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Updated 10:00 AM April 11, 2005
 

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Spring has sprung on campus

The warriors of winter have been vanquished by yellow-green cornelian cherry, sky-blue scilla flowers and red buds sitting triumphant on high branches of red maples.
Alex Sulzer, senior horticulturist for the Diag area, says the frigid winter was rougher on people than plants, as snow cover kept soil at a favorable constant temperature. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

"Things are starting to open; the buds are swelling and the ground is turning from dull gray to green," says Alex Sulzer, senior horticulturist for the Diag area.

Between now and commencement later this month, horticulture crews will be repairing turf damage from plows and construction and raking winter debris out of plant beds near campus buildings, among other tasks. On North Campus, their work will include erecting silt fences to control storm water runoff and to keep sediment from entering storm sewers.

The campus is zoned into seven sections for horticulture staff, who tend to most plantings besides turf and big trees, and to maintenance. Two crews are on North Campus; one works in the Hospital and Medical School campus; three maintain the Central Campus area; and one works at the President's Residence and Inglis House. Each crew consists of up to 7 students during the summer, a horticulturist and one or two groundskeepers.

"They are plant specialists. They know diseases, and how to do successional planting so you always have something interesting and colorful growing," says John Lawter, associate director of grounds and waste management. "That is something you would see more in an agriculture college.

"We're very fortunate to have a very highly educated and motivated horticulture staff, which is unusual in a University setting. The focus is usually on the mow, blow and go clique and less on horticulture and plant design," he says.

While the colder than normal winter was tough on people, it was easier on other living things. "We never really got a break like we normally do," Sulzer says. "But having this kind of snow cover is really quite good in terms of the plants. The soil remains in a nice constant temperature."

The green sprouts of daffodils and tulips push through the soil near an electric substation grate just west of Tappan Hall. The first flowers spotted last week on the Diag were sky blue scillas. Several healthy rows of white scillas also emerged, through brown pine needle ground cover, below two 45-foot white pines just south of Shapiro Undergraduate Library.

While these fragile trees are known to turn yellow and stay that way due to harsh winters, Sulzer says feeding them with time-release sulfur fertilizer pellets is one of several measures keeping them healthy.

Lawter says maintaining a high level of grounds upkeep is a challenge: "We've had a lot of budget reductions the last four years." For the first time in decades, the Grounds Services base budget has been reduced. The trend has continued for the last three fiscal years, as the budget is down 14 percent overall.

"We have a pretty sophisticated work plan that identifies and prioritizes all our maintenance tasks and tracks how often we perform," Lawter says. "It's a credit to our staff and our work plan that we have been able to absorb significant reductions in our budgets without a noticeable degradation of the campus aesthetics." Mowing has been reduced or eliminated in some areas, to create prairie-type areas. This saves energy and labor costs. "We've cut back over 1 million square feet of lawn over the last three years, mostly in the North Campus area," Lawter says. "We also have been successfully experimenting with natural products such as soybean fertilizer and reducing our use of chemicals."

Campus grounds staff will continue to deal with ash trees killed by the emerald ash borer beetle. "We lost 609 ash trees on campus last year," Lawter says, adding the loss of 100 trees in one year would be significant. "We have a plan to replace them with other varieties, but it will take many years to recover the tree canopy we have lost."

There are roughly 18,000 inventoried trees on campus. Species include Douglas fir, honey locust, pine, crab apple, maple, spruce, oak and hawthorns.

If the campus community is excited with the arrival of spring, the grounds staff is downright thrilled. "It's a euphoria—kind of like a weight's been lifted off us, the clouds are breaking and the sun's coming out," Lawter says.

"It's just a lot easier to get out of bed every morning," Sulzer says. "I think the general feeling I have right now is that things did make it through well; across campus a lot of the older trees and major shrubs made it through successfully. It should be a beautiful spring."

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