Cherished University lawn on a winning streak for historic preservation, sustainability practices and landscape management
The annual student graduation “Final Exercises” in early summer hosts 20,000 attendees with 6,000 graduating students marching down The Lawn during a two-hour ceremony. This is the one day of the year when The Lawn really takes a beating.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
“The Lawn” at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is perhaps the most important, most governed, most historic and most trodden green space in America. You can thank Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest American landscapers, for that.
Designed and built by the Father of the Constitution himself between 1817 and 1826, the University of Virginia encompasses just over 1,700 acres. The centerpoint of it all – “The Lawn” – is 4 acres of terraced turf with mature trees on all sides surrounded by the Academical Village, which spans another 150 acres. It is built into four terraces with two one-story Tuscan colonnades spanning the long sides and ending at the famous Rotunda. The east and west sides are anchored by five pavilions with a unique garden situated behind each one. Serpentine gravel pathways and stone walls separate the gardens from one another; straight walls of brick enclose the backs of each garden.
In 1987, UNESCO inscribed Jefferson’s The Lawn (together with his Monticello, 5 miles down the road) as a World Heritage site. It’s also designated a National Historic Landmark, appearing on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The university’s arboretum and landscaping committees, and two historic gardening clubs – the Garden Club of Virginia and Albermarle Garden Club – also have jurisdiction over such things as seasonal, native and tree plantings.
The campus landscaping team totals 80 individuals, including a full-time horticulturist and arborist. It works with the historic and horticultural committees and garden clubs that oversee six zones called the Central Grounds, North Grounds, West Grounds, Hospital, Observatory Hill (nature park area) and Ivy/250 (main roadway area). A different division manages the athletic fields. The team is equipped with every type of mowing equipment, including walk-behind mowers, turning mowers and five tractors with all implements. It also operates with 20 trucks and dump trucks, aerators, topdressers and soil cultivators.
The entire 4 acres of The Lawn were re-sodded in 2012. Work began in early July and the lawn, mostly tall fescue with some bluegrass, was finished during the winter holiday break.
The Lawn’s grounds manager is Chris Ward. “For maintenance procedures, we operate independently of any governing committees,” he says. “This includes fertilization, renovations and mowing.” Ward’s team is also responsible for storm clean up and snow removal. He got his turf training as assistant superintendent at Lake Monticello Golf Course, 20 miles southeast of the campus.
During its 187 years in existence, The Lawn has taken a real beating. In the early decades, a wire enclosure ineffectively prevented wayward cows from grazing. Then, in the years following the Civil War, tremendous efforts were made to keep everyone off The Lawn while major refurbishing was going on. A rickety fence was put in place that was often torn down and unsightly paths continued to be etched across The Lawn. In the 1880s and 1890s, new concrete sidewalks were poured across it in various places, but even that didn’t help the condition of the grass that continued to be threatened as football and baseball became increasingly popular pastimes among the students.
In the first half of the century, the gardens fell into neglect with many of the enclosures disappearing and the interior planting disintegrated. The Garden Club of Virginia restored the gardens in the period from 1948 to 1965, creating them according to Jeffersonian ideals. Jefferson’s plan for the University called for a garden behind each of the 10 pavilions, but he died without leaving a plan for each one.
Over the years during heavy rains, water would pool and not drain. The poor soil drainage qualities of compacting was blamed on the red Virginia clay that lay beneath. “The temporary fix was to ‘drill and fill’ using a soil conditioner,” explains Ward. “An outside contractor would periodically drill .75-inch holes 8 feet deep to get the surface water to drain.”
Today, 20,000 students criss-cross The Lawn when school is in session. “The one spring day every year when it really takes a beating is during ‘Final Exercises,’ when 20,000 chairs are placed on The Lawn for family and visitors who watch 6,000 graduating students walk down the center of The Lawn in a two-hour-long ceremony,” says Ward.
Designed and built by Thomas Jefferson between 1817 and 1826, the University of Virginia encompasses just over 1,700 acres. The centerpoint of it all-“The Lawn”-is 4 acres of terraced turf with mature trees on all sides.
Last summer, beginning in early July and completed during the winter holiday break, one of the most significant and efficient renovations in The Lawn’s long history took place. This included the first time that the entire 4 acres of grass had been re-sodded all at once.
The new turf consisted primarily of tall fescue with a small amount of bluegrass and a high-sand content base to aid drainage. “This is a hardy grass for our climate,” says Ward. “It keeps its green appearance year-round. It’s also known for quick green-up and ability to take abuse.”
The renovation also included air spading and circling mulch around the trees and installing a new drainage system with drainage lines that ran the water into a storm drain system. A main collector line, approximately 800 feet long, was placed down the center of The Lawn with lateral drain lines spaced 10 feet apart and reaching 80 feet from center.
Besides the open lawn area, the surrounding 10 gardens behind each of the pavilions grab the most attention. Each garden consists of a unique set of features and flora combining to create a park-like setting open to faculty, students and visitors. Many of the gardens are traditional southern plantation-style featuring simple geometric designs typical of Jefferson’s period with border rows of fruit trees, flowering shrub thickets and rectilinear beds at one time used for vegetables and herbs. Winding gravel pathways, white colonial wooden benches and white swinging wooden gates scattered throughout accent the foliage.
In recent years, the university’s buildings and grounds have taken considerable steps toward sustainability. “Since we are part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we are under strict guidelines for fertilization,” says Ward. His team operates with a nutrient management plan re-evaluated every three years.
“We limit our nitrogen applications to a level that sustains healthy turf growth and only apply phosphorous as prescribed through proper soil sampling,” he explains. “We do not fertilize without taking a soil sample. We sample 30 to 50 sites a year and only fertilize when absolutely necessary.”
Laying new soil and re-planting groundcover around the foundations of The Lawn pavilions during the 2012 renovation project.
As part of its new LEED certification plan, the university has already created six new green roofs planted with sedum on new or renovated buildings. To conserve water, Ward’s team has created drainage ponds to suck up water. A water collection system from AC units has been instituted. It has also added collecting cisterns into various new landscapes.
Another sustainable factor that Ward and the rest of the landscaping team chooses not to interfere is the art of streaking The Lawn. Although undocumented, The Lawn is thought to host the highest frequency of streakers found anywhere in the U.S. This tradition gained a toehold as early as the late 1930s, peaking in the mid-1970s, and holding its own in the New Millennium. Custom has it that before one takes a degree from the university, they are to run buck-naked from the steps of the Rotunda down the 740-foot central lawn, kiss the statue of Homer and streak back up the lawn. Many do take this custom seriously, including one night in February 1974 when dozens of freshman students nearly broke the world streaking record.
Ward doesn’t comment on this unsavory tradition, yet he must be pleased with the fact that no one has gotten injured on his watch and the surroundings he has created contributes to the safety, exuberance and aesthetics of the experience.
For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at [email protected].