Campus Life

Grounds crew sustains University's beauty


In the dead of winter, they keep the University of Lethbridge's sidewalks safe by shovelling snow and spreading sand. In the spring, they sweep the gravel, mow the grass and replenish the planters. They are the Grounds crew and their role at the U of L is essential for creating both a vibrant and safe campus, all the while supporting the University's recruitment, retention and sustainability efforts.

"First impressions are important," says manager Phil Dyck.

Grounds staffers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have formal training in landscaping while others have experience in lawn maintenance and other aspects of the job. What they have in common is an enthusiasm and dedication to their trade, reflected by the group continually attending seminars and taking courses for licencing and certifications to the industry's latest standards.

Alanna Kolesar
Summer student employee Alanna Kolesar plants flowers at the entrance to the U of L campus.

The crew consists of just seven full-time employees with an additional seven students over the summer months, meaning a premium is placed on running an efficient and sustainable operation. One of the department's most significant ventures is maintaining its own greenhouse.

"We have a top-of-the-line greenhouse that we utilize throughout the entire year," says Dyck.

Flowers and plants are seeded at the beginning of the year and grown in the greenhouse until they are ready to be planted in the spring. In the fall, perennial plants such as geraniums are harvested and maintained in the greenhouse over the winter for planting again in the spring. In total, more than 8,000 plants were seeded this past year.

"Most of what we grow is pretty typical," says Dyck. "We pick those plants on purpose because we're looking for what is low in maintenance and what is going to survive."

Maintaining plants in a greenhouse presents its own challenges. Last year, the department had to deal with an aphid outbreak. The tiny, destructive insects rapidly multiply and go to work sucking the sap out of plants.

"You could leave on a Friday afternoon when everything looks fine and come back Monday morning and see that your plants are under extreme stress," says Dyck. "When we had the aphid outbreak, we were spraying every other day with a mostly soap-based insecticide. It's a lot of work and unfortunately it's not terribly effective, but we had to do it to keep those plants alive."

A little ingenuity from an unexpected source ended up saving the day. Hundreds of ladybugs, collected by a Grounds employee's young daughter, were released in the greenhouse and they went to work, eating the offending aphids.

"This spring, as soon as she found ladybugs she caught them again, and we never found a single aphid in the greenhouse this year," he says.

The department's other great challenge is Lethbridge's unpredictable weather. From sizzling summer heat to bone-chilling winter winds, sprinkled with random rain and hailstorms, the crew has seen it all. In the growing season, sudden changes from hot to cold or dry to wet can put great strain on plants.

"We can be proactive to some degree but more often than not, we need to be responsive," says Dyck. "With outdoor plants, trees and grass, any kind of sudden change in the weather will put a lot of stress on the plants. If it goes from really cool to 35 degrees the next day, it might not be apparent to most people, but a trained eye will see that stress."

Proper irrigation techniques play an important role in maintaining vegetation in southern Alberta's semi-arid climate. Dyck notes that, with the exception of the river valley areas of campus, there were no trees on the U of L property before planting began. Generally, the area does not get enough rain to sustain trees, grasses and plants that have been introduced. That's why you will sometimes see staff watering trees even during a rainfall event, to help the moisture penetrate into the root zone.

"If we get a really dry year, we're going to be hand watering out there to keep the trees alive," he says.

Sustainability is always at the forefront of the department's thinking. One initiative involved saving a cluster of elm trees from becoming firewood. Construction for the new residence building in Aperture Park required the removal of about 80 elm trees, but rather than chop them down, Grounds worked with the Project Management Office to remove and transplant the trees around campus. They'll then be relocated back to the site once the new residence is complete.

"Some of those elms were very mature, they were good trees and worth saving," says Dyck. "We saved as many as we could."

For more information on Grounds or its operations call 403-329-2602 or e-mail