Maintaining the grounds on a campus that’s more like a city

With nearly 50,000 students and another 20,000 faculty and staff, the University of Texas at Austin is abuzz with activity during the school year. The school’s landscape services department is divided into eight teams, each responsible for maintaining one area of the 450-acre campus.

Texans live by the belief that “bigger is better,” which only makes sense in a state that covers more than 260,000 square miles. While John Burns is responsible for maintaining only a slice of that territory-the 450-acre campus of the University of Texas in Austin-it’s still a pretty big slice. Between students and staff, on any given day there are some 70,000 people on the campus, enough to rival many American cities. That number can swell to a quarter-million or more on football Saturdays.

To minimize danger and disturbance, the landscaping crew tries to get its trimming done when classes are in session, and stops such work during class breaks, when the campus fills with students moving about.

And, the landscaping is immense: 49 miles of edging, 31 acres of shrubs and 125 acres of turfgrass. With so much ground to cover, and so many people to work around, the UTexas landscape department relies on a well-rehearsed plan of attack.

Burns has been at the university since 1981, and has managed the landscape services department for the past seven years. The landscaping staff numbers 68. “We’re in the middle of Austin. I consider us an urban campus; we don’t have the big, open, rolling areas of turf that are found at some schools,” he says. “We have pockets here and there, with a few larger areas of turf.”

The grass is a mix around campus, he adds. “We used to have almost exclusively St. Augustine, but through the years we have converted large areas to zoysia (Palisades variety). It’s drought-tolerant and a much better wear-and-tear grass. In full sun, open areas, we’ll use bermudagrass, but that’s only in a few areas.”

For maintenance purposes, the campus is divided into eight zones, with crews assigned to each zone that number three to five workers, says Burns. “They handle trash removal, maintenance, weeding, edging, trimming and push mowing,” he explains, adding that the system allows each team to take pride in its area, and to develop a knowledge of its unique maintenance needs. “The crews really feel strongly about their zones, and want to make those areas nicer. They also know where the potential problems might be, such as a professor who is sensitive to sound. That way we can stay away from those areas at certain times of the day,” he explains.

One dedicated, five-person mowing crew works throughout the entire campus to cut larger turf areas using a fleet of Toro 72-inch mowers and a Ferris propane-powered zero-turn unit. “We’ve been really happy with the propane mower,” says Burns. The propane mower, along with some of the landscaping department’s diesel mowers, can be used even on “ozone action days,” which would otherwise limit mowing. “We try not to mow at all on ozone days, unless there are a string of them in a row and we’re forced to,” he adds. “We’re usually able to work around them. This year has been extremely hot and dry, but we haven’t had many ozone days.”

Trash pick-up takes several hours each day and is done in the morning, prior to mowing, to avoid the mowers scattering tiny bits of garbage around the grounds. In addition to trash found on the ground, there are nearly 400 trash receptacles to empty (some of theme multiple times each day) around campus. “About three years ago we installed a large trash compactor on campus so that we don’t have to haul all of the trash off-campus,” says Burns. “That has reduced some of our trips from the main campus to our landscape offices and made things more efficient.” An outside contractor picks up the trash from the compactor facility.

During the summer, when there are fewer people on campus, maintenance schedules become a bit more flexible. During the school year, there is a greater need to balance maintenance with noise and safety considerations. “Blowers are a big challenge for us, with the noise and dust,” he explains. “People don’t have as big of an issue with lawn mowers and string trimmers. Although we have to be extremely careful with string trimmers, especially during class breaks when students are walking around.” Crews working on the central part of campus actually stop mowing and trimming during the class breaks: on the hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as well as every hour-and-a-half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The crews switch to pulling weeds or trimming hedges during these periods.

There are some 49 miles of edging across campus. Edging and garbage pick-up represent two time-consuming, but important, tasks for the landscaping crews.

To avoid disturbing students, any power equipment use around dormitories is delayed until after 9 a.m. during the school year. The crews start much earlier though, and begin with tasks such as garbage pick-up. “We try to get in and out of the classroom areas early, before classes even begin,” says Burns. “We usually work from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the summer, and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the school year.”

Employees report to one central maintenance facility in the morning and afternoon, but otherwise work out of satellite “tool rooms” located throughout campus. Burns says, “They can store mowers and weed eaters and hand tools there, so they don’t have to move it through campus during the busy day.” The University of Texas at Austin campus, as other colleges increasingly are doing, is trying to move away from driving roads and is putting more of a focus on pedestrian areas. In response, the landscape department has turned more to the use of utility vehicles rather than pickup trucks.

The school is currently undergoing an effort to upgrade its irrigation system, with an eye toward greater efficiency. “About 60 percent of the campus is now automated. We just had an audit done and we’re trying to secure some funds to move toward a weather-based system so we can work off of ET [evapotranspiration],” says Burns. “Right now we’re in drought conditions. For most of the summer we’ve been restricted to watering just two days per week, and we’re about to be further limited to one day per week. While we’re officially a state agency and don’t have to comply with these restrictions, we try our best to do so because we want to be good citizens.”

The University of Texas at Austin has transitioned its turf from largely St. Augustine to zoysiagrass, which offers improved drought tolerance and ability to withstand wear and tear. This is particularly important on a campus that sees so much activity. While many tailgating parties before football games are held on turfgrass areas, Burns says the turf holds up well and damage tends to be minimal.

Burns says the prolonged drought (more than 60 days of 100-plus degree temperatures) has led to concerns not just for the turfgrass and planting beds, but also the many mature trees on campus. “We’re seeing a lot of stress on our trees. We have a wonderful canopy on campus of huge live oak trees.” Within the landscape department is a forestry section, which looks after the 5,000-plus trees on campus. Outside contractors are used to help keep up with the constant pruning required, as safety is paramount with so many people walking around beneath the trees.

While the trees provide valuable shade in the heat, they also pose a maintenance challenge with spring leaf drop that comes during one of the most critical times of the year on campus. “While there are other important events during the year, the commencement ceremonies in the spring are, by far, the most important thing that happens on the campus. We start preparing in February with mulch, and we start with pruning, weeding, picking up leaves and hitting everything really hard during March and April. By May, we’re doing the finishing touches and things look incredible,” Burns says. During the lead-up, about 10 to 12 temporary workers are usually brought in to help support the full-time crews.

While commencement might be the most important event that takes place on campus, there’s a pretty popular pastime that rivals it several times each fall: tailgating at University of Texas football games. While there are nearly 100,000 seats inside the stadium, many times that number of fans shows up to celebrate outside. A separate department handles care of the athletic fields, but the landscape services crews are responsible for the areas surrounding the stadiums, where most of the action takes place.

“We have a crew that works during the game to try to keep things picked up, and then the next day we bring in a crew of 14 people (both crews are made up of volunteers from the regular weekday staff who like the overtime hours) who sweep through the whole campus to clean everything up. That way, when we come back in on Monday, everything looks the way it should,” says Burns. “It’s a really big job, but we’ve done it now for so many years that it doesn’t seem too daunting.”

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.