By Justin Hayes
From the April 2023 Issue
Nestled in the heart of busy downtown Austin lies the Dell Seton Ascension Health District at The University of Texas at Austin. Completed in April of 2016, the district is a 16.2 acre complex containing just over eight acres of landscaping that has evolved into an oasis of wildflowers and buzzing pollinators with shady, tree-lined Waller Creek meandering through its center. More than just attractive, the district is also a shining example of the potential for a sustainable, organically managed landscape in the middle of an urban environment.
Honored with a distinguished SITES Gold Certification, a rating system for landscapes similar to the LEED Certification for building sustainability, the district manages to incorporate nearly every sustainable landscape practice possible today: native plantings, flood mitigation, rooftop gardens, rainwater collection, riparian restoration, all-electric landscape equipment, composting, and even beehives. All of this is accomplished with a crew of six caretakers, including myself as supervisor.
SITES Gold Certified
SITES is a rating system that guides, evaluates, and certifies a project’s sustainability in the planning, design, construction, and management of landscapes and other outdoor spaces. From 2006 to 2014, a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort led by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanical Garden developed the Sustainable SITES Initiative and the resulting SITES v2 Rating System. The Dell Health District was one of the first outdoor spaces to receive a Gold rating.
From the first plant entering the ground, the landscape team—along with others invested in the project—contributed their knowledge to create and now manage this site. A requirement for our success was having buy-in from everyone that a goal of sustainability was the best direction.
Fortunately, the landscape maintenance team was able to share their decades of knowledge about techniques that would actually work. An architect can design a site however they want. But if the maintenance team doesn’t share that vision, they will change it to something that functions for them. Planting “the right plant, in the right place” came up in the planning conversation regularly.
Same, But Different
Our daily routine consists of a lot of typical landscape maintenance: picking up litter, trimming and planting, and planning what project we’re going to work on next. We might not be mowing all day, but we are removing weeds, remediating soil, cleaning up the creek, and making sure our sprinklers are working.
We operate differently in what we man- age and how. For instance, we use all-elec-tric equipment for all our maintenance to reduce air and noise pollution. Battery equipment is comparable if not better than gas. An average crew our size would use 350 gallons of gas a year. We use none.
More importantly, we try to think of our site as being part of the environment. That means often asking the question, “How would Nature handle this?” It means knowing when to go into an area to maintain it, and also when to let it be.
Plant identification and proper management are essential. In following with natural succession, this type of landscape is very dynamic. We have designated entrances that are planted to be native, but uniform in appearance. We also have meadows that are more natural and wild. One year you can have all wildflowers, followed by a year of all bunch grasses, then woody plants, or a flush of invasives.
Invasive removal and management is a huge part of our daily responsibility. Located in an urban environment, we are a “boat of natives in a lake of invasives.” We use everything available to try to tackle invasive species including 20% vinegar, flame torches, hand pulling, solarization, and our knowledge of when a plant is producing seed and when to fight it. I’m not against use of synthetic chemicals, but I will always try other methods first. Just use chemicals responsibly and as a last resort.
First and foremost, the most important parts of this effort are the training and dedication of the maintenance team as stewards of this landscape. We are not a “mow, blow, and go” operation. Multiple training methods are implemented with our group of caretakers to equip them with the knowledge to best serve the needs of the landscape. We work with the Native Plant Societies of Texas to obtain certifications and have ecological groups come to the site to directly work and train with us. But crew aren’t the only ones who need education. It’s necessary to educate patrons and clients to understand the land- scape will not be green all year long. Texas is not green all year long. You will have times when the landscape will not look amazing.
Plants, Creatures & Soil
We use consistent soil testing, point photography, and water management to generate reliable data to plan for the right amount of fertilization, seeding, or planting—if needed at all. The idea of a sustainable landscape is to reduce the inputs. Less fertilizer, less water, less maintenance. There is no instant gratification in this style of landscape. When you plan an area to be seeded or planted you may not see the results for up to six months. Ideally, you won’t have to go into that area for another six months if you planted and maintained it well in the beginning.
