From a College on a Budget
As Dan Schied’s budget edges downward, it requires innovative thinking on ways to keep up the grounds of a modern college. Schied is the manager of horticulture and grounds at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. He’s been there almost 16 years and is a firm believer in concepts such as sustainability, because the concept fits hand in hand with integrated pest management and fiscal prudence. The big benefits from these concepts are that they limit the use of nonrenewable resources, and hence can initiate maintenance practices that reduce costs. They fit right into a program that is trying to get through these times while maintaining the high standards his team has accomplished over the years.
Schied is in charge of the maintenance of five campuses and several off-site facilities, totaling over 350 improved acres, of which over 100 acres are turf. He handles this with 11 full-time employees, contracted services and part-time student help. Given the large amount of turf, dozens of planting beds for shrubs and annuals, as well as potted plants, it would be nearly impossible to maintain without innovative management practices. He’s also responsible for six natural turfgrass sports facilities.
“We run lean,” Schied says. There are over 90 acres at the main River Campus, 45 of which are turf, and there is an observatory property of over 70 acres 50 miles away that has its own caretaker, but where Schied consults and provides material and equipment support. “It never ends,” he says of his jobs list at the college, which has about 4,500 undergraduate students in addition to nursing, medical and graduate-level programs.
Schied picks up grounds maintenance ideas from all over, and he has particularly benefited from Frank Rossi’s Cornell turfgrass program and a networking group that shares ideas through a computerized list serve, as well as meetings and conferences.
The most demanding part of Schied’s job is maintaining the many landscaping beds that are a special design feature of all campuses, which contain shrubs, ornamental trees or annual flowers. All beds are primarily mulched with 2 to 3 inches of shredded hardwood, and more recently an increased amount of dyed pine bark. Pine bark, although more expensive, holds its color better long-term and helps lower the soil pH. The mulch is refreshed annually using a hand-held rototiller to turn it over or turn it into the soil so new mulch can be installed. Sometimes it’s removed before being replaced with new mulch.
Schied notes that weed control is a primary reason for mulching heavily. Weeds are a hassle and can be a budget buster if they have to be removed by hand. Nonselective, postemergent herbicides may be used in a limited way, and he is experimenting with preemergent applications, but mulch often serves as a stand-alone weed reducer. If weeds germinate in the mulch, they are much easier to pull than if they were rooted in soil.
Most of the bed irrigation that supplements summer rains is supplied by 500-gallon tanks mounted on tractor-pulled trailers, so there is an immediate reduction in water usage with the insulating mulch. “The big thing with annuals is the cost of getting out there and watering.”
Knowing this was going to be a tough year financially, Schied challenged his staff horticulturists to design beds and other features that would reduce the annual flower displays’ water usage by a third. They took a new look at the large list of plant materials the staff has compiled over the years, with the most dramatic results being in pots and hanging plants.
“Can we get nice color and still reduce our need for supplemental watering?” was the question he posed to his staff.
The use of drought-tolerant flowers, such as red balcony geraniums and Dragon Wing Begonias, gives bright splashes of red color in pots and returned significant water savings at the same time. That also reduces manpower needs, because those fixtures must be watered by hand. As part of the experiment, Schied keeps five pots planted with alternative species outside his office to observe their ability to tolerate low-water conditions.
In their research, the designers came up with some interesting plants, such as dwarf red fountain grass, lantana, millet and coleus that show water savings while still being attractive. In some cases they went back to some old standbys, such as marigolds and petunias, that also have water-saving qualities while providing splashes of color. All of this has reduced the number of gallons of water that have to be transported by tractor, especially important during weekends and long holidays. The sizes of some beds were also reduced as a cost-cutting measure.
A blend of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass provides the primary mix for both lawns and sports turf at the university, with some fescues being introduced into shaded areas. The thing that makes Schied’s selection dynamic is that he is continually introducing new varieties into the mix in order to achieve higher sustainability standards, which he was doing before sustainability became a buzzword. One example is his use of the water-miser Midnight family of bluegrasses, which he first spotted in a Cornell field trial a dozen years ago.
“It’s also a low-mow bluegrass,” Schied points out, which means he is also able to feature the bluegrass in his sports fields. The Midnight family of bluegrasses not only needs less water than other types, it also requires less fertilizer.
“The lion’s share of our turf may only receive .75 to 1 pound of nitrogen per year” per thousand square feet, he says, which is well below the textbook standard, but he believes that soils high in organic content that are working in conjunction with the soil wildlife of earthworms and natural microbial activity encourage a quality turf with limited inputs. Through soil testing he knows that the turf normally needs no phosphorus and limited potassium additions. He uses mulching mowers in order to recycle nutrients from clippings back into the ground.
He overseeds to perk up sports fields and some poor quality lawns, often once a week in high-use periods, with light treatments of perennial ryegrass seed. This works great in heavy wear areas, such as around the goal on a soccer field. The seed is broadcast by spreader or by hand, and the players work it in with their cleats.
“It’s been hugely successful,” he says. He uses no more than 2 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet in those wear areas weekly so he can keep the grass lush and healthy while reducing the opportunity for weed invasions.
Schied has noticed that once the turfgrass and soil are working and healthy, they are pretty much disease and weed free. Over a period of years, he estimates he has treated only about an acre of his lawns for white grubs.
By scouting regularly for insect and other pests, Schied’s crew is able to utilize the elements of IPM, such as threshold tolerances, natural predators and biological controls, to take care of most problems in lawns, shrubs and trees.
“Quite honestly, Mother Nature does a good job of taking care of herself,” he says of pest control. He sees it noticeably in the college’s trees, most of which haven’t been sprayed with chemicals in years. A good example is the Austrian pines, which are a prominent feature on campus. Diplodia tip blight, a common pine fungal disease present in the Austrians, can be reduced by raking up diseased needles in the fall, thereby reducing the spores available for reinfection the following year.
When treatments are needed in trees for various reasons, as in the beeches that have Phytophthora requiring a simple bark drench, he applies it. It’s about being sustainable.
Winter soil amendments
Schied is big on soil improvement, and one of his focuses is on “putting our fields to bed for the winter.” Topdressing is one such method, and it serves several purposes, including leveling fields, providing long-term water penetration and introducing organics to improve the soil profile. It is done primarily on sports fields and on lawns where soil needs the proper ingredients to work properly.
Using overseeding and topdressing in November, his crews first apply a deep-tine core aeration. A topdressing is prepared from 50 percent USGA greens sand, 30 percent compost and 20 percent topsoil. A seed blend is prepared with 80 percent special Kentucky bluegrass blends and 20 percent endophyte-enhanced perennial ryegrass seed. The topdressing mix is applied first, and then the seed.
He has found he can cure soil compaction and drainage problems in low-lying fields and have a more uniform stand of turfgrass in the spring.
One of the driving forces behind cost cutting at the University of Rochester is to stay within a budget without eliminating staff during challenging times, and Schied says that, as well as good landscape management, it is a good reason to become more efficient in the use of resources. “That means we have to be even more creative in what we’re doing,” he says, because everyone at the college is now conscious of achieving top-notch results with more efficient methods.
Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.