ON SITE: Friends University

It's mid-October in Wichita, Kan. Several frosty mornings have turned the leaves on the trees, what few still cling to the branches after a record number of rainless, back-to-back 100+ degree days. The grass is also a victim of the drought, a dry, brown desert that stretches across most of the city. In the middle of it all, Friends University is nothing less than an oasis, its 40-acre campus surrealistically green.

To the untrained eye, the lawn looks like it's been there for years. But the largest, fastest-growing independent university in Kansas wasn't nearly as lush and welcoming when University President Biff Green and his wife, Binnie, moved from California with their family nine years ago. The Greens took one look at Friends' campus and wondered how they could duplicate a college landscape transformation they'd witnessed back home. “We wanted a greener campus,” Binnie Green says, “and we wanted color (annuals).”

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The first job was to replace the bermudagrass with a turf-type fescue so the campus carpet would stay green longer, especially while the students were in session. However, Davis Hall, the administration building, was about the only place equipped with sprinklers, so Friends needed a new irrigation system.

The Greens recognized these major changes would require a lot of money, but they simply hadn't been on campus long enough to make the right connections. So they formed a committee, inviting Friends' vice president for university relations, Hervey Wright III, who had a landscape horticulture degree, and other interested people.

Initially the small committee did the work themselves. Binnie, Wright and Dr. Green spent many days planting flowers together. The week before he was inaugurated, Dr. Green was out on campus planting a tree. “Students saw all of this, and it had an impact,” Wright says.

The health of the university improved under Dr. Green's leadership and its landscaping began to flourish. The following spring, Friends closed its offices for a day so 200 staff and faculty members could get involved. They were very successful, planting nearly a thousand shrubs.

“It was a dramatic transformation,” Wright said, recalling how he and other Friends' vice presidents oversaw the planting in separate areas on campus that day. This, he admitted, gave rise to some healthy competition between them. “People took ownership, and it opened their eyes to what landscape changes can do.”

Some of the initial changes were costly, but not visible. Take, for instance, the mystery of a large, barren stretch. “Nothing would grow there, and we didn't know why,” Binnie says. “We laid sod and irrigated it, but there was no way we could keep the grass from drying up.” Three inches down, they discovered a layer of pavement. The only solution was to dig it up, break it apart and haul it away.

Eventually, the university was able to hire Mark Furry, a full-time landscaping director. The first winter, Furry designed landscape plans for the residence halls and Sumpter Hall, where they were making major building renovations.

Because there was no budget for re-landscaping Sumpter, the committee decided to dig up and reuse everything around the building. “We saved 75 percent of the plant material, but probably not much money,” Furry remarks. As a result, Friends has a landscaping budget for every building and renovation project. The initial funds come from donations. Once the landscaping is put in, upkeep costs come out of the physical plant's budget, since they are responsible for maintaining it.

At the time Furry came on board, Friends was using mowers that, “just killed you to ride them.” This obviously wasn't an ideal situation, since his landscaping team has to be on the mowers three to four days a week, six hours a day. “I was specifically looking for comfortable mowers that would allow the crew to be on that long without getting worn out and beat up,” Furry says. He eventually settled on a couple of Grasshopper mowers with 72-inch decks.

Kansas winters are unpredictable. Several inches of snow can fall overnight. Furry's crew replaces the mower decks with snowplows to clear Friends' extensive network of sidewalks and surrounding parking lots.

Founded in 1898, Friends once boasted the largest educational facility under one roof west of the Mississippi River: Davis Hall, a Romanesque building best known for its 148-foot clock tower that lights up the night during the holiday season, thanks to a generous donor. From Davis' third- and fourth-story windows, Furry often peers out onto campus to visualize how any landscaping changes will look from above. The University is currently undertaking a $7 million renovation of the structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To the east of Davis is Rose Window Plaza, named for the large, rose-shaped stained glass window in Davis' Alumni Auditorium that inspired a student-designed brick pattern at the foot of the building's main entrance. A grassy area lined with Europeanna rose beds, shrubs, wide sidewalks and park benches, the plaza is a hub of activity during homecoming, alumni week and graduation. It used to be a street that divided the campus physically and in the minds of those who worked and studied at Friends. Now, if needed, emergency vehicles can approach Davis by driving over a fire truck-rated underlayment, or plastic grate system, that lies undetected beneath the grass.

