Safely maintaining the landscape: UT Landscape Services finds ways to perform critical functions during pandemic 

Imagine some campus buildings suddenly doubled in size or multiplied overnight. This happens in the plant and animal world: plants, trees, insects and wildlife never stop growing and multiplying. While this image illustrates the beauty and uniqueness of nature, it also highlights the importance of continued landscape maintenance, tree care and pest control on the UT Austin campus. During the coronavirus pandemic, Facilities Services’ Landscape Services unit cannot stop its efforts without changing the appearance and security of campus, but this has to be done in a way that prioritizes the work and safety of all involved now more than ever. 

In addition to university social distancing and sanitation requirements, field-specific safety measures instituted by Landscape Services staff ensure optimal levels of safety and security for the staff and UT community. These measures include allowing only one person per vehicle, mandatory face coverings, no sharing of equipment, rotating staff, staggering shifts and working in isolated areas to avoid contact with others. Specialized teams continue efforts with slight modifications. Pest control staff enter structures only when necessary to control ant and rodent populations, and irrigation systems have been monitored and operated remotely.  

Landscape Services is working to maintain safe campus conditions in a variety of ways. One is by removing leaves and debris from streets and storm drains. Landscape Services Manager Jim Carse sees this duty as critical due to the live oak leaf transition at this time. The trees drop last year’s leaves as they put on new leaves for the current year.

“Having an enormous population of live oak trees on campus means that we have a lot of leaves to deal with every spring as these trees shed their old leaves and produce new,” Carse said. “Without collecting the fallen leaves via street sweeper and industrial vacuum, they can easily clog storm drains in streets and potentially flood parts of campus, including buildings.” 

Fallen live oak leaves are a safety issue for pedestrians as well. Although foot traffic on campus has been greatly reduced, essential personnel and some students still access campus. Therefore, even though some routine maintenance tasks are carried out less frequently than before, landscape maintenance staff sweep streets and clear leaves from sidewalks.

“We have leaves still falling daily, causing fast buildup that obscures walking surfaces,” said Jennifer Hrobar, urban forestry supervisor. “These leaves can be slippery when dry and wet, and will clog drains, preventing water runoff during rain events. Our staff has to stay on this leaf removal task as leaves build up fast and will quickly become a potential issue for the safety of pedestrians and vehicles moving across campus.”  

Landscape Service continues mowing turf areas as well. Regular mowing improves the health of the turf and enables irrigation to function correctly. Neglecting this task would give the campus an unkempt appearance, but there could be further consequences.

“Unmaintained grounds provide harborage for insects and rodents. Long grasses can lead to high flea and tick populations, which carry disease. Buildup of debris, leaves and such can lead to excessive pooling, creating mosquitoes and the illnesses they bring,” said Mart Stubblefield, pest control supervisor.

Outside of the landscape and inside the greenhouses at the Facilities Services Complex, care continues for the large number of plants housed inside. Routine maintenance of a different kind is performed primarily by Greenhouse Specialist Casey Limerick.

“I come in and water, check that the exhaust fans are operational and that the evaporative cooling system is functioning, and perform maintenance accordingly,” Limerick said. “Plants don't stop growing, so I have to cut back and space plants so they don't shade each other out or overextended their resources.  

“There is valuable plant material in the greenhouses currently that we have grown over the past several months--and even in years in some cases,” he said. “If these plants aren't cared for regularly, they will perish. Some of these plants are special varieties that cannot be replaced.” 

With fewer people on campus, pest control more easily applies ant bait and performs exhaustive inspections around buildings. Tree roots and turf are spared some of the usual wear and tear from foot traffic, creating an aesthetically pleasing landscape overall. Pollinator gardens on campus have become more hospitable to the beneficial insects that live and reproduce in the vegetation. Most importantly, Landscape Services has had an opportunity to learn some important lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the university and to rethink current maintenance practices.  

“As challenging as this is, my hope is that we learn how to work better and smarter from it,” Carse said. “We will potentially be able to apply many of these adjusted work tactics and schedules to different situations in the future. Fortunately, we have built a solid plant palette of native and adapted species through the years that can survive long periods without rain or maintenance and still be salvageable.” 

Hrobar wants to consider new ways to ensure campus is not only safe and well-maintained for people, but also the beneficial insects, pollinators and life that call it home, while also allowing Landscape Services to use its limited resources more effectively.

The unit’s Landscape Architect Lisa Lennon concurs with Carse and Hrobar.

“Our job is to continuously strive for improvement of the campus landscape, not only for aesthetics but also for environmental sustainability,” Lennon said.

Without the diligent efforts of the employees of Landscape Services, students, faculty and other staff would return to a much different campus from the one they left earlier this spring. Campus buildings would suffer, along with the investments made in the campus landscape and ecology. 

“During this challenging time, the efforts and positive attitude of our staff are obvious, as well as the support of our leadership,” Carse said. “We care for an extremely diverse landscape, with many specialty groups, and we’ve all worked as a team to get the essential work done and keep campus safe. I have been proud to witness it.”  

Landscape Services Gardener Zach Stewart
Landscape Services Gardener Zach Stewart blows leaves into piles in front of Waggener Hall on Speedway to be collected by the unit’s vacuum trailer.
May 4, 2020