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A City Within a City: Columbia University

Profile: Richard Bussert: Director of Landscaping and Grounds

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor




Richard Bussert, Director of Landscaping and Grounds, Morningside Campus and Baker Field.

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Richard Bussert has followed a circuitous route to Columbia University, but circuitous became fortuitous for both. In the golf course business for 20 years, he transitioned to grounds management at Skidmore College. There, he met a wonderful lady who lived in New York City and at age 55, Bussert pulled up his roots and made the move. He was, in part, inspired by a book by Spencer Johnson the theme of which is that life is about taking controlled risks. That controlled risk in turn brought him to Columbia.






The view of Columbia University’s historic urban campus in New York City gives only a partial sense of the size and scope of this 36 acre site which serves 21,630 students and employs 6,733 instructional and non-instructional personnel. And they all want to sit on the grass and walk all over the place 24 hours a day. It is truly a small city that never sleeps.





Many lawn plots on campus are small and often surrounded by hedges, making mowing and maintenance awkward and difficult. Several of these areas were identified, the sod was removed and several types of ground covers were planted. Here, at St. Paul’s Chapel, the grass was replaced with Vinca minor ‘Bowles.’





Almost all the work is done by a full time staff of eight. However, says Bussert, we work closely with Lynden Miller, Director of the Conservancy garden in Central Park, who helps us maintain a unified planting and design theme.


Bussert became a landscape manager because, although he had a degree in history, he had gotten a part time job at a golf course operating equipment.

His love of sports and golf led him to continue in golf course and landscaping for a large developer. He luckily found out about a program offered at Penn State, which led to a Turfgrass Management certificate. Penn State’s curriculum was specifically geared for graduates to go into the golf industry

This is the start of his third year at Columbia and the biggest challenge he has faced is the level of activity. “We are basically managing a small city—it never sleeps,” says Bussert. “There are very few windows where there is no activity. The campus is open and active at all hours of the day and night.

Fortunately the campus is fairly confined, although now we have East Campus and the Law School which goes from 116th to 118th streets between Amsterdam and Morningside.”






”We manage to work around all the people by starting early in the morning, and being sensitive to noise issues,” says Bussert. “That ties in well with our program of reducing the amount of lawn acreage and thus reducing the amount of mowing and maintenance.”





Commencement week can wreak havoc with the campus lawns. This year, the tents pictured above were installed for three days, completely broken down for one day, then reinstalled again overnight for several days before final breakdown and load-out. Image courtesy of Richard Bussert


They manage to work around all the people by starting early in the morning, and being sensitive to noise issues. “That ties in well with our program of reducing the amount of lawn acreage and thus reducing the amount of mowing and maintenance,” he says. “We’ve been planting Vinca minor ‘Bowles’ in place of grass as a ground cover.

“Frank Molina oversees daily operations with the grounds staff. His background includes training at the New York Botanical Garden,” says Bussert. “We have seven-day-a-week coverage, although on weekends we have smaller staffing than we do Monday through Friday.” The staff day starts at 6AM and ends at 2:30 PM. Another shift starts at 7 AM and ends at 3:30 PM.






This low level view of Butler Library from the Journalism building displays several of the campus standard features, including the ornamental hoop fencing that frames many of the display beds, as well as Stony Creek granite used for curbing and Old English Brick pavers used for many of the campus thoroughfares. Taxus hedges are also a recurring theme throughout the landscape.





The great south lawn, both East and West, at 27,000 square feet each are the two biggest lawn areas on campus. Both are covered with turf blankets in the fall, and it is easy to see the head start the covered grass gets when compared with the uncovered area when the covers are removed in early spring. With commencement held in mid May, there isn’t enough time for the spring growth to establish itself and look good after long cold winters.


The major event on campus is, of course, commencement. For that, the lawns have to be kept in very good order, which is often difficult because of timing. Applying an earth blanket is imperative so that the lawns come out of the winter with a jump start. “We can get accelerated color early by using the turf blanket,” says Bussert. “Commencement is arriving shortly after the start of a cold spring. This year it begins May 18th through the 22nd, which often isn’t long enough after snow events to get it going nicely.”

They definitely do their share of snow plowing in winter. The campus has less tolerance for snow and ice than perhaps in places where there is a lower population. “We have plows on at least three trucks,” says Bussert.

“Power brooms are also a very helpful tool because many times instead of puffy powder the snow is mixed precipitation. The brooms do a better job of removing it from concrete sidewalks, as well as brick pavers and hexagonal pavers, granite steps, etc. Since we have a variety of different surfaces, maintenance of the walkways is a challenge. We have a sweeper scrubber and we operate that daily, weather permitting, as well as frequent hot and cold water power washing.”






