the property, which features a combination of tight turf areas around beds, buildings, flower gardens, statue areas and so on, as well as several sections of large, open lawns. “We bag all the clippings,” says Ascenzi, which is typical of the firm’s work with high-end clientele. “Our customers want things maintained very, very meticulously,” he explains.

Small, intricate water features and gardens dot the Tarrytown House property, adding beauty, as well as maintenance challenges.

There are currently two members of the Tarrytown House staff dedicated to the grounds. “On a day-to-day basis they’ll blow the leaves off the driveways, police the property to make sure it’s clean and so on. And then we ‘add’ to the landscape work done by Alfredo,” says Christian.

He adds that the landscape contract calls for Alfredo to handle a specific list of maintenance tasks. “After that, we fill in,” says Christian of the hotel’s own grounds staff. He says it would be prohibitively expensive to contract out every aspect of the grounds maintenance and have to call in Alfredo anytime any type of grounds task needed to be completed. “A turnkey contract would cost much more than we’re spending now,” Christian explains. By maintaining a small staff at the hotel, if something small needs to be done on the grounds, like a few flowers added or some repairs need to be done, it can be handled quickly and cost-effectively in-house.

“We don’t touch the grass; that’s Alfredo’s area of expertise,” says Christian. “They do a tremendous job with the lawns. We don’t have the expertise here on the property to be able to say, ‘Oh, the grass needs this,’ or ‘The grass needs that.’ Their expertise is what really makes this place look so beautiful.”

Part of the difficulty of keeping the property looking beautiful involves scheduling. “It’s somewhat of a challenge,” admits Christian. “We are in a somewhat residential area, so we don’t start working until 8 a.m. If we had our way, we’d start at 6 a.m., but that just can’t happen.” In addition to neighboring homes, it’s important to always be considerate of guests. Unlike many hotels, where guests may leave to sightsee during the day, because Tarrytown House is also a conference center there are often large groups assembled on the property during the day, sometimes even outside on the lush lawns.

“Every morning we have a stand-up, and we’ll look for ‘hot spots.’ We look where people will be meeting that day, and try to avoid those areas. Or, we’ll look for when breaks will be happening, to mow outside those buildings,” explains Christian. “Alfredo’s foreman is great; he always comes to me as soon as they arrive to ask where they can go and where they can’t go. And they come every Thursday, so all of the staff here knows they’ll be here on that day.”

Christian says the compliments on the grounds far outweigh any complaints of noise or disturbance from the landscape work. “We hear from people all the time raving about the grounds. I’m starting to even become an expert about what plants are where on the property, because people keep asking questions like, ‘What is the purple plant you have over there? I’d love to plant that at my house.’”

Christian says one current priority is to further beautify the exit road, which runs behind the buildings and leads guests back to the road. “Anything we do on property from meetings to weddings is done out front, so that’s where the focus has been, but we’re looking to make that area look a little prettier, and I know we will as time goes on.”

With a dedicated in-house staff and a great working relationship with its landscape contractor, the entire Tarrytown House property continues to improve.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.