Morningside Grounds, Gardens Reflect Day-to-Day Decision-Making - July 3, 2007

Morningside Grounds, Gardens Reflect Day-to-Day Decision-Making

July 3, 2007

Thirty-six acres to landscape, propagate and cultivate responsibly would be a challenge to even the most competent gardener. Factor in the demands of Morningside's classic-designed urban campus and the stakes are higher still.

Small Lawn AreasIts beauty, both eye-pleasing and sustainability-enhancing, consists of the trees, grass, flowers, groundcovers - and their symmetry, year-round attractiveness, and health. Yet the adversaries - among them, pests, pedestrian traffic, vehicle exhaust -- are always in play. Achieving the balance between the two involves constant vigilance, planning, decision-making and nothing left to chance.

Richard Bussert, manager of Landscaping/Grounds for Columbia University Facilities, is responsible for the big horticultural picture. However, he's quick to list his helpers: Lynden Miller, a New York City public garden designer; Anthony Bulfamante, a landscaper from New Rochelle, NY; Town and Gardens, a New York City horticultural maintenance company; and Bartlett Tree Service that provides guidance on ornamental pest management, as well as the pruning and herbaceous and woody plant maintenance.

When it comes to replacing or adding trees, Bussert points out that only a handful do well in a harsh environment such as Morningside Heights, with its urban pollutants and exhaust. And, he says, the average life expectancy of a street tree in New York City is eight years. That's why last fall and this spring, among the several street trees he chose is an ancient tree, the Ginkgo biloba, whose fan-shaped leaves resist pollutants. The new plantings are at 116th St. and Amsterdam and on Morningside Drive, and include the ginkgo, honeylocusts and ornamental pears.

Bussert says that two maples recently planted at Furnald are some of the biggest trees planted in his nearly two years at Columbia. Called Acer rubrum "October Glory," they're native to the northeastern United States and are commonly known as swamp maples. The size of the young trees is another planting consideration. The new maples, for example, had diameters of about five inches at breast height. Bussert describes their planting size as "substantial," and able to withstand damage from high winds and mowing equipment, yet small enough to grow well after the shock of transplanting.

Flowers and shrubs are mostly the purview of consultant Lynden Miller, who says she's "spent 10 years loving theReading on lawn campus." Miller and Bussert do a campus walk-through about once a month, and Bussert says planting decisions are based on Miller's recommendations. They provide uniformity and a classic palette that's consistent with the classic campus framework, Bussert says.

Miller says the lush Centennial Beds along College Walk are special because they were her first Columbia project. She describes having two feet of soil, filled with pieces of glass and metal, removed from each bed, then refilling them with two feet of highly organic soil - "steaming because it was such good stuff."

The plantings are a combination of shrubs and perennials that Miller says she chooses because "they're the best in all seasons." Among her favorites: Blue Hill salvia with lavender spikes that blooms in June and again in September; variegated yucca, its creamy flowers and blue-green leaves with white edges that take on a pink cast in winter; "Sum and Substance" hostas, with their huge chartreuse and gold leaves; delicate white Japanese anemones; spiky blue monkshood; oak leaf hydrangeas; and purple-leafed plants because they make green look greener.

Bussert is continually on the lookout for ways to make the landscaping and grounds upkeep more environmentally friendly. This year, for example, the grounds crew has been removing what Bussert calls "sad grass" in small lawn areas and replacing it with the purple-leafed winter creeper euonymus and with Vinca minor. The change is both aesthetically and environmentally sound, the latter by eliminating the need for mowing and lifting mowing equipment over hedges.

Bussert is expanding the use of ground cover to tree plots as well, on the St. Paul's Chapel lawn that slopes to Amsterdam Ave., for example. The various covers are an attempt to reduce the overall square footage of the lawns, he says, in order to reduce fertililizer and water usage. About 5,000 daffodils have also been planted in the tree plots and small lawns.

"I want the students to use and enjoy the lawns, but I also have to rotate the use so that any one area does not get worn out," Bussert says. Of the three acres of lawn area, about half is actively used. South lawns east and west are the two biggest at about 27,000 feet each. A red/green flag system that rotates several times a week during the school year indicates which lawn is usable.

Bussert says lawn tents are a bigger challenge. "We have to make sure that the tents are erected and dismantled in as tight a time frame as possible," he says. "The longer a tent covers the lawns, or more specifically, the longer a floor covering smothers the turf, the weaker the lawn becomes. Stakes that support the tents have a habit of puncturing irrigation lines, so we closely monitor the tent installations to make sure they don't interfere with any of our underground utilities."

As for the 40,000 people who make their way to the lower two-thirds of the campus at Commencement, a good offense is the best defense, he says, one that requires the lawns to be as healthy as possible prior to the festivities.

Landscaping/Design uses Cornell University Cooperative Extension guidelines for management of turf grasses. The guidelines are based on the Integrated Pest Management principle that a healthy lawn is the best way to achieve pest resistance. Bussert says he and his staff as well as a "scout" from Bartlett Tree Service frequently walk the campus to assess it for insects and fungi, and the IPM guidelines are adjusted according their observations.

The primary goal is control, Bussert says. "We're a high visibility area, so there's less tolerance for damage. We have low tolerance for pests."

The Cornell guidelines also contain protocol for fertilizing, and have dictated the way the campus has been divided into soil, shrub, tree and lawn types - each requiring a different type of synthetic or organic fertilizer.

This year, Bussert says, he had soil tests done to determine baseline fertilizer needs. "While organic fertilizers are much preferred," he says, "their efficacy depends on the soil, moisture and temperature. What might work well in summer might not work in the spring.

At no time, he says, is there any "random throwing of fertilizer." Decisions are deliberately made with all the variables - amount of sun and shade, proximity to buildings, for example - taken into account. He's looking forward to working with Columbia University Environmental Stewardship Director Nilda Mesa on a campus composting area.

Several Morningside groups, including the Food Sustainability Project, Students for Environmental and Economic Justice, and Eco-Reps in collaboration with Housing & Dining, have been working on the ways to begin campus composting. Composting will also be a project for this summer's SEAS Gateway Program.

Miller says that 10 years ago, the McKim, Mead & White campus had "dustbowls and lakes instead of lawns, as well as dead trees and half-dead plants."

Today, her favorite recollection is an overheard question posed by a student to his friends: "Guys, have you seen how awesome this campus is?!"

---- Barbara King Lord

Photographs by Eileen Barroso.
1. Small lawn areas planted with ground cover and daffodils dot the Morningside campus.
2. Healthy lawns are welcome study areas on the Morningside campus.