Cover Story: Green care for an ancient campus

The Davie Poplar in the center of the historic north campus is more than 250 years old,” says Kirk Pelland, director of grounds services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s an early morning in March when I visit Pelland, and I’m getting a crash course in campus history – not a small undertaking when there are about 750 acres to cover and only two days to do it.

One of the oldest trees on campus, the Davie Poplar is said to have been where William Richardson Davie, one of the university’s founders, tied his horse while scoping out the site for the nation’s first state university in 1789. This tree and about 131 other “Heritage Trees” (See Page 35) are the showpieces for UNC’s grounds services division. Comprising 90 employees, the department is in charge of installing all new landscaping projects and ongoing grounds maintenance.

Until about 10 years ago, landscaping for new capital projects was outsourced by individual building contractors, but many times the landscaping would fail and the campus grounds division would have to repair the work. UNC’s grounds services division got involved in the university’s capital plan before a $3.1 billion bond referendum for higher education was passed in 2001. Now the landscaping for each project is taken out of the construction bid, a landscape architect draws plans, and funds are set aside to be used by the grounds department. At press time, the grounds division was working on more than 30 capital projects, many of them supported by the bond issue.

“It’s nice because we’re here when contractors finish the job, and we’re still here to do the maintenance,” says Tom Sudderth, installation manager for the university.

Currently the university’s landscape inventory shows 125 acres of managed lawn, a little more than 30 acres of shrub beds and groundcover, and a tree inventory of 6,710 landscape position trees representing 156 species. The scale and pace of the current construction program presents a number of challenges to the grounds division.

“One ever-present question is: ‘How do we maintain something that gets 27,000 visitors trampling over it every hour?'” says Pelland, referring to the hourly class changes at UNC.

Getting in the zone
Pelland, who became grounds director in 1997, says he saw that the campus was growing and switched to zone maintenance to get a handle on maintaining his department’s ever-expanding responsibilities. Today, the campus is divided into 10 zones – plus parking zones – and each zone has a dedicated crew assigned to it. The zoned maintenance crews are supported by campus-wide specialty crews in irrigation, IPM, forestry and landscape installtion.

According to Pelland, there is more expense involved in zone management, but it allows for valuable cross-training. During the off-season the maintenance crews help with installations, and each zone crew is allotted $2,000 per year for plant replacement or improvement projects.

The installation crews primarily do project site-prep work in the summer but they are available to help with maintenance if needed.

“This diversity of zone management seems to provide more fun for the crews and creates a sense of ownership,” Pelland says. “We even had a ‘Stormwater Landscape’ competition among the maintenance crews this winter to give them an added incentive to improve the stormwater function of the landscape in some areas.

To increase efficiency and save time, each zone includes a building – basically a storage workshop – where the crews keep most of what they need including zero-turn mowers, a utility vehicle, hand-held equipment, irrigation supplies, and protective gear. “These buildings are an extremely important component in the way we do business,” says Tom Bythell, university forester.

Saving the trees
Several of the trees that welcomed the first students in 1795 are alive and healthy today. The UNC grounds division aims to keep it that way in spite of the ongoing construction projects. According to Pelland, his department has established rigorous requirements for providing a tree and landscape protection plan for each project (See Page 34), and every effort is made to maintain the campus in a safe and pleasing condition while construction is under way.

“In order to protect the historical trees, we have to get the person in charge of each construction project committed to tree protection,” Pelland explains, “then that person educates their crew in turn.”

Each construction project must have a tree protection plan, and it must be on a separate drawing labeled “Tree Protection Plan.” The plan must include which trees stay, which ones have to be removed, and what is going to be done to protect the trees that stay.

“Many of these large historic trees are extremely valuable and can be worth $30,000 or more – that normally gets the contractor’s attention,” Pelland says.

Elements of tree protection include fencing in the drip line around the tree, putting down four inches of mulch on top of the root zone and installing Geo-Tech fabric. Logging mats – 1,600-pound 10-by-14 foot roadways – are placed within the drip line and root zone of the tree for the equipment to drive on. This allows moisture to absorb into the ground without the soil compacting and starving the tree.

While the grounds division has to take down between 20 and 30 trees each year, a new tree fund established with the capital projects bond enables the trees to be replanted either in the same spot or somewhere else on campus. New trees are planted with an AgriForm slow-release fertilizer tablet, and then leaves, lime and sulfur phosphate are incorporated to help with root establishment.

Where does all the water go?
In light of all the new construction, maintaining the pre-existing runoff quantity and quality has employed a number of innovative practices for managing stormwater including roof gardens, collection cisterns, pervious parking lots and underground gravel storage areas.

Draining sites is the No. 1 challenge with the clay soil at UNC, says Pelland. The grounds division has been recycling leaves for years to incorporate into the soil and make it easier to work with, and there are guidelines for new construction to help alleviate drainage.

