The Southern Methodist University grounds give a great first impression

Photos Courtesy of Kevin Dilliard.
Annual flowers are still used in certain high-visibility areas, lending color and the all-important aesthetics that helps create a positive and lasting impression of the campus.

Appearance matters, and that’s especially true for colleges and universities competing against each other for students and enrollment dollars. So, it was a great source of pride for Southern Methodist University in Dallas to be honored by the Professional Grounds Management Society ( in the University and College Grounds category of its 2008 Green Star Awards. The group cited the school’s efforts to overcome challenges posed by its heavy native soils, while dramatically improving the appearance of the campus by adding new plants and grasses.

éWe’ve done a lot of air spading on campus,_ says Kevin Dillard. In addition to fixinggirdling roots on trees, the tool also helps to condition soils in shaded areas prior toinstallation of planting beds.

This wasn’t an overnight transformation, but rather the result of years of work and planning. Kevin Dilliard, SMU’s associate director of landscape and grounds, arrived at the school seven years ago and started maintaining the 175-acre campus. “My position was created in response to concerns from donors and alumni,” he recalls. “When I arrived, the staff size was small; they basically raked leaves, picked up trash and trimmed hedges. Now, the staff size has doubled, to 19, and we do all the landscape design and installation, irrigation design and installation and other maintenance in-house.”

As a result of this concerted effort, the campus landscaping has been much improved and is also more consistent throughout in terms of design and plant species. Dilliard says he has had strong support from school administrators throughout the process. “The admissions office has told us that the appearance of the campus is number three on the list of reasons why a student picks a university,” he says. “It gives students and parents a first impression as soon as they visit. I also hear from the athletics department that it also helps them in recruiting—the look of the campus ‘sells’ itself, and they can just focus on ‘selling’ the athletic program. It also helps with donors; when they give money, they want to know that it’s being used wisely and that the campus is being taken care of.” That campus has become a source of pride in all quarters.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the soil. “It’s a heavy clay, and where that doesn’t exist, there’s a lot of limestone rock,” says Dilliard, noting that the problem is exacerbated by compaction from the 11,000 students—not to mention visitors and attendees at sporting events. Even the use of trucks and utility vehicles by various departments at the school—especially if drivers cut corners or drive on the grass—adds further damage and compaction.

“We started by addressing the planting beds. Either we amended the soils, or we removed and replaced it,” he states. “Then, in the turfed areas, our primary concern was compaction. So, with the administration’s support, we were able to prohibit certain activities on certain parts of the campus. For example, the main Quad—the biggest open area in the middle of the campus—was used for summer camps and other activities. That’s no longer allowed, and has helped us to really reduce our compaction problems.”

The SMU campus boasts many live oaks, which hold their leaves regardless of season. This limits sunlight and further adds to the challenge of growing grass, something he has worked to correct since he came on the job. “There was just too much shade to grow grass. It wasn’t a problem when the trees were smaller, but as they grew and the shade increased, it just wasn’t working.” Instead, he has begun adding groundcover beds instead of turf beneath trees.

Dilliard found one good way to accomplish this changeover—and combat the heavy soils—was by using a tool normally utilized in tree root excavation. “Wherever we couldn’t get grass to grow, we’ve been doing air spading,” he says. “This eliminates girdling roots, but also cultivates the soil so we can have large mulch rings and do a lot of groundcover plantings in the shade. It works great, especially in shaded areas below trees so we don’t have to use a tiller.”

He’s found that for best air spading results, the soil has to be moistened slightly first. “If it’s too dry, the clay is too hard. It has to be moist, but not wet—just the right mix. In areas where the soils are particularly heavy with clay, compost amendment is added. Then, we work the compost in with the air spade.” Adding planting beds and mulch beneath trees has also helped reduce runoff problems that had occurred in areas with thin turf and, in turn, has led to less mud being tracked into buildings.

In heavily shaded areas beneath mature trees, the SMU grounds staff frequently installslandscape beds rather than trying to grow turf.

