Colleges and universities green” their landscaping”””

In cooperation with the school’s facilities staff, students in the UCLA Institute of Environment Education for Sustainable Living Program recently installed a water-efficient garden demonstration project at a campus entrance.

Groups such as the Sierra Club, Princeton Review and all evaluate the environmental credentials of colleges and universities based on factors ranging from the source of food in the dining hall (the more local and organic the better) to the amount of recycling and composting to the type of appliances purchased to energy use to the number of electric/low-emission vehicle purchases and bike racks provided. This is because a vocal student population is demanding such environmental initiatives, and because some perspective students consider these factors when choosing a school.

With the advent of “green” clubs and sustainability classes and even majors in environmental studies, some college and university landscape departments have lost the ability to operate in the background, content to provide a beautifully maintained campus. Instead, some are taking the opportunity to embrace and highlight environmentally oriented initiatives.

“Oberlin is a leader in environmental education and initiatives,” says Dennis Greive, grounds services manager at the college. So it made sense when the school converted two of its tractors to run on straight vegetable oil (as opposed to more refined biodiesel). “The oil comes out of a campus dining hall,” he explains. “We use the two tractors, 30 hp and 55 hp Kubotas, primarily for mowing in the summer.” One of the tractors is used for snow removal in the winter, and Greive says the system works well even in colder months. “The tank is heated and the diesel fuel system is still intact, and we use that to start the tractor, and then we switch over to vegetable oil. At the end of the run we also put some diesel back in the line, even in the summer,” Greive explains.

He says the system, installed with the help of a former Oberlin student who now specializes in vegetable oil conversions, works well. During the school year, the grounds department has built up a supply of 300 gallons of vegetable oil that is filtered to be used during the summer. A “Green EDGE” program at Oberlin, which uses a portion of student activity fees to support environmental initiatives on campus, helped pay for the conversion. “A student board makes decisions on how the money is allotted, and we got the money to pay for the two conversions and the filtering system,” Greive explains. “We did a study, and it does take some labor to produce it, but it is cutting back on our diesel costs significantly.” It also dramatically reduces emissions produced by the tractors.

In another initiative, the Oberlin grounds staff is conducting a test to compare the performance of corn gluten versus synthetic fertilizer. Corn gluten and synthetic fertilizer were each applied to half of one lawn area on campus, and the efficacy of these materials will be monitored and evaluated throughout the year. Students also run an organic food garden at Oberlin, and the grounds staff assists by providing wood chips and compost made with leaves collected during its operations. Elsewhere on the campus, students in the Environmental Studies Center use a battery-operated push mower on the lawn surrounding that building as part of the program’s curriculum.

Other colleges are also experimenting with electric lawn mowers on a larger scale. Tufts University in Massachusetts has added an “Electric Ox” riding mower, made by the Electric Tractor Company, to its fleet. The school reports that the mower reduces noise on campus, as well as emissions.

Oberlin College recently retrofitted two tractors to run on straight vegetable oil, which is supplied by one of the dining halls on campus.

Lowell Neuhaus, landscape manager at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says that school is taking another approach. “Most of our turf is a bluegrass, and we began looking for a water-saving, insect resistant, fungus-resistant grass. What we settled on is an RTF [rhizomatous tall fescue]. We put in some athletic fields in that grass, and we try to use that kind of turf as best we can on any new construction.” The university is also installing buffalograss in a number of areas on campus. “That doesn’t require anywhere near the amount of water,” explains Neuhaus. “We’ve put it in areas such as hills that are difficult to mow, and we’ve used it in decorative strips where we’ll put some ornamental grasses up alongside a building, and then a strip of buffalograss and run that into a sidewalk or street.”

Neuhaus says it usually takes some irrigation or hand-watering to get the buffalograss started, but once established there is no irrigation required. “The heat that it really likes only lasts about three months a year – July, August and September – but, if you’ve got it in by June 1 you can usually get it established by October.”

In a few areas where student’s don’t regularly congregate, the goal has been to remove turfgrass altogether, replacing it with low-growing juniper in a rock mulch. “The rocks do heat up, which is a little detrimental to the plants, but it also doesn’t wash away in the rainstorms that we have. With mulch, it would wash out into the sewers, which we can’t do anymore. The rocks also last longer and don’t need to be replaced,” explains Neuhaus.

