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Around the Grounds at Xavier University

Editor, Stephen Kelly

This well-kept area outside the admissions office sports pachysandra ground cover, sea green junipers, boxwoods, day lilies, ornamental grasses, liriope spicata, roses, oaks and maple trees, viburnums, Johnson blue geraniums, coreopsis moon beam, blue salvia and black eye Susan. Almost every day a grounds person is here, pulling weeds, trimming shrubs or cutting back perennials. At least 6-10 man hours are devoted here a week.

Xavier University was founded in 1831 in Cincinnati as the Athenaeum by Bishop Edward Fenwick. It was the first Catholic college in the Northwest Territory. The Jesuits took control of the college in 1840 and named it St.

Xavier College in honor of St. Francis Xavier, one of the 10 original members of the Society of Jesus. Visit for the school's comprehensive history.

If you've never been to Cincinnati (three Ns, one T, if you're spelling) it resides at the mid-point of the 981-mile Ohio River over in the southwestern corner of Ohio. The city is named after the Society of Cincinnati, inspired by Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who in 460 B.C. was appointed consul and lead Rome to defeat the upstart Aequi army. The Society's motto is "He relinquished everything to serve the Republic."

Xavier's hilly terrain provides mowing challenges. Crewman Tim Wahl tackles this particularly steep section with an Exmark 48-in. deck and leg power

Grounds Manager Walter Bonvill adjusts a Rainbird I-20 stainless steel rotor irrigation head. "It's harder for the students to break these," he observes.

Today, Xavier is a liberal arts university. Among 142 Midwest comprehensive colleges and universities, the U.S. News & World Report 2007 edition of America's Best Colleges ranked Xavier second overall.

The university also gets noticed for its good looks and immaculate grounds. In 2006, the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) presented Xavier University with the Grand Award in the urban university grounds management category. Xavier also won a PGMS Honors Award in 2000. Walter Bonvell, Xavier's ground manager, is active in the PGMS Cincinnati chapter. In November 2005, he began a three-year term as the PGMS north central regional director.

"Many people have put a lot of hard work into making this campus a beautiful place," says Walter Bonvell, Xavier's grounds foreman. "The 12 full-time groundskeepers, the three to five seasonal groundskeepers, the electricians who do the lighting, the carpenters who build ornamental fencing, the plumbers who repair our irrigation systems and the administrators who support our efforts."

Mr. Bonvell earned a bachelors in horticulture from Eastern Kentucky University in 1976. He relocated to New York, but enjoyed life in Kentucky and went to work with Florence Nursey in Florence, Kentucky for about six years, learning a lot about the industry but seeing limitations to working for a family-run business, as many nurseries are. In Sept. 1982, he became a Xavier groundskeeper. Twenty-five years later, he still enjoys working here.

The reason many of the plants do well (Stella d'oro day lilies here), explains Walter Bonvell, is they are planted in a super soil composed of mushroom compost, sand, shredded topsoil and aged horse manure. Irrigation for all the beds also helps.

"This is really a great place to work. It is so diversified," he says.

Xavier's 148-acre campus includes about 20 acres of open space, eight of which are athletic fields. The grounds crew maintains 50 acres of turf, 25 acres of display beds, and 30 acres of paved areas. The hilly terrain of the campus and the prevalence of pavers in the landscaping provide special challenges. Recent upgrades include plantings on the Hayden and Logan hillsides and at the Alumni Center. In addition, many more container plantings are gracing the campus.

To maintain the grounds, the campus is divided into central, east and west.

Each section has three groundskeepers (classified as 1 or 2) and a grounds foreman. There are also three seasonal people, usually hired just before graduation or just after, each given a 1,000 hours. The temps work five days a week, 40 hours.

There is also a weekend schedule, filled on a rotational basis. Three people cover Saturday; three take Sunday. The work schedule calendar is done a year in advance, so everyone knows who's on the weekend shift.

"We have to have people here seven days a week, particularly as we're in an urban setting, right next to downtown Cincinnati. We take pride in keeping the campus crisp and green."

Lush and plentiful plantings are a hallmark of Xavier. White panicles (oak leaf hydrangeas) are very low maintenance plants--just a light pruning after blooming. Viburnum carlesi (spice bush), Russian sage, pyramidal blue spruce and some green ash trees are in the back ground.

The Biggest Challenge

This year it was a new problem--the irrigation system. Ninety percent of the campus is under irrigation, on remote controls (not computer controlled) and with rain gauges. "We try to do all in-house repairs," explains Mr. Bonvell. The early warm weather this year had the crews bringing up the irrigation system earlier that normal. "We had breaks, ripped out irrigation lines from crews on campus doing construction and electrical work," he recalls. "For the lasts two months, for many of us, all we've been doing is irrigation repair." Rainbird and Hunter is the campus choice for irrigation supplies.

Cincinnati experienced a mild winter this year. For the grounds crew the worst weather was a week in Feb. of single digit temperatures and freezing rain, a chance to try the new "liquid de-icer." It was sprayed from a tank on the back of a pick-up. The crews were not too impressed with its effectiveness. (Ed. note: Liquid de-icers are a mixture of agricultural by-products and salt solutions; others are synthetic. The phosphorus content of liquid de-icers can be high and is easily transported into bodies of water by stormwater runoff.

New York City has identified excess phosphorus as a significant problem for the city reservoirs.)

To de-ice the brick areas, calcium chloride is used so as not to damage the surface. Brooms are used to brush off snow from the brick for the same reason.

Jerry Wolf, at the truck, and Rex Brown are mulching the tree rings on the Academic Mall. A double-shredded black platinum or black gold mulch is delivered in bulk to the campus. Not more than an inch or two of mulch is put down.

Turf Talk

The mall and academic areas are sodded with a fine tall fescue. Rebel Exeda seed is used, which produces an extensive fibrous roots and dark green, fine-textured tall fescue. The athletic fields have a sport mix, but that job is done by an outside contractor, although one campus crew person is responsible for mowing the sports fields.

Around the campus walkways, the crew uses two Walker mowers with self-contained handling systems for student safety. The campus has many diagonal sidewalks, a design to keep students from making "cow paths."

On the bigger turf areas away from the foot traffic, gator blades (mulching kits) handle the clippings.

Cincinnati, as of this June writing, is experiencing a draught. The turf gets about an inch of water a week, accomplished by running the system twice a week. Even with the irrigation, some of the turf gets hot spots. Because the fire department requires a 20-wide path for its fire engines (and the sidewalks are only 10 feet wide), a plastic grid is underneath the turf on both sides of the walk to reinforce the turf and support the trucks. When the weather gets hot, that grid heats up, to the detriment of the turf.

Chemical applications for the turf, done five times a year, are outsourced. The first application is a fertilization with a pre-emergent; the second and third are fertilization and broadleaf control; the final two are fall applications. A "green up" is scheduled about two weeks before graduation ceremonies.

"The chemical people come in on Saturdays with three or four trucks when the campus foot traffic is light and get it done in one day," explains Mr. Bonvell. Core aeration is done in most areas twice a year.

Jerry Wolf plants a globe blue spruce, a dwarf variety of the blue spruce. It will only grow to 3-5 feet high and 5-6 feet wide.


In spring a slow release fertilizer and pre-emergent goes into the flower beds. Mulching the beds is ongoing, using a double-shredded black platinum or black gold mulch delivered in bulk to the campus.

"We don't put more than an inch or two of mulch down," he explains. Corrective pruning is done in the spring, when the growth is done, and if there is time, some fall trimming.

The Xavier physical plant, a former bottling plant, is 80,000 sq. ft. of space for storage, offices, stock room and crafts.

Arbor Care

The crews do some tree trimming--what can be reached with a pole pruner, but otherwise leave that to professional tree trimmers.

"We have a magnesium problem with some of our maple trees," he says. Tru-Green Chemlawn is contracted to do tree injections (using J.J. Mauget products). Two dozen trees were injected this spring.

Among the campus tree are white oaks, red oaks, English oaks; blue spruce; zelkovas; serviceberry; lilacs; and syringa reticulata, which are just blooming.

The state of the arbors is good, he says. "We do some deep root feeding in February and March. We take a three-quarter inch or one-inch auger and drill down and fertilize the holes." An inch of mulch also goes around the tree trunks.

The Xavier University Grounds

  • 50 acres of turf
  • 25 acres of display beds
  • 30 acres of paved areas
  • Employees: 12 full time, 3 seasonal
  • Licensed pesticide applicators: 4
  • Labor hours per week: 564 hours
  • Annual expenditures: $456, 864
  • Total budget: $800,000
  • Equipment budget: $26,000
  • Chemical, fertilizer budget: $20,000
  • Seed, plant material: $12,000 to $15,000

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May 26, 2019, 3:20 pm PDT

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