Q&A Winter 2016

Steve Snell and Ken Stanton

by Nate Hoekstra
photo by Amanda Pitts

Covered with lush lawns, thousands of trees that explode with color in the fall and gardens and landscaping features around nearly every building, it’s easy to see why Grand Valley’s main campus in Allendale is often described as being picture-perfect.

Although new buildings tend to shape the landscape of the university’s 2-square-mile area more than the surrounding vegetation, Landscape Operations Supervisor Ken Stanton and Arborist Steve Snell know there’s a lot more to keeping campus looking great than just mowing lawns and planting trees.

Steve Snell and Ken Stanton outside

Steve Snell, left, and Ken Stanton

GVM: What does the grounds department and the arborist do?

KS: We maintain almost all of the landscaped areas on campus, along with parking lots and sidewalks. We say we take care of whatever’s green and everything in between. If it’s not in a building, a tree, or outdoor light, we’re responsible.

SS: In a nutshell, my job is to take care of all of the trees on the Allendale Campus and advise the maintenance folks on the other campuses what they need to be doing with the trees at our other locations. We handle normal pruning and shaping of the trees, and when disease or storm damage makes it necessary, we do occasionally take down trees around campus. I also help maintain some of the specialty gardens around campus.

GVM: Talking about the trees — how many trees and different species do we have on campus?

SS: We have right around 4,800 trees on campus, not counting the thousands more that are down in the undeveloped part of the campus in the ravines toward the Grand River. In terms of species, we have a couple dozen of the major blanket species. If you start getting into a sugar maple compared to say, a red maple, we’ve got probably close to a hundred.

GVM: Ken, to a lot of people the most visible and obvious part of your work is seeing your staff mowing lawns in the summer and plowing parking lots in the winter. What goes on behind the scenes?

KS: Our biggest challenge comes from how busy this campus is all the time, and the weather. This place runs day-to-day and we have to make it work no matter what. We have to work around what different sites around campus are used for. I can plan maintenance for a site and then have someone contact me and say, “That’s not going to work, we have a sports camp there on these days.” Sometimes we will plan a road maintenance project and find out that closing the road would have a negative impact on traffic for an event in a particular building. So a lot of it is planning ahead while staying flexible.

GVM: One of the major functions of both of your jobs is to maintain a particular aesthetic for campus. What goes into making a campus look its best?

SS: My job is about maintaining the trees for the sake of their health and planning what trees to put where, thinking about how they’ll interface with buildings and provide shade and cover. We think a lot about future plans and where buildings might go, so what we’re planting looks good and won’t have to be cut down or moved with a tree spade if a building goes into a particular space.

I think appealing to the Michigan aesthetic is a really important part of my work here. The trees soften the look of campus, and break up the linear look of the buildings. It gives campus depth and texture. I think that’s the importance of the trees here.

KS: In grounds maintenance there are industry standards of how things should be done, a set of best practices that our peers evaluate us on for awards and recognition. It’s carefully planning what plants will look best in a particular spot, what kind of plants will grow best in certain locations because of sun, rain and other environmental factors. So it’s not just picking out plants and mowing the grass, it’s a careful analysis of how to really make things shine.

GVSU Grounds

500 acres

• More than 2 dozen species of trees

• Approximately 4,800 trees on campus, not including ravine spaces

GVM: With 500 or so acres of grounds to maintain, it’s got to take some serious people-power to keep up on the maintenance. How many staff members are there?

KS: We have 12 full-time staff, two supervisors and normally about 20 or so student workers, who are a big shot in the arm to us as they do a lot of the detail work that otherwise would require other staff. They handle a lot of things for us, from watering planters and running the weed whackers in the summer to shoveling building entrances in the winter.

GVM: What do each of you personally get out of your work making campus look beautiful?

SS: I think my favorite part of doing the job and making the campus look nice is making a tree that’s not supposed to be able to grow here, grow. I have one tree out in the arboretum that I love. It’s a crack willow, and it’s a dirty tree, it breaks apart in snowstorms and windstorms and makes a mess, but it grew from a stick from my aunt’s willow out in Montana — literally, just a live stick she sent me that I stuck in some water — and now that tree, 12 years later, is 50 feet tall. It just shot straight up. It’s amazing watching things like that happen.

KS: To be able to turn around and look at the finished product. It’s almost like a painter looking at a painting. When you can see things grow and mature, it’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. There’s enjoyment in seeing the work of the planning department and their buildings and our department with the surrounding grounds come together to make such a great looking finished job.

Page last modified March 1, 2016