Seed collection and plant propagation in the University’s greenhouses are an important part of keeping this landscape native and expanding the plant palette to the rest of the main campus. We use these plants at student giveaways, like Earth Day, to promote native plants even more. We started with 50 different species and have now expanded to over 220. This diverse approach allows for different looks throughout the year. Spring wildflowers, followed by Summer grasses, and Fall and Winter bloomers not only prolong the beauty of the site, but keep the food supply around longer for insect and bird populations.
We work with Austin and Texas Parks and Wildlife to monitor the entire spectrum of creatures appearing in the landscape. Hawks, foxes, egret, raccoons, and many other species have been spotted on our acreage here in the middle of the city.
Above-ground creatures aren’t the only consideration. Healthy soil, filled with life, is aided by a well-managed program that regularly produces high quality compost and compost tea that is used throughout the site. Soil is a foundation just like the foundation of a building. If you don’t build it well, then your building fails. Likewise, the soil contributes to a robust ecosystem.
Partnering with the Housing and Food Department, I collect coffee grounds from all the shops on campus, diverting up to 22 tons of grounds from the landfill each year. This helps keep the compost “vegetarian” or animal bio-solid free. With the “grounds for grounds” program, leaf collection, and grass clippings, we make great compost.
I built the compost tea operation and can make several thousands of gallons each time. I can also gear the blend to be a drought resistant spray or freeze resistant spray; a root soak for trees/grass or a foliar spray for flowers or fruit producing plants. Compost tea is an inoculant, not a fertilizer. If a plant is a factory producing sugar to feed microbes in the soil, then compost tea floods the factory floor with ready, eager workers.
Water, Trees & Teaching
On the 7th floor of the Health Transformation Building, we have rooftop gardens covering about 27,000 sq. ft. This rooftop has been very successful and is a garden maintenance — or lack of it — dream. We haven’t watered it since 2017, and it has had very little maintenance since 2019.
This rooftop is also where we collect rainwater in a 27,000-gallon cistern used to water the
west side of the site. Due to this collection, use of city reclaim water, and the planting of natives requiring little water, the Dell Health District uses on average 20% less water than a conventional St. Augustine turfgrass area. In addition to the rainwater collection, bio-swales, pervious pavers, open meadow areas, and living fire lanes help retain up to
85% of a 2″ rain event on site. This helps with flood mitigation so Waller Creek doesn’t rise dangerously for neighbors south of the Dell Health District.
When the site was built, we saved 12 legacy oak trees and moved them to different locations on campus. One tree is estimated to be around 100 years in age. These preserved assets to the landscape give our site an instant “wow” factor in front of new buildings. Any other trees cut down for building were crafted into everything from tables and benches to picture frames and pens. This maximized re-use of materials. During the build, 26% of the materials were made of recycled plants or soil. Any materials removed from the site were reused within 50 miles.
Lastly, we are a university, so education is a large part of what we do. I give dozens of tours a year to HOAs, private landscaping companies, architecture classes, and even municipalities looking to move to a more sustainable or organic landscaping style. Sharing our successes and failures is a key part of what we do here. We want to help others design, build, or maintain what we believe will be the future of landscaping. With the rise in environmental concerns, our Dell Health District at The University of Texas at Austin will continue to be an example that inspires, grows, and thrives.
Hayes has worked in the landscaping industry for 27 years and at UT for 14 years. Starting at UT Austin in 2008 as a gardener, he worked his way up to crew leader and eventually supervisor of the Dell Medical District landscape. He and his team won the Texas Turf Association’s “Best Turf in Texas” contest in 2012 for their work on the campus’ University Avenue landscape, which led to organic fertilizers being used on the rest of campus. He received his National Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) Organic Land Care Accreditation in 2017. In addition, he is Grow Green certified as well as Level 4 certified through the Native Plant Society of Texas. He is on The Trail Conservancy ecological restoration committee for the City of Austin and gives lectures for UT Landscape Architecture classes and the Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance out of Houston.
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