Caring for and about an important green space

Bob Hamer got into the grounds care business almost by accident. He was working as a salesman for an industrial equipment company, and in his spare time, he was delivering lunch to elderly and homebound people around Greenville, S.C., as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels.

“A few of the clients didn’t have anybody to take care of their yard, and they didn’t have any money to pay anybody,” Hamer said. “On the weekends, I’d go over and cut their grass for free and help them out doing odd chores around the house.”

Photos by Ron Barnett.
Mowing and weed-eating the cemetery.
Bob Hamer, owner of L&B Landscaping, outside Christ Episcopal Church.

“In one week, I got three jobs,” he said. “Within two months, I was spending more time doing the landscaping and making more money than I was in the industrial sales.”

L&B Landscaping Services (Lis, his wife and Bob) was born.

Hamer spent the winter of 1995 and spring of 1996 getting the business going and quit his industrial sales job on April 1, 1996.

He took several correspondence courses, read books, earned a license as a certified pesticide applicator and became a certified landscape technician through the South Carolina Nursery Association.

Preserving history

Hamer’s biggest account, and the one closest to his heart, is his own church, the 183-year-old Christ Episcopal Church, a 3,800-member parish with a campus that takes up an entire city block in downtown Greenville.

Hamer and his wife had become members in 1996. Their daughter was in the church’s preschool when Hamer saw a need.

“The playground was always full of sticks and weeds and looked real bad,” he said. “I would come up here on my own time and maintain the playground.” The church’s facilities supervisor took note and asked Hamer if he would like to bid on the grounds maintenance job. He did, and the contract became his.

The 10-acre campus includes 6 acres of turfgrass, most of it taken up by a nonirrigated cemetery with graves dating back to the mid-1800s.

The ancient turf is a mixture of common bermuda, zoysia and centipede. When there’s enough rain for the grass to grow, it must compete with a vigorous population of dallis grass. The weed, with its long seedpods, can grow up to a foot a week when conditions are right.

Because the spaces are so tight, and some of the headstones old and fragile, 60 percent of the grass cutting in the cemetery is done by string trimmers.

In larger areas, Hamer uses a Walker commercial mower and sometimes a push mower.

A flowerbed in front of Markley Chapel.

To control broadleaf weeds and crabgrass, Hamer uses a preemergent herbicide in early spring, followed by a postemergence treatment for broadleaf weeds. He applies Roundup to keep weeds out of the cracks in the aged sidewalks.

Maintaining the cemetery without irrigation is as much a political issue as it is an economic one. The grave plots are owned by individual families, and it was thought that it would not be right to allow some to irrigate their plots while others remained unirrigated, Hamer said.

“It would be hard to water one section of the cemetery and not water another section and get people mad at you,” Hamer explained.

A new section was added to the cemetery in 2005 when the church built the All Saints Center, a gymnasium/classroom building that is also used for contemporary services. The new section was sodded with centipede, and Hamer has been keeping it well-watered.

Other areas close to the church, such as an oval-shaped lawn along Church Street at the front of the church and a few flower beds, are irrigated.

Mowing the front lawn outside Christ Episcopal Church.
Meditation garden.

Mega-sized job

At one time, Hamer had as many as 12 full-time employees, but has since downsized and now has just two workers plus a few high school students who work part-time during the summer. In addition to the church job, he has several other commercial and residential contracts around town.

His crew works on the cemetery Monday through Thursday each week and does the high-profile areas around the church on Fridays. Maintaining the church grounds takes about 50 man-hours a week, Hamer said, which includes working on the grounds of several buildings the church owns, and maintaining several courtyards and playgrounds.

Hamer mows the fescue lawn at the front of the church at 3.5 inches, sharpening the blades twice a week “to keep from damaging the grass.” He cuts the cemetery at 2 inches, collecting and removing the clippings.

After an interment, he seeds new grass, using bermudagrass in the summertime.

Hamer has planted quite a few new trees on the grounds, mostly Crape myrtles and maples, which require watering twice a week, and hand pruning.

The church contracts with a local arborist for care of the larger trees on the site—including century-old magnolias, maples, hollies and oaks—but, he handles the shrubs.

Hamer sprays for mites and whiteflies, and fertilizes once a year based on soil sample recommendations. He applies lime twice a year on the fescue lawn in front of the church. The biggest insect problem is fire ants.

“We especially have to work on it for the kids’ sake because we do have a preschool and nursery here,” Hamer said.

From its humble beginnings as a mission in the South Carolina backcountry, Christ Church has become one of the 10 largest Episcopal churches in the nation. On a sprawling campus outside a church designed from plans drawn by Joel R. Poinsett, a botanist for whom the poinsettia was named, Hamer and crew stay busy keeping tradition alive in a thriving parish in the heart of a city.

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Turf. He resides in Easley, S.C.