Throughout the campus, the grounds department is using ornamental grasses and flowering perennials to replace extensive use of annuals. “They stay up pretty well in the winter, so they look good year-round,” he explains. It eliminates having a bare landscape bed in the colder months and also reduces the need to purchase, install and care for annuals each year. “That represents a huge maintenance savings,” he says. Also, during winter, the school has also moved to the use of a “corn-derived deicer” to eliminate the use of salt on roads. These days it’s forward-thinking environmental initiatives, big and little, that many students are looking for.

The landscape department highlights some of its environmental initiatives in an e-mail sent to students and staff at the school. Neuhaus says that the number of students who are deeply interested in sustainable landscaping on campus isn’t high, but they are a vocal group. “They tend to be very vocal about what they’d like to see happen and the savings they project would occur,” he explains.

Students in UCLA’s Education for Sustainable Living Program (that’s now a common area of study at colleges and universities) worked with facilities staff to design and install a “water-wise” landscaping feature using drought-tolerant plants in a high-profile area of that school’s campus. “UCLA is committed to creating a sustainable campus and has saved over 70 million gallons of water annually since 2000 through water conservation and recycling,” explains Phil Hampton, the school’s assistant director for public outreach. “In addition to [that] project, a Landscape and Natural Areas Taskforce [which includes staff, faculty and student members] is working to better incorporate sustainable landscaping practices on campus, including more drought-tolerant features.”

Another University of California school, UC Merced, is one of the first in the nation to take part in a pilot test of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a green landscaping program created by the American Society of Landscape architects and other groups. “We’re a relatively new campus; we opened in 2005,” explains Richard Cummings, principal planner at the school. “So, we’re really in a position where we’re trying to lay the foundation for a building and landscape program going out 50 years.”

Sustainable Sites works much like the LEED system of green building design, which is fitting because UC Merced is the only university in the country to have all of its buildings LEED-certified. “We’re going to be testing some of the components of the Sites program around some of our new buildings,” explains Cummings. “The student body, faculty and staff are very interested in how we can build a landscape that uses less water and uses more native plantings.” Part of the strategy at the school is to cut down on the use of water-intensive turfgrass species. “We want to have a campus that feels like a college campus, but also reflects best practices in landscaping,” Cummings says. “As just one example, we’re going to really focus on reflecting our natural environment. We’re surrounded by 30,000 acres of permanently preserved grasslands, so we want to try to build a campus with a soft edge, where the grassland feel is carried onto the campus.”

The landscaping surrounding the new science and engineering building at the University of California Merced will be part of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. The low-water use, native landscaping is designed to evoke the native grasslands that extend from the edge of the campus to the Sierra Nevada foothills and Yosemite.

On the opposite side of the country, the nation’s oldest university is also taking steps to make its well-established landscape more sustainable. Beginning about two years ago, Harvard began transitioning to a completely organic landscape program. “We started with a 1-acre test plot in Harvard Yard, and it’s just expanded from there,” explains Wayne Carbone, manager of landscape services at the school. “Right now we’re up to about 25 acres, and we continue to take steps forward with construction of our compost facility. And, as the knowledge of our crews grows, our goal is to be completely organic by next year.”

The test plot quickly showed the potential for organic landscaping to not only help the environment, but also to boost the health of the turfgrass, says Carbone. “In Harvard Yard, there are 8,000 to 10,000 people a day going through there; it just gets abused, and we’ve struggled over the years to maintain it. At the start of the test plot we had 2 to 3 inches of root growth on the turf; within two months the roots were down 8 to 10 inches. Now we have full turf stands where we used to have dirt patches.”

Signs are placed around campus to highlight various aspects of the organic landscape program, and training the staff on organic lawn care practices continues. Carbone says the move toward organic landscaping has required some equipment/infrastructure changes for the landscape department. In addition to constructing an on-site compost facility to handle the 500 tons of landscape debris generated on campus every year-which is now used to provide compost on campus-there was a need to purchase compost tea brewers, boom sprayers and aerators, etc. While these tools are necessary, Carbone notes that “organic lawn care isn’t product-based, it’s knowledge-based.” Which seems only fitting for the care of grounds at colleges and universities.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.