USF campus greenery provides good lessons


\"AThe University of South Florida\’s 600-acre Tampa campus may be the largest managed landscape in West Central Florida.

Many buildings, roads and parking lots have been added since the university was established in 1956 on East Fowler Avenue. But so, too, have trees, shrubs and other landscape elements, such as lakes, fountains and a beautiful arbor in the center of campus.

Caring for this vast landscape are three 12-person crews. I met with Nainan Desai, assistant director of USF\’s Physical Plant, and Paul Combast, responsible for the crews, to find out what we might learn from them about managing our own home landscapes.

In the early years, Desai says, the campus had few trees. Those planted when the university was built were still young and small, so shade was a rare commodity. Students would rush from building to building, not lingering outside to chat with friends or relax between classes.

Today, there are many large oaks and other shade trees, making the grounds a much more inviting place to rest and socialize.

The shrubs and groundcovers have changed over time, too. In the 1980s, foundation and border plants around the buildings were generally hedged to give a formal appearance. Today, the groundskeepers tend to prune only obtrusive stems, giving the plants a more natural look.

St. Augustinegrass was the primary groundcover when their was little shade and before water restrictions became the norm. Now, most of the St. Augustine is gone. It\’s being replaced with drought-tolerant bahiagrass in the sunny areas, while under the trees, shade-tolerant groundcovers such as Asiatic jasmine and liriope, have been planted.

\”Consider drought tolerance when deciding what to plant, and be aware of a plant\’s water requirements after it is placed in the landscape,\” Combast advises homeowners. \”The poor water-holding capacity of our soils and the sporadic rainfall we receive makes this extremely important.\”

Among his favorite plants are \’Drake\’ Chinese elm, a fast-growing shade tree, and Asiatic jasmine, which has been an attractive and trouble-free groundcover. Among the most troublesome are oleander, azaleas, and plants in the rose family, such as Indian hawthorn. The Indian hawthorns on campus haven\’t aged well, he says. \”They\’ll look good for the first year or two and then start declining.\”

There are some striking plantings of crape myrtle, the main varieties being Muskogee, Watermelon Red and Natchez, which produce pale lavender, red, and white flowers, respectively. I asked about pruning practices on crape myrtle (a pet peeve of mine). Combast advises his crews not to cut any stems with a diameter larger than a No. 2 pencil, to prevent stunting the trees\’ growth.

Combast would like to increase the amount color in the landscape.

\”We can grow every shade of green, but other colors are more difficult to obtain because our campus is in a climatic transition zone\” — too far south to grow certain temperate flowering trees and shrubs, and too far north for many of the colorful tropical plants.

Still, USF has grown up quite nicely. Its natural beauty rivals its older siblings to the north, the University of Florida and Florida State.