Earth Day Every Day: Organic land care thrives at LBCC

An organic white trillium blooms next to the Calapooia Center

No more pesticides, it’s the law.

The news didn’t sit well at the time with LBCC’s lead groundskeeper George van Keulen.

“I was trained if you see a weed, you spray it and kill it. I had a whole room full of chemicals. I blasted this place,” said van Keulen.

That ended in 2012 when van Keulen was told he would no longer be allowed to use pesticides on LBCC’s campus to abide by a new Oregon law requiring IPM methods to care for campus turf and planting areas. IPM stands for “integrated pest management,” a non-chemical approach designed to manage weeds, keep grass, soil, and plants thriving, and protect the health and safety of humans and the ecosystem.

As great as that sounds, van Keulen, an LBCC employee for 28 years, admits at first he fought it.

“Then I did a little research,” said van Keulen. “I went to a five-day workshop with Oregon Tilth and it turned my world around. I really understood what it’s all about. I decided to try a different way.” At that point van Keulen decided to go beyond what’s required by IPM and became a certified organic land care practitioner, a significant commitment.

Stefan Seiter, LBCC’s horticulture program chair, supports this commitment.

“On campus we model what should and can be done off campus, around private residences and around commercial buildings. An organic land care certification shows that we are serious about a new way of landscaping because we follow rules that provide a healthy environment to the students and staff,” said Seiter.

In the beginning, there was a learning curve. “We just put our heads down and planted,” said van Keulen

To abide by 100 percent organic products and practices means weed and feed is out, and synthetic fertilizers. Put the right plant in the right place, and use dense plantings. Protect the soil. Bring in more native and drought-tolerant plants. Water wisely and use a lot more bark.

“I do my homework,” said van Keulen.

The results speak for themselves. As for the grass, there is absolutely no hiding 60 acres of it. A stroll around LB’s freshly mown areas reveals emerald fields of lush, mostly weed-free grass, all grown naturally. Van Keulen points out a few dandelions, but there are not many. Small patches of white field daisies around the edges of the fields remain unbothered.

“We are trying to imitate nature,” van Keulen said. “It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?”

Van Keulen uses Oregon native bentgrass, a compost mower, and organic fertilizer only if a soil test says so, to take care of LB’s turf. Check out the pristine baseball field and you’ll get the idea.

Van Keulen’s surprisingly small groundskeeping team includes assistant Sam Bruch, several work-study students, and occasional horticulture practicum students and temp workers. Bruch, an employee at LBCC for a year and a half, said copying nature is the hardest — and most fun — part of organic land care.

“Learning how to best encourage these natural processes, while maintaining a certain level of expectation in terms of aesthetics, is a constant problem-solving challenge,” said Bruch. “This is also my favorite part of the job.”

Horticulture staff and students have designed and developed numerous organic planting areas in and around the courtyard and campus buildings. Tucked in between White Oak Hall and Red Cedar Hall and along the north side of the Calapooia Center are native sword ferns, Oregon geranium, fawn lily, white trillium, snowberry, and many other native shrubs and flowers.

Further plans are to restore the oak groves on campus, and extend the one-mile walking trail. The groundskeeping team also recently planted several dozen trees along Highway 99 to provide a pollution buffer for the college.

Bruch and van Keulen both appreciate the curiosity and positive responses they hear from students and staff who have noticed changes in the landscape.

“We try to do a little bit to educate people,” said van Keulen. “People are asking ‘What’s that in your sprayer?’ and I tell them, ‘compost tea!’”

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