2021 has been a challenging year in the grounds department. We started with a wave of COVID cases in our department and staff members did a great job with integrity, character, and working through quarantine protocols and low attendance.

After working through COVID, SSC staff members were faced with abnormal freezing temperatures and snow fall. For a solid week, SSC staff members who could safely make it to work, were out pushing snow, managing ice, and removing ice from the grounds of Texas A&M University with a mission to help students access their living areas safely. During that week, staff members worked through challenges in abnormal freezing weather, some drove through snow and ice for the first time, and some had challenges at home with power outages or floods in their home. Even with the challenges, SSC staff members were diligent in helping students and faculty safely gain access to their needs. During that week, working through the blizzard was not the only challenge but also thinking about the effects the freezing weather was having on plants and trees on campus as well. Once the snow melted and the weather warmed back to “normal,” we watched plants die left and right and we watched leaves turn brown and fall.

For the first time, staff members were tasked with cleaning and pruning not just the normal selective plant species but most plant species, if not all needed maintenance at this point. From that moment leading up to this day, we are still working through the effects of the freeze by removing trees or plants that died, cutting back dead tissue on plants that are growing back, and investigating further plant health effects and how we can assist trees or plants while they are trying to make a comeback. This is a new challenge for our team members because we haven’t had to clean up after a harsh freeze before and there are approximately 15,000 trees on campus, approximately 50 acres of landscape, and approximate 800 acres of turf grass mown per year. After the week of the freeze, SSC horticulture, Arboriculture, and even the GIS staff members adjusted their normal routines to document the conditions of campus along with cleaning campus to help keep the grounds safe and looking good.

During the month April the grounds crew was hit with another challenge, a severe storm brought tornado warnings and golf ball sized hail through campus which caused a giant mess on a Friday of all days. After the freeze, plants and trees shed most, if not all, of their leaves and began using a lot of nutrients to push new leaves and new growth. Trees like, Live Oaks, are not fully deciduous and will not fully shed their leaves through abscission like other deciduous trees. For example, Live Oaks, seasonally shed part of their leaf canopy but Elm trees or Post Oak trees fully lose their leaves, usually after the first light frost. The freeze, however, caused massive abscission and not only did SSC staff members work hard to clean the streets and parking lots of campus but the trees worked hard to come back. Fast forward to April, once the storm swept through with large hail and high winds, trees lost approximately 50% of their leaf canopy and campus was covered in debris. Places like Military Walk were covered with so many leaves, we couldn’t see the sidewalks. SSC staff members worked diligently through that day and even past their shifts to help campus get cleaned for a weekend full of visiting college recruits and family members.

Finally, campus began to look good again only to approach another challenge, the wave of heat and cool nights and consistent rain. During the month of June and July, weather patterns were back and forth between very hot/humid weather with no rain, then very cool wet weather. This weather pattern is a breeding ground for plant stress and fungus. The “normal” weather during the month of July is hot, dry, and less than an inch of rain for a month or two. But this year, the rain would not stop for the first two weeks of July causing plants to drown or causing imbalances of plant functions. The cause of plant stress during consistent rain events such as this, is due to poor drainage in our native soil in this county but also, when the weather rains hard for two weeks straight, even landscapes built with good drains are affected. Certain varieties of annual flowers accumulated a fungus called Phytophthora, which is plant damaging water molds. Phytophthora can be and was treated for but the fungus prevailed, meaning, there was a big loss of annual flowers. Not only were flowers affected by fungus but trees and perennial landscape plants were affected as well which caused challenges for our staff members to find solutions and work to prevent further plant damage.

The grounds department has incredible people working on the team. This year, there has been abnormal challenges but SSC staff members have done a great job working through. Our overall mission is to care for the Texas A&M campus and that is acquired by hard working individuals.

submitted by Neil Fletcher

Horticulture & Arboriculture Manager

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