Uncommon Grounds

It takes a special team to keep the campus both beautiful and sustainable


Hours before sleepy students take their seats in 8 a.m. classes, dozens of people are already hard at work preparing the SF State campus for their arrival. These grounds workers begin their workdays in the pre-dawn darkness so that the noisiest and most disruptive lawn mowing, leaf blowing and tree trimming can be finished before the first students arrive.

By mid-afternoon, many of the workers have vanished like the shoemaker’s elves from the old story. Yet what they leave behind is plain to see: a picturesque campus filled with flowers, herbs and shrubs from around the world and an urban forest of 3,000 trees. And it’s all thriving despite the drought that has parched the state and led to huge reductions in water usage.


As Gov. Jerry Brown calls for a 25 percent reduction in water use statewide, SF State Gardener Hugh Ennis offers drought-time tips to keep gardens thriving.

  • Water earlier or later in the day, before or after the sun hits the plants, to reduce evaporation.
  • Loosen and aerate compacted soil in the root zone to improve water penetration and reduce surface runoff.
  • Remember that it's more effective to water the ground under the plants rather than the plants themselves. Start two to three inches out from the stem base and go as far out as the edge of the leaf canopy.
  • If soil is dry to the touch one inch deep around new plantings or two to three inches deep around older, established plants, go ahead and water. If not, you can wait.
  • Consider installing low-pressure drip irrigation and mulching the ground underneath plants. Two to three inches of chipped or shredded bark mulch can keep soil cool and lessen evaporation while discouraging the growth of water-stealing weeds.

That didn’t happen by sheer luck. Anthony Benson, SF State's grounds operations manager, credits the foresight and vision of former Director of Grounds and Waste Management Phil Evans, who retired in December after 25 years with the University. During his tenure, SF State became a nationally recognized leader in campus design and maintenance, winning the Professional Grounds Management Society's Green Star for best-maintained grounds of an urban university.

Benson started working at SF State as a grounds worker 16 years ago. (''Probably the first thing I did was get on the mower and mow the Quad,'' he recalls with a smile.) According to him, the landscape looked and felt much different back then. ''It was lush flowers everywhere. We were putting out a lot of water-thirsty plants,'' Benson says. ''But then about seven years ago the whole focus changed to sustainability. We started removing the grass that was not being used for recreation or activities on the Quad and replanting with native or drought-resistant plants.''

More recently, student volunteers helped create several bioswales around campus. The sloping, vegetation-filled drainage courses channel and filter runoff water, substantially reducing water waste. There are also four rainwater collection tanks on campus capable of holding up to 12,000 gallons altogether. The tanks supply water to campus gardens with the help of solar-powered pumps.

''Whatever rain is falling here, we've done a really good job of capturing it and not just letting it run down the drain,'' says SF State's sustainability coordinator, Nick Kordesch.

According to Kordesch, the University was doing such a good job reducing water use before the drought it's actually made it more difficult to accommodate state-mandated reductions now.

''When the state said, 'Reduce by 20 percent,' we were like, 'We've already done so much. How do we push the envelope further?''' he says. ''So it's been a challenge, but a good challenge.''

One way SF State is meeting that challenge is by experimenting with new computer-run irrigation controllers that can sense moisture and automatically adjust water use accordingly. A test computer controller put in place for Maloney Field reduced water use there by 30 percent, saving 900,000 gallons over the course of 18 months. The system has now been installed permanently, and more controllers will be put in place around campus later this year. There has also been an increased emphasis on xeriscaping -- the use of carefully chosen plants and landscaping to reduce or even eliminate the need for supplemental watering.

''Just through placement, we can reduce the amount of irrigation even a drought-tolerant plant needs,'' says SF State gardener and self-described ''plant geek'' Hugh Ennis. ''Let's say a plant can take more shade and likes to have its roots cool anyway -- that will cut down on transpiration [evaporation from the leaves] and ultimately save water.''

Many of the plants Ennis has added to the campus lately come from Mediterranean climates like San Francisco's. Whether they are fava beans or sage from Southern Europe, lavender star flowers or asparagus ferns from South Africa or camellias or rhododendrons from Asia, they can thrive in the Bay Area's warm, dry summers and wet, cool winters.

Ennis admits that these climate-appropriate plants aren't always the most bright or vibrant. But as he sees it, beauty isn't always about eye-catching color. It's about finding a balance that allows plants -- and the ecosystem around them -- to thrive.

''If plants are doing well and they're not crowding out their neighbors and everything's growing in harmony,'' he says, ''then that's beautiful to me.''




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