Sustainability is more than just a word at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Location: St. Mary’s City, Md.
Incorporated: 1846 by an act of legislation; four-year baccalaureate college in 1964
Number of Students: Approximately 2,000
Grounds Superintendent: Kevin Mercer, LIC
Campus Size: 319 acres
Sustainability: First college in Maryland to be certified by Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program

Breezes ripple in waves across a sea of grass and flowers bordering a tranquil pond. Bluebirds and purple martins search the sky for fleeting moths and mosquitoes. Shouts and laughter highlight the game of Frisbee golf played on a cushion of green grass. Heaven? No, it’s sustainability in action.

Kevin Mercer, LIC, superintendent of grounds for St. Mary’s College of Maryland, initiated the program. “Like many facilities, we were facing increasing pressure to both become more environmentally friendly in our grounds maintenance operations and adopt sustainability practices,” he says. “I wanted to integrate those goals to improve the appearance and usability of our grounds and preserve our resources while reducing costs. The results earned our designation as the first Certified Audubon Sanctuary campus in Maryland and the fourth in the United States.”

According to Audubon International, the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) provides information to “implement an environmental management plan that improves efficiency, conserves resources, and promote conservation efforts.” Establishing and successfully operating such a program leads to certification.

Mercer says, “As we worked through the process of adapting the basics of that program to the specific needs of our campus, we developed strategies that are applicable to any grounds maintenance program.”

Mercer has joined with Dr. Dave Minner, extension turfgrass specialist at Iowa State University, and Jim Sluiter, the Audubon International staff ecologist for the ACSP, on a book to guide others to certification. With the working title “Environmental Approaches to Grounds Maintenance,” Mercer anticipates release later this year in both hard copy and electronic formats. He says, “The guide-book style will work equally well for lawn care operators with multiple accounts and turf managers from K-12 schools or parks and recreation to pro-level facilities. It can also be used as a classroom teaching tool for college students or for high school environmental studies.”

These students are playing on the Vamont bermudagrass that was stripped out of the college’s stadium and saved three years ago.

Turfgrass maintenance

All turfgrass maintenance programs should start with analysis of existing conditions, including soil testing and evaluation of the soil profile and turf quality and density. The next step is determining whether a completely organic program with zero pesticide usage is a good fit for the site. Mercer applied that program to selected turf areas. For the more manicured look preferred for high-profile turf, he developed a program incorporating fertilization based on soil test results along with standard IPM procedures. He developed a more aggressive maintenance program for sports fields.

Composting grass clippings, annual flowers, shrub trimmings, leaves and wood chips has long been a standard operational procedure at St. Mary’s College Maryland. With the concentration on sustainability, Mercer says, “We now collect and compost coffee grounds and non-dairy food waste from the campus center. We generate over 300 yards of compost per year, using it for our trees and landscape beds and as topdressing to improve the soil profile of our turfgrass areas. Composting also reduces our trash collection tonnage, thus reducing costs.”

Heavy traffic in several lawn areas had created compaction issues that resulted in thinning turf and encroachment of both grassy and broadleaf weeds. Mercer says, “We core-aerated in two directions in late fall, after the frosts had eradicated the annual weeds. We had selected turfgrass cultivars based on the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) results for their performance in our climatic conditions and their disease resistance. Since these were non-irrigated areas, we considered drought tolerance, too.

“We overseeded and then topdressed with a 1-inch layer of our compost. The compost protects the seed during germination and establishment, improves the soil structure and water-holding capacity, supplies beneficial food to every type of organism and contains a good source of fungi that can help suppress certain turfgrass diseases.”

This procedure is repeated each fall. It’s followed by early spring turf evaluation and seeding as needed for any small bare areas. “Our goal is 100 percent turfgrass coverage with no bare spots for weed encroachment,” says Mercer.

The college’s grounds deparment aggressively core aerates areas of turfgrass on the campus that receive a lot of student traffic and use.

He’s incorporated cultural controls, too. To reduce disease pressure, they drag the dew off the turf early in the morning when necessary and they prune trees to improve sunlight penetration and air circulation. They’ve added drainage to alleviate areas of standing water.

Creating meadows

About five years ago, Mercer converted a 7 acre area from turf to a meadow. He says, “We wanted to reduce mowing labor and fuel costs, create habitat for wildlife, and protect our air and local watershed. We seeded a mix of native wildflowers with a sheep fescue. Then we installed bluebird houses in a staggered formation, making sure they all faced south. Mother Nature took over from there providing plenty of wildlife. There are butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, toads, turtles, redwing blackbirds, heron and even the endangered black ducks for the students, staff and faculty to appreciate and study.”

The meadow proved so popular Mercer has converted other areas to them, with the total across campus now 25 acres. “We mow these areas in late fall or early winter when wildlife nesting is completed for the year.”

Kevin Mercer’s grounds team might be small in number but it does a big job in caring for the 319-acre St. Mary’s of Maryland College campus. We bet you can tell which person is Mercer in this photo. Hint: tie.

Strategic buffer zones

The campus is on the St. Mary’s river and encompasses several natural ponds and streams. In addition, they’ve created retention ponds to capture stormwater runoff. Mercer has installed parameter buffer zones extending at least 50 feet beyond the edges of all these water features. The vegetation varies according to site conditions, intermingling native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers. These also are mowed once a year, in late fall or early winter when seasonal rain storms have ended. Plants, such as cattails and water lilies, extend into the water to add greater biodiversity to the habitat and prevent algae.

