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About this blog

Joe Fearn is Head Groundskeeper at Drury University in Springfield, MO. We writes about reconciling economic, aesthetic, functional, and environmental needs in the landscape.

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Put a Little Love in It...

I love my job. I don’t love it the way I love my wife and kids, or even my dog, nor do I love it all the time, but on a whole, I love it. Being able to say this puts me in a significant minority in the workplace. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 70% of workers in the U.S. hate their job (hate may have a spectrum of intensity, but I am splitting hairs). There are many strategies we all know to combat job-hate, and any job-hating individual must shoulder some responsibility, yet job-hate continues. Love is an antidote to job-hate. I can’t say if love makes the job, or vice-versa. I can say unequivocally that putting some love into your job produces some great side-effects. Your Community Will See It
Our jobs in the green industry are all inherently visible and bring us into contact with people (customers/clients) regularly. This means all of us frequently have the chance to share love with the people who are influencers to our success (or failure). Regardless of the specific circumstances, most normal people prefer to be served by people who share their happiness in that service. One can get service which is acceptable, but when you receive something extra in that service, it impacts you. You remember, and value, the interaction a little more. If the little extra is authentic rather than merely duty, than even more so. Exhibiting honest enthusiasm in performing our jobs is felt by those we work for, and that is a valuable contribution. Putting passion into your work is a marketable contribution and will be recognized by your community Your Team Can Feel It
Many organizations state that passion is usually an indicator of a top-flight team. I believe this is true. Having an enthusiasm for your work can help provide the drive necessary for achievement. If someone doesn’t have that excitement about their profession, then what? Even if someone isn’t in their dream job, love can help them find the motivation to excel. If most team members feel some sort of love in their work, it becomes infectious. Our crew exhibits love by sharing camaraderie and a sense of accomplishment with their coworkers when performing the task at hand. This team energy frequently becomes a feedback loop. Success brings success and even though setbacks break our momentum, it becomes easier the next time to restart a positive cycle. When your crew works with love, they are eager to share it with coworkers and the community Love Is Infinite
Our jobs are both physically and mentally demanding. Trying to perform consistently without love leaves me depleted and defeated. My moods get dark and nothing is easy. The truth however is that these moods are fleeting because they require a lot of (negative) energy to keep them going. The simple truth we all recognize is that no one wants to be around an unhappy person. Fortunately, love is infinite. Think about it. No one gets tired of being happy. When things are going well, conversations are easier, people forgive minor issues, and team members willingly help others carry the load. None of this work requires momentous action, long winded speeches, or threats of punishment. Workers work because it makes them feel good, a lot. Plants Sense the Energy
To this point, nothing in this blog is likely new to you. But here is where you may think I’ve left planet Earth. The plants (and yes, turfgrass is a plant) at your site will feel the energy and respond in kind. Plants can communicate in many ways. Some stressed trees release chemicals that signal insects to attack them rather than healthy trees. Some plants can communicate via roots. I believe that the plants at my campus pick up on our crews love and enthusiasm and grow just a little nicer for it. Our crew always knows when one of us is in a bad mood, so maybe plants can sense moods too. Bad energy comes off and can’t be disguised. If one’s mood is good, the plants get bathed in it. And a plant love-bathing is a happy healthy plant. (For further discussion please read… https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant) This Blue Fescue never drew attention until this year. It was divided last fall. Coincidence, sound horticulture, or the love of a Groundskeeper? Get Love into YOUR job. NOW.
Performing your job with love is worth it. The benefit to your spirit, performance, and satisfaction will far outweigh the cost of doing it. As a matter of fact, the energy required to perform your work with love actually doesn’t feel a burden at all. It flows naturally from a well spring within. Be mindful though that love in a workplace setting should be a two-way transaction. Your organization must return love within an equitable ratio. This ratio will fluctuate in that sometimes either will be giving more. Putting love into your work must be authentic also. I’ve never seen anyone be able to pretend to like their work for very long. And not being able to put some modicum of spirit into your efforts will eventually cause frustration or resentment. So, do yourself a favor, and find some way to put a little love into your work. Your team's loving work will create positive energy for your organization. But flowers never hurt too.

A Career Told Through Mowing...

If any TurfNet reader were asked what is the most important aspect of your job, I imagine there would be a wide variety of responses. This variety would stand to reason because although TurfNet followers gravitate towards Golf Course Management, they actually represent a variety of green industry segments. I am a Groundskeeper for a university which is different than a golf course superintendent, which is different again from a landscape contractor (I won’t even get into irrigation people who are different altogether). But, one thing that unites us all to some extent is grass mowing. As a hopeful blogger some years back, I submitted the following blog (in somewhat different form) as a test run. In a wise move, TurfNet Guru Peter McCormick said it wasn’t quite what he was looking for and asked for a different submittal to introduce myself to readers. I complied, and this particular article was relegated to the dustbin for a while. I have returned to it time and again usually trying to prove to my crew my vast knowledge on the subject (joking!). I’m not kidding, though, when I say I am serious about mowing. I believe cutting greens to be the pinnacle of mowing (apologies to my sports field brethren) yet I am very proud of all my experience. So, see if any of these experiences evoke a memory of your own, and of course, happy mowing. First Mower That Made Me Feel Like I Wasn’t Mowing a Yard: Yazoo 26” Big Wheel mower circa 1988, built by Yazoo Manufacturing of Jackson, Mississippi. First mower I used as a part-time Groundsman at George Mason University. Bigger than a 21” and was self-propelled by a friction gear against the pneumatic large tires. Boy, I felt cool. First Mower That Made Me Feel Like A Professional: John Deere 52” Commercial Walk behind, belt drive, circa 1989, pistol grips, squeeze to turn. I had moved up to a mower with THREE blades! Man could that thing cut some grass. Such an old mower it didn’t even have operator presence control handles on the grips. I’d love to get one to restore. Just imagine the custom paint job I’d put on it. Favorite Mower of All Time: John Deere 755 w/60-inch belly deck, circa 1990. Again, I felt like a professional. ZTRs weren’t even on the scene. When I left GMU for my first supervisory job at Alexandria Hospital, a 755 was my first purchase. Nice mow quality and very productive if mowing big areas (straight lines only). Deck took about 20-30 minutes on/off to add a range of implements to tractor. What a beauty! Most Impressive Mower (Pros Only!) Toro Groundsmaster 3500-D Sidewinder, circa 2004. Surely anyone who has driven a Sidewinder can speak to what a joy it is to mow with. Quality cut even with rotary blades, great traction, the sliding front decks, smooth diesel power and of course the unbelievable comfort. When I say pros only, there are lots of homeowners now that have experience with fairly nice ZTRs, but only professional turf people know about the Sidewinder. On the Job Today…
Now in my job at Drury University we have a John Deere ZTR and a Grasshopper ZTR, both with 60” decks. We mow 35 acres a week, but have lots of smaller areas and obstacles, so the smaller deck is really nice. Both of these were someone else’s choice though. If I had to pick on my own I would definitely go Exmark or Scag. I think you can’t beat them for durability and quality for ZTRs in utility turf. But as my boss says, what are the best mowers you currently have? Given some of the mowers I have used in the past, these two are wonderful. Some of the runners-up from my career have to be given their due: Best Cut Quality with a Walk Behind: 
Toro 52” with floating deck. The suction on the deck had great lift and the floating configuration managed uneven areas beautifully. I have not seen this quality (close, but no cigar) in any other configuration. However I never really liked the “T” handle steering on my particular mower. Definitely prefer pistol grip. Looks Good Even Sitting Still:
Any Scag Tiger, especially 72”. With Brickman Group in Nashville, we used these to cut 4MM sq. ft. of turf every week. Power, spectacular engineering, production. Be sure you can handle a mower before you use one of these. Not for the faint of heart. If you want to mow for real. Got Leaves on the Course:
Toro Groundsmaster 4000. I had to mow rough that had several inches of leaves. This mower ate them up and mulched as good as anything I’ve ever used. Being able to lift decks independently allowed impressive maneuverability. Mow over an area two times and it looks more like spring than fall. Mowing at a Whole Different Level:
Greens mowing. Enough said. No matter the specific mower, walk behind or triplex, mowing greens is in a class by its own. Seeing your diamond pattern when double cutting, headlights on for an early start, correcting a banana pass, and of course the teardrop turn without stopping the drive mechanism. Nothing else in mowing can compare. A good greens mowing by the best crew member is something to see and requires unique talent. The Hall of Fame of the mowing world. Mower Manufacturers Used:
Billy Goat, Bobcat, Bolens, Bunton, Dynamow, Exmark, Grasshopper, Gravely, Honda, Hustler, Jacobsen, John Deere, Kubota, Lawn Boy, MTD, Scag, Snapper, Toro, Yazoo. Some I liked, some I hated. Same can be said of cut quality. I imagine there are some others I can’t remember. What Is Your History?
I know better than to think this history is unique. I’d love to hear some of the stories from our valued readers. What was your favorite mower? What stories do you have to share? Please respond and share some of your recollections. Thanks, JF.

Sustainability Reluctance 

I believe wholeheartedly in sustainable landscaping. Despite the definition of sustainable landscaping being subject to many interpretations, for me it simply rests on several key premises. Does the management of the landscape seek to decrease resource consumption? Will the landscape continue to grow as we (the organization) need if we decrease intervention? Lastly, does the particular iteration of grounds management meet the long-term goals/needs of the parent entity? If these questions are answered positively, I am at a loss as to why a person or organization would not want to pursue sustainable landscaping. In an effort to see this issue from another perspective, I would like to put forth some reasons I believe cause sustainability reluctance. Sustainable Landscapes are Messy
This may be the biggest misconception about sustainable landscapes. Most people will equate sustainable with wild and this is not always so. Sustainable landscapes need not be rambling plantings run amok. I suggest this misconception arises due to a confusion of objectives. Often when seeking to restore or support an ecosystem, gardeners will utilize native plants which co-exist well within a given ecosystem. In these habitat and organism-focused applications, “wild” plants provide shelter, food, and ecosystem services when left to grow “naturally”. Many restorative plantings are sustainable when left alone, but not all sustainable landscapes need be maintained in this manner. Landscapes exhibiting traditional design/maintenance attributes can be sustainable as long as they seek to meet the aforementioned criteria. Sustainable Landscapes can adhere to traditional design and are not necessarily "wild". Sustainable Landscapes are for Eco-Crazies
Evaluation of anything new or different frequently results in assumptions and stereotyping. A conclusion is reached about an idea before it is even given a hearing of objective evaluation. This can be the case with sustainable landscaping. People may conjure up images of long hair, Birkenstock wearing grounds people sabotaging mowers and growing corn in the front yard. This isn’t the case. Nor is it accurate to think that all the landscape will look like tallgrass prairie, or if a tree falls, it will be left lay to decompose to enrich the spirit of the earth. Sustainable landscaping is a management philosophy that draws on the same organizational and operational imperatives as any other landscaping. Funny I rarely (never?) hear people question the underlying assumptions about the dominant unsustainable landscaping methods. Some sustainable landscapes follow the stereotype, but may still accomplish organizational goals. Sustainable Landscape Changes Everything
If an organization chooses to pursue sustainable landscaping, it should be the overarching principle determining grounds management, but not necessarily in a prescriptive manner. Sustainability is about seeking to diminish resources consumption (time, money, materials, etc.) but this aspiration will not result in identical results for every organization. Consider chemical use in the landscape. One organization may seek to diminish chemical use as a way to contain costs, and market an environmentally conscious landscape approach. Another may choose to continue utilizing chemical interventions but explore ways to decrease frequency. A third may need to hold the line on current chemical use, knowing there is not organizational support for a changed approach, but seek to slowly introduce alternative groundcovers/designs that will not need chemical intervention. Being appropriate in how and where you pursue or initiate a more sustainable approach sustains progress. Everything need not change to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. Sustainable Landscaping Doesn’t Matter to Our Organization
If you have, or are an organization, sustainable landscaping should matter to you. Sustainable landscapes contribute many benefits more than just a pretty, environmentally focused campus. Consider these questions when evaluating sustainability. Do I want my organization to sustain? Do I want my assets/resources to sustain? Do I want my position/livelihood to sustain? Do I want my company’s reputation to sustain? Likely, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. Sustainable landscaping has a positive effect on all facets of an organization. In addition, taking a cue from natural ecosystems, a sustainable Grounds Manager balances the individual needs against the collective, always understating that the success of the whole is paramount. Sustainability Is the Way of the Future
Rarely does sustainability reluctance debate on the science and vocational merits of sustainable landscaping. Prejudices and stereotypes come to the fore when naysayer’s pushback against a sustainable landscape. This does our organization’s a great disservice. Evaluation of the value of landscaping should weigh the positives it brings to its parent, and at what ROI. This is a harsh truth, but a good grounds operation does not flinch from close inspection. Delivering expectations while staying within resource limits is the bottom line premise of sustainability. Drawing a straight line between these two aspects requires accurately defining, and agreement of, what constitutes a sustainable landscape. Sustainable landscaping can be adapted to any application and is greatly beneficial when it is. Truly sustainable landscapes blend organizational goals and landscaping while also seeking to decrease resource consumption.