The grounds staff also uses air spades to condition the soils after construction projects around buildings where heavy equipment has compacted the soil. Building construction and renovation projects are perpetual parts of life on the bustling campus, so there’s a nearly constant need for the grounds staff to work around or recover from construction work. However, they use that to their advantage, taking the opportunity in those areas where building work is being done to conduct major landscape renovations. “That way, it’s not so obvious that we’re making a mess—it’s all part of the bigger project,” Dilliard explains. “Or, if the construction project tears up beds, they’ll pay to repair them, so we take that opportunity to make improvements to the soils and so on.”

Also, the SMU grounds staff now has some input in campus construction projects. “One of the biggest changes is that we’ve been able to become involved in the projects. In the past, we weren’t consulted about the design or implementation of landscapes—we weren’t involved until it was done and time for it to be maintained. Then, we had to resolve any problems,” says Dilliard. “Now, we have a chance to approve contractors and plans and plant selections, and we try to get involved as early as we can. That allows us to correct most problems in the design phase, and we monitor projects as they go along, to correct any problems that come up. So, when we take over maintenance, we don’t have to look around for problems. That’s one of the biggest inroads we’ve been able to make, and it’s been with the support of the project managers.”

The Southern Methodist University’sgrounds department contracts out taskssuch as mowing, freeing it up to focuson maintaining and improving theplanting beds and the rest of thecampus landscaping.

In some cases, the grounds staff must maintain the landscapes around new buildings according to certain environmental standards. “Every new building going up has to be LEED-certified [through the U.S. Green Building Council], so depending on the level of certification, for example, we have requirements for gray-water use,” Dilliard explains. The school recently installed a campus-wide centralized irrigation control system, allowing Dilliard to control specific buildings or areas and monitor flow meters to see how much water those areas are using.

Water conservation is a consideration throughout the campus. “We’re always mulching—it’s part of our water-saving plan. We use a cedar mulch,” says Dilliard. The grounds staff also follows an IPM program, scouting for pests and diseases. It uses an outside contractor to apply applications when needed.

A contractor is also used for mowing, the only major aspect of grounds care the SMU staff doesn’t handle in-house. “It frees up our time to focus on the rest of the grounds, and we just don’t have the mowing equipment. It would cost us a lot of money to gear up to be able to do the mowing, and we’d have to hire more people. It’s just more efficient to contract the mowing—it works very well,” Dilliard explains. The mowing crews are on-site nearly every day, with each part of the campus being mowed at least once per week, and sometimes twice.

The use of Texas-adaptedperennials has largely replaced theuse of annuals on the SMU campus.

Dilliard says that when he first came to SMU, he used a lot of annual plantings to add color to the campus. Today, he relies mostly on perennials. “We use a lot of different Texas-adapted perennials and keep our colorful annuals [in] just a couple high-impact areas,” he explains. Normal bed care, such as dead-heading, is also a constant maintenance task to keep the flower beds looking their best.

On a less glamorous, but no less important, front, trash pickup is an important daily chore for the ground staff. “Leaf collection is also another big issue,” says Dilliard. He purchased a large Billy Goat vacuum to help in the collection, and leaves are then taken to an off-campus compost facility. “We pull the vacuum behind our chipping truck, so the vacuum blows it right into the truck. We don’t drive it around on the turf, but it works great when we can get the leaves over to a curbside area.”

The staff also handles the majority of the tree work at SMU, contracting out only when necessary. “We have a staff of two, including a certified arborist who climbs,” says Dilliard.

The grounds crew starts at 7 a.m., but cannot complete work around residential buildings until 9 a.m. “As long as they tell us, we’ll also work around events or when outside groups are visiting,” says Dilliard. Of course, there are extra precautions taken to ensure students are not disturbed during exam periods.

Dilliard says that the PGMS gives him a chance to talk with other grounds managers around the country about landscaping challenges and solutions. He’s also a member of a Texas-based group of college grounds managers that meets once each year, and conducts an online chat forum as well. “Any time you pose a problem, everyone is quick to offer a suggestion,” he says. “It works out great.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.