Three years ago, the stadium field’s Vamont bermudagrass was to be replaced by Riviera bermudagrass. “I didn’t want to apply glyphosate over 79,000 square feet of turf,” says Mercer. “Instead, we worked with the contractor awarded the renovation contract to strip out the existing turf in large rolls and haul it to a site we had prepared for it just beyond the buffer zone of our one-half-acre retention pond. That area had been a mix of turf and weeds used by students for casual recreation. We now call the recycled turf our Green Space Sanctuary. We irrigate it with water from the retention pond. It filters that water as it percolates through; eliminates erosion; becomes an environmental cooler as it absorbs sunlight; and filters dust and contaminants from the air. Students use it for sports including Frisbee, golf, volleyball and croquet.”

Sustainability in the landscape

Know the climatic zone, identify microclimates and soil conditions within the property, and study seasonal weather patterns. Select trees and shrubs that are suited for these conditions, are disease-resistant and less susceptible to insect pests. Those that produce food or shelter for birds and other wildlife have greater environmental value.

Incorporate large, understory and small trees appropriately to create diversity within the tree population. Enhance energy performance and reduce heating and cooling costs for your buildings with proper tree placement to provide shade during the hot summer months and block cold winds in the winter.

Eliminate turfgrass under the tree canopy to avoid competition for water and nutrients. Mercer says, “We install flagstone pavers under the tree canopy to provide a shady spot for relaxation. We also place shrubs in clusters or within plant beds. Mulch around tree and shrub roots protects them from mower damage and also prevents erosion and aids in water conservation.”

Rethink flowerbeds, selecting plants that are drought and disease-resistant. Use perennials and ornamental grasses for the majority of the area. Consider blooming periods when designing these beds to provide color and interest year-round. Mercer says, “We add bulbs and annuals to enhance the beds in high traffic locations and to highlight buildings or signage.”

A retention pond on the campus captures storm water, which is then used to irrigate the turfgrass on the campus.

Consider the environmental benefits. Trees, shrubs, flowers and turfgrass absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, reducing your carbon footprint. Mercer says, “We’ve installed butterfly gardens designed to help promote the Monarch butterfly population, which has been in decline due to habitat destruction. We’ve selected other annuals and perennials to attract beneficial predators, an advantage for our IPM program. We’ve increased our biological IPM, too, strategically placing purple martin houses and bat houses for assistance in insect control. We mulch the beds and use a natural organic substance like compost or use slow-release fertilizers to feed the plants and avoid nutrient runoff.”

Include water conservation in your ornamental landscape. Mercer suggests installing drip irrigation around trees, shrub groupings and within plant beds. He says, “Have an engineer design a water garden with an underground tank for water collection. Approximately 800 gallons of water comes off a 1,000-square-foot slanted roof from 1 inch of rain. Set up rain barrels to collect this water for use in drip irrigation. Install drains in the landscape beds to channel water into your storm water collection system or a rain garden.”

Highlight the positive

Signage has been a key factor in communicating the sustainability changes. Mercer uses Audubon Sanctuary signs in some areas and includes that logo on other signage. Signs marking buffer zones state they “protect our local watershed.” He’s also had signs custom-made to picture all of the wildlife that might be seen during “a walk in our zoo.” Other signs identify trees by botanical and common name.

Flagstones and mulch beneath this canopy of trees create a shady haven for students and protect tree roots from mowing.

The level of buy-in from administration, faculty, staff and students is even greater than Mercer anticipated. “Students donated money to purchase equipment for the compost topdressing. Some have volunteered to help me with case studies on the effects of topdressing on turf and in gathering data for our annual evaluation of the progress of the overall sustainability program.”

This purple martin house will attract occupants that help control insects on campus.

Working with Luke Mowbray, sustainability coordinator, he used GPS mapping to locate and identify key environmental features such as trees, meadows, buffers zones and the Green Space Sanctuary. That information was used to create a colored map in print and phone app format. That’s now used by administrators as part of the admissions tours to help recruit students.

Selling the concept

Some aspects of the sustainability program were easily and quickly approved by the administration. Others required a detailed presentation to gain approval. Mercer says, “In some cases, the environmental aspects alone were a strong enough selling point, but they didn’t buy into the vision of wild flowers and tall grass blowing for that first meadow installation. So I created an Excel spreadsheet detailing the cost savings it could bring. I included reductions in fertilizer and pesticide use totally about $200 per acre. I figured fuel costs at $3.50 per hour, allocating one hour for mowing 1 acre. I allocated two hours per acre for twice weekly mowing from April through June and once a week mowing for summer and fall. I calculated 2,000 hours as the use-span for the mowing equipment used for that turf area, determining the hourly operational cost at $3.30. I didn’t include labor savings because I intended to divert that to other grounds-related tasks. Total cost savings amounted to $200 per acre. The conversion would also reduce our carbon footprint by one pound per hour. When I presented those details, the project was approved.”

The same principles could be applied by any grounds manager, including LCOs when recommending environmentally-friendly sustainability for commercial properties, homeowner associations and individual residential clients.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at [email protected].