Finding a happy medium: sustainability vs. appearance - The Western Front: News

Finding a happy medium: sustainability vs. appearance

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Posted: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 12:00 am

Western's Facilities Management struggles to balance differing groundskeeping methods

Construction is changing the face of campus as new landscaping and bike pathways focus on sustainable groundskeeping rather than simply keeping up appearances.

The appearance of the grounds is the second reason students choose a school, according to Kathy Wetherell, interim vice president for Business and Financial Affairs at Western.

Groundskeeping methods at Western depend on balancing appearance with sustainability, two concepts that are not always compatible. Despite a tight budget and a small staff, groundskeepers from Facilities Management at Western are building a sustainable groundskeeping program literally from the ground up. These gardeners have spent the last decade reducing pesticide use, testing organic fertilizers and experimenting with creative ways to control weeds.

Many of the groundskeeping decisions on campus come down to money, said Gary Hodge, a maintenance specialist with Facilities Management. Some of the more innovative methods have been cheaper and more sustainable than conventional ones, but others are not as feasible because appearance outweighs their cost or efficiency.

Athletic fields: pesticides and fertilizers

The athletic fields are the only areas on campus still treated with both chemical fertilizer and pesticides because they receive so much use, said Gary Hodge, a maintenance specialist with Facilities Management. Ruts and gouges tear up grass and are a safety hazard for players, so the fields were temporarily closed for treatment. 


Are used only on Carver field, behind the Chemistry Building, and upper and lower Fairhaven fields, not the softball or turf field

Need to be applied approximately once every five years per field

Need one application to halt weed growth so grass can re-establish roots after fields are torn up by overuse

Close fields down for one to two months for renovation

Increase potential risk to utility crews who apply them (as opposed to not using any pesticides)

Increase potential risk to organisms and water quality

Are more expensive than natural alternatives

Will need to be applied more often as the campus population grows and fields get more use

 Organic fertilizers:

Reduce the amount of chemicals applied to fields

Produce slower-growing grass

Lead to grass that holds less color

Lead to less homogenous-looking fields

Are more expensive than synthetic fertilizers

 Chemical fertilizers:

Are cheaper than organic fertilizers

Put more chemicals into the soil

Result in more pristine-looking fields


Wood chips versus bark:

Instead of using bark, Facilities Management now uses wood chips donated by Bellingham tree services on most areas of campus. Crews first lay corrugated cardboard from the Associated Students Recycle Center on soil, then put several inches of wood chips on top. Water can permeate the cardboard, but weeds have a harder time growing up through cardboard than through bark, said Randy Godfrey, a grounds and nurseries specialist with Facilities Management. This allows Western to support local businesses and maintain campus in a more effective and sustainable manner, Hodge said.


Wood chips:

Are free from local tree services

Prevent weed growth for at least two years in areas covered with  cardboard and wood chips

Last several years before breaking down

Hold more moisture than bark, so plants need less water

Are moist and benefit soil as they decompose

Do not have places for weeds blown in by wind to attach (unlike bark), so fewer weeds grow

Are donated, so there are not always enough to cover large areas

Do not have as homogenous a look as traditional bark


Fir bark:

Costs $24 per cubic yard

Breaks down after approximately one year

Is still used around places such as the Wade King Student Recreation Center, because the desired consistent look cannot be achieved with wood chips

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