Our Stories

Grounds Greener Than You Thought

Oregon travel guides rave about Willamette University’s natural beauty, and The Oregonian named the campus one of the most beautiful urban walks in the state. Grounds manager Jim Andersen and his crew prefer not to take all the credit. “We’re fortunate to be where we are,” Andersen says. “It’s pretty easy when Mother Nature does the job.”

Now they are relying on Mother Nature to do even more, as they pioneer a greener way of caring for Willamette’s landscape. And since they’re ahead of the curve as far as institutional landscapes, strategies aren’t well developed. They’re figuring it out on their own, with a little experimentation.

For example, two adjacent lawns served as large-scale test projects. One received the traditional treatment of synthetic fertilizers and weed killers; the other was sprayed with organic compost tea. “The natural lawn is more lush now,” Andersen says. “Traditional fertilizers work quickly, but they may not be as good for the long-term health of the soil. Now crews mow higher, leave grass clippings on the lawn as natural sources of nitrogen, water less and let some corner lawns go dormant in the summer. We want lawns that take care of themselves.”

The natural approach also extends to flower gardens, where pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use was reduced by at least 90 percent in the past few years. Most weeds are pulled by hand, and any leftovers are treated with vinegar and mulch rather than Roundup. When time runs short, stray weeds in corner areas of campus are tolerated with a conscious “mindful neglect.” Individual employees have also created unique micro-gardens with diverse plant palettes, like the Asian garden near the law building and the water garden between the York and Lee buildings.

Other techniques include using oils to suffocate insects instead of spraying them with pesticides, intentionally cultivating “good” insects to get rid of the “bad” ones and reusing coffee grounds in planting beds. Drip irrigation is used across campus, and the workers strive to landscape with native plant species. They also switched to smaller engines on their machinery to reduce carbon emissions.

“We’re in the infancy stages,” Andersen says. “It’s important to preserve the history of the place, including the history of the plant life, but sustainability gives us an exciting new avenue to explore.”