Sustainability in the maintenance of green spaces: the success story of a university

A cutting-edge approach to lawn care puts Cornell University at the top of the class.

No segment of the institutional and commercial equipment market places more emphasis on appearance than on higher education. Colleges and universities compete fiercely to attract faculty and students, and their facilities and landscapes are essential to making a solid first impression.

This competition is especially tough among Ivy League schools, and one person who understands the dynamics very well is Daniel Schied, Director of Pitches at Cornell University, whose department plays a key role in creating that first impression. very important for his institution. For Schied and his team, the challenge is to perform mowing and lawn management tasks both efficiently and sustainably – a high priority in higher education.

“Cornell places great importance on sustainability,” says Shied. This emphasis has a strong influence on the goals of mowing activities and long-term decisions related to the appearance of the campus.

Grounds maintenance team

Cornell’s main campus covers approximately 1,000 acres, with 310 acres of lawns and 80 acres of shrubs and tree plantations. The campus also includes 15 miles of roads, 61 miles of sidewalks and 114 acres of parking lots.

“My department takes care of both landscaping and utility digs,” says Schied. “We have a construction division that does some construction work on campus, such as sidewalk or asphalt work. A lot of what we do is utility infrastructure, like replacing drains and replacing fire hydrants.

“This group has eight staff members and one manager. Under the construction division are the second and third teams of three people and three mechanics. The third change mainly concerns the eyes and ears. In winter, it’s going out on the roads and making sure they stay salty, and cleaning parking lots where there are no cars there.

The landscape division of the department has two managers and 30 agents divided into five zones.

“We are a partially private and partially public institution, so we have our staffed campus and our state campus, and we have two residential campuses that are maintained by a team,” said Schied. “Our eastern campus requires mowing in large areas, and we have taken care of the mowing in our campus arboretum. “

Equipment Considerations

Schied’s mowing operation uses around 20 pieces of equipment, including zero-turn mowers, walk-behind mowers, and stand-on mowers.

“We have a few 11 foot mowers that we share between the teams because we don’t have enough large areas to make it interesting to have one in each area,” he says. “We have a mower that we can use on the slopes because it is a bit safer. We put double tires on each side of the axle. For the real steep slopes – the ones we only mow once a year and have allowed to go into the meadows – we have a radio controlled mower on the slopes that we don’t want to put people on.

Equipment operators place a high priority on the correct maintenance of mowers to ensure long life.

“We try not to let our equipment fail all the time,” says Schied. “We try to trade some things while they still have value. Really, one of the keys for us is to maintain reliable equipment, as the efficiency gains and dollars lost due to not being able to do your job probably outweighs the true cost of properly maintained equipment. . Every day when the material comes in it is washed. The same is true after plowing and salting the sidewalks.

When the time comes for the substitution, Schied says the selection is a team effort.

“We are looking for cost, comfort and durability,” he says. “We get equipment demonstrations whenever we can. When there is something new to try, we bring in our staff, including our team leaders and mechanics. We ask for their opinion and comments on this.

Spotlight on sustainability

Due to the need to balance aesthetics and durability on campus, one of the key goals of the department’s mowing activities is to maintain an attractive turf without too many weeds and to do so in a respectful manner. of the environment.

“This is where culture comes in: keeping things healthy,” says Schied. “A thick, dense lawn will not allow weed seeds to germinate because you are not allowing the sun to reach ground level. We mow the grass a little higher – about 3 and a half inches. Leaving it a little longer reduces weed seed germination and allows for a deeper root system, and it allows you to mow a little less frequently with a little more drought tolerance.

Spring can be a particularly difficult time to balance the priorities of appearance and durability.

“The biggest challenge in May is to stay ahead of this one-thirds rule – where you only remove one-third of a blade of grass at a time – because things are growing like crazy. It was wet and rainy last week, and that only compounds the challenge, ”he says.

The sustainable management of the department’s turf includes the judicious use of chemicals.

“When using a herbicide, make sure it’s done at a time when the students aren’t around and the campus isn’t too busy,” says Schied. “This may not always be the best time for herbicides, but we will sacrifice the effectiveness of the product for the sake of safety and concern for people. We try to do as little herbicide treatment as possible.

“We’re not as concerned about fertilizers because they tend not to have the same level of toxicity. If we can fertilize and keep things healthy, we will because it will reduce weed pressure. We hardly use insecticides on lawns. If you have a healthy lawn, it can survive the pressure of the grubs and grow too large for the grubs. “

Sustainability considerations also include careful planning for irrigation and stormwater management on campus.

“We have very few irrigated areas,” says Schied. “Most of the campus is designed to operate without irrigation. Being in the northeast is a little easier to do than in the south and southwest.

“Rain gardens and organic ditches are huge to us, and for every project we build, they are part of our stormwater management. We’re setting up a new dorm complex that has probably a dozen among the buildings. Rain gardens are somewhat self-sufficient; they do not require mowing.

Moving in the meadows

One of the most notable changes to campus landscapes in recent years is the shift from around 25 acres of mowing grass to what Schied calls prairies.

“One of the reasons we do this is to create habitats for pollinators,” he says. “When we first started doing this, we were primarily looking at the environmental benefits as opposed to any ecological benefits you can get by also creating a habitat for pollinators. We have moved (the extension of the meadows) to a lot of sloping areas which are a bit dangerous to mow.

The success of the grassland areas involves a departmental education effort targeting students, staff, and faculty accustomed to seeing only well-maintained areas of grass on campus.

“The prairies started before I got here, and we’ve made the prairies bigger since then,” he says. “When you do something different, if you can educate people and put out a chart as to why you are doing it, that was important to me. An unmowed area makes it look like your mower has broken down or you’re just too lazy to do so.

Education efforts include putting up signs near the prairies – “Tall grass. Small Gas ”- with a message of sustainability that explains the reason for the transition from mowed grass to prairies.

“We do the same kind of education in the winter to let people know there are things you need to be safe. Walk with your center of gravity above your feet. Don’t take long strides. The key is to explain to people what you are trying to accomplish. (Stop the winter falls. Walk like a penguin.)

Pandemic impact

As with all other facility areas over the past 15 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the Department of Schied. One particularly noticeable impact is the mowing activity on several areas of turf on campus after someone approached the university’s architect to create outdoor spaces that indicate social distancing.

“We asked how we could educate students or anyone who uses the campus about what 6 feet is,” says Schied, “With a sunbeam, each of the rays is 6 feet wide and the circles are 12 and 24 feet – multiples of 6 feet. We did a 6ft checkerboard in one of our quads last summer, but it didn’t really work out. We had a drought and the lawn didn’t have enough succulent growth to really show it.

The process of developing the mowing models extended beyond the department to incorporate student feedback.

“A group of students came up with various ideas,” says Scheid. “Some were not viable. With some of the models, we should have been the goalies for the Yankees to create the models they were looking for.

The project also involved the creative use of landscape materials from other land management activities.

“Because of the emerald ash borer, we fell ash trees, so we cut the trunks into stumps that the students could sit on or lean on when they sit on the ground, so that the dots in the rays of the sun measure 18 inches. – large logs of ashes, ”Scheid said.

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