University of Virginia’s historic campus gets cutting-edge expansion

The University of Virginia is recognized as one of the top schools in the country, and its founder, Thomas Jefferson, also ensured it would boast one of the prettiest landscapes in the country. Jefferson founded the school in 1819 and his skills as a horticulturist remain evident even today. On its website, UVA notes that, “The lawn and the Rotunda have served as models for similar designs of ‘centralized green areas’ at universities across the United States.”

One of the most unique features of the University of Virginia’s new South Lawn expansion is a pedestrian bridge that boasts a large area of open, elevated lawn.
Photos courtesy of the University of Virginia.

Recently, UVA saw the exciting expansion of its campus with a new South Lawn area that has added 2 acres of grounds and buildings to the 1,700-acre campus. One component of the new landscape has proven particularly popular and has presented some unique maintenance challenges. A bridge was built crossing Jefferson Park Avenue and then covered with turfgrass. This “green bridge” offers a number of aesthetic and practical benefits. “It’s the major pedestrian connection that allows students to get from the historic grounds up into the new facility,” explains Richard Hopkins, superintendent of grounds.

Two 12-foot-wide sidewalks bear the brunt of the foot traffic, but it’s the grass in the middle of the bridge that attracts the most attention. “In an aerial view, it looks just like an extension of the lawn coming out the back of one building and going into the new South Lawn area,” Hopkins says.

While UVA’s South Lawn area includes more traditional trees and lawns found throughout the campus, it also includes many native plants designed to save on water and maintenance.

Unlike most green roofs, the bridge was built with a deep (12 to 16 inches) soil mix to support the turfgrass. “It’s Stalite—it is a green roof material, just to help deal with loads and to promote good drainage,” he explains. The challenge has been growing fescue turfgrass as opposed to sedum or some other more traditional green roof plant in this environment. It’s also a relatively large grassed area, nearly 50 feet wide by 100 feet long.

One challenge is not unique to the turf bridge, but is faced by groundskeepers at every college: “We’re already seeing a major pedestrian shortcut across the grass diagonally,” he says. “We can never seem to get walkways where we need them!” The grass also gets used during special events held on this impressively landscaped bridge. “We had a major dedication party that was held there, and the entire bridge and turf was tented,” Hopkins explains. “The turf came through it pretty well. I had the entire grass area floored to prevent any rutting. It was under a floor for about three days, so it did yellow a bit, but we were able to restore it.” The university is also planning graduation and reunion events on the bridge, and the level of activity will likely determine some aspects of how it is maintained.

The turf on the bridge is being maintained in a similar fashion to other irrigated grass on the campus. “We actually have really good access, so we can get our front-deck zero-turn mowers up on it. Since this is our first season, we’ve been using walk-behind mowers initially, just to be easy on the grass while it’s getting established,” says Hopkins.

A Toro irrigation system with Weathermatic controller was installed on the bridge. Due to local water restrictions, the irrigation rate on the bridge—and other parts of campus—was “dialed back” this past summer. “It did brown out much quicker than other areas. With open air under the bridge, that turf is exposed to much more heat,” Hopkins explains. “It will also be interesting to watch as we go through winter. Where we normally freeze down 4 or 5 inches in a bad winter, the soil on the bridge could turn into a solid frozen block. It truly is an experiment for us.”

The rest of the new South Lawn campus is a little more in keeping with the rest of the university’s grounds. “There’s quite a bit of turf,” says Hopkins. As with existing parts of the campus, a turf-type tall fescue was used on the South Lawn, but there are subtle differences between the older grounds and the new area. “It’s primarily native. We’re going for LEED points, and once established these plants will require a little less maintenance. And, we do have green roofs on the buildings, with traditional materials like sedum. They’re doing well,” says Hopkins.

While the buildings and design of the new South Lawn are cutting-edge, “There’s a historic function to the landscape, as well. This is an old family site, so there’s a graveyard that has become a feature within the landscape,” says Hopkins. There are no headstones, but as part of the South Lawn project it was renovated and features switchgrass cover and is mowed a little higher than the typical campus turf. The grounds crew already has experience in maintaining such a feature, as there’s a roughly 2-acre cemetery elsewhere on the campus. “Part of it is a Confederate cemetery with about 1,000 graves, so we do a lot of trimming and we’re used to it.”

The landscape maintenance team at UVA numbers about 80. “We’ve got some intensive gardening. The Academical Village has 10 historic gardens, so we have dedicated gardeners in that area,” Hopkins explains. There’s also plenty of mowing, leaf collection and so on.” There are two mechanics on staff, which he says is important to the efficiency of the grounds maintenance operation. “When you have one piece of equipment down and it’s holding up a crew of four, it’s more cost-effective to have your own staff to make the repairs than it is to get in line at a local shop.”

The campus is divided into six different zones, each on its own mowing cycle, depending on the level of maintenance needed and the amount of staff available. “Each zone has its own supervisor and dedicated crew,” Hopkins explains. “It gives them ownership. Instead of having to run around the entire university, it allows them to focus. They learn about their customers [the students and faculty]—where they can cut on a Monday, where they can’t cut on a Monday, for example.”

Each morning, the staff begins with litter collection, walking and driving the campus to ensure it is kept free of trash. John Deere Gators are primarily used for this task, but pickup trucks and dump trucks are also employed. The larger vehicles are important in winter, as the grounds staff is responsible for snow removal, too.

Among the maintenance challenges on the new campus areas is a historic graveyard with sunken areas created to indicate that the site is a former burial ground. Elsewhere on campus, the grounds staff maintains a more traditional graveyard with plenty of trimming required around headstones.

While the grounds need to be kept looking great year-round, there is one special event in the spring when everything needs to be perfect. “We start with graduation prep shortly after Christmas,” says Hopkins. “On graduation day, we want everything to look like it was mowed just the day before-that’s a challenge, but we’ve become good at that.”

The staff uses a fleet of 72-inch front-deck John Deere mowers, along with a number of Ferris zero-turn units. “One of those we actually converted to run on used vegetable oil,” he adds. “It was a diesel mower and the students wanted to see if there was a way to provide fuel from a waste byproduct of the dining hall. So, they’re processing and cleaning the oil for us and we run it in this one mower. We’ve cut a whole season with it and it’s working fine.” The mower has a duel-tank system so it can be started and shut down using traditional diesel fuel.

While Thomas Jefferson might not have been able to envision a lawnmower, much less one running on vegetable oil, he surely would have appreciated the innovation—and its role in maintaining his campus grounds.

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.