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Grounds for improvement

GRITIT, a specialist in grounds maintenance, argues that taking a strategic, year-round approach to planning can help you stay in control – even in a changing climate

For busy facilities managers, grounds maintenance is just one of many competing priorities, and it can be tempting to default to an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to the specifications and KPIs that govern the activity of your grounds teams. But what happens when business as usual isn’t an option, and what’s worked for a site in previous years fails to meet changing demands?

Grounds maintenance is inherently unpredictable thanks to the vagaries of nature – and weather in particular. Climate change is threatening an increase in extreme weather conditions including droughts and water shortages. At the same time, organisations are facing ever-greater reputational and regulatory pressures concerning their environmental impact that need to be reflected in the sustainable management of outdoor spaces.

More conventionally, all businesses must deal with the ebb and flow of capital, and all too often existing plans for managing sites have to be overhauled to adapt to budget pressures. This is easier said than done, however. As the breadth of skills and responsibilities involved in modern facilities management continues to increase, few FMs can be realistically expected to have the dedicated horticultural expertise needed to effectively manage or anticipate change – let alone control budgets or make sites more sustainable.

This is undoubtedly an area where expert opinion matters. However, a grasp of what is involved in planning the annual lifecycle of outdoor spaces can help to equip FM professionals to take on the challenges of managing landscapes, budgets and contractors.

One of the most important considerations for effectively managing grounds maintenance activity is to understand and anticipate the different issues and opportunities presented by each season.

Summer is naturally the most intensive period of activity during the year, with activity focused on the demands of lawn care, weed control and summer pruning. From a horticultural point of view, late spring into early summer is an ideal period for activities such as planting bedding plants and hanging baskets. However, this is when FMs and site managers also need to develop effective KPIs to measure quality and – where needed – review and update the organisation’s maintenance specifications.

Now is the time to meet with grounds maintenance teams to explain any changes and provide an outline programme of works and a schedule for the season ahead. This isn’t a one-off activity but rather a good way to kick off an iterative process – set regular review meetings to discuss and rectify any issues.

During the peak summer period, it’s essential to continue to communicate and review activity with teams to ensure that specifications and quality standards are being adhered to and KPIs met. This process can allow for adjustments to specifications as needed to help stay in budget – for example, by agreeing a longer sward length for grass to reduce the frequency of visits, or to adapt activity to meet the challenges of sustained drier periods.

Autumn is the ideal point in the year to schedule site improvement works such as planting and arboriculture activity, for example planning any necessary tree surgery to keep wooded areas healthy and safe. From a planning perspective this is an important time to comprehensively review landscape assets and management and maintenance plans and specifications.

Consulting external expertise can really add value. When seeking to make improvements, engage with a landscape specialist to develop a comprehensive set of output specifications aligned to your key objectives – such as environmental objectives or workplace wellbeing – rather than just frequency of visits. If costs or environmental pressures are factors, this process can also help to identify opportunities to change the landscape to replace trees or shrubs with species that require lower maintenance, or that offer greater drought resistance.

Looking ahead to winter, this season should not be viewed as an opportunity to simply cut costs. Many organisations significantly reduce grounds maintenance during the winter by slashing the number of site visits. However, this can be a false economy as some of the most beneficial care is carried out in the coldest months, and work conducted during this period can be highly cost effective.

For example, when planting trees, winter is the best time to purchase bare root stock – a far more affordable option than buying the potted stocks that are the only option later in the year. From both an economical and sustainability perspective, planting during the wetter winter months is also important, as it increases the chances of plants surviving and becoming sufficiently hardy to take on tougher, drier conditions later in the year.

On the other hand, cutting back on winter visits allows leaves and debris to build up on and damage lawns and encourage weed growth. Hence, fewer site visits in winter adds more labour costs in the springtime to bring these areas back up to standard. Decaying leaves on lawns or hard standings can also form a substrate that allows weeds to germinate, which then requires more weed control as well as unnecessary and costly chemical treatments during the summer growing season.

As well as being a false economy, poor seasonal planning can therefore produce worse environmental outcomes.

About Sarah OBeirne


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