The 3 Rs of Sustainability

Most people will recognize the title of this blog as a cornerstone approach to pursuing sustainability. Reduce, reuse, or recycle represents three different approaches for resource management that if instituted wisely diminish resource consumption in an operation or household. In my experience, recycle is the step that seems to get the most attention and is also practiced (considered) more frequently than the other practices. But these “3 Rs” are not just arbitrarily ordered so they roll off the tongue. The ordering represents a hierarchy of benefit whereby reducing resource consumption is most beneficial, reusing resources is next, and recycling is the benefit offering the lowest ranking return when seeking to decrease resource consumption. Recycling is important, but only one piece of the 3Rs approach. Drury Reduces & Recycles
Reducing our resource consumption upfront will be our greatest step towards sustainability. In the past several years we have taken the same steps many operations have by reducing water consumption for irrigation and decreasing the amount of chemicals we apply to the landscape. A step that is a little more painful is reducing the frequency of purchasing major new equipment (trucks, mowers, UTVs). We also have changed our maintenance practices and zone expectations to diminish the intensity of operations without decreasing takeaway quality. Here at Drury University we have a fair recycling operation. In 2006 I was in an Environmental Science class with a fellow student that was single-handedly pushing recycling for our campus. Through her efforts, each building received several receptacles for the recycling of paper, aluminum, and plastic. Until recently Drury partnered with a number of organizations to host a recycling center for the use of the downtown Springfield area. In addition to many single stream dumpsters on campus, Drury also takes recyclables to an enhanced City of Springfield recycling center nearby our campus. We are in the process of evaluating our recycling, so we can increase participation and waste diversion. A Drury student uses the 3 bin composting near Smith Hall. Photo credit Taylor Stanton, DU student. Drury Reuses
Reusing materials is another leg of the 3 Rs that Drury University incorporates into our maintenance. Drury Grounds has several composting bins throughout campus that are used by us and students. These three-bin systems are not only effective for household and yard gleanings but are also good looking enough to place unobtrusively on campus. I have blogged elsewhere about how we use obsolete architectural stone from razed buildings in our gardens. One other way that Drury reuses materials is by using our limb chip as mulch on campus. Because large trees are the signature of our campus grounds, we generate large amounts of chip in just normal tree care operations, not to mention during removals. This limb chip allows us to close our organic waste stream, but also provides “heritage mulch” for us.  Tree Failure Results in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Opportunity
In July 2018, Drury lost a large oak tree from the heart of our campus. This tree was blown over in a thunderstorm having peak straight-line winds of 74 MPH. In an interesting aside, a post failure autopsy revealed the likely cause of failure was due to damage sustained by the tree during the 2007 Ozarks ice storm. A large wound (see photo below) allowed a column of decay to travel into the root flare where it impacted enough of the buttress roots resulting in instability. Tree physics requires all forces acted upon the tree to ultimately travel to the roots where they are dispersed into the ground. In this case, the torque on the tree caused root failure and the tree toppled.      Despite being greatly saddened by the loss of this tree, we immediately realized we had an opportunity to sustainability efforts into practice. First, we would reduce (to zero) the amount of tree refuse that would leave our campus. All tree branches and major branches would be passed through a chipper to create mulch. Next, we contacted a saw-milling business we had used before to take the large trunk sections and mill them into lumber that we could reuse/recycle. This is a very sustainable step and also generated nearly 1200 board feet of excellent oak lumber. The trunk base/root flare was placed in a native area on campus where it will be allowed to fulfill its life cycle through decomposition. Instead of being hauled off, large logs from fallen tree were milled and will be reused on campus. Sustainability Pays
Reduce/reuse/recycle doesn’t solve all our grounds management problems. But it does provide an additional avenue for pursuing a more environmentally compatible operation. It also demonstrates to Drury University associates we take our sustainability charge seriously and are constantly seeking ways to deepen our resource conservation practices. The 3 R’s are a well-known approach to conservation and waste diversion. By practicing these steps in our campus landscape management, Drury Grounds provides leadership and hope to our community and hopefully spur others to greater 3 Rs commitment.

Turning Over a New Leaf

My official title here at Drury University is Assistant Director of Facilities – Grounds. I much prefer to call myself the Head Groundskeeper. I believe this job title says something about my philosophy of grounds management. Including 'Groundskeeper' in my title reminds me, and more importantly my crew, that I am to some extent like my team. We are all focused on “keeping the grounds”. Unfortunately, sometimes a rift can develop between us. The crew and I can have differing opinions on how well we are functioning in our role. This rift usually stems from a communication breakdown resulting in different concepts of where we are, and where we are headed.  Getting to the bottom of it.
At the end of last year, our rift was why we were not being effective (we all agreed we could be better, the question was how). To find out why we had this gap in understanding, we undertook a meeting to have some discussion. I like to hear from my team because it gives them a voice and a stake in how we operate. Rather than ask why we weren’t effective, though, I chose to ask why we would accept mediocre performance? The answers were very interesting.  Lack of recognition – hard work is taken for granted by organization Serious days result in more of the same – maximum exertion just gets us more maximum exertion No finish line – perpetually behind No consistency – emergencies prevent a plan Appreciation not shown with meaningful currency – put it in the paycheck, take us to lunch, get good gloves, etc. Little cognizance of how hard the work is – This isn’t a chain gang, but we do work hard We tolerate it – self-explanatory Complacency – we are in a rut   Putting thoughts on a board makes sure everyone is seeing the same thing. We’d Gotten Soft
Every crew I’ve been in has had these issues at some point. But the best crews always find a way to overcome, or at least to manage and get by. My final summary of our situation was we were soft. I mean we lacked the toughness to put our heads down and perform. We didn’t lack knowledge, tools, or even the capability to work hard. We simply lacked the conviction to do what we knew needed to be done. We were at the point where mole hills became mountains, and small obstacles weren’t being overcome. Of course, no crew wants to be called soft. If I was going to help us overcome, I needed to figure a way to get them to see this issue from a different perspective rather than just “being soft”. Finding a way out
Communication within the team has many benefits. One positive is misunderstandings can be presented for open discussion. Instead of asking how our team could overcome “being soft”, I asked how we could improve our effectiveness. The team came up with several answers. What I think is remarkable about nearly every team I have worked with is we all know how to do a good job. By teasing out the thoughts of the crew, they answered the question of improvement on their own, with their own language. Acting as facilitator, all I had to do was summarize concisely what they said. Helping the team craft answers creates an attitude of shared commitment to problem solving. Seeing something in writing adds significance to what is shared. Our Key Response 
Overall, our crew performs pretty well on all these expectations. What we lacked most, at least in my opinion, was discipline. It is not that we had no discipline; it is just that we were demonstrating it inconsistently. Discipline allows a team to set a goal and pursue it to completion. Discipline also allows a team to manage problems that are potentially disruptive and overcome them. Discipline is the framework that underpins all other aspects of crew performance. At the end of last year, I told the crew we would set expectations and meet them. This commitment to discipline, first on my part, then on all our parts was to be the difference maker.  A Very Good Start
Crew dynamics fluctuate, but hopefully evolve. What seems to work for a period of time, sometimes does not work perpetually. This is to be expected. What must be sustained though is the discipline to set standards and goals, and then meet them. If the crew is committed to meeting high standards, those standards having been well explained and unanimously adopted, discipline becomes the catalyst for success. Apathy and inconsistency are the opposite of discipline. A lack of discipline becomes a consistent drag on all efforts to improve. So far this year our team has responded to the call to discipline and even they agree we are better for it. A disciplined crew is appreciated by the entire organization. You may even get cupcakes as a thank you.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

Our Campus is Alive… With Dead Trees

Most grounds managers (including golf course superintendents) understand the important role that trees play in a landscape. Trees supply beautification, shade, pollution mitigation, etc. and on a golf course can add to the challenge of play. Show me a landscape devoid of trees and I will show you a landscape that is not even close to fulfilling its potential. The culture and maintenance of trees is a critical skill for a grounds crew and the amount of money spent on arboriculture emphasizes this importance. However, the life cycle of a tree continues long after it dies, and it can continue to play a significant role during decline, and even when dead in the landscape. Habitat trees are a reasonable part of a sustainable grounds management plan. How We View Death in the Landscape
The modern landscape is devoid of dying or dead plants. As soon as any plant begins to decline, or is out and out dead, it is immediately removed from the landscape and replaced ASAP. Nothing dead can be tolerated in our gardens. This exclusion of dead tissue is actually counterproductive to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. By not allowing the life/death cycle to follow its course to fulfillment, we lop off a segment of this cycle even as the benefits of this process are starting to be released. Decline and Death is Only the Beginning
All living organisms follow an arc as they go through their lives. Decline (senescence, if you will) is a stage that is marked by slower growth, isolated or widespread tissue death, and increased susceptibility to pests and disease. In trees, this decline corresponds with a marked increase of the tree to provide habitat. Nesting increases in newly appearing cavities. Insects begin to feed on wood and leaves that are no longer able to fend them-off (production of defensive compounds is slowed in stressed plants). In turn, birds feed on the insects that are hastening decline further. The truth is, there is far more wildlife and ecosystem benefit living in the cycle of dead trees than living ones. The importance of dead in a living landscape
Our landscapes are comprised of a multitude of organisms and cycles. Removing, or diminishing the diversity of organisms can damage the ecosystem and disrupt the continuation of cycles supporting our landscapes. The landscape carbon cycle requires dead plant material to return nutrients to the soil for turf and plants to use again. The organisms (micro and macro) that enhance the breakdown of organic material into carbon (and other essential nutrients) also require dead organic matter for survival. If we diminish the quantity of one, we diminish the quantity of the other. For this reason, our insistence on removing anything dead could be detrimental. Pests frequently invade trees that are stressed and declining. This attraction to these trees may draw pests away from other healthier trees, almost acting as trap plants. Regardless, dead plants are essential for any ecosystem.  Wildlife trees support and enhance the ecology of a landscape. Incorporating Habitat Trees on Campus
Our campus has about 20% crown cover based on iTree Canopy assessment. This means we have many trees to grow and manage. Our tree demographics reflect a tree age span range of 1-100+ years. This is a good thing. But it means that every year trees die. Big dead trees are obvious in the landscape. In Victorian Europe, dead trees were considered beautiful. Dead trees were frequently left in the landscape to accentuate, draw attention, and provide contrast. But I digress. Our grounds crew usually removes these trees promptly, but occasionally the circumstances around the tree allow us to suggest the creation of a habitat tree. However, creating habitat trees is not appropriate in all cases, but can be a vital part of a sustainable grounds management program.  When and How Habitat Trees Make Sense
Habitat tree candidates (dead/dying), especially large trees, can be left untouched (if in wooded setting), or in our case, cut back to form posts or reduced trees. Since our entire campus is exposed to foot or vehicle traffic in some extent, any dead trees must first be mitigated for stability and safety. We do not want dead limbs dropping constantly. As a Certified Arborist, and in consultation with our tree Contractor, we determine if the location, species, stability, existing landscape context, etc. is right for a habitat tree. Next, we will cut the tree back to stable and durable structure that should remain intact for 5-10 years. Because the prime directive of dead trees is decomposition, habitat trees are regularly monitored to assess their safety and to screen for the time when complete removal is justified. After a thorough assessment, this dead black walnut tree will be trimmed to form a wildlife tree. Dead/Dying Trees Are Alive
Dead and dying trees ARE actually full of life. Large dead/dying trees especially, provide shelter, food, and even beauty in the landscape. Habitat trees can be used to highlight the science of landscape management, embody ecologic cycles, and demonstrate a sustainable maintenance approach. Managing habitat trees is not about simply leaving a dead tree to save money or time. It is about guiding the landscape by letting nature run its full course, because it pays benefits to our landscapes and organizations. Wildlife trees can take on many different shapes and sizes.   More information on wildlife snags.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

Talking to The Crew

Recently our crew got together for what is a regular but somewhat infrequent occurrence. We came together to discuss how we might improve our operation, and foster an atmosphere where the crew can freely speak their minds. As I am sure most Grounds Managers can attest to, the crew loves to talk and express their ideas. Groundskeepers are rarely shrinking violets with their opinions. What is difficult is not getting them to talk, but channeling that talk first into positive contribution, and then into concrete/measurable plan of action. What I do know beyond a doubt is that for all the ideas we come up with, the ones that are most likely to stick are the ones the crew come up with themselves. It’s About Having a Voice I have yet to meet a person in groundskeeping that is hesitant to share their opinion. However, this does not mean that all the talk we hear or participate in is always beneficial. Beyond the daily chatter, important talk sometimes reaches a point where the crew needs to share their voice to gain some beneficial result. It goes without saying, but is also worth repeating, that talk can’t initiate change without getting to the ears of someone who can influence the situation. Having a voice means providing feedback and viewpoints to decision makers in your organization. Don’t let good discussions end at the crew level. However, it is vital to remember that in some capacity we are all decision makers, and that we must all share our thoughts. Inviting the crew to regular campus meetings makes them feel included, thereby more likely to speak out. No One Has a Voice if No One Listens On the surface, this seems obvious. Listening (more accurately hearing) is the essential step necessary to create a voice. “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?” truly does apply here. When my crew expresses thoughts on any subject affecting them, it is imperative to understand what they are really getting at. It may be exactly what they say, or there may be some other message wrapped up in it. When I listen to hear (more accurately understand), I share in giving my crew a voice. We cannot stop here though. The crew must listen and give you a voice. Managers must be sure that the crews voice be heard, and understood, by our bosses too. Our bosses play a significant role in creating the world Grounds Crews work in and pushing the words of the crew up the chain of command adds to their voice. More Than Venting Talking with the crew is about much more than just giving them a safe space to blow off steam. Yes, letting team members get thoughts off their chests is valuable, but effective team communication provides more. If it sounds like a crew is just complaining, who wants to listen to that? Grousing and griping gets the organization nowhere because it isn’t meant to build up or generate useful discussion. Far too often, complaining is just negative noise, and sometimes is intended to hurt or create negative outcomes. I heard a good phrase the other day, “complaining with a purpose”. Making the team aware of undesirable circumstances to shine light on them thereby promoting analysis of these conditions is very useful. The negativity of complaining can become a habit and should be discouraged. Presentation style speaking is good for sharing information, but not for fostering dialogue. Change Requires Speaking Out All too often team members are dissatisfied with something that is occurring in their job but feel they are powerless to do anything about it. This sense of resignation may be an understandable conclusion based on the organization. On the other hand, feeling powerless may be more about the individuals own predisposition. Making improvements rarely happens without energized and willing participants. Change for changes sake is not smart, but perpetually doing things the same is not always smart either. When I talk with my crew, I am always impressed with the good ideas that they share. Even their bad ideas (there is usually a few of those too) reflect an energy and intention of trying to improve our work process and atmosphere. Creating an environment where ideas can be shared openly without fear of negative consequences is essential to a high functioning grounds operation. Keep Talking It Out I define myself as a “long-talker”. This means I can take a seemingly long time to say something. My reason is I have a crystal-clear image of what is in my head, and it is challenging to use just a few words to be sure to convey my thought accurately to another. Fortunately, not all conversations require deep thoughts of great importance. We are all familiar with tailgate meetings comprising just a few sentences to refresh awareness on a topic. Listening to new voices is also a good way to generate conversation. Regardless of how you structure your talks, keep talking to the crew. It will pay off, and all of you will appreciate the conversation. If this is how your crew responds to your meetings, it's time to try a new approach.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

Sustainability Tectonics

For any geologists reading this blog, I am not speaking about tectonics from the geology standpoint. I am not going to discuss whether the continents derived from the supercontinent Pangaea, or how plates thrust together to form mountains. For my purposes here, tectonics refers to the widespread impact of something and speaks to the pervasive influence of some factor or affect. Sustainability tectonics (my term) are those inescapable factors that influence an operation or landscape and its ability to achieve sustainability. Note: I am not attempting to define sustainability here. Suffice that we all have a generally similar idea of what it is. If you want more clarification, please peruse some previous TWG blogs. Speaking About Geology I suggest that the main geologic factor influencing sustainability is bedrock. Any grounds professional will attest to the importance of soil towards supporting a healthy and functional landscape. But what makes soil? The bedrock of an area creates the soil we work in. Here in Springfield, MO, our bedrock is Burlington limestone. As a result, our default pH is alkaline. If I want to create a landscape that prefers an acidic environment, I must undertake significant interventions. And those interventions will necessarily be temporary, requiring repeated amendments to be sustainable. It is much easier to take cues from the indigenous flora and plant a landscape that can tolerate higher pH, or plant adapted plants if a nonnative palette is suitable. The limestone for this church on Drury Campus was cut from local bedrock. Climate Springfield, MO. can be a volatile climate. In this respect, we are no different from most places. Our historic extremes are -29F and 113F. However, our average temperatures range from 22F to 90F. Based on these numbers our normal weather is stable, but we can get fluctuations. I tell people that the droughty periods we experience (2012, 2018) and the heat (May 2018 hottest on record) is unusual, but not unheard of. Fortunately, our plants, animals and insects are wonderfully adapted to the Missouri climate. Growing the plants that are adapted to a region doesn’t mean plant it and forget it. Planting with an eye to sustainability means that the plants we grow will require less intervention (resources) based on the prevailing climate of our site. It doesn’t mean that everything will always grow. Nor should we seek to overcome too many impediments to accommodate a landscape. Hydrology The water cycle is yet another monolithic influence on sustainability. Water is one of the essential requirements for plant growth. It is also essential for human life. The aspects of water that are the most challenging to cope with is regularity and scarcity. Regularity means can we obtain water when we need it. Scarcity is asking is there enough water supply to meet all our demands for it. We could start discussing water priority (drinking versus irrigation) but I digress. The main obstacle facing a sustainable water situation is living, or should I say growing, within the natural water budget. Every time an operation uses water that does not fall from the sky or generated on site (springs, catchments, etc.) the goal of sustainability recedes. The sustainable landscape should not receive non-natural water. Succession and Change In nature, every niche is exploited, and change is constant. No matter what condition a landscape is in at a given moment, that landscape is transitioning (growing) something else. Turf must be mowed to maintain it within a narrow tolerance because if eft unmaintained tall fescue will grow to 12 or so inches and then go to seed. Planting beds must be pruned, mulched, weeded and replanted otherwise they become unruly, escape boundaries or change their planting mix. Maintenance all takes place to prevent the landscape from growing into something that is deemed unacceptable. In Springfield, over the course of history, our landscapes were an Oak/Hickory forest dappled by savannah. This matrix of plants and animals is what our ecosystem strives for. If left alone, succession will drive towards this destination despite the disturbed aspect of the urban setting. If left undisturbed, Springfield might revert to savannah like the Union Ridge Conservation Area. Pic credit: nature.mdc.mo.gov Implications Sustainability in the landscape is about aligning what the landscape is, with our maintenance regimes. To the extent that these two objectives differ, is the extent to which we have to invest resources to overcome macro-influences. On a golf course or sports field, the distinct purpose of the field is largely unnatural. Thus, it will be harder to align sustainable operations with the objective of the landscape (many golf courses/sports fields, etc. are successfully pursuing sustainable operations despite the inherent challenge of doing so). On a college campus however, the landscape has more variability in what is expected of it. In this setting the sustainable management of the landscape can be furthered by designing, installing, and maintaining a more natural landscape. The key will be a landscape that pays homage to sustainability tectonics, not persists in opposition to it. Naturalizing plantings unify function and sustainability, but are not suitable to all locations.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

Bees provide educational opportunities as well as honey

For all the years I have been the head Groundskeeper at Drury University there has been a honeybee hive in one hollow Mulberry tree in a section of our campus called College Park. The tree happens to be right along a main sidewalk, one that is used by essentially all the 200 or so students that live in those dorms. Several times over the years, the Facilities Department has fielded calls about the bees being a nuisance, or even a safety concern. However, once we have educated the caller, they usually are accepting of staying a little farther from the tree, and once again the beehive becomes inconspicuous.   Bee Coexistence Any Groundskeeper knows that honeybees are about as harmless as any insect can be. Drury University has added hundreds/thousands of native trees, shrubs and flowers over the last 6 years. Despite this density of bee-friendly plants, I can’t think of the last time any of the grounds crew was stung by a bee, and we are constantly IN the plants. The one adjustment we configured on the “Bee Tree” was to cover the original entry point with heavy mesh and drill a hole higher up in the hollow. This arrangement has suited the bees fine. Their entry/exit is about 10’ off the ground. Most of their traffic is now high above the walkway. Drury Grounds also uses its social media to share info about Bees (pollinators in general) and educate people about their benefits plus how to be safe around them.   Honeybees are harmless and generally do not sting unless provoked.   Entering a New Phase I have always thought about having a functional bee hive on campus, but it never seemed to gain traction. There are so many projects and tasks that are higher priority which meant that beekeeping was low on the list of priorities. That changed about a year ago when Drury’s newest Groundskeeper came to the job as a real-world beekeeper in his own time. Groundsman Leroy has about 10 hives at his house and is able to harvest and sell some delicious honey. Finally, his knowledge, the will of our Grounds Crew, and a donation of bee boxes from a faculty member (DU economist Steve Mullins) came together this spring.    Capturing a Swarm Obtaining bees is not easy. Apparently native bees, caught naturally, are more durable and are more likely to be successful as a hive. This is because they have proven tough and adaptable in the environments they live in. Bees are also available for purchase, but our fledgling effort did not have funding. Therefore, we set out to capture a swarm. This April, the Bee Tree split a swarm. We were able to catch the basketball size ball o’ bees and tried several times to settle them into our bee box. Initially, the queen left the hive and settled nearby. It was only later that evening that we found the box empty and the bee-basketball under a nearby bench. Before sunrise the next morning we recaptured the swarm (AND the queen). This time we sealed the hive for 24 hours and used old frames with wax residue on them. Apparently, this helped make the bees feel more inclined to make this box their new home.  Finding a natural swarm of honeybees is very exciting for any beekeeper. Despite our best efforts, this swarm resisted going into our new box. Eventually they were relocated. Quite a Success Story The Drury beehive is a little over 2 months old now. In early July we opened the hive to assess its status and see how things were progressing. We found a healthy, vibrant colony that was doing just what we (and they) wanted. The Queen was laying eggs and filling frames with brood. Some of the brood frames had an arch of honey over them which is exactly what we want to see. The honey super was almost full too. In fact, the honey storage was going so well, we could harvest our first 3 frames of honey. The full frames were replaced with empty ones which will spur the bees to get busy again. The afore-mentioned Dr. Mullins has recently donated another brood box and honey super which we plan to install soon. The health of #DUbees is obvious through the hive itself, and the HONEY! Plans for the Future Our goal for the bee program at Drury University is still being developed. For us on the Grounds Crew our plan is to build the size of this colony this year, and hopefully have enough of a population that we can split the colony next spring. Of course, if the colony naturally sends out a swarm, we will be prepared and hopefully catch it to add to our program. Grounds will also be watching the “bee tree” to see if it will swarm again also. We also plan on having several capture boxes placed around campus in the hope we will catch a random swarm from nearby. Drury Administration has signed off on the bee program and has given preliminary approval to Drury pursuing “Bee Campus” certification. This program is sponsored by BeeCityUSA organization. The BEE Campus program seeks partner universities to raise awareness of pollinators, enhance habitat, and share success stories.    Drury is “Bee”-eautiful Drury University has been pushing habitat improvement for several years to increase species diversity (birds, plants, insects, etc.) and improve the ecologic services our campus can provide (stormwater management, carbon sequestration, air quality improvement, soil protection, etc.). We have pursed these goals through diversification of the planting regime, repopulating the urban forest, managing water use, and decreasing chemical interventions. Our efforts have resulted in improved habitat for a range of organisms both small and large. The humble honeybee is just one of many organisms that are thriving on our campus. Creating a campus that is appealing to bees will ensure that Drury will be appealing to our human visitors as well. Hopefully Drury will be a “sweet” destination also. 

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

Diversity Abounds...

Several years ago, when I started as the Head Groundskeeper at Drury University, I came into a campus that was one dimensional and lacked meaningful diversity in any terms. The campus was comprised mostly of shade trees and turfgrass. Having recently worked at a municipal Springfield park that was abundantly planted and had been growing in for seven years (post installation), I was taken aback by the stark appearance of the campus. This is not to say it didn't look well-tended or thoughtfully laid out. It just looked plain. While I did note that there was a dearth of flowers and smaller trees, I didn't think of it in terms of diversity. Now, after several years of hard work, I see how beneficial the pursuit of increasing diversity is to a landscape.   Diversity Stabilizes the landscape Diversity (biodiversity, design diversity, management diversity) is an important objective for the landscape. Increasing biodiversity improves the ability of the landscape to respond to environmental changes. If our landscape consists of only one plant, and we get an unusual weather event, an entire population could be wiped out. Biodiversity also prevents one organism from dominating the landscape to the detriment of others. If a pest outbreak occurs, the susceptible target could be decimated, but unsusceptible organisms will not be.   Design and maintenance diversity also prevents our landscapes from becoming monotonous. Design diversity could be as simple as adding native plants to a landscape. Maintenance variation could be changing mow patterns or employing FRAC codes to prevent resistance.   Planting variety helps improve more than just plant biodiversity.   Even in the relatively homogenous landscape (strategically homogenous, (think golf course or sports field) diversity is sought after. Turfgrass blends/mixes are SOP, and aesthetically designed roughs and landscaping amenities are common management principles.   Stratified planting Here at Drury University a means to increasing both biodiversity and design diversity is through stratified planting. Stratified planting means blending large trees, small trees, shrubs, perennial plants/flowers and turf. Within these plant types a mix of deciduous/evergreen is also beneficial. This increase in plant diversity adds habitat for organisms. There are birds that nest closer to the ground and there are others that prefer elevated tree cavities. Stratified plantings also help to provide a variety of food sources for animals and birds. Providing a range of foods promotes biodiversity. Stratified plant arrangements also capture rainfall which benefits the environment by decreasing runoff and cleaning pollutants.   Stratified planting provides layered habitats for different animals and insects.   Plants, plants, and more plants A wide variety of plant diversity is important for maximizing the health and benefits of the landscape. An obvious benefit of plant diversity is a rotation of bloom. The aesthetics of a rotation of bloom is a highly desirable aesthetic feature in the landscape. Perennial plants have lower maintenance impact because they are planted once, and can potentially be divided in the future to be planted elsewhere. Early blooming plants are vital forage when insects and animals are coming out of the winter period to replace spent reserves. Some native plants also have a mutualistic relationship with other organisms (Milkweed/Monarchs is one such widely known relationship). Some plants can also be used to help restore the ecosystem (legumes fix Nitrogen) and a matrix of plants can help decrease water runoff and soil erosion.   Dandelions are an important early-season food source for bees.   Birds and Beasts An indicator of ecosystem health is the prevalence of birds and animals in the landscapes we manage. This is not to say that every landscape must strive to have a menagerie of animals roaming the grounds, but some diversity of animal residents shows you have a healthy ecosystem. On our campus we have groundhogs, skunks, squirrels and rabbits (nothing extraordinary here). We also have a healthy range of birds including a nesting pair of Red-Tail Hawks, nesting Eastern Bluebirds, Kingbirds, Killdeers and Scissortail Flycatchers (again the usual suspects). What is remarkable, though, is that none of these animals and birds were present six years ago. If they were seen on campus, they were only passing through, not calling it home. This is strong diversity for an urban setting. Just this year I saw my first Black Snake on campus and I couldn't be happier.     The Next Steps Improving the ecological health of the Drury University campus is a worthy goal. A landscape that demonstrates diversity in different forms is pleasing to patrons, plus can help support the organizational goal of demonstrating sustainability and environmental commitment. As green-space dwindles, and development changes the appearance of the landscape, managing our grounds as refuge for plants, animals, birds and insects is increasingly vital. Biodiversity is a key component of nature, and should be a key component for Grounds Managers also.   Diversity is essential in the landscape. Who can really say what is the most important species?  

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

It’s My Baby

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry takes his car to his mechanic for a knocking noise. After the mechanic determines the problem with the car, he tells Jerry the adjustments the car needs in order to operate at its maximum level. Jerry thinks these repairs are overkill and tells the mechanic that he will take the car elsewhere. At this point the mechanic steals the car rather than let it continue to be operated by an owner who does not value it adequately. He rebukes Jerry, "You don't even know your car!" While this isn't exactly the way I see myself regarding the property I care for, it does speak to the deep bond that many groundskeepers form with our landscapes.   Professionally and Conscientiously Bound Groundskeeping is not a profession many of us got into because of the monetary compensation or the accolades. This in no way prevents us from performing with a deep commitment to excellence. Additionally, some of our professional certifications carry an ethical requirement to do what is best for the environment and our responsibilities. This is no trivial oath. Our self-respect and the respect of our peers requires we do our utmost.  Many of us have found that groundskeeping provides us an opportunity to play a role that makes a difference. By being dedicated to our landscapes or golf courses, we are fulfilling a drive that seeks to give back to our organizations and communities.  Whether we enhance the happiness of a golfer playing nine, an athlete on a pitch, or a student strolling a campus, we know the work we do is significant.   Sweat Equity Another reason groundskeepers are so fervent about their grounds is we know the work that has gone into them. Landscaping a course or campus, and then maintaining it, is no small undertaking. Even at its most basic our work is physically demanding and takes place in frequently challenging environmental conditions.   Grounds men know the work it takes to beautify the landscape.   The tasks and projects we accomplish can be small or large. They may take minutes or weeks. Regardless of the intensity or the particulars of a job, our work builds over time through a continuum. Landscaping is never done, but is a journey that creates experiences either satisfying or stressful. The result is our grounds reflect the magnitude and quality of our investments of knowledge and effort. As groundskeepers we have shepherded our courses and fields over time and cannot help but see the massive determination we have invested.   Travelling a Long Road Together I came to Drury University as a student in 2006. While working at another position, I happened to meet and talk with a DU professor (who has since moved on). While we were discussing sustainable landscaping and groundskeeping in general, I said working at Drury was exactly the type of job I hoped for. Well, in 2011 I started as the Head Groundskeeper at DU.   This is the first tree i planted at Drury. We have travelled a long way together.   In the years since, we have made many changes to our campus. We have planted hundreds of trees and shrubs, and thousands of flowers and bulbs. We have installed dozens of new flowerbeds through which we have articulated a native, low resource paradigm, even while continuing to maintain a high threshold for aesthetic design. I have now seen many students, faculty, and even groundskeepers come and go. When I think back to the campus that was, I am keenly aware of the long road the campus and I have travelled together.   We Deal With Life One of the fundamental facets of groundskeeping is that we are managing living organisms and ecosystems. While this factor adds some stress to our work, it also is the source of much of our greatest satisfaction. Regardless of the life form that we tend to, seeing these entities thrive is rewarding. When you consider that grounds managers watch over soil (yes, it is alive), turf, flowers, shrubs, trees, etc. we have a lot to keep healthy.   The life of the campus never ceases to amaze us...   Since our landscapes are also parts of larger systems, we also have impact over animals, insects, streams and lakes. Our cultural management approaches can provide significant health benefits to the parts of the systems. But the greatest potential for satisfaction is the wellness and enjoyment the landscape can impart to our human patrons. Humans are hard-wired to connect with nature, and for many the landscape is a primary opportunity to engage with it.     Thinking Beyond Myself Here at Drury, our landscape is shared by thousands of people. All of these people have a story, needs, and aspirations. Most often they do not center on the campus grounds (unlike the groundskeeper). But this does not mean that they don't care, or invest in some small way. When a visitor asks a gardening question, or a student relaxes in a shady spot, when anyone appreciates the landscape, they are getting a small taste of what us grounds managers experience nearly all the time. Because for most of the time we love our campuses and are thoroughly attached to them. They are our babies.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Build Your Brand to Build Your Value

Branding is the effort to create a distinct and significant positive awareness of your organization in the mind of your customer or stakeholders. This recognition of your capabilities and contributions can be important to whether or not your operation is seen as benefiting the organization as a whole. Branding is a way that you can you can help to affect the way your image is perceived by the people you work with every day. While your work output/quality is the most important factor to organizational value, it never hurts to work some public relations. And who is better to tell your story than your team itself?   Architecture to Advertising In 2010 two old buildings on the Drury Campus were razed to create a greenspace. Most of the old construction debris was removed, but some decorative architectural accents were saved. No one had an idea of why they were saved, only that the craftsmanship would be wasted in a landfill. While dreaming what they could be used for on campus, Grounds considered that they could be cut into slabs and used as plaques of some sort. The pieces were cut at a local quarry into 1-inch thick pieces. These pieces have the distinctive shape of the parent piece, and the cutting allows the character of the stone to come through. Several designs have been stenciled into these stones with a sand blaster. Some were too detailed and could not be acceptably produced. We finally settled on a simple design that does the job. These pieces are currently being evaluated by Alumni Development as bonuses for significant donations, amongst other possible uses.     Architectural stone from old building gets new life as branding.     Flags on the Lane Drury University was founded in 1873. In an effort to pay homage to our longevity and celebrate our history, we every year have a class flag manufactured. These flags are used as backdrops for the stage at events, and are used to line our main thoroughfare (Drury Lane) for graduation processions. Several years ago Grounds decided to put the flags out for other special events on campus. Putting the flags out demonstrates that a particular event is a big deal and that we want to make an occasion of it. We will now put out the flags for Freshmen First Day, our largest sporting events, and special Alumni happenings. This extra effort is well appreciated and never fails to get noticed by attendees. Since someone influential to Grounds is usually in attendance at these events, it is also good press for our crew.     Placing flags around campus for significant events demonstrates commitment to the organization and enhances the brand   Share Your Knowledge Any Grounds operation has a wealth of knowledge at its disposal regarding any and all facets of landscaping and grounds management. What better way to provide value to stakeholders than by holding a seminar and using in-house experts to teach on a subject. Providing a class not only helps you meet your stakeholders, it also allows them to understand in a meaningful way how professional you are, and the extensive knowledge you have on your subject. We know how specialized we are, but some of our patrons may not. I have never held a seminar where attendees did not leave with added appreciation of the capabilities our crew has, and the knowledge we use on a daily basis. Having professional peers and industry experts present is also a way to demonstrate influence plus professional respect for your team.   I have never held a seminar where attendees did not leave with added appreciation of the capabilities our crew has, and the knowledge we use on a daily basis...   Drury Crimson Crape Myrtle A couple years back, a well-known and respected employee was leaving Drury to pursue a career elsewhere. I was interested in doing something to thank this employee and wanted it to be an action that would remind him of the Grounds crew. Of course I landed on some sort of plant, especially one that would evoke our campus. I have a professional acquaintance at a local nursery who develops plants for copyrighting and production. He informed me that he had a Crape Myrtle he was developing that would emulate Drury perfectly. My boss acted decisively supporting Drury Grounds by investing in bringing this plant to market. We have since partnered with Greenleaf Nursery and have the Drury Crimson Crape Myrtle in production. Distribution will take place in Spring 2018 and we are hoping it will bring the Drury name to the nation.   Distribution of the Drury Crimson Crapemyrtle is a significant step towards expanding awareness of our brand.   Strong Branding Helps Everyone This may seem like self-promotion to some. It is to an extent, but what is wrong with that? In my experience, a grounds crew, whether at a golf course or a university, rarely gets acknowledged adequately for what they do. We have to tell our own story. But, be inclusive with your efforts and make sure you really try to benefit more than just the Grounds Crew. Help sell your entire organization. By demonstrating your pride and capabilities in reasonable yet sometimes innovative ways, you will help increase the value grounds has to your organization. More importantly maybe, you will help others value your organization.   Tell Your Story So let's hear your best branding efforts. Please respond to this blog and share what interesting branding/promotion efforts your group has done. Your suggestions may help your peers on TurfNet. I know Im looking forward to reading them. Thanks!  

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Orbiting the Giant Hairball...

Several years ago at a previous job, I became mired in a funk. This funk had to do with the politics of my organization, and with how those politics frequently seemed to force me to work in ways that I did not support. This was not a new situation for me. Many people who strive for continual improvement are frustrated by business as usual, and the lack of a team being open to new ways of doing things.   I talked this issue over with a mentor (my brother-in-law, Kevin), and he said he had just the thing I needed to help me see this situation with a fresh perspective. He suggested a book that had helped him over the years when dealing with just this issue. He recommended Orbiting the Giant Hairball; A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie.   Gordon Mackenzie's Hairball Gordon MacKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, worked in the creative department of Hallmark Cards for 30 years. He compares the organization and processes at Hallmark Cards to a giant hairball. When employees participate in this work environment, they become entangled in the hairball.   The problem with a hairball is despite good ideas and excellent effort, any forward momentum is exhausted by the confusion and inertia of this indecipherable tangle ("Corporate Gravity", MacKenzie's term).   The paradox of the hairball is despite your best efforts at untangling it; one far too often is stuck. This is especially true for people who do not fear change, as the hairball is like quicksand as well. The more you fight, the deeper you sink. Even if you do not fight, you are still stuck. One must escape the hairball.   Orbit, Not Entanglement However, not all aspects of our organizations (hairballs) are detrimental. Our organizations can provide important benefits such as stability, resources, direction and camaraderie.  The key, according to MacKenzie, is to stay close enough to the hairball so you can take advantage of these benefits, but not so close you succumb to its pull and become entangled. Hence the title, and main thrust of the book, Orbiting the Hairball.   Creativity is a vital part of our work processes, but is frequently not valued in the finished product.   Being in orbit is about balancing the pursuit for innovation and being open to change, yet honoring the practices and theories that got our team where we are in the first place. Orbit also has the unique benefit of being a form of sustainability. One can stay in orbit without using a lot of energy. Maintaining the proper orbit requires we resist going too far in either direction where we risk being pulled out of orbit.   Why I Want to Orbit One of the main satisfactions of my work is the ability to put some of my identity into my job. In fact, one of the greatest motivators for employees in any role is the opportunity to contribute their talents to an effort. But these contributions are too frequently suppressed or hindered by workplaces that don't value ideas from all levels of the organization.   ...one of the greatest motivators for employees in any role is the opportunity to contribute their talents to an effort.   In one of the first chapters, MacKenzie visits a school and asks the kids who of them is an artist? The kindergarteners and first graders are all artists, but as the grade level increases, the number of self-professed artists decreases. It seems that our schools, organizations, and places of employment value conformity, rather than "Creative Genius" (Mackenzies term). Orbiting is about exercising enough creativity to stay in orbit, and to resist the pull of Corporate Gravity.   My Favorite Chapter Chapter 21 in Orbiting is titled A Conference of Angels. In this story, MacKenzie recounts a sales team conference that he attended to help create a new approach. What he observed was a team going through the motions and arriving at the same tired results. After confronting the meeting coordinator, he got permission to intervene in a novel way. Using gongs and candles he had participants relax in a darkened room, centering themselves internally. Using meditative mantra, attendees cleared their minds and entered an open state with infinite possibility. When Mackenzie "awoke" them back into participation, the result was an outpouring of new and provocative ideas on how to improve sales efforts. His approach unlocked the creativity of the team because it displaced the preconceptions and "Corporate Normalcy" that consistently limits inventive consideration. The lesson learned? Looking at problems in new ways and with new parameters can create amazing possibilities.   Who wouldn't like to attend A Conference of Angels?   Takeaway Orbiting is not about flying beneath the radar, or about being in some netherworld of mediocrity, floating between anarchy and apathy. Orbiting is about finding a location in the organization that allows for maximum creativity and personal investment by team members while still honoring the organizational imperatives required of us as employees. When employees are allowed to contribute authentically, to the greatest extent possible, within particular circumstances, they are more satisfied and productive. We should all be Orbiting the Giant Hairball.   Many of us see ourselves as a Rembrandt and simply need a canvas to paint on.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

A Long and Proud Family Tree

I love being the Head Groundskeeper at Drury University. This job is invigorating, challenging, thought provoking, and even most usually, exhausting. Grounds maintenance (and of course golf superintending!) challenges us both mentally and physically.   One of the aspects of my job, and our larger profession, I find fulfilling is the idea that I am participating in a time-honored human endeavor. Much of our work in the green industry has to do with fulfilling some kind of commercial purpose. In addition, though, many of us feel deeply connected to something greater that has to do with ecology, environment, spirituality, and service to our fellow man. A deeper aspect of this redemptive meaning to my job is the idea I am part of a longer continuum. I am not the first DU Groundskeeper, nor am I the last. I am merely the current one.   ...many of us feel deeply connected to something greater that has to do with ecology, environment, spirituality, and service to our fellow man.   Someone Prepared the Way for Me Drury has been at this site since its founding in 1873. There are certainly older campuses around, but we can be proud of our 144 years. The town of Springfield only incorporated in 1838. While 144 years is not a long time in some reckoning, it is still several lifetimes.   I often wonder what the original caretakers for Drury thought when it was first founded. What were they trying to create and maintain? Were they thinking about stewarding the land? Were they wondering what a groundskeeper in 2017 was going to be wondering about them?   I am not the first DU Groundskeeper, nor am I the last. I am merely the current one...   Groundskeeping is a profession that enables us to impact the lives of the people around us. When someone admires the trees on campus that were planted nearly 100 years ago, they become part of this continuum. Someone was caring for these trees when they were young; I owe it to them to do the same for our entire landscape.   I have it easy The photo of the groundsman with a saw in his hand tells me a lot. First, think of the tools our predecessors had to work with. This man isnt holding a chainsaw. Even if there were chainsaws at the time, they would not have looked like a Stihl trim saw, nor started on the first pull of the recoil starter.     I have watched videos of the loggers working in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. They were definitely the real deal. Could I have measured up? The fellow in the photo also has a Jacob's ladder to climb the tree. No bucket truck or climbing harnesses for this gentleman. I imagine him literally climbing the tree like a kid would do. It is also remarkable that the campus looks more like a woodland/forest glen than our modern campus. The density of planting is unheard of today. I do not necessarily think we are always doing better than these trailblazers did.   Some Things Never Change; Some Do The photo below shows a groundsman swinging a pick to dig a hole. We don't know the reason for the hole, but it must surely be something important based on the number of people watching him (several are in academic regalia... a sure sign of a big event on a college campus). What has not changed from then until now is how much people like to watch a grounds crew work. I am not going to speculate why they are watching. People love gardening and will watch and chat frequently. Others are curious and watch in order to try to find out what is going on, or learn some tricks of the trade. However, what I find very interesting is the work is being performed while the event is occurring. Nowadays a grounds crew would perform preparations behind the scenes, then the occasion would unfold, followed by the grounds crew breaking down the area. It might speak to how important the role of the grounds crew is that all these dignitaries were watching the work being done.     Brethren. Before and After. These last photos show two different groundskeepers from Drury University. The first is Dan Fetter, circa 1911. The next is yours truly. Mr. Fetter was known as 'Campus Dan', which certainly sounds like the DU community, cherished him. I like to wonder what he was thinking of at this time in his career, not to mention the Springfield community and the nation. This man had a huge impact on my career as well. I imagine none of the specific plants he tended are still here, but some of our trees are descendants of those he tended. More importantly, his stewardship for the campus has continued to this day. Tending the campus landscape for the future is deeply ingrained in Drury Grounds.     Our job is not fleeting. Nor is the impact we can make on our landscape. We groundskeepers have a long history, playing a vital role for our communities and organizations. By understanding and honoring the past groundskeepers and fulfilling our obligation to those who will follow us, we can become a part of something enduring long after we have left our jobs. This is perhaps the best aspect of what it means to be a groundskeeper.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Rethinking Restoration

Here at Drury University we have several tracts of land that we want to restore. When I say restore some may say restore to what? Many people conjure up images of native meadows or woodlands. Our campus project has the meadow option in mind. In our work, restore also generally means to return an area to some previous state of vegetation, and to repopulate with some various native plant material. Restoration can be carried out for several reasons and is widely recognized as a viable option in grounds management. That is to say, stakeholders in the specific patch usually won't freak out when restoration is considered.   Restoration Benefits There are several benefits that can be realized via a restoration project. First, restoration can be supportive of, and integrated into, sustainability efforts. By reducing the maintenance requirements of an area, you save resources. Restoration can add to the aesthetics of an area by contrasting other areas, introducing rotation of bloom or textures, and the inherent beauty of "amber waves of grain". Function of the area can be improved. Meadows can also play an important role in ecology by supporting pollinators, songbirds, catching rainwater, and simply by increasing biomass. There are also other benefits that may be site specific to be determined by the participants.   Some Considerations Restoration is not a magic bullet. Sometimes a grounds manager will consider restoration but factors align to eliminate this as an option. Typical installation practice involves eradicating existing vegetation, which might create an erosion problem. Establishment is, at best, a several-season process, during which the site can look different than its ultimate desired appearance. The blend of seed for desirable plant mix is critical, but many excellent sources and mixes are available. Proximity to high value areas generally discourage restoration projects. Proximity to residential areas can also have an impact. Both of these can originate from concerns of aesthetics, security, or even wildlife encroachment. Local conservation or Extension services, as well as professional colleagues, can be a great source of technical advice, which can increase the likelihood of a successful restoration.   Attempting to introduce meadow appearance too close to high value area (DU President's House)   Start Where You Are As previously stated, the usual restoration process begins with eradication of existing vegetation. Here is where I think a different, more gradual approach can be incorporated. I suggest simply to begin managing the area as a meadow while you oversee a transition from the previous state to a restored state. In particular areas, simply by decreasing mowing frequency, raising mowing height, or stopping altogether, a meadow appearance can quickly be created. I suggest that while many people with some plant/nature knowledge will know that it is not truly a meadow yet, the average person will still take in the area as a meadow. Many areas stay in a turf configuration due to constant management, the discontinuance of which will allow a natural succession to begin to restore the area to something else. This approach is less disruptive and uses less resources also.   Mowing adjustments allow for restorative appearance and riparian protection.   Inescapable Environmental Influences While for some return to native or predevelopment condition is the objective, I suggest a less predetermined goal. In any area, there are inescapable environmental influences that have for thousands of years determined what organisms survive in each region. Weather patterns are made up of temperature range, natural rainfall, prevailing winds, etc. The specific geology of an area is set in the bedrock, which unlike topsoil disturbance, does not change over time. Native organisms have evolved over millennia, in coexistence with everything in the area, not simply adaptable because of some few similarities. Certainly these influences fluctuate because of many factors (disturbance, development, exotics, etc.), but they create a broad, yet inescapable limit to what can inhabit an area when allowed to be the dominant determinant factors.   Incorporate Reasonable management practices I am not suggesting simply to stop mowing and you will restore an area to exactly what you want. I am suggesting using low intensity management to influence what thrives in an area. Mowing/brushhogging height and frequency is a significant management tool. Another is overseeding the affected area with whatever seed blend you desire. As with turf, overseeding can change the plant mix in a stand in a desirable direction. Spot spraying to eliminate noxious invasives (Johnsongrass) is also very beneficial.   Lastly the consideration for controlled burn can be included although this may not be considered low intensity. I include public education in management. Some well-placed signs can explain the exact what and why of a restoration project, and helps prevent concerns about the changing landscape.   Minor cultural management could improve this area and create restored appearance   This should work/shifting expectations When I look at these photos, I do not see neglect. I see a reasonable and appropriate management approach that can be utilized where appropriate. I also see an area in transition, but acceptable nonetheless. The underlying desire I have in suggesting this approach is to not have to go backwards to then go forward in restoring an area. I simply suggest starting where you are, defining where you want to go, and begin immediately moving there.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

What I have learned from TurfNet...

Please do not think this blog is shameless pandering to a site I am a member of. I joined TurfNet first as a user also contribute now as a blogger. I found TurfNet while looking for resources on general turf maintenance and sports turf. While TurfNet is focused on the golf industry, there is much information applicable to these other fields.   One of my main interests is in an organic-based approach to turf management that focuses on natural processes over chemical intervention. Fortunately I found many people on TurfNet thought like me (or I was thinking like them), and were posting information about utilizing natural turf management.   What I also found on TurfNet, that I wasn't expecting, was insight that would not only help my grounds management, but help make me a better manager in general.   Focus on What's Most Important Much of TurfNet focuses on greens, irrigation, equipment, and culture, etc. This wide variety of topics shows me that at any one time, almost any aspect of our jobs can be most important. Understanding the biggest challenge one faces at a particular time allows one to deal with that problem appropriately. Will this problem pull resources from another task, is the job seasonally sensitive needing to be done at a particular time, or does it have to be done as a prelude to another important task? Reading all the conversation in the forum around one particular topic (greens), or respecting the authority of a contributor (Frank Rossi), also helps me to focus my efforts to learn new information... or maybe more importantly, question old assumptions.   ...helps me to focus my efforts to learn new information... or maybe more importantly, question old assumptions.   Take Advantage of Technology If you had told me years ago that much of my learning and research would have occurred online, I would have said it won't work (I thought that about zero turn mowers at one time too). Online interaction between peers, and online distance learning has become SOP in our industry. Contacts that would have once been limited to previous acquaintances, are now available to any member on TurfNet. I follow several blogs closely and also watch videos from experts that I have never met, nor talked to. I believe I put a better product in the field because of it. Now with the capabilities of smart phones or tablets, the entire knowledge base of TurfNet is at your fingertips, anytime, anyplace. For an old school groundsman like me, this is very beneficial.   Success Anywhere Promotes Success Everywhere Here at Drury University we do not have any golf greens. We do not have 6" discharge pumps to feed our irrigation, and we do not use Jacobsen fairway mowers. But we do get Brown Patch, our rotary blades still need sharpening, and our turf type tall fescue still needs essentially the same nutrients as your creeping bentgrass. When I read about someone's successful efforts to install drainage, or organize their maintenance shop, I get a window into someone's method of tackling a problem I might be facing. This sort of comparison lets me take advantage of someone else's efforts, and unfortunately also their failures, to improve my processes. Evaluating procedural or administrative steps that help achieve success can also lead to applying other people's success to your own situation.   Drury's Grounds Shop could use some organizing advice   Teaching Others Creates an Advantage, Not a Threat Many people see teaching or sharing information with others as a threat. They wrongly think that if someone else learns what you know, they might be able to replace you. I worked for a boss that had this perception. No matter what I tried to accomplish, he saw it as an attempt to usurp his authority rather than accurately seeing it as the attempt to achieve his goals. The people on TurfNet do not hold to this threatened school of thought. The eagerness with which members and contributors interact creates a positive exchange of ideas and is good for all users. Writing about a subject allows the author to evaluate his own ideas, and the reader then can contribute questions or knowledge that a particular author may not have considered. The information flow between academia and field users also helps spur on innovation and improvement for both segments.   Whether on a golf course or university grounds staff, each groundsman has an opinion that must be considered.   Differing Opinions Open To Criticism There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Reading on TurfNet reminds me that my way is only one way out of many. In any forum topic there are a number of different opinions than mine, and even within like opinions there is variation. This range of ideas helps me realize that I cannot assume any answers, and differing opinions should help me listen and seek to understand. These opinions are not about telling me I'm wrong, but about telling what has worked elsewhere. The whole benefit to TurfNet is improving my capabilities and performance in all of the many jobs we are asked to perform.   TurfNet continues to be a very valuable tool for me, particularly in areas in which I didn't expect it to be.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Remember When You Enjoyed Your Job? (!)

Here at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, we are in the middle of a spring droughty period. While 13 days without rain is not too hard to manage, I am beginning to feel the initial twinges of water concern. Knowing that we will be experiencing a normal hot/dry spell in summer, I count on spring rains. I am sure everyone understands what I mean.   While we have started our irrigation on our high value turf (the native plants are just fine), much of our mowing and blowing is still dusty work. In the midst of a throat choking mower pass, I happened to look up and actually notice a glimpse of the campus landscape that made me stop mowing and just soak it in. It was nothing spectacular, but the way the plants and turf mixed with shadows and background, really struck me. Suddenly, I remembered, I really love my job.   Eye-catching campus landscape   Looking for What's Wrong, not What's Right I seem to spend a lot of time looking for the things I need to fix. I think my role as grounds manager is to see problems two weeks before my boss does. Since my boss's job is to see problems two weeks before the general public does, I need to be seeing problems a month before anyone else. This means I need to be looking at what is wrong, and also looking for what is becoming wrong. This focus on correction leaves little time for sitting back and appreciating the beauty and success around me. Not only do I not look for positives, but when I do see them, I do not dwell long on them. Fortunately, and possibly counter-intuitively, I do focus on what my crew is doing right versus wrong. Thank goodness for that, as focusing on the negatives could really burn you out, and your crew.   This focus on correction leaves little time for sitting back and appreciating the beauty and success around me...   Stop Setting Your Standards Too High I have personally visited some of the most renowned gardens in the world. Seeing Versailles, Buckingham Palace, the Biltmore Estate, and the National Arboretum amongst others, changes your perspective. No longer is 'just good enough' good enough, and reading in TurfNet about golf course management does not lower expectations. But I have to be realistic. At Drury, no one besides me thinks the campus landscape is the most important aspect of the university. Given the adequate, but not extravagant, support we get, we are doing a great job. Pursuing greatness in a good situation can be approached as a welcome challenge rather than a day after day grind.   Focus On Something Enjoyable I believe good supervisors most often put their crew's needs before their own. Even when it is not acknowledged, sacrificing the easy for the harder jobs shows you still have something to offer, and that you don't see yourself as divorced from the guys in the trenches. Much of the manager's job is administrative, or even political if you will. Building and maintaining support from your organization is not only about plants and grass. Even though not physically demanding, this aspect of the job can take a toll on you also.   Many of us managers are field oriented. Sometimes getting on a mower is exactly what I need to get out of a rut. Striping some nice grass with a sharp set of blades can refresh you and restore perspective. This is what it is all about isn't it?   Take pleasure in even small accomplishments...   Inventory Your Accomplishments Grounds managers are a competitive bunch. This makes reflecting on accomplishments difficult, or short lived. No sooner do we succeed at something, then we are chasing the next objective. We also can compete against ourselves, and that is an even harder competition to win. If we allow ourselves to enjoy our victories a little bit longer, they can prove to be satisfying and can record a timeline of our success both personally and as an operation. Drury recently received a significant certification (most grounds managers are certification-driven) being named only the seventh ArborDay Tree Campus in Missouri. Awards like this are testimony to the effectiveness and accomplishments of a grounds operation and should provide satisfaction whenever it is needed.   Keep It In Perspective I have it pretty good. Even when considering dry spells, budget and personnel worries, and maybe even some vandalism thrown in, I've got it pretty good. My crew has a great if twisted sense of humor, I have four seasons of weather, and my boss listens to most of my ideas. Only based on my experience, and without being judgmental, I think roofers have it a lot harder than I do. So do small operation farmers. So do nurses in the children's wings at hospitals (likely nurses anywhere for that matter). My oldest brother Bill spent 37 years in the U.S. Marines. I know he had it harder than me. Simply put, the glass is definitely half (3/4?) full. I just need to remember that.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Random thoughts on sustainability

Writing my last blog about the future of grounds and landscape management got me thinking about how potential changes could alter my current programs. It then lead me to wonder about sustainability (what in the world does that mean?), and how that could change my grounds management too. As I pondered these questions, I began to wonder what steps are to achieve the sustainability goals I believe in and support. In no particular order, and without saying that these are the absolute answers, here are some of the steps I am taking to improve my sustainability.   First, define 'sustainability' Sustainability is everywhere these days and everybody says they and their products are sustainable. The most common definition is based on Norwegian Prime Minister Bruntland's statement of "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future". As I have pursued what I think sustainability is, I have come to a definition that I think gets to a better heart of the matter. I use the sustain root of the word and ask myself this question: If I walk away (stop managing my landscape) will it sustain, or keep doing what I want it to? This question pursues a zero-resource approach rather than the low resource approach of sustainability (postpone-ability). A self-perpetuating landscape? Impossible, maybe. Pursuable, definitely.   I use the sustain root of the word and ask myself this question: If I walk away (stop managing my landscape) will it sustain, or keep doing what I want it to?   Higher mowing heights I imagine this is nothing new to most of you. Generally speaking, raising the height of cut helps durability, decreases weed pressure, and shades the soil. But if you go by the rule of thirds (removing no more than 1/3 of blade each mowing), it also decreases frequency of mowing. Here at Drury University we cut most of our turf (TT Tall Fescue) at 3.5 inches. We have a couple of areas that we mow at 4". If we add ¼ to ½ inch height, we can potentially eliminate 2-3 mowings per year.     Mowing higher also increases leaf mass which increases the ability of the turf to filter pollutants and moderate the flow of heavy precipitation. If we add leaf mass for the 35 acres we mow, that adds a lot of benefit for our campus.   Another aspect I wonder about is the ability to first drive roots deeper, then as the roots senesce, they add organic matter and leave channels in the soil, thus improving soil quality. I may experiment with cutting some areas at 6 inches or higher, and see what happens.   Promote plant and insect diversity I have been in grounds management for almost 25 years and have never treated, in any way at all, for grubs in my turf. I think this is significant. Grub control and the associated concern about Japanese Beetles is very common. I believe that my cultural practices of almost no chemicals, and organic fertilizer go a long way in diminishing grub pressure. I suggest that the array of harsh fertilizers and pesticides we use on our turf creates an environment that grubs thrive in. All the additives cannot help but have some collateral effect on beneficial organisms. When this occurs, there is less competition and fewer predators. Opportunistic insects such as grubs can get out of hand when this occurs and pass treatment thresholds. I certainly have grubs. I see them when I plant or dig through the sod. But I know I do not have enough to worry about. The proof is in the turf that I cultivate. It looks fine and is healthy enough.   I suggest that the array of harsh fertilizers and pesticides we use on our turf creates an environment that grubs thrive in. All the additives cannot help but have some collateral effect on beneficial organisms.   Promote all life cycles As soon as something dies in the landscape, we remove it. This does not occur in any natural ecosystems. Dead organisms and organic matter are consumed in one way or another, either decomposed or eaten. How many organisms in our landscapes could benefit from decayed logs, or leaf litter?     There is an entire set of organisms that require dead matter to live. By incorporating small pockets of a variety of dead and decaying plant material, I may be supporting a keystone species in terms of landscape health. Considering that the vast majority of microorganisms in the soil are beneficial, I may actually be enhancing a critical microorganism also.   Support products that support a new paradigm The green industry has rolled out a lot of products in recent years promising sustainability. Many of these have proven to be "greenwashing" and no more sustainable than any other product. If I believe in some goal of sustainability, it is my responsibility to run my operation that way, and to utilize products I think support that goal.   In recent years I have purchased and used horticultural vinegar and citric acid products as weed killer, new rotating heads and evapotranspiration monitors for irrigation, corn gluten and pelletized alfalfa as fertilizer and battery powered mowers/weed eaters. Not all of these products are as effective as their industrial strength cousins, but they have proven to be serviceable in many applications. By purchasing these, I am helping fund exploratory and experimental products, thereby helping fund improvement of the products. If no one buys them, they will stop moving in new directions.   Many possible answers I don't have all the answers. I don't even have new answers. The situations individual managers find themselves in vary. What works for us at Drury University may not work at another operation, and all of us must have wiggle room in our programs.   Although I support low input turf maintenance, this spring I put down Tupersan with overseeding on our athletic fields and an event-focused turf space. Ultra high quality or special-application turf needs an entirely different regime. But with the changes that will be forthcoming, I try to do as much of what I want to do, so no one tells me what I have to do.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Preparing for the Landscape of the Future

Recently I watched a video on TurfNet TV from Randy Wilson, called Ten Years from Now. It, of course, takes place ten years in the future and talks about the scarcity of fungicide, fertilizer and diesel fuel. Even effluent water is being bought by a bottled water company rather than being used for irrigation on their course. Buddy laments they should have gone half organic when they had the chance, but they were worried about being ridiculed by the "Dark Green Fairway Movement". It is truly a great parody video, but like all parody has a ring of truth to it. Now I don?t know where golf specifically is headed, but I have some thoughts on several possible environmentally-focused changes for the industry as a whole.   Chemical restrictions will continue, and increase There are a number of hort/ag chemicals that have been banned in the past decade or so. I haven't kept a list of them, but I know it happened. This trend will continue and even accelerate. Even the neonicotinoids, which were heralded as a safer chemical, are coming under intense fire for possibly damaging bee colonies. Industry mainstays like glyphosate are in the sights of many environmental groups, and the sheer quantity of glyphosate used by the industry makes this product a ripe target. I only use chemicals under the most urgent situations, but for high quality sports fields and golf, some chemical use is a necessity. If our industry helps guide restriction legislation, rather than fight it out of hand, we will get to use the safest, most effective chemicals in the future.   If our industry helps guide restriction legislation, rather than fight it out of hand, we will get to use the safest, most effective chemicals in the future...   Inorganic fertilizer restrictions will continue, and increase In parts of the U.S., most noticeably around the Chesapeake Bay, fertilizer can only be applied after a soil sample indicates the need, and then only using certain products. This is a wise step, especially for homeowners, but I imagine there is very little oversight or monitoring. Certification is already needed in most situations for pesticide applications, and certification of fertilizer applicators is ramping up too. The fertilizer industry is seeing that organic fertilizers have more impact across the spectrum of turf nutrition needs because they benefit not only the plant, but also all the organisms and soil around it, creating a much healthier grass ecosystem. As more companies produce more organic and hybrid fertilizers, costs will come down. Given the efficacy and broad spectrum benefit of organics and hybrids, they may already be a better value per dollar.   You will need a permit to run a chainsaw Power equipment in the green industry is loud and relatively polluting when compared to other combustion based engines. Even with CARB standards, mowers and blowers are resource intensive. They use a lot of gas, generate more emissions than a car, and are uniformly loud. While all industry equipment, i.e. weed eaters, chain saws, hedge trimmers, etc. are much improved and more efficient today than in the past, they still will face scrutiny in the future, especially at the local level. In many places there are already noise restrictions, and a number of locales have restricted blower use. As cities enlarge, and green space shrinks, air quality concerns will allow legislators to focus on power equipment and the restrictions will increase. Couple power equipment with urban forest oversight and chainsaw permitting is a distinct possibility.   I will not be allowed to irrigate... at all Irrigation restrictions are everywhere. In Nashville in the early 2000's we went on curtailment and could only water from 1am to 5am (4 million sq. ft. of total turf at 40 different sites, it couldn't be done). This effectively was a ban on commercial irrigation. During the 2012 Midwest drought, here in Springfield we could only water on odd/even days. Again, given the size of my campus, this was essentially a ban. I could water everything, but improperly and ineffectively. As water utilities need more water for drinking supplies and industry, horticulture irrigation will be the odd man out. Smart irrigation and increasingly efficient systems plus components will delay but not prevent the day when there is no water for irrigation.   Smart irrigation and increasingly efficient systems plus components will delay but not prevent the day when there is no water for irrigation...   The future is bright I know that these predictions are not particularly far out or insightful. If anyone in our profession is surprised by them, they haven't been paying attention. There are certainly other changes to come also. Thinking as a green industry professional, I support these measures whole-heartedly. Increasing restrictions and environmental pressure will be good for our industry. No more will just anyone get to call themselves a turf expert or groundskeeper. For professionals, the ability to provide a high quality product, aligned with and heavily relying on natural processes, will be a necessity. This expertise will allow those able professionals to command better pay and control.   As future development expands, golf courses and college campuses will become some of the most important green spaces, both sought after and supported by government and the private sector. The challenge for our industry is to understand where we are headed, whether we like it or not, and to help define what that future will be. If our industry resists, we will not be able to affect the result, even though we will have to work within it.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Stem Girdling Roots (SGRs)

I have planted hundreds of trees in my career. Actually I think there is a real possibility I have planted in the thousands. Not multiple thousands mind you, but more than one thousand. I have also had to take care of those trees for many years after installation, and have had an opportunity to track many successes and some failures. My survival rate for the trees I have installed is very good, over 95%. Also as an ISA Certified Arborist, I have to study about tree culture, and am ethically bound to do industry best for them. What I have found over the years is that there are several surefire ways to plant a tree to die, one of which is stem girdling roots, or SGRs.   SGR Defined An SGR is a root that has been deflected and is now growing in a circle around the tree trunk. Healthy roots should grow like a spoke away from the tree and into the surrounding soil. One of the main causes of SGRs is container-grown stock. The root hits a plastic wall, turns, then continues to grow in a circle. These roots will continue to grow like this even when removed from the container. As the tree trunk and roots grow occupying the same space, the roots constrict the enlargement of the trunk and begin girdling the vascular tissue of the trunk (directly below the outer bark). Many people think the trunk will grow to snap the root, however the roots are enlarging simultaneously.   Obvious SGRs that require pruning/removal.   The result The result of a significant SGR is the trunk and root flare below the girdling does not enlarge. The trunk above the girdling does. This imbalance disrupts the normal taper and ultimately the tree either dies from insufficient water and food movement, or breaks at the point of girdling when under load. At the very least, the tree is stressed even under good conditions and is susceptible to secondary problems like disease or insect. The aesthetic appearance of the tree will suffer. Girdled trees will appear stunted, have sparse growth, poor coloration and flagging. Frequently, premature death of the tree occurs just when it should be coming into young maturity, and the death leaves a significant and noticeable void in the landscape.   Control There are a number of steps to prevent or repair SGR that are easy to accomplish. Like many horticulture problems, prevention is frequently easier than repair.   Purchase good stock Purchasing tree (and large shrub) stock without SGRs is your best defense. It is also the easiest since someone else is doing the work. Unfortunately most large scale, economical production methods used by nurseries can create SGRs. Inspect stock before accepting and be sure to examine root structure before you buy. This goes for container grown, balled & burlapped, or even spaded trees (trees may have SGRs prior to moving).   Address SGRs before you plant The time to perform preventative pruning is before the tree goes in the hole. Examine the roots when you take the tree out to plant. Look for the root flare zone. The flare zone is where the primary buttress roots will widen quickly. Trace these roots away from the trunk and look for roots that cross them. If there are any cut the crossers with pruners. Be careful to prune small crossing roots and not the primary roots themselves. Aggressively tear open the roots by hand or with a pick. Try to separate the tangles of roots to guide them out from the trunk. Slicing the root bound area can be a last resort, but the roots should still be significantly pulled apart.   Plant at the right depth and do not over-mulch The root flare zone should be obvious and should be planted above the soil level. A larger tree, greater than 4-6 inch caliper, should have a flare zone 2-3 times the width of the trunk. Do not mulch close to the tree, nor too thickly. Adventitious roots can grow aggressively in the mulch.   Curative Existing trees in the landscape should be evaluated for SGRs. Smaller trees should be inspected first. Excavation of the root flare at ground level will quickly show if SGRs are present. Undesirable, inferior roots should be pruned. It is only necessary to remove a piece to prevent regrafting. A hand pick or bull trowel should suffice. This is examination, not major excavation. If you have high value trees the use of an air spade to blow soil from the root zone may be justifiable.   SGRs after root pruning.   A tailgate full of SGRs after removal.   Putting SGRs behind you SGRs are a common problem. Yet I only learned about them in the last 10 years. The many trees I planted prior to this awareness survived because I aggressively separated roots to prevent circling. Preventing circling roots and preventing SGRs are two sides of the same coin. With a large dose of preventative effort, and a small dose of cure, SGRs can be overcome.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

OK, so what is Third Way Green?

Simply put, Third Way Green is my philosophy on landscape management (while GC Superintendents are very specialized for their task, they are certainly landscape managers). I call it 'Third Way' because there are currently two dominant landscape management approaches (an intended simplification), neither of which adequately fulfills the desired landscape potential. So there needs to be a 'Third Way' that fulfills all the benefits we are seeking from our landscapes. 'Green' comes from a focus on environmental compatibility which underpins all our landscape management.   Two Paradigms We are presented with a cornucopia of products ranging from pesticides, to fertilizers, to every possible power tool and a host of other products for your 'landscape'... be it a golf course, college campus or athletic field. As landscape professionals, we have a huge range of products at our disposal for intervening in the landscape. This product-based management is one paradigm. Anything 'wrong' with our grounds/course can be rectified with a product.     The other paradigm is that the landscape should be left alone and nature should dictate what happens in it. All of the natural processes that affect a landscape need to be respected. These influences (environment, native flora and fauna, geology, etc.) are the truest form of intervention and the product they create is the necessary culmination of the landscape. Nothing can be 'wrong' if it is natural.   The Problem Both of these approaches fail to take into account the diverse objectives of the modern landscape. Regardless of your position on man's influence (good or bad) on the environment, man is here to stay. To attempt to manage the commercial/recreational/educational landscape utilizing only natural processes is not useful or realistic. But to intervene in the landscape without seeking harmony with the environment is unnecessary and destructive. The Third Way seeks harmony and reconciliation between these two seemingly antagonistic needs. The Third Way seeks harmony and reconciliation between these two seemingly antagonistic needs... Application Here at Drury University we are taking a Third Way approach. First we determined what the University is expecting from the landscape. We listed four objectives: functionally supportive of Drury's Mission, aesthetically pleasing to a diverse population, environmentally compatible, and financially feasible. Nothing earth shattering or innovative there. The Third Way approach comes in during implementation of these objectives. In most landscape projects I have been a part of, a prioritization of needs is created. Some of the needs are underserved, or forgone completely. Our approach requires all facets to be maximized.   Sustainability The current way we manage our landscapes is unsustainable. I don't mean this in an environmental, tree hugging, save-the-earth way, but in a way that asks "if I were to stop intervening, would this landscape perpetuate?" I may be sounding 'out there', but what I am seeking right now is not the nuts and bolts process of landscaping, but the aspiration, the destination, of my landscaping approach. Sustainability for me does not necessarily mean 'eco-friendly', but can it be sustained, and what combination of approaches achieves that?   Conclusion Third Way Green is a management theory that seeks to maximize, and more importantly, optimize the reconciliation of man's wants (golf) with nature's needs. It looks at the landscape from the system level rather than the component level. It is about removing frictions and diminishing inputs while increasing output and benefit. It seeks to reinforce natural systems in that everything that happens benefits the landscape and all its components. The altered landscape required by man is maintained in the most self-perpetuating way possible.   Man alters his landscape. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Nature also alters its landscape. This is not necessarily a bad thing either.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Being the New Guy...

Being the "new guy" can be difficult. When entering a new position or situation it is only normal to feel some uncertainty and to try to come up with strategies that make transition easier. Having been a kid in a military family and having switched positions several times in my green career, I have learned several tips for making the best of a new situation. Now as a new TurfNet blogger, I am in the new guy ranks again.

Don't come on too strong.

The team that you are entering into has a history. Just because you weren't there doesn't mean they weren't working hard and trying to get the job done. While the experience and knowledge you may bring to the situation is something they may benefit from, take it slow and evaluate what is currently in place.

Seek a shared story or experience.

For the most part, people get along with people like themselves. While diverse backgrounds and talents can ultimately strengthen a team, shared experience can be a foot in the door. Look for ways that the current crew is working like you do, or look for accomplishments they have that you have experienced also. Talking about struggles or success you guys have had doing the same job can build understanding.

Speak the same language at their level.

Using the terminology and trade jargon of your crew can show you understand the job. But not everyone needs to understand genus and species when common names will do and vice versa. Try to talk with your audience/crew, not at them.

Be true to yourself.

This is a big one. Regardless if the new job is a promotion from within, or you came from another operation three states away, your core traits have gotten you there. The most accomplished and respected people are not pretending to be someone. The best people in a field at any level are reflecting and practicing what they truly believe. Being honest, and staying true to your values and convictions is important.

Be Patient

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor will your operation become what you want it to be overnight. Many people get a say in what will take shape. Navigating and managing problems, developing key relationships, and establishing a positive team culture takes time. Enjoy the slow progress and small steps of consistent improvement.

These strategies have helped me over the years in a variety of situations. I hope to remember these points as I establish the direction of my TurfNet blog. They have worked well at times and not so well at others. I have also not had to use all of them together. Each situation has its own peculiarities.   Quite honestly sometimes in the thick of things I'll forget some of the lessons I have learned. This is only normal. The key thing really is to keep trying to learn and do your best. Most people see that and appreciate it.

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Rest in Peace, Beaver

Here at Drury University we are very interested in supporting the ecology of our area. This effort is challenging in our urban setting. Regardless, it is an effort we see as critical. We install native plants and trees that appeal to pollinators, and act as food sources to the local insects, birds and animals. We evaluate the surrounding neighborhoods and see where we might build larger sections of habitat by creating green corridors. Over the five years I have been here I have seen the results of our efforts. We now see increasing diversity and populations of pollinators, birds and animals.   But I never expected to see a beaver (unfortunately, a dead one) on campus.   A Beaver? Really? Tuesday, February 7, I was contacted on Drury Grounds Twitter about a dead beaver near campus. The Tweet asked if I had seen this animal and included a picture of the dead beaver. I replied I hadn't, but asked where it was. The response said in a road that runs directly adjacent to campus. What was a beaver carcass doing in downtown Springfield? While working at a nearby park for Springfield/Greene County Parkboard I had seen one beaver in a boxed-in creek. But that was seven years ago and nearly half a mile away. Our closest running water to where this beaver was found is ¼ mile as the crow flies. I don't know how beavers forage, but ¼ mile doesn't seem too far, if the setting is natural. Our setting is not heavy urban, but it doesn't scream beaver habitat either. Regardless, there was a dead beaver in the road.   Strange roadkill for downtown Springfield, Missouri.   We Did What We Always Do In the Grounds Management field dead animals are a regular, if infrequent occurrence. I hadn't thought about the carcass again until Wednesday morning. Central facilities got a call concerning the dead animal. I dispatched our Trash Steward to pick it up and discard it in a dumpster. While this unusual incident made some buzz in the Facilities department, the story could have ended there... but it didn't.   Central facilities got a call concerning the dead animal. I dispatched our Trash Steward to pick it up and discard it in a dumpster...   Spirit of the Bear I must honestly say that I hold spheres of knowledge I believe is factual but that I don't really know is accurate. My beliefs regarding Native American culture is one of those spheres. I believe Native American Indians lived in harmony with nature. They took what they needed, wasted little to no resources as they used them, and didn't disrupt their environment too heavily. In total, they stepped lightly on the land. They also held nature in high regard. So the teeth and claws of a Grizzly Bear would be an honored and cherished talisman for an Indian and would be passed through generations. When animals gave of themselves for the tribe, they would be appreciated and their spirits revered. The tribe honored the spirit of the bear. I believe this is true without exactly knowing where this knowledge came from.   Spirit of the Beaver, Honorable Burial I also believe in the mysticism of nature. There is a power to it. I don't define it too rigidly for myself, so I will not argue how any of you readers choose to define it, or not define it. Nature indicates some higher power. I also believe all living things have inherent importance. I was therefore not surprised when I woke up Thursday morning at 4:40 am with the clear conviction that we should have buried the beaver on campus. My fear as I headed to work was that the dumpster holding the beaver had already been tipped. It hadn't. There was a layer of new trash over the bagged carcass, but it was still there. I wondered about a force at work? We began looking for a place to perform the burial.   Nature indicates some higher power. I also believe all living things have inherent importance.    There is an area on campus where we have begun a tree planting effort we call saturation-planting. Our goal is to confront our community with a density of young trees that draws attention to lack of small trees elsewhere on our campus, and in our community. We are talking a lot of trees in a smallish space. This area, we figured, would be the most like what a natural beaver habitat would be. We dug deep, lined the hole with wood chips and buried the beaver body. We did not wrap it as we want the soil system to reclaim what it should. As in all of nature, death will support life.     Eulogy Nature and Man don't always coexist in harmony. I am under no illusion that man's needs will sometimes (frequently) not supersede natures. Often I agree with this one sidedness. But I also believe deeply in the idea that opportunities for co-existence and co-habitation abound. Many opportunities for mutuality are discounted out of hand, diminished by competing priorities, or simply never dreamed of in the first place.   Posting about this story on Facebook got 2,884 views as of this writing. All the comments were positive. I think it is safe to say that there is a sentiment in our area (nation?) that values animals and nature. Many people see that by helping people, and other living creatures, we are also helping ourselves. Nearly all Groundskeepers I have met have a strong nature-supporting ethic. Burying this beaver was our way of demonstrating that.  

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

Water Conservation on Campus: A Tale of Irrigation and Slow, Spread, Soak

As of February 28, 64% of the State of Missouri is in the moderate drought category according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This is up from 50% the week before, and as of this writing the remainder of the state was in the abnormally dry category.   By contrast, California, which had been in a several years-long drought, is now declining in all drought categories. 75% of the state is not rated at all and even the stubborn droughty areas of Southern California are getting moisture. In fact, many areas are now concerned they will not be able to manage any more rain heading into the rainy season. This unpredictable variability regarding water, in an industry heavily reliant on water, demonstrates the need to wisely manage and conserve water at all times.       Irrigation Challenges When I arrived at Drury University the Grounds Department was faced with the following obstacles in our campus irrigation: Poorly designed, installed, maintained systems Poor communication of water needs for landscape health Lack of monitoring of natural rainfall timing and amounts Poor cycle planning and regular adjustments No desire for water conservation The main cause for this situation was a lack of adequate irrigation knowledge and responsibility by the in-house staff, and the contractors that installed systems. If either of these parties had fulfilled their professional duties, these challenges could have been avoided.   For most of the readers of TurfNet, the high level of understanding regarding irrigation theory and application decreases these difficulties, but they still do occur. Over the last five years Drury Grounds has taken many steps to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our irrigation systems. Our approach has been: Appropriate cultural practices (mowing height/frequency, soil health, IPM) Understanding of appropriate irrigation to promote plant health (E/T) Retrofitting of systems to deliver adequate water (coverage, pressure, volume) Retrofitting of systems to maximize system efficiency (smart controllers, sensors, efficient heads & nozzles) Culture of conservation Willingness to eliminate irrigation if appropriate with organizational strategy We aren't doing anything amazing. But what we are doing is working. Our usage has continued to decline while our overall satisfaction with the landscape continues to increase. My point is that irrigation effectiveness is vital and will promote peripheral landscape benefits as a result. But the pursuit of landscape benefits does not necessarily lead to irrigation conservation. Stormwater on Campus Rainfall and stormwater on our campus (courses) is another issue we all face. While we don't have to push up sand in bunkers after a heavy rain, we are still faced with many challenges due to stormwater. These are: City of Springfield MS4 permit  (EPA term for stormwater runoff) Speed with which water moves off campus Erosion and damage Increase infiltration on campus Treatment of water on site (pollution prevention) Budget allotments, competing financial pressures Slow, Spread, Soak Existing water issues need functional correction that meshes with the landscape.   Managing stormwater in (on) the landscape is rarely a priority to an organization if consequences are contained in the landscape. But when the water damages infrastructure, there is increased organizational demand to correct it. But dealing with water before it causes damage is the best, and most cost effective, method of management. To do just this Drury Grounds has endeavored to use the following efforts: Go to where the problem is Take advantage of what water wants to do Keep water on campus Slow, Spread Soak Resource allocation Big Project/Small Project Permission? $$$$$$$$$ Water problems should be viewed as opportunities for increasing Slow, Spread, Soak. The answer here is a rain garden... not a drain.   Managing stormwater on campus is a win/win effort for our grounds operation. First, it demonstrates our commitment, in a very proactive way, to our University's infrastructure. Dealing with stormwater BEFORE it can create damage is financial stewardship at its best. Next, it is great public relations. Water conservation is always good press. Our efforts in this area show we are concerned with our organization and our community. For an industry that can sometimes be under environmental scrutiny, this goodwill pays dividends.   In conclusion Water is a valuable resource to both the Grounds manager and the community at large. If we compete for this commodity, then no one wins. Good water management creates allies. When Drury University keeps rainfall on campus it benefits our landscape, but also decreases the amount of water that goes into the sanitary sewers or stormwater system. Nothing written here should be new to grounds Managers. What this blog should do is support water conservation by our industry. When, not if, we face water shortages, it is in our best interest to be seen as a conservation partner, not simply consumers. The best time for water conservation is always.   (This is a strategic blog in support of water conservation. My next blog will be tactical, discussing how Drury University manages stormwater on campus)

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

 

You Can't Play Baseball in a Tallgrass Prairie... and Killdeer Won't Nest on a Soccer Field

We are pleased to welcome Joe Fearn to TurfNet as a contributing blogger. Joe is the Grounds Supervisor at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, and is an ISA Certified Arborist/Municipal Specialist and PGMS Certified Grounds Manager.   Several years ago I was talking to a local member of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I was asking about a quandary I was faced with and I wanted another perspective. I had recently taken note of a patch of neglected and disturbed ground in a linear park I oversaw. This area was construction debris, no maintenance, and was only weed whacked to keep woody plants out. Yet it had a uniform stand of Japanese Bromegrass that looked amazing.     What I wanted to know was what I could grow in my park to look as beautiful and uniform, with as little intervention? This person?s answer was Tallgrass prairie. That made a lot of sense based on environmental factors and the prevalent soil structure, but you can?t play baseball in a Tallgrass prairie. You lose the bases and balls. So I became a little more accepting of the turf type tall fescue I had, and started looking for ways to make it as environmentally compatible as possible. Mow higher, organic fertilizer, IPM, etc.   Now that I am managing the grounds of an urban university, I am often taken back to my initial question of what to grow? My belief is that landscapes are created too often with far too little assessment of what the purpose of the area is. Because just like baseball needs the proper sports field environment, a Killdeer needs the proper environment too. Killdeer won?t nest on a putting green. People need the right environment for their needs also.   The vast majority of our campus is turf. In many areas we do not need turf. It has simply come into being because no one argues with it. Don?t get me wrong, I love turf.     As a grounds manger, landscape designer, sports fan and golf course worker, a nice stand of turf is absolutely necessary to achieving many of our required results. My point is while turf is better than concrete, in terms of ecological services, it is short of a natural ecosystem in its potential. Environmental service and value is becoming increasingly important every year.   Thankfully and appropriately, many of the golf courses I read about on TurfNet are expanding the mix of plant systems on their courses. But just like I believe irrigation professionals (Golf Course Superintendents, PGMS Certified Grounds Mangers, etc.) are not who should be targeted with water conservation plans (we are aggressively conserving already), as an industry we should be pushing ourselves further, and setting an example for homeowners also in terms of evaluating the appropriate use of turf.      This area at a resident hall was underperforming turf. We struggled for several years to overcome compaction and foot traffic but it was always ugly turf. Rather than continue, we changed direction. Now we have an area that is aesthetically improving while also improving ecological services (water infiltration, pollinators, bird and insect food source/habitat). Several stone paths accommodate foot traffic without disruption. It is a case where turf was never the answer.   The use of turf is the default paradigm, the reasonable use of non-turf natural systems in the landscape needs more proponents. Landscapes should be more natural as a default, then turf introduced where it makes sense, rather than turf as default, and natural systems introduced where there is left over space. The many strongly pro-environment/pro ecology golf course and turf mangers give me hope this is happening. 

Joseph Fearn

Joseph Fearn

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