Maintaining downtown park space in Savannah
In Savannah, Ga., towering live oaks create a cooling canopy for the thousands of tourists that explore the network of historic landscaped squares that extend across the downtown area.
Overseeing their preservation is the responsibility of David O. White, director of the park and tree department. The four original squares were laid out in 1733. More were added over time fulfilling multiple uses from gathering places to markets. Their fate fluctuated with the economy, flourishing in good times, declining when fortunes fell. The department assumed responsibility for them in 1958. Around 1970, a donation for improvements at one of the squares sparked a movement for improving and increasing the maintenance level for all of them.
They’re just part of the 70 acres of park space under the care of White’s department. Also downtown is Riverfront Plaza, which provides a green entry to the shops now filling the old warehouses once used for the rice and cotton trades. It encompasses Morrell Park and the famous “waving girl” statue. Adding to the downtown green space is the expansive Forsyth Park. The department also maintains multiple neighborhood parks and an additional 114 acres of landscaped medians and entrance corridors.
Savannah city government is structured with eight bureaus. The park and tree department is within the leisure services bureau, and is split into two divisions. Urban Forestry handles all the tree work, including care of the historic live oaks. Park services tackles the other landscape areas, along with fountain and monument maintenance.
White says, “We have a separate administrator for each division who directly oversees the personnel and work. I meet with the tree administrator a couple times a month, sometimes in-office reviewing the status of specific projects, and sometimes visiting the sites to observe the crews at work and assess trees that need attention. We have a basic program for ongoing tree care that we continually adjust to meet conditions. I meet with the park services administrator every Monday morning to review the week’s activity schedule, assess progress on ongoing projects and adjust priorities as needed for the weekly work plan.
Park services division
Savannah has a temperate climate that allows outdoor activity year-round. Yet, it comes with challenges. Annual rainfall averages 49 inches, with little precipitation from April to June and frequent summer rains. That brings high humidity when summer temperatures range from lows in the 70s to highs in the 90s. The mature live oak canopy also creates dense shade in much of the public space. Winter temperatures range in the mid-30s to 40s, with a few spikes into the 60s and dips that bring frosts and occasional short-term freezes. Most areas have sandy soils, with low fertility, little organic matter and low water retention.
The park services division has an outdoor staff of 30. Approximately half of the personnel work in the high-profile downtown area; the remainder at the outer sites. An irrigation specialist works citywide. One maintenance technician handles all the downtown fountain work, bench repair and monument cleaning. Another staff member operates a pressure washing machine to clean walkways, parking areas and other hardscape features. Single-operator trucks are generally equipped with zero-turn or other front-mount, ride-on mowers. These staffers handle the large area mowing, traveling specific, preset routes. Two personnel are classified as landscape specialists. They focus on the color program for the downtown sites, doing color change outs twice a year at most locations and three times a year at the most highly visible spaces. They also handle the maintenance of the color beds, including weeding, deadheading, fertilization and any pesticide applications.
White says, “Our goal is to complete any mowing or other power equipment use—at least at the squares—early in the morning before much activity begins. The teams with many small areas of turf have 22-inch, Honda walk-behind mowers. All of the teams have string trimmers and leaf blowers, along with their hand tools and nonmotorized equipment. They’ll mow, blow off clippings, trim edges and trim shrubs before they tackle weeding and other quiet tasks. Once this work is completed, they’ll move to the landscaped medians later in the day. They’ll collect additional litter and trimmings as they work, filling the truck bed for dumping once, at the end of the day.”
Fine-tuning the program
The city was under water restrictions during the drought of 2007, and is still under statewide restrictions. White says, “Since we’ve always focused on being environmentally conscientious and practice good stewardship of all our resources, the current level of restrictions fits well within the parameters of our program. It calls for irrigation no more than three days per week, with no irrigation later than 10 a.m. We time our irrigation to have the least impact on those using our facilities. Irrigation cycles start at midnight or later and are completed before sunrise. We’ve been adding rain sensors over the past several years, adjusting our irrigation to deliver the minimum amount of water needed for the health of the plant.”
The primary turf is St. Augustine. White has been evaluating the fertilization program, seeking the minimum level of nutrients needed using slow-release or alternative organic materials for slow, steady delivery and even growth. Hollow-tine aeration is rotated into the program so that each area is aerated every two or three years, based on traffic and need. The cores are allowed to break down naturally.
The historic areas, all of the downtown turf and the larger landscaped medians are overseeded with perennial ryegrass, with the process starting in late October and continuing into November. White says, “This gives us good color throughout the winter, with a great showing of green for our annual St. Patrick’s Day Festival. By late April, the temperatures are high enough to take out the ryegrass naturally, and the St. Augustine greens up just in time for the spring round of activities.
The biggest turf problem they encounter in the downtown squares is the dense shade canopy of the live oaks. White says, “In many areas, the St. Augustine gradually thins out due to the shade, and we’ll have to resod every three or four years. We’ve gone to shade-tolerant ground covers in several areas. Last year, we installed a large section of dwarf Ophiopogon [Mondo grass]. It spreads slowly, looks like dark green grass and doesn’t need mowing. We’ve also used some of the taller varieties, which we do mow once a year. These both are pretty good alternatives to turf, but they won’t take the foot traffic, so we’re limited in where we can place them.”
Small pine bark mulch is used in many of the shrub and ornamental beds for weed control. White plans to purchase a chip processing machine to reprocess the wood chips generated by the urban forestry division’s tree work. White says, “The machine turns out chips of uniform size and we’d be able to color them as desired. We’d probably match the pine bark to keep the look consistent with the existing mulched beds. Our mulch expenditures have been over $20,000 a year, so we anticipate the machine would pay for itself in four or five years.”
The other major challenge is the weed problem created by the prodigious seed output of a naturally occurring, hardy plant, the palmetto (or cabbage palm). Mechanical control is tedious and time consuming, but the seedlings have thick fronds that are resistant to absorption, making it difficult to control them by spray applications.
Working in the spotlight
Savannah embraces special events. Generally, these are clustered around the weekends, filling two or three weekends of each month. Some, sponsored by the city, are cultural, such as music in the squares every Friday at lunchtime. A cooperative Christmas season decorating program involving the residential areas bordering some of the squares and chamber of commerce. Outside groups can reserve a site, including the squares, for a special event. Several spots have become very popular for weddings and other family gatherings. White says, “There are set charges for specific sites and deposits are required up front to cover possible damage to the turf or other parts of the property. Turf surfaces must be covered with plywood or artificial turf if chairs will be used. The rules have been in place for many years, covering those types of details, as well as time limits for setup and teardown that are based on the size of the event.”
The park services staff understands their role extends far beyond the maintenance they perform. “Whether it’s a special event or a typical workday, our crews are constantly aware of the activity and make sure they don’t do anything that would ruin the experience for these people. They work the area for a special event early, so everything is ready for that group’s setup personnel. Their cleanup is quick and efficient following the group’s teardown. If a walking tour group approaches, which could be any time, any day, they’ll shut down equipment so the group can pass through. If people are sitting on the benches, they’ll work in other areas until that space is clear. A big part of our program’s success comes from being courteous to our site users,” White says.
Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.