Before a site is turned over for landscaping, the contractor must:

  • Maintain the site for erosion control
  • Complete grading so the site drains
  • Install irrigation system
  • Put down four inches of topsoil for lawns; 12 inches for shrub beds.

In addition, pervious pavement in parking lots and gravel infiltration beds (like those under the athletic fields) help reduce the amount of water runoff because they absorb the water straight into the ground.

Rooftop gardens, which have become popular throughout the United States in the last few years, are helping control stormwater runoff at UNC, too. The grounds division installed their first rooftop garden last year on top of Carrington Hall nursing college. Blueberries and machia were planted, and a drip irrigation system was installed to help with plant establishment.

“With this first attempt at a roof garden, we learned that we have to be discriminating with what is planted,” says Sudderth, who has been part of the grounds division for 23 years. “We learned what plants can and cannot be planted together and we keep that in mind for future projects.”

The second rooftop garden is on top of the Ram’s Recreation Center parking deck and student center. All runoff flows into a 70,000-gallon cistern beneath nearby Carmichael athletic field, and is used to irrigate the playing fields and landscaping.

The newest rooftop garden – on top of the FedEx Global Education Building – was planted in March and includes six varieties of sedum in a shallow unirriagted soil profile. Staylite, a porous aggregate, is added to the engineered soil, to assist with infiltration and water retention in this type of extensive roof garden.

“We’re trying to incorporate landscape management that makes common sense,” adds Sudderth.

Smart irrigation, training lead campus into the future
UNC’s irrigation team is a three-man crew that performs all of the maintenance and half of all installations for the 85 irrigation systems being transitioned to a central command station in the near future. Currently, 40 percent of the campus’ irrigation water originates in a 400-foot-deep well built in the 1970s.

“Training is so important,” Pelland says, “but it’s always a work in progress.” A training committee – comprising one supervisor and three employees – meets monthly to take the pulse of division training needs. The grounds division does have standard training for certain equipment, and those vendors lead training on campus about twice a year.

“We give the employees what they want, and we give them what they need in terms of training,” Bythell explains. “We let the training committee select people to attend the various training programs – that way the selection is merit-based by their peers.”

North Carolina State University offers a two-day course for the North Carolina Chemical Applicator’s License in June, and more than half of the staff are certified.

In addition, UNC has a standing schedule of seasonal training opportunities that are promoted for all employees. In-service training is provided on pruning young trees, lawn restoration and Roundup application, among others. “There is turnover in the entry-level positions, so these are refresher courses we teach every year,” Pelland says.

UNC’s community regards the campus landscape as one of its most valuable assets, and that is largely due to the efforts of the grounds services crew. In recent years, the UNC grounds division has won several awards including the Professional Grounds Management Society’s coveted Green Star Grand Award.

The campus was recognized as a national landmark for outstanding landscape architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects and received a Centennial Medallion in 1999.

“We have a staff that enjoys the challenge of producing a high quality campus landscape, and I think most of them realize their work is appreciated by the campus community,” Pelland says. “I am amazed at the institutional pride that exists at this university. The grounds staff needs to know that a beautiful campus landscape is an important part of that proud institution.”

After walking the campus and spending two days with the people responsible for maintaining its beauty, it became abundantly clear that the UNC grounds division has a lot to be proud of.

Elements of a tree protection plan
All construction projects on the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus must include the following tree protection plan:

  1. A separate tree and landscape protection map showing all landscape areas affected by the project. The map must be approved by UNC Grounds and Construction Administration.
  2. Tree and landscape protection measures including any materials used in the process.
  3. Tree protection issues must be addressed in the project construction and staging areas.
  4. Someone designated to be in charge of installing and maintaining protection measures.
  5. Protection outlined if there is trenching or excavating involved.
  6. Resolutions for pedestrian conflicts created by project fencing.

Heritage Tree program
In February 2003, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Chancellor James Moeser appointed a task force to devise guidelines for preserving the signature appearance and beauty of the campus’ landscape.

According to a report by the task force, “heritage trees” are individual trees on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that have developed exceptional history, cultural or aesthetic value because of their age, decent, legendary stature, contribution to the diversity of the campus landscape, exemplary representation of genus or species, rarity or association with an important event or person.

Designation criteria include:

  • Age: an important criterion and varies by species
  • Historic significance: an association with an important event or person
  • Location/setting: a contribution to a significant view or spatial structure of a setting
  • Size or habit: an exemplary representation of a genus’ or species’ characteristics
  • Diversity: a significant contribution to the distinct plant life of the campus

Protection measures include:

  • Prior to any facility design, construction planning, construction maintenance or entry into a preserved area, designated officials shall be notified.
  • The university arborist has authority to establish appropriate tree protection measures
  • If a heritage tree falls within the limits of construction, a designated official has the authority to exclude the heritage land area from the land area deeded to the contractor for the project duration.

Source: “The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Task Force on Landscape Heritage and Plant Diversity,” 2nd edition

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