Landscapes of the Month: Maintaining Southern Methodist University’s Historic Campus - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Landscapes of the Month: Maintaining Southern Methodist University’s Historic Campus

Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) campus in Dallas, Texas, is known and was voted as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. However, the managing team for SMU’s campus felt the landscape was beginning to show its age and wanted to invest in enhanced maintenance, agronomy, tree care and irrigation.

The previous maintenance company was only mowing the grass at the time, leaving many trees, shrubs and groundcovers overgrown, under fertilized, and in some cases, diseased. Certain areas were bare due to shade or foot traffic.

Photo: Southern Botanical

Southern Botanical had been working with SMU on various landscape construction projects throughout the year and would care for the installation for a year as part of the landscape establishment period.

“We took that as an opportunity to really show what we could do and step up as the experts and communicate very well, frequently and just show them what we could do and they eventually became impressed,” says Tommy Silvers, vice president of operations for Southern Botanical. “When it came time for them to consider outsourcing to a landscape company for their landscape (maintenance), we were their number one choice.”

When SMU put the project out to bid, Southern Botanical wasn’t the lowest bid, but they knew the campus the best. During the first year of managing the campus in 2017, the company worked hard to get the landscape back in shape, replacing dead plants and figuring out the priorities of their client.

“I couldn’t believe how bad a shape the landscape was,” Silvers says. “Our first month there it was every single person from Southern Botanical out there Friday, Saturday and Sunday, doing a major massive clean up.”  

Southern Botanical’s work on SMU’s campus earned them a Gold Award in the 2021 Awards of Excellence.

Photo: Southern Botanical

“We’ve felt like SMU is just absolutely the perfect partner for us,” Silvers says. “It’s a perfect customer. They’re involved, they’re committed, they care. Earning a national award from NALP to us really just puts a stamp on that partnership and shows everyone and our team that hey, we’re really doing a great job and the entire country recognizes us for the work that we do out there.”

Working with SMU, Southern Botanical created a detailed landscape plan and set quarterly meetings on what could be achieved based on the university’s budget and time. They also work with the university to protect the existing landscape from ongoing construction projects performed by other companies.

“We’ve found that if we can get in early on the planning on those facilities, we can start to protect the landscaping that we have out here at the beginning, rather than being called out the end and saying, ‘You’ve hit this tree or you’ve been working too close this tree,’” says Mark Slicker, business developer for Southern Botanical.

One of the biggest challenges working on the campus is the number of people and events, as the significant foot traffic makes it hard to keep the turfgrass healthy.

Photo: Southern Botanical

“We’ve got this turf program that we’ve built to help alleviate the damage to the turf and alleviate the compaction,” Silvers says. “Every time one of those events is over, Southern Botanical comes in and tries to get everything fixed back up as fast as we can because they’ve got another event out there in two weeks.”

Slicker says one area in particular that is hard to maintain is Bishop Boulevard, which is a shaded area that is used for tailgating. They cannot irrigate this area from Tuesday to Saturday before a home game because they are setting up tents and tables.

“As soon as the game is over, we start to evaluate what is needed,” Slicker says. “It may include aeration, fertilization, reseeding and obviously additional watering cycles that we can get it back up before the next home game, which may be in a few days.”

Southern Botanical studies the football schedule in advance and plans accordingly so they know how to respond when there are three home games in a row. Larger turf areas that need renovation are planned to take place during the summer when the students won’t be on campus. Slicker says this is harder with Texas heat in the summer and ensuring the turf is getting enough water.

Photo: Southern Botanical

Five years into maintaining the landscape, Southern Botanical has three dedicated crews who spend 40 hours a week on SMU’s campus. Two of these crews handle detail work, such as weekly weeding and deadheading while the third crew handles mowing.

Mowing the campus requires strategic timing to coordinate with passing periods of students on the half-hour, every hour. Certain locations have time restrictions as some buildings do not permit noise after 8 a.m. and mowing cannot take place around dorm rooms until after 10 a.m.

The company also has two full-time irrigators on campus. Over 1,500 irrigation zones are managed, programmed and inspected through a Rainbird Maxicom Computer. Due to the complexity, the irrigation system takes 30 days to do a complete inspection. Repairs are done daily during the inspection.

Photo: Southern Botanical

Meanwhile, an arborist crew comes once a week to maintain the canopies of over 2,500 mature trees. Selective, structural canopy pruning is performed across the campus to ensure healthy light penetration to the plant material beneath the canopy. They also walk the campus to identify hazardous trees, safety issues and broken limbs.  

Seasonal color displays are planned a year in advance due to the large quantities needed. All the seasonal plantings must only be a mix of red, blue and white. Fertilization takes place once a month to extend the blooming period.

“To get an award like this is evidence that we’re doing the right things out here,” Slicker says. “To be recognized by our peers is incredible.”

Interested in participating in the Awards of Excellence? Be sure to enter your project when entries open on Feb. 14, 2022.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.