GCU landscapers turn desert into oasis on campus
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Christopher Crawford’s brimmed sun hat shades a red face that cracks with a smile, despite the triple-digit heat, while gazing on the flowering plants on campus.
“I grew up on a farm and I’ve always liked gardening,” said the Iowa native, Grand Canyon University’s Landscaping Manager. “It feels right.”
His challenge in 13 years at GCU is tending an often unforgiving summer landscape and still making GCU’s campus one of the nation’s best, according to Niche.
For Crawford and his team of 26 staff members, the summer is a dance with weather, he said during a tour of campus to reveal what grows here now and how to tend it.
“There is a fine line between watering too much or too little, and same for trimming,” he said.
It’s ground that all “used to be desert,” he said, full of brittlebush, mesquite and prickly pear. But the subject on this morning was grass. It’s not easy to grow in this environment.
“Lot of water, lot of feeding, lot of aeration,” Crawford said. “We overseed it with perennial rye (grass) and then Bermuda. When the rye grass is dying, the Bermuda starts growing. Right now, it’s in transition.”
Turns out, grass has been a part of campus for a long time.
“We had a lot of grass,” said Louis Burdick, Assistant Director of Facilities Management. “We would flood irrigate it (from the canal). It would smell like a lake, and sometimes there were fish on the land. But everything was pretty green. We came to the conclusion about eight years ago that we could control grass better if we didn’t do it that way.”
Now the grass is watered on cycles, three times a day for 15 minutes with sprinkler systems. It not only is vital for sports fields; it also provides attractive small lawns, borders and perimeters to buildings.
What has been fun for Burdick and Crawford is seeing the growing list of colorful trees and plants that fill the campus.
“The oldest trees on campus are the Mexican fan palms along Camelback Road. When we had only six buildings there was nothing but desert behind them,” Burdick said. “A lot of old pictures show those trees.”
Trimming the 300 tall palms on campus of seed stalks is a necessary part of June summer landscape maintenance.
On the campus interior, one of the oldest trees is a Mondell pine nearly 40 years old, growing west of the Student Union entrance.
One of the most pleasant may be the ficus tree draping Building 2 of North Rim Apartments. It creates a shadow from the unrelenting sun, shaped liked an umbrella. The Australian bottle trees and ash also provide one of the most mature, shady parts of campus.
“Almost all of these have been here since 1986,” Burdick said.
Providing shade is a major factor in putting together an overall landscape plan.
“The campus is in an urban area that is a green oasis,” said Greg Swick of the MOORE/SWICK Partnership, whose landscape architects and planners work on the campus. “It’s a very comfortable place for students to live, and the landscape creates this oasis. We created nice, tree-lined walkways and pedestrian malls.”
He said the plants aside from grass are on a drip irrigation system, which uses less water.
New in recent years is a selection of plants with purple flowers in honor of the GCU school color, Swick said.
The Jacaranda trees that line the north-south street just east of Lopes Way bloom as purple in the spring.
Purple-blooming plant examples include the lantana and ruellia along the north end of GCU Stadium.
The landscape is constantly evolving.
Once, there were orange and olive trees, but those were eliminated because they were messy or invasive. Instead, there are new trees such as the pistache push outside the College of Theology Building or the Arizona state tree, the blue palo verde, outside the Lopes Performance Center.
Plants are also added for color and beauty, such as tea roses in front of the Student Life Building or Mexican bird of paradise at the front of the Student Union.
Other splashes of color on campus include the dwarf oleander, a shrub whose pink flowers are present in many areas on campus.
Some plants are added in border areas too difficult to grow grass during the onslaught of student foot traffic, such as green hopseed bush near the east exit to North Rim, which blooms yellow in spring and fall.
Others are good choices because they don’t require much water, such as the Texas sage near the Student Union entrance.
Crawford didn’t hesitate when asked for his favorites.
The showy blossoms of bougainvillea, best seen to the north of Lopes Way in front of Building 2 at North Rim, and the hibiscus on the opposite side of that student housing structure.
He broke another smile just thinking of them, before heading back into the summer’s heat.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.