Looking down the granite steps lined with coleus, taxus and magnolia, one can see beyond the ornate ironwork of the gates across Broadway to the entrance of Barnard College, the author’s Alma Mater.





In the four quadrants that surround the corners of Low Library, the sod was removed and purple leaf winter creeper was selected and installed as groundcover, reducing mowing and the associated labor, as well as fertilizer requirements. Later in the fall, daffodil bulbs were planted for a colorful show the following spring.





High volumes of pedestrian and vehicular traffic necessitate continuous maintenance of the eleven acres of concrete sidewalks, brick and asphalt pavers and granite steps.


The staff also handles waste management, although the New York City Department of Sanitation works in coordination with them. They have pickups throughout the campus, which they take to a designated pick up area. The city removes trash in the middle of the night. Environmental issues and sustainability issues are also addressed by recycling of bottles, cans, plastics, batteries and electronics. Those are sent to designated temporary storage areas prior to removal by a contractor. Grounds supervisor Frank Molina works with Waste Management Supervisor Keith Birch, “We are thinking of composting as well, but doing that within a large city needs more thought and planning,” says Bussert. “The Office of the Environmental Stewardship Department is very interested in expanding this project.”

This year has also brought another change, and that is to the Columbia University Sports Field complex at Baker Field in northern Manhattan. The baseball and soccer fields have just been converted from natural grass to Field Turf™ ‘Duo’ monofilament with crumb rubber and sand infill. Only the pitchers mound, home plate, and warning track are natural materials. The football field is the older slit film polypropylene fabric with sand and rubber infill. Lacrosse also shares this field with football. Field hockey is played on a nylon carpet which is made specifically for the sport. The pitch (as it’s referred to), is watered prior to games to make for better ball roll. The new fields are not as labor intensive as natural grass, but require different equipment and have their own unique challenges and maintenance needs.

Kevin Malone, CSFM oversees the operations at Baker Field, and while Bussert works with Malone, he defers to his expertise on synthetic turf.

The advantages of artificial turf include the fact that many of the games in springtime require being played when natural turf is not actively growing.

Practice is in February and play is in March and April, which is almost impossible for a turfgrass that is in dormancy to withstand.






Less than two months before this commencement picture was taken, there was a significant snow event. All of the facilities employees worked together to bring the campus to a peak appearance in this very short time frame. The campus must look perfect and the grounds are on display. In attendance were an estimated 40,000 people.





At the Baker Field sports complex, which is part of Columbia University in northern Manhattan, artificial turf has been installed to allow the use of the fields in early spring when the natural turf is not actively growing. With practice in February and play in March and April, it is almost impossible to maintain a natural field that is in dormancy. Image courtesy of Kevin Malone, CSFM





The campus has less tolerance for snow and ice than perhaps in places where there is a lower population. “We have plows on at least three trucks,” says Bussert. “Power brooms are also a very helpful tool because many times instead of puffy powder the snow is mixed precipitation. The brooms do a better job of removing it from concrete sidewalks. Since we have a variety of different surfaces, maintenance of the walkways is a challenge.


There have been some sad moments as well. They just lost the two American Elms remaining on campus, which were found on the grounds of Earl Hall facing Low Library. “It was an event that brought tears to many watchers’ eyes. High wind sheer compromised their structure and it was determined for safety reasons they should be removed,” says Bussert.

“Accolade Elm replaced them.” They went to Princeton University to talk to their knowledgeable grounds manager and then to a nursery renowned for their large specimen trees. “We hand picked two 25-foot trees that had to be craned onto campus. The grower also provided trees to the National Gallery, the Statue of Liberty and the United States Capitol building.

Although most of the work is done by the staff, the work on the historic gates is contracted out and the holiday lighting is put out to bid to several tree maintenance firms. “We work closely with Lynden Miller a public garden designer in New York City and the Director of The Conservancy Garden in Central Park. She helps us maintain a unified planting and design theme for the university.” There are plans for redoing the entrance to the Math building and realigning some of the sidewalks. Since a portion of campus was an Olmsted design, keeping the original classical theme is extremely important.

“Being here at Columbia has been an exciting new turn in my career and has given me a wonderful opportunity to be involved with an historic established landscape,” says Bussert. “There was such excitement about the PGMS Green Star Award that it was passed out among all members of the Board of Trustees. That accolade has been exceptionally important to me, and means a great deal to my staff members as well.”


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October 15, 2019, 5:03 am PDT

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