Beautiful homes away from home

Three retirement communities in Lancaster County, Pa.—Brethren Village in Lititz; Garden Spot Village in New Holland; and Willow Valley Retirement Communities in Lancaster—have found ways to utilize their natural surroundings through continual upkeep, knowledgeable staff and outsourcing to meet their clienteles’ aesthetic needs.

Ron Dell, director of facilities management of Brethren Village (BV), says, “Our employees cover several facets of lawn management on our campus, including all shrub pruning and trimming; planting and seeding of beds; all bed weeding; leaf pickup; seasonal and storm cleanup; gutter cleaning; periodic field mowing; and removing snow.”

GSV aims to meet everyone’s aesthetic tastes when it comes to landscaping. Here’s an aerial view of their flowing landscape using trees, turf and flowers.

Dell says BV outsources its turf needs, such as mowing, mulching, edging, fertilization and pesticide applications and large tree work, to a contractor. He says that the landscape goals for the retirement community “aim to provide quality lawn care services, resulting in resident satisfaction of our 153-acre campus. We attempt to keep our grounds pristine by using our available resources and grounds team members. Since our beginning in 1897, Brethren Village is home to more than 850 residents, and we want our grounds to reflect our rich Lancaster County history through their beautiful surroundings.”

BV’s grounds manager is Scott Zeamer. Dell says, “[He] oversees all residential renovations and our landscaping/grounds department.” They also hire two full-time team members, as well as use several seasonal, part-time employees throughout the year. BV has been on their current property since 1910, which means that the turf is established, but they’ve added onto their acreage in recent years. Dell states, “For more than 98 years, we’ve maintained the grounds. BV acquired a 52.3-acre plot of land in 2000, which was formally owned and operated as an agricultural farm by the Hoover family.”

A couple volunteers their time by landscaping at BV.

Willow Valley outsources some of its landscaping work, too. Roseanne Pritts, spokesperson with Willow Valley Retirement Communities, says, “Our turf is mowed by a contractor who uses a Walker Model D mower for cutting turf in most areas. [And, he] uses the Permagreen ride-on spreader for all fertilizer and grub control applications.”

Willow Valley employs an integrated pest management program. Pritts says, “The turf needs to look good at all times. From April until November, it’s mowed weekly. It’s to be maintained with the least amount of labor.”

Willow Valley opened in 1984 with one community. Today, there are four communities on two campuses. Pritts says, “Each of our communities was built on land formerly used for agriculture. We integrate the former farm buildings into our communities to keep a rural feel, [and] we strive to balance open land with developed land. We use our barns for vehicle and equipment storage.”

Of the three retirement communities, Garden Spot Village (GSV) is the newest having opened in 1996. According to Carole Deck, spokeswoman for the community, “Our lawns are on a program that involves four applications throughout the season, which provide reasonable control over most lawn diseases, insects and weeds. Ongoing goals are to achieve a landscape and lawn environment that is a notch above other communities in the area.”

Waterscape by Lakes Manor.

All of the properties are on former farms, and it can be challenging converting farmland into healthy turf. Deck says, “GSV’s soil, while productive for many agricultural crops, has a significant clay content that is detrimental to providing good drainage and aeration for landscape plants and lawn areas. During new installation, we pay close attention to proper surface grading; proper handling of soil during excavation to avoid compaction; careful shrub planting techniques; and identification of plant material that does not thrive in clay soils. We have a practical fertilizer program in place for lawn areas and selected shrubs and trees.”

Since all three communities have to deal with the four seasons, everyone’s equipment serves multiple uses. “BV buys all the equipment used and doesn’t maintain any current leases on lawn care or snow removal equipment. The majority of our large equipment is manufactured by John Deere or Kubota. Our team members currently use a Kawasaki Mule and a pickup truck with a dump gate for primary transportation around the campus. We also have a Kubota tractor; a John Deere tractor; a John Deere loader; a Hustler 72-inch mower—all with different attachments for field mowing, spreading, general mowing, blowing and snowplowing. We have a large assortment of gardening tools and six large Arlens snow blowers with broom attachments,” Dell says.

Willow Valley uses five zero-turn radius mowers, four John Deere Gators, eight pickup trucks, and two compact tractors to get the jobs done on its campus. Deck, of GSV, says, “The trim mowing is completed using Honda HRC Series self-propelled, walk-behind mowers. The spin trimming is performed using the Echo SRM 300 Series trimmer. For our less-visible outlying property mowing, a large cut and throw mower, Ferris Model 5100 Z, is used, [and] cleanup is finished off with the Echo PB 700 Series blower.”

Waterscape at GSV.

Pesticide use

All three retirement communities follow Pennsylvania laws in regard to pesticide use and application. Pritts, of Willow Valley, explains, “In Pennsylvania, all lawns commercially maintained must have their work performed by a licensed pesticide applicator. To maintain licensure, [there’s] continual pesticide training performed. No restricted-use pesticides are utilized to maintain our communities. We also follow specific notification requirements [for those who are listed on the local pesticide hypersensitivity registry] from spraying within 500 feet of those individuals’ dwellings.”

