Australian-born UAFS groundskeeper works to modernize landscape maintenance

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 971 views 

The new director of grounds management at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is focusing on three big things this year – more trees on campus, a Wi-Fi smart irrigation system and pollinator gardens on campus.

Ben Kleinig, a native of Australia, was announced the new Southeast Service Corporation (SSC) director of the grounds management department at UAFS last summer. Since that time, he has been leading the daily operations as well as planning and executing the long-term management of the landscape and grounds around campus, information provided by the university said.

The SSC has an annual landscaping contract with the university. For fiscal year 2021, that contract is for $901,243, said Rachel Rodemann Putman, associate director for strategic communications at UAFS. SSC employs 16 Groundskeepers, including the Kleinig. All employees are covered by the contract. Some additional services or special projects, if approved, are charged separately, said Alvin Campbell, interim director of plant operations at UAFS.

During the six months he has served as the director of grounds management, Kleinig has worked to build on the success SSC has had since becoming the university’s facilities provider, he said.

“In 2019 UAFS was awarded The Green Star Award through the Professional Ground Manager Society. The program salutes grounds departments for maintaining a well-manicured landscape year-round. UAFS is a member of Tree Campus USA, which recognizes universities that establish and maintain a sustainable healthy community forest,” Kleinig said, noting a few of those SCC accomplishments.

Tree Campus USA is a national program created in 2008 by the Arbor Day Foundation to honor colleges and universities for effective campus forest management and for engaging staff and students in conservation goals, Kleinig said. UAFS achieved its title by reaching the five necessary standards: Maintaining a tree advisory committee, a campus tree-care plan, dedicated annual expenditures for its campus tree program, an Arbor Day observance and student service-learning project.

Ben Kleinig, director of grounds management at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith

In June 2020, UAFS was named a 2020 Groundwater Guardian Green Site by the Groundwater Foundation for utilizing groundwater-friendly practices and practicing environmental stewardship, a UAFS news release said. UAFS is the only location in Arkansas to hold this designation. Groundwater Guardian recognizes water conservation through efficient irrigation and turf management practices. A program of The Groundwater Foundation, it provides support and encouragement for communities and teams, including cities, counties, watersheds, organizations, agencies, schools, etc., to begin groundwater awareness activities, motivation to continue these efforts and recognition, Kleinig said.

Kleinig, who became an ISA certified arborist Jan. 6, said he and his team are establishing a tree inventory and management plan that will “improve tree health through programmed maintenance and allow UAFS to plan for future tree plantings.” The tree inventory will be completed by a national tree care company in the next two years, he said.

He also said they are taking strides to convert the irrigation system to a Wi-Fi smart irrigation system, which will allow them to make better decisions on watering as well as provide water savings. The irrigation system is being converted each year with a five-year completion goal.
Irrigation water use at UAFS has dropped by 25% from 2017, specifically since 2019, Campbell said.

“This shows the effectiveness of a highly qualified irrigation technician,” he said.

In 2019, irrigation water use at UAFS dropped to a little above 60% what had been used previously.

“That was before the project of replacing older controllers with communicating units to take advantage of the automation saving forecast,” Campbell said.

The cost of irrigation water was $53,519.98 in 2019 for 10,523 ccf. In 2017, the cost was $62,797.70 for 16,403 ccf.

“(We are) installing pollinator gardens and incorporating pollinator plants into the landscape, which will encourage pollinator insects and birds on campus and (be) a great educational tool for staff and students,” he said. “The pollinator garden will be completed in the fall of this year with involvement from students and the grounds department. The pollinator plants is a policy decision that will be incorporated into each new landscape installation.”

Kleinig emigrated from Australia in 2012 after participating in the Rotary Group Study Exchange from Sydney, Australia, and joined SSC in 2016. He has a degree in horticulture with an emphasis in landscape design. He worked in the parks and recreation departments in New South Wales and Sydney, Australia, and served as a horticulturist at the Australian Golf Club, home of the Australian Golf Open. After coming to the United States, he lived in east Texas before coming to UAFS.

“The climate compared to East Texas is slightly different, being cooler and wetter. The weather compared to Sydney is huge. Sydney is a temperate climate never getting too hot or cold,” he said.

But he is enjoying the change of Fort Smith. He likes the local walking trails at the river and Fort Chaffee, local restaurants and the downtown area, he said. And he finds the opportunity to build on the successful platform past grounds managers at UAFS have built exciting.

“The UAFS campus is a beautiful tree lined landscape space with a history of various landscape industry awards. My goal is to continue the rich tradition of the UAFS campus, focusing on sustainability through smart irrigation practices, battery operated landscape equipment and the use of organic fertilizers and pesticides. My background is in landscape design, I see exciting opportunities improving the floral displays and creating student friend landscape areas,” he said.

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