Essay The South Lawn at The University of Texas at Austin is the campus’ most symbolically important landscape and one of its most heavily used. This state of affairs requires exceptional commitment of resources not supportable in most other areas of the campus.
Shifting Leaves of Grass
PHOTO BY JULIE PIZZO WOOD.
by Frederick R. Steiner
We Americans love our grassy expanses. They dominate many of our nation’s most cherished places, as well as our homes, parks, and golf courses. Lawn maintenance presents significant economic and environmental costs. Much of an institution’s budget or a family’s weekend can be consumed attending to a yard mowing, trimming, fertilizing, weeding, watering, planting, and hauling away trimmings. Most American university campuses possess significant symbolic open spaces that come in many shapes and sizes. The South Mall is The University of Texas at Austin’s most iconic open space. Paul Cret designed the mall to visually connect the university’s tower with the dome of the State Capitol, down the hill to the south. To make the South Mall presentable for significant events, like the spring graduation ceremony, considerable effort and expenditures are necessary. Traditionally, the Celebration Bermuda grass lawn has been completely replaced annually at a cost of $13,000 to $14,000. The year-round popularity of the South Mall and its intensive use have ecological consequences; soil compaction, for example, stresses the live oaks that frame the lawn. Many of these trees were planted around the same time and will likely die together. In planning for the future of the UT Austin campus landscape, there are at least four options for the South Mall (if we rule out AstroTurf).
First, we can accept the status quo. This option would justify the maintenance costs by focusing on the value of the mall for graduation and other large-scale events, and on its role as a backdrop for the Longhorn Network and other broadcasts. In addition, the mall possesses historical values that merit preservation, and in the case of its Confederate statues, incite debate. A second option (and the one currently being pursued by UT Austin) is to adjust its management practices. The university has changed the ground cover below the live oaks, replacing the grass with hardwood mulch. The grounds maintenance team has employed a
The South Mall should be viewed as a living landscape. less aggressive lawn restoration procedure that causes minimal harm to the tree roots and may eliminate the need for annual turf replacement. They no longer apply any synthetic fertilizers on the South Mall (or anywhere else on campus). The use of organic fertilizers and soil additives, such as compost and humates, also improves appearance and drought tolerance. UT Austin has also moved some large events away from the South Mall but maintained its use as a pleasant place for students to mingle and as a spot for informal university gatherings. This management approach should be expanded to include a
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