Jeff McManus and staff maintain high standards at Ole Miss
Grounds Pro Jeff McManus, CGM, ISA, credits his grounds crew with making sure that Ole Miss retains its well-deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful universities in the nation.
Photos courtesy the University of Mississippi.
The Princeton Review in 2013 recognized the University of Mississippi, Oxford, Miss., as the most beautiful college campus in America. Newsweek magazine honored the University of Mississippi (colloquially known as Ole Miss) similarly in 2011.
From its beginning in 1844 with just 80 students, the founders of the University envisioned it as offering students (now numbering 16,000) a beautiful and great learning environment. That tradition continues in large part due to the efforts of Jeff McManus, CGM, ISA, and his grounds staff of 31 professionals.
McManus, director of landscape services, has been with the University since 2000. He has a bachelor’s degree in landscape and ornamental horticulture from Auburn University. Previously, he worked at Grand Cypress, Orlando, Fla., and Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, North Miami, Fla.
“Our campus is 1,000 acres with approximately 175 acres of improved 419 bermudagrass and 120 acres of common bermuda. We have about 40 acres of zoysiagrass and 15 acres of turf-type tall fescue along with approximately 25 acres of shrubs and groundcover,” says McManus. His staff also keeps about 100 acres of native woods clean and safe, as well.
The Ole Miss grounds crew mows the turf high, to about 3.5 inches in height, which helps to reduce the need for irrigation, reduces weed pressure and handles foot-traffic better, says McManus. The staff uses several different models and sizes of John Deere mowers and tractors, including one with a 12-foot cutting deck. It also uses a Toro with a 72-inch deck, Exmark mowers and a Walker tractor with a 48-inch, front-mower with bagging attachment.
Matching treatments to regions
McManus says that because of the different species of turfgrass and the different microclimates on campus, he doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all turf fertility program.
“The key to growing good grass is to understand the environment you’re working in and to match the best grass to meet the need. It is extremely difficult to grow grass in deep shade. Cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue can tolerate some shade, but do not do well under high foot traffic, such as tailgating. Neither does it like dry, hot Mississippi heat,” he says.
One of the most popular areas of the campus (and one of the most time-consuming to maintain) is The Grove, a 10-acre site dotted with oak, elm and magnolia trees that is crisscrossed by concrete walkways. The turfgrass under the trees in The Grove is where Ole Miss football fans gather seven Saturdays each autumn for football tailgating. Ole Miss is a member of the football-crazy Southeast Conference (SEC). Although it’s been a long time since it has been considered one of the powers in the SEC, its students and fans nevertheless take their football and their tailgating seriously.
Three certified arborists monitor high-traffic areas of the campus, always on the lookout for deadwood and other potential student safety issues.
“We’ll replace 10 acres of tall fescue after football tailgating is completed, using about 4,500 pounds of tall fescue seed and then aerify The Grove,” says McManus.
While keeping that region of the campus attractive and safe on game days is a big challenge, says McManus, so is the cleanup afterwards. His staff will come in at 1 a.m. the Sunday following home games to clean up The Grove.
“At Ole Miss, you never know when the next big-time recruit may be coming on campus; first impressions are critical for our success,” says McManus.
Generally, the grounds staff aerifies, seeds and fertilizes The Grove after the last home football game. Ideally, this takes place in the fall when evening temperatures drop into the 60s.
Campus turf is treated with herbicides twice a year. The staff overseeds again in late fall or early spring and gives the turfgrass another shot of fertilizer. His staff uses Milorganite, an organic fertilizer produced by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He says the product releases nitrogen slowly rather than sending a burst of nitrogen into the soil all at once and does not cause the turf to grow unnaturally fast. “It’s safe for children and pets to play on after use and it improves the soil’s ability to absorb water and nutrients,” adds McManus.
The landscape services staff does two color changeouts annually.
Beautiful trees are a prominent feature of the campus, and require constant care.
“All areas of high-traffic areas are monitored by three certified arborists who trim deadwood as needed,” says McManus. “We’ve recently added a tree trail on campus featuring everything from bald cypress to Yoshino Cherry, some 23 species of trees in all,” says McManus.
Color is important on the Ole Miss campus. The staff plants approximately 20,000 annuals, including tulips and daffodils, each spring. In addition, there are approximately 10,000 square feet of perennial beds on campus. McManus says that his staff does two color change-outs each year, spring and fall, with the campus aglow with mums, dusty miller, kale and ornamental cabbages each autumn.
Ole Miss prides itself on being good stewards of the environment. To conserve water the school is implementing a “smart” irrigation system, the Toro Sentential Network. McManus says it has taken four years, but the effort has been well worth the effort.
The Sentential Network, a central control irrigation system, allows separate areas of turf irrigation to be controlled from one location via computer. Each irrigation zone can communicate with the central computer located in the landscape services office.
The Sentinel monitors weather conditions, including wind speed, rain and soil moisture, and relays the information to the zones. Sentinel also monitors wind speed, senses rain and tests the moisture of the soil, then regulates irrigation accordingly. If the soil is still wet from previous rain or irrigation, the system delays irrigation until it senses the soil is dry. In turn, if an area is putting out more water than usual, the outposts relay that information to the central location so the valves and sprinklers can be checked for damage.
Only skilled employees can create this kind of beauty. McManus credits the University’s “Weeders to Leaders” training program for building a great hort staff.
The result is a highly coordinated effort to conserve water while maintaining the beauty of the University of Mississippi campus.
Also, the landscape services department came up with what it termed its “water barrel system.” It was originally designed to collect rainwater, but because Mississippi summers are notoriously hot and dry, it didn’t accomplish much so one of the landscape techs came up with a way to make it work better.
“Shea Baird of our staff noticed how much condensation drained from the landscape shop’s air conditioning unit and created a way to harness this resource,” says McManus. The design for the original rain barrel was altered, and the changes allow the new water barrel to capture 50 gallons or more of free water every day. It is estimated that 3,000 gallons of water were captured the first summer it was used.”
From weeders to leaders
To attract and maintain a professional horticultural staff, Ole Miss developed The Landscape Academy, or what McManus calls the “Weeders to Leaders” Program.
“I’ve always believed in training because I’ve experienced how it changes a team in a positive way,” says McManus.
The program offers professional responsibility, safety training, advanced landscaping and people skills. Its goal is to develop a highly confident, motivated landscaping team that is empowered with a sense of excellence. Course materials consist of an instructor’s guide, a handout or video for the participants and testing.
Although the program is voluntary, some Level 100 classes are mandatory for employees, such as department policies, professionalism and workplace safety. Some of the upper-level classes, for example heavy equipment operation, are open to members only by invitation.
McManus says, “We have discovered that what employees want most is the ability to accelerate in job mastery and to do their job with excellence. Also, professional growth pay raises give employees financial incentives to participate in the Academy. Working for the University of Mississippi inherently creates a sense of pride in what we do and the traditions in our heritage,” says McManus.
Mike Ingles is a researcher and writer who lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at [email protected].