U.Va.'s Historic Lawn Gets New, Hardier Sod and Drain System Installed

August 07, 2012

It's not the same old Lawn.

Landscaping crews at the University of Virginia scalped the historic greensward at the heart of the Academical Village and are replacing it with turf, believing an established grass will last longer in the heavily used area.

"We took out the old one, hauled it away and brought in a new one," said Rich Hopkins, landscape superintendent for U.Va.'s Facilities Management division.

This is the Lawn's first complete overhaul, according to Hopkins, and represents a new approach from previous efforts to simply seed the area. The seeded Lawn never established itself evenly, largely because of the constant traffic in the area.

"The heavy use of the Lawn never allowed us to get to a thick grass," Hopkins said. "With sod, we get instant mature grass."

Hopkins' maintenance crews do not use chemicals to control the weeds, which were able to infiltrate freshly planted grass. "We could never out-compete the weeds," Hopkins said.

Crews from Carolina Green Corp. have been chewing up the old grass and removing it, leveling the ground and unfurling rolls of turf behind tractors. The 3-foot-wide turf rolls are tucked together like adjoining carpet rolls.

Once the old grass is removed, and before the turf rolls are laid down, the topography is smoothed with a laser-guided grader. "It takes the high spots off and moves them to the low spots," Hopkins said.

The Lawn's drainage is also being addressed. Six-inch collection lines were buried about 24 inches down in the middle of the Lawn, with 2-inch lateral feeder lines fanning out from the center. The drainage lines, the first to be installed in the Lawn, will run the water into a storm drain system.

"This should eliminate puddles and the Lawn should be less muddy," Hopkins said.

The new turf, which is 1¼ inches to 1¾ inches thick, is fescue with a small amount of bluegrass mixed in, with a high sand content base, which also will aid drainage.

While some sections of the Lawn have been replaced with sod before, this is the first time the entire four acres has been done.

"We did a patch in front of Pavilion X," he said, "and we have sodded the center of the Lawn for graduations. But this is the first complete replacement of the Lawn."

Workers started on the north end near the Rotunda and have progressed terrace-by-terrace southward. The entire project is expected to take about three weeks, and the turf area of the Lawn will be fenced off until the weekend of Aug. 24 to allow the grass to properly take root.

The Lawn's trees have also been getting attention. U.Va. landscaping crews and Bartlett Tree Experts "air-spaded" the roots of the trees, a technique that injects compressed air into the ground to relieve the compacted soil around the tree roots. The trees were roped off to protect the roots after the procedure.

"The air-spading will help strengthen the trees, which are stressed by the severe soil compaction around them," Hopkins said. "This will let the trees breathe easier and take in more water."

Once the air-spading was complete, circles of mulch were placed around the trees, from 8 feet to 24 feet in diameter, depending on the size of the tree. Hopkins said next year the size of the mulch circles would be re-evaluated and the larger rings may be reduced.

The air-spading and the mulch are used to make the trees healthier and better able to fend off predators such as the emerald ash borer, which destroys the tree from underneath the bark. There have been infestations around the state, the closest in Richmond. The landscaping crews also completed a second round of inoculations against the ash borer.

"The healthier the tree, the better able it is to fight off pests, but it is no guarantee," Hopkins said.

The ash borer has devastated stands of ash trees throughout the northern United States and could pose a risk to the University. About 80 percent of the trees on the Lawn are ash and there is a thick stand of ashes on Carr's Hill, the official residence of the University president.

Hopkins said that the quarantine of moving firewood around the state has been lifted, but he said he would prefer that students on the Lawn purchase firewood from local dealers.

– by Matt Kelly