For many years it was difficult to tell where Friends' campus started and ended, abutted on one end by a major thoroughfare and otherwise surrounded by a residential area. This was remedied by placing monument-type signage at each corner of the university. Now visitors and passersby can't miss it.

Furry emphasizes that credit for the landscaping improvements is due to many people rolling up their sleeves. Wright agrees. “It's always been a group effort,” he says. Of course the administration's support of this nine-year project has been a key ingredient.

“Our president is committed to maintaining the resources, staff and budget,” Wright adds. So far, completed landscape projects have cost $1.9 million.

As a result, Binnie says, “The campus looks more put together, more colorful.” Not only does it make a better first impression for parents and prospective students, she emphasizes, but “the landscaping project says we care about them and the environment.”

Kim Hurley Benson is a freelance writer based in Wichita, Kan.

TURNING A DESERT INTO AN OASIS: HOW FRIENDS UNIVERSITY'S LANDSCAPING CREW MAINTAINS THE CAMPUS

To keep Friends University's 40 acres looking like a Kansas oasis, the landscaping crew starts the season with a March clean-up, gets into a weekly schedule the first of April, and mows twice a week into December, when they do a final clean-up.

Furry's mowing crew mulches everything, and alters the mowing pattern 45 degrees to the right each time. “Mowing in a different direction lays a nice pattern in the grass,” he says. “You should be able to go all over campus and see it's been mowed the same way — even in the small areas.” Doing this, Furry emphasizes, helps reduce the potential for ruts.

“We do irrigate a lot, and the ground is soft,” he explains. When Furry went shopping for new mowers, a particular concern was finding units with light “footprints” to enable them to mow over soggier ground without tearing up the lawn.

The first irrigation system, installed 12 years ago by Friends' then-athletic director, was limited to a small area in the main campus area. Most of the system has been revamped since Furry arrived, costing a third of all the school's completed landscape projects. The new irrigation system covers most of campus and is controlled by a computer that also runs the school's heating and air system. “It's custom programmed,” Furry says, “all automated, very usable. The administration likes a lush lawn, so it takes a lot of water.”

In August, the school grounds were losing excessive water. “We watered every day this summer, and still it wasn't keeping up. We kept it alive but it didn't look great. You can definitely see the weak spots in the irrigation.” In autumn, Friends reduces the watering schedule to three times a week.

They switched from seeding to sodding in front of the buildings, Furry says, and they've been pleased with the results. “It has made a big difference,” he says. “We don't have the weed problems, the bare spots. It makes a very good instant impression.”

The tall fescue across campus is fertilized three times a year: in late May after graduation, in early September and in late October. The football practice area is bermudagrass, which is fertilized four times a year. Furry looks for a high sulfur and iron content in fertilizer because the pH of Friends' soil runs from 7.9 to 8.2. “We water with well water, which has a high pH level. And that goes up in the summer. We do anything we can to bring it down.”

Furry tests the soil once a year and typically finds it's unusually low in phosphorus. He adds diammonium phosphate when planting flowers and bushes.

The crew uses a pull-behind 48-inch core aerator once or twice a year. It only takes a day to do the entire campus.

In midsummer they apply grub controls. This, he says, helps alleviate the dead patches. “It works very well, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you have an irrigation system.”

With so much watering, there's bound to be a drainage problem or two. One such area is the corner of the physical education building, where the crew removed portions of a parking lot and put in sod. “The subsoil is compacted, so we're growing grass on three inches of topsoil,” Furry explains. The solution? “We water very frequently, but not very heavily, because the water has nowhere to go.”

Keeping the bermudagrass in check on campus is a continual challenge for Furry and his crew. “Every year we try to spray the bermuda with Aventis' Acclaim, which suppresses its growth. Then we seed with fescue. It's an ongoing process. When we have a hot dry year like this, the bermuda loves it, and it's very aggressive.” The herbicide, he says, doesn't kill it completely. An alternative to seeding is sodding. “That's one of the advantages of sodding. We strip the bermuda and lay new sod on top of the herbicide-sprayed areas.”

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