Gerald Landby and his tiny grounds crew keep Montana’s Carroll College a grounds award-winner


Carroll College’s beautiful 65-acre campus is a plus in recruiting and retaining top students.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CARROLL COLLEGE.

“We’re the Department of First and Lasting Impressions.” That’s what Gerald Landby calls his groundskeeping crew at Carroll College, a four-year Catholic college in Helena, Mont.

“Our job is to help the college attract and retain students. It’s our bread and butter,” says Landby. “A Carnegie Foundation study has found that 60 percent of incoming students base their choice of college on appearance.”

Of course, Carroll is helped in its quest to attract students by the presence of the Big Sky, the mountains and beautiful campus architecture. Students come from the Pacific Northwest to the low-population state drawn by what Landby calls the “shining star in the middle of nowhere.” Student crews, he says, are hard to keep on the job, what with the lure of nearby Yellowstone and other recreational draws.

Landby started at the University of Minnesota at Crookston, earning a two-year degree in landscaping/turf and groundskeeping, then did an internship at Montana State College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape management in 1984. His current job at Carroll College puts him in charge of two full-time employees and about 10 seasonal students. The 65-acre campus serves about 1,500 students. This includes 8 acres devoted to Nelson Stadium, where the Fighting Saints play, two practice fields, and upper and lower fields of 80 and 55 yards, respectively. It’s all fitted into the Montana hills, just 15 miles from the Continental Divide, with 10 feet of drop between fields and little room to expand. “There is not a lot of flat area here,” says Landby.

The Fighting Saints footballers are defending NAIA national champions and have won that honor in six of the last nine years. Carroll’s success in athletics leads to long playing seasons under dramatically different conditions for groundskeepers as the season progresses.

Practices begin with steamy early August practices, and since the Saints usually make the season-end playoffs, football is often played at the Helena college into December. After all, how many grounds managers get the opportunity to paint a football field in 35-degree-below, wind-chill weather weather?

Apart from that, Landby and his crew face the prospect of 50 to 60 inches of dry, powdery snow a year, although rainfall is typically sparse in their region of Montana, averaging 12.25 inches annually.

“We want to see the team succeed, to have them be safe, to let them have fun,” Landby says. “If we feel too tired at the end of the day to take care of some chore or other, we do it anyway. We do it for the team, and with high hopes. In fact, we feel we are part of the team.”


Gerald Landby, shown here, actively participates in and shares his experiences and knowledge with others in PLANET, STMA and AMTOPP.

It’s Carroll College’s success that sustains Landby and his small group of employees. That, and the recognition and appreciation they’ve generated by their efforts. The Carroll landscaping crew has been recognized with the big players, winning the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) accolades for its soccer field in 2007, between wins by Penn State and the University of Oregon.

Landby says large doses of creativity and cooperation are required to keep the campus and sports fields in great shape on a small budget. His department shares equipment and consultation services with the city park system and with local golf courses, including the use of the park’s seeder for his topdresser.

Maintenance schedules

“I am a big believer in aeration,” Landby says, “and I’d like to do it monthly. But with the budget, deep plant aeration is outsourced once a year.” He prefers vertical injection but has limited equipment for the practice.

His crews mow daily, at a target height of 1.75 to 2 inches, with some seasons seeing an inch taken off daily to maintain this.

The Carroll crew uses slow-release fertilizer, applied seven to eight times a year, but it had been using an agricultural fertilizer brand previously. “Slow-release takes patience,” says Landby. “I always want to see immediate results. But in exchange, we get a longer-lasting effect.” In football season, potassium is added to give plants more tolerance and rigidity.

Irrigation is in progress 24/7 on specific areas that cover the entire campus, so there is always water coming from one of the two 450-foot campus wells.


Landby considered taking out some of the grassy areas and replacing them with natives , but decided against it because of the many events on the grounds.

“The public thinks we are wasting water this way,” says Landby, “and not watering at optimal times. But with the size of our pipes, we get 225 gallons a minute for this 65-acre campus. That’s the best we can do. If we watered for 12 hours only, at optimum times, we’d need 650 gallons a minute and a new distribution system. This system is just not conducive to high volumes.”

That aside, Carroll fields it’s own “Green Team,” which looks at alternatives to greening the campus, with the grounds crew getting inputs from engineering students and faculty hydraulics experts.

“We looked at taking out some of the grassy areas to help solve the irrigation situation, but totally going with native landscapes is not the answer,” says Landby.

“Everything in Montana is a transplant, and we have drastic changes in our climates within 200 miles of campus. Plus, we have the altitude situation. So we look not so much at native plants to solve the problem as at adaptable plants. We have to use all the tools at our disposal to make it work.”

Landby has had discussions about synthetic turf, and does not entirely rule it out for some areas and some situations. But for now, he wants to keep his grounds and sports fields in Kentucky bluegrass, with the playing field overseeded yearly with the same turfseed sportsturf blends he’s used successfully in previous years.

“I will go with whatever is best for the students,” he says. “I do know that it [synthetic] is not maintenance free. But when salespeople come in here and tell me synthetics can help us win championships, I know they haven’t done their homework.”

Teamwork

Communication is another big challenge. “I know everything about miscommunication,” he says. His crew meets daily to go over assignments and talk about equipment and safety concerns. “As a small crew, we depend on each other,” he says.

Communication with other departments is more problematic, as each department has its own idea of what would be best for the student body, and all have to compete for financial support. “But we all ultimately have the same goal, and that is the students,” says Landby. “I am happy to be here at Carroll, on our small campus. It is like a family.”

The accolades keep growing. The Arbor Day Foundation recently named Carroll College one of around 125 Tree Campuses. It’s the first to earn the honor in Montana. Carroll has a tree committee, an identified budget for trees, a Service Day, an Arbor Day recognition and a tree maintenance plan. The campus and Landby’s department have also been recognized for their labors by the STMA, the Professional Grounds Management Society and as a Pioneer Athletics Field of Excellence.

Landby participates in a variety of industry events as a member of the Association of Montana Turf, Ornamental and Pest Professionals (AMTOPP), STMA, and PLANET, and he volunteers at Arlington Cemetery.

“I considered going to grad school, but I decided that I would give back by getting involved in the industry,” says Landby. “The time and the money I spent have been well worth it. I learn so much from this. I learn from others. Everyone in this industry should know that their involvement and membership in these organizations matters – it promotes education and the industry. The opportunities you get from participating are tremendous.”

Cindy Grahl is a freelance writer who lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and has covered the construction and service industries for more than 25 years.