Toward a quieter, more beautiful campus
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
It’s November, there’s a chill in the air and with the exceptions of a few live oaks and other evergreens the 6,000-plus trees on the University of South Carolina campus are finally beginning to shed their leaves.
Years past, the onset of leaf season would have signaled the familiar high-pitched drone of backpack leaf blowers powering up from the Coliseum to Capstone and everywhere in between as grounds crews combatted the fall foliage. This year, campus may sound—and look— just a little bit different.
“We’ve had concerns, even downright complaints about the noise from leaf blowers—and, at times, the dust they create,” said Assistant Director of Landscaping and Environmental Services Tom Knowles during a recent interview on the Horseshoe.
Knowles had just returned from the Professional Grounds and Management Society tradeshow in Louisville, Ky., where his department received a Green Star Merit Award for landscape management. A leaf blower could be heard faintly humming in the distance, but the Horseshoe was otherwise quiet—by design.
“Our guys are trained to keep things clean and neat looking, and the power blower is a wonderful tool to move debris,” Knowles said. “They’re extremely efficient. Unfortunately, they’re loud. They bother a lot of people, and they bother me, too.”
They also present problems on a campus with more than 30,000 students, not to mention faculty and staff, who have to walk the same sidewalks and hardscapes the groundskeepers are trying to keep clean.
In an effort to strike a balance between efficiency and a more tranquil campus, Knowles’ department began experimenting over the summer with a new protocol that greatly reduces overall leaf blower usage. While his team is not abandoning the devices, they are limiting their use to Fridays unless specific circumstances or safety concerns necessitate additional use.
“Fridays we have a little bit less of a student population. A lot of students go home for the weekends,” said Knowles. “The tradeoff is things may not look the same. Things may look a little more rustic until we get to that Friday.“
Knowles called the next few weeks “the real test” for the new policy and said that his department will monitor its effectiveness before deciding if it needs to be adjusted.
Getting greener all the time
It may be fall, but leaves and leaf blowers aren’t the only things on the minds of university groundskeepers. Knowles’ department is also busy working on new ways to green up various campus spaces, including through the cultivation of shade-loving ground cover in select plots along the Horseshoe’s south side.
“If you go down in front of the president’s house you’ll see a sample of what we’ve done,” said Knowles. “We put in a dwarf mondograss. It’s going to really look nice.”
At this point, Knowles hasn’t decided where else dwarf mondograss will be planted but anticipates using it in at least a couple of other shady places as his department tries to enliven areas of the Horseshoe where growing more traditional grass is not possible.
“You’ve got green trees, green grass and then a whole a lot of brown mulch and a lot of brown brick,” said Knowles. “We want to try to soften that whole look with more greens.”
Grounds crews are also currently in the process of replacing summer annuals in color beds around campus and meanwhile preparing for tree-planting season, which begins next month.
“Trees are extremely important to us on this campus,” said Knowles, whose department has led USC’s efforts to be named a Tree Campus USA for three years running by the Arbor Day Foundation and the Toyota Motor Foundation.
“We’ll go out probably right before Christmas, and when we get back from the break we’ll continue,” said Knowles. “In places where, unfortunately, we’ve had to remove trees we’ll put one back in, or we’ll add them in other areas where we think we need a little extra canopy. “
The department has so far identified approximately 15 sites for new trees, though Knowles said he expects they will ultimately identify a couple dozen more between the end of this year and the onset of spring.
From every day to GameDay
For all its efforts to make the campus greener than it already is, much of what USC’s Facilities department does boils down to maintenance—whether that means responding to the wear and tear of constant foot traffic or simply taking out the trash, which can prove a monumental task in its own right.
“We’ve got 500-something garbage cans that have to be emptied every day, and then there’s litter,” said Knowles. “In some places, like the Russell House, we have to empty the trash five, six, seven times a day. It’s pretty crazy.”
Of course, there’s also the toll that special events such as ESPN GameDay can take on places like the Horseshoe—not that Knowles and his crew have any misgivings about USC’s most recent moment in the spotlight.
“I cannot say enough good things about ESPN,” said Knowles. “They totally got that this is place is special. They understood our sensitivities.”
Knowles admitted that he was a little protective of the Horseshoe the first time GameDay came to Carolina a few years ago—and when he refers to the heart of campus as “sacred ground” he’s only half-kidding.
“Before the first time we hosted Game Day we were freaking out a little, especially us tree guys,” Knowles recalled with a laugh. “We were like, ‘Oh no, can you please do it down by the stadium?’”
But ultimately his concerns disappeared almost as soon as ESPN arrived on campus, leaving him and his staff happy to work with the network in the future.
“It turned out to be such a positive thing,” Knowles said. “ESPN loved it, and kept making comments like, ‘this is the prettiest setting we’ve ever had.’ I had a feeling that when they came back for the Georgia game they’d ask for the Horseshoe again—and we were just thrilled they did.”
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