BV has someone who specializes in pesticide application on their staff. Dell says, “BV boasts of having a team member in our grounds department who’s certified by Pennsylvania to apply pesticides when needed. Though the majority of pesticides are applied by a contractor, all pesticide applications adhere to state laws and regulations regarding the usage of any products applied to flowers, grass, trees and shrubs.”

None of the retirement communities use residents to help them with their turf work. Pritts says, “We take care of most of our landscape gardening with our in-house crew. Our goal is to provide excellent service to our residents. We provide in-house help around the living units. We outsource jobs that have little need for resident/worker interaction, such as lawn mowing, turf maintenance, insect control and tree trimming.”

GSV owns 161 cottages, 77 carriage homes and 232 apartments, where the grounds crew is responsible for caring for all landscaping needs. Deck states, “We have 100 acres finished in our residential area and own 220 acres that are managed by campus services.”

BV encourages its residents to interact with the land and has three volunteer resident programs that center on the landscaping end of the turf program. Dell explains, “The Green Thumb Society maintains an on-campus, resident-run greenhouse. They’re responsible for the presentations in many of the flowerbeds and fragrant gardens across the grounds of the community. They raise independent funds to plant specific and various flowers throughout the campus. The Garden Club is a resident-run volunteer group that maintains resident gardens on a 1-acre plot of land. From vegetables to herbs, the residents maintain, divide and plot their gardens for personal consumption, enjoyment and fulfillment. The independent living residents often volunteer their time and effort in maintaining the flower and plant beds adjacent to their apartment or cottage. Residents often enjoy the freedom of planting their favorite flowers, herbs or a variety of garden plants.”

Turf challenges

These communities agree that good help is hard to find. Willow Valley works to overcome this challenge by creating “a positive work environment and allowing plenty of opportunities for training,” says Pritts.

BV encourages its residents to interact with plants and landscaping. This photo shows a volunteer in a BV greenhouse.

Dell says that because BV cultivates high expectations for its landscaping program, they also expect their contractors to have that same work wthic. He says, “BV is challenged in that our grounds crew and residents demand a high quality of service, whether that task is done by an internal or an external employee.”

The sheer size of the campuses means continuously working to stay ahead of turf growth. Dell says, “Our grounds department maintains the grounds of 153 acres, which is a large plot of land for two full-time employees. This mixed space includes residential areas, business areas and farm fields, all of which require attention in different formats. Our employees adapt well by prioritizing the needs of our residents and visitors first.”

Additionally, because BV is undergoing major redevelopment, which includes added construction sites, the grounds crew has had to stay flexible with the evolving campus. Dell says, “Our grounds crew has provided quality response in reseeding and cleaning up yards, open space, beds and flower areas upon work area transitions.”

GSV must contend with labor-intensive upkeep, contour design and creating harmonious outdoor living spaces. “With hundreds of landscaped cottages and carriage homes, as well as apartment buildings, we’re very aware that our plantings are dependent on a regular and thorough maintenance program. We’ve developed a very aggressive pruning program consisting of light pruning during the late summer months followed by heavy pruning of shrubs in the winter months. This practice should give our landscape plantings potentially a 20 to 30-year life span,” Deck explains.

There are miles of mulch beds to edge and mow around at GSV. Deck says, “Most of our planting bed contours are designed with ease of mowing in mind. We use the 60-inch ZTR mowers to maintain our entire residential lawn area. Placement of shade trees, benches, terraces or other landscape applications are preplanned to minimize bottlenecks for the mowers.”

GSV aims to please all of its residents who come to the community with different tastes. Deck says, “Everyone who lives at GSV has ideas of what makes an attractive landscape. Many like lots of trees or shrubs, while others like a minimalist approach. Preferences of perennials, grasses, ground covers, mulch beds all come into play. We’ve addressed this dilemma by designing our campus as a single flowing landscape rather than hundreds of separate ones. Within one landscape, variations are provided to meet individual preferences in the form of theme, flower gardens, water gardens, labyrinths, etc. Heavily planted areas, as well as open areas, are incorporated into the overall plan. This allows residents and guests to gravitate to areas that provide the greatest visual appeal for their individual tastes.”

On a more practical level, Pritts acknowledges that rising fuel costs and the weather provide almost daily challenges to successful landscaping at Willow Valley Communities. She says, “Weather is a difficult variable to deal with. We normally have several levels of work going on at one time, so if it’s too wet or windy for one job, another can be worked on. Our turf operators are expected to assess each area, and if it’s too wet to mow, they [won’t mow until the area’s dry. The rising cost of fuel is another challenge that all of us must face in one way or another. Increase fuel shows up as delivery surcharges, higher material costs and increased contractor labor rates.”

BV, GSV and Willow Valley will continue to meet their residents’ needs and desires, no matter what challenges their turf duties.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa.