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Looking Backward at 2023...

Joseph Fearn


Ah, the New Year. The annually recurring time when we reflect on our previous 365 days and take stock. It is a time for looking back and grading out what we accomplished, but also what we struggled with. I get caught up in this time as much as anyone. In this blog I’ll stay in my professional realm and give, at least from my perspective, a clear-eyed assessment of where I took my work, and where my work took me. This assessment may not meet with agreement by all in my organization. It is my viewpoint alone. It is my truthful professional assessment. I base it on the lived reality of mine and my teams’ work experiences and results during 2023. Besides sharing this with TurfNet, I will communicate it to my team and administration. I hope it promotes discussion for continued improvement.

What Went Right
Broad Campus Improvement
The University of Kansas campus landscape looks better at the end of 2023 than at the start. There are less weeds, less overgrown shrubs, less dead trees, and less glaring landscape problems. There are more new ornamental beds, thousands of new plants, an emerging cohesive design concept and far fewer daily landscape issues. Based on consistent complimentary feedback and decreasing service requests, the state of the KU campus landscape is good, and improving every day. 


KU Grounds received many positive comments all over campus, but especially around our showpieces.

Specific Landscape Improvements
KU Grounds is a service-oriented unit. Toward this end we played a primary role in large-scale landscape improvements on campus. Several came to us from other entities on campus. Several were conceived, planned, and implemented by us alone. These projects all reflected our updated design concepts and promoted a new consideration of what constitutes a sustainable landscape. Our capability for successfully completing efforts such as these is critical to our success and overall KU success.

Installation of Improved Plant Palette
Our planting regime is moving the campus landscape in a direction that provides multiple improved attributes over past plant selections. We are focusing on native Kansas plants and nativars, being heavily influenced by the amazing (and highly functional) Kansas prairies. The plants we install evoke the heart of Kansas, provide beauty and support pollinators, diminish resource use, all of which provide significant benefit to the campus.


Utilizing native Kansas and adaptive plants allowed for durable plantings with low resource investment.

Cooperative Efforts on Campus
Educating our students is the prime directive for the University of Kansas and thereby also KU Grounds. We consistently have positive interactions with students. Particularly two illustrate what can be achieved in student/grounds interactions. First is our work with some environmental student groups resulting in a habitat demonstration area on campus. Next is partnering with Student Senate on several projects utilizing the landscape to improve student residential experience. These cooperative efforts give purpose and energy to our ground’s operations on campus.

What Went Wrong
Lack of Communication
While our intra-squad communication is strong, that cannot be said for all our communications with the greater campus. During the year there were two large-scale projects that, in my humble opinion, could have benefited from robust communication with KU Grounds. These are the KU Master Plan and the KU Football Stadium Gateway Project. Both projects will significantly impact on our operations but received little input from our team.

Lack of Resources
Our overarching landscape management approach is resource lean but still requires investment. Equipment, contractors, materials, plants, and most of all our staff labor all need more financial allocation than available. We are fully cognizant that we are not alone in assessing our situation thusly. We manage as best we can, even admirably, but additional resources could propel even more work being accomplished.

We have a hodge-podge team of people, reflecting a wide array of personalities and life stations/experience, working incredibly well together. This is where the magic happens..."

Struggles With Sustainability
KU Grounds seeks to be a sustainable landscape. This aspiration influences and is influenced by all aspects of our landscape management operation. We are making strides in several areas including localizing procurement, purchasing only what is necessary, purchasing the most durable tools and equipment, and managing our organic matter/refuse streams. These and other efforts are moving us in the right direction toward being environmentally/ecologically responsible. Further long term significant strides in sustainability will only come by continually evaluating our entire operation and seeking to diminish the fundamental resource consumption that underlies it.

Too Much to Do
The University of Kansas campus landscape is large and complex. Our work in this nearly 1000-acre tract comprises everything from sky to sub-soil. The arc of responsibility required to complete any one job is a complex interaction of planning, procurement, implementation, troubleshooting, etc. Combining the scope of the job with the team building/team-maintaining headwinds means we are always stretched completing the work we are expected to and earnestly want to. Inevitably something slips through the cracks. The landscape is a harsh taskmaster. Underperformance of even small parts compromises the whole. Our deepest frustration is the current inability, with blame to go around, to accomplish all we and the university want to.


The scale and complexity of campus means some projects must wait or proceed slowly despite best intentions.

A Good Year
Grounds managers and our staff are by and large a realistic bunch. As a result we may not be cheerleaders, nor always express a positive outlook. I frustrate myself through a combination of pessimism and optimism. We have a hodge-podge team of people, reflecting a wide array of personalities and life stations/experience, working incredibly well together. This is where the magic happens. Our team is unified in pushing for a landscape that reflects our highest aspirations. One of our Supervisors, Liam, put it best “In 2023 the KU campus ended in a better place than it started”. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but we did grind, toil, and improve our campus. I can’t think of any better way to assess our year.


2023 was a good year for KU Grounds!

Anyway… Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a prosperous New Year to all the TurfNet Family.

Rock Chalk Jayhawk! ~JF


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