How UVA Preps the Lawn for Final Exercises

May 6, 2022 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

While the students are the centerpiece of graduation, the backdrop is the Lawn.

The University of Virginia’s iconic Lawn – the greensward in the center of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village – is a lush, living outdoor carpet that requires extensive care.

“Grass is quite challenging to grow in Central Virginia for a number of reasons,” said Travis Mawyer, senior landscape supervisor. “Geologically, our red clay soil presents drainage and compaction issues, and geographically, we are right in the middle of the transition zone between warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Both will grow here, but neither thrives, and both present challenges and have their own set of pros and cons.”

UVA Facilities Management landscapers use a blend of grasses combined with flowering species, such as clover, dandelion and other flowering species, which are then groomed with aeration, overseeding and fertilizing.

“The Lawn is a space to be used and enjoyed,” Mawyer said. “A vibrant student life can also impact the health of turf and our ability to grow grass from seed, but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Presenting a beautiful Lawn that can provide both postcard-worthy photos as well as be an active space for people to gather, learn, play, picnic and more is something we take great pride in.”

Every few years, including this year, landscapers use a shockwave aeration machine to break up compacted soil and allow for better drainage of water.

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Rows of empty chairs set up on the Lawn for Final Exercises
The Academical Village's lush Lawn provides a foundation for the thousands of students, family members and supporters who gather for Final Exercises. (Photo by Kristen Finn)

“This slices the soil and clay below ground level with basically zero damage to the grass on top,” Mawyer said. “Some years we use deep-tine aeration devices to provide a similar outcome. We overseed with a variety of grass species, usually fescue and rye. We typically have a blend of fescue, rye and Bermuda on the Lawn and we fertilize to promote root growth, top growth and a deep green color.”

The landscapers adhere to a strict nutrient management plan, sampling the soil providing only the nutrients that the samples show are lacking.

“There are laws in place to ensure only minimum amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous are applied to help protect local waterways and the [Chesapeake] Bay from excessive runoff,” Mawyer said. “We have always minimized the use of herbicides on the Lawn, allowing for a blend of other species to mix in with the grasses. We now have initiatives to support our designation as a Bee Grounds, so we are actively allowing more of the flowering species, such as clover and dandelion, to blend in.”

And once this is done, mowing and maintenance are required to keep the grass lush.

“We typically mow every seven to 10 days, based on weather, to maintain the grass height at 3.5 inches,” Mawyer said. “Slightly taller grass blades hold up better to foot traffic, compaction and the general wear and tear of an active space. It will also perform better in high heat and drought-like conditions, if left slightly taller.”

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Mowing for Final Exercises takes coordination with the set-up of chairs, fences, ramps, rope, aisles and stages.

“We try to get one last full mow in just before any set-up begins,” Mawyer said. “We follow up with a spot mow, where we can mow in between all the set-up on Wednesday or Thursday before any official activities begin.”

Aside from the grass, the landscapers also attend to the trees that line the Lawn.

“Large trees are pruned of any limbs that were damaged or died over the winter,” Mawyer said. “With 20,000 or more people on the Lawn sitting under and enjoying the shade of our majestic trees, they certainly need to be prepped for safety. This effort takes a few weeks near the end of April and early May since we need the trees to leaf out to really determine which limbs to remove. A broken, ‘hanger’ limb damaged by storms is obvious, but some die-back goes unseen until they leaf out.”

At ground level, the mulch beds are prepped with fresh mulch and kept weed-free. Boxwood and other plantings on the Lawn and at the Rotunda are pruned for both aesthetics and sightlines. Hardscapes such as steps, walks, ramps and curbs are meticulously cleaned with rakes and brooms.

The result of all this work, Mawyer hopes, is a fitting backdrop for the proud graduates and their families during Finals Weekend.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications