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Wildflowers overpower mowers and get a (green) thumbs-up

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The University of Louisiana at Lafayette will populate a 10-acre tract of University Research Park with wildflowers native to southwestern Louisiana.

The creation of an “urban prairie” is part of UL Lafayette’s Sustainability Strategic Plan. It calls for a 10-percent reduction in mowing across the University’s multiple campuses over the next three years.

But to make room for wildflowers, groundskeepers will maintain a “no-mow zone” until at least the end of September. That will enable the turf grass that carpets the area between CGI and the National Wetlands Research Center to reach a height of between 18 inches and 2 feet before it’s sprayed with an environmentally safe herbicide and removed.

Uncut blades of grass soak up herbicide more quickly “because there is more surface area for the chemical to be absorbed,” explained James Foret, an instructor in the University’s School of Geosciences.

Foret, geosciences professor Dr. Durga Poudel and the UL Lafayette Office of Sustainability worked with the University’s Experimental Farm near Cade, La., to select the proposed prairiescape’s new inhabitants.

Gretchen Lacombe Vanicor, the University’s sustainability director, said they chose plains tickseed and clasping coneflower from the farm’s Wildflower Seed Bank Facility, a joint project between the University and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. It opened earlier this year.

“These wildflowers have proven to grow well along roadside areas,” Vanicor said. “Pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds, also find these native plants very attractive, and they will provide more biodiversity on campus.”

A portion of the wildflower area fronts Cajundome Boulevard. Vanicor said creation of the prairiescape will not affect the oak trees and bicycle path that border the roadway.

It will, however, reduce the number of hours maintenance personnel spend cutting grass, either on tractors, on smaller riding mowers or with handheld string trimmers. The wildflower area won’t need mowing. That equates to fewer carbon emissions and a reduction in the University’s fuel costs.

“On a weekly basis during mowing season, our grounds crews spend 355 hours mowing and 263 hours string trimming. This includes areas on the main campus, intramural and athletic fields, and portions of research park,” Vanicor said.

In addition to the main Lafayette campus, the University maintains facilities in Cade and New Iberia. Maintenance crews are responsible for a collective 1,300 acres. That includes buildings as well as green space.

“Reducing the University’s overall environmental impact will require multiple strategies across our campuses,” Vanicor said. “The ‘urban prairie’ at University Research Park is but one initiative in our Sustainability Strategic Plan.”

Natural filtration systems, called bioswales, are another. These shallow troughs hold plants and other vegetation that act as sieves to remove silt and contaminants from rainwater before it’s funneled into drainage systems. 

The University installed its first bioswale last year between Burke-Hawthorne and V.L. Wharton halls. This spring, volunteers and Office of Facility Management staff created another between Olivier and Madison halls.

Establishing an area of native grasses is the latest project’s second phase. As with the creation of University Research Park’s wildflower area, populating the bioswale with vegetation will require keeping the area unmowed until late September.

A third project, tentatively scheduled for next year, will also incorporate plants native to the Cajun prairie, including Indian grass, big bluestem and switch grass.

The grasses will come from the UL Lafayette’s Ecology Center in Carencro. They will be planted in a four-acre section on either side of a coulee that bisects University Common behind Blackham Coliseum.

Soil erosion along the coulee has been a perennial problem, Vanicor said.

“The addition of native grasses is going to stabilize the area and cut down on the amount of soil that’s washed into the coulee when it rains. The grasses will also retain water and help reduce the burden on the city’s storm drainage system.”

 

Photo: The turf grass that carpets a 10-acre section of University Research Park isn’t being cut. It’s part of preliminary groundwork for a proposed “urban prairie” that will carpet the area with wildflowers native to southwestern Louisiana. (Credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

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