On the Job: Grounds Supervisor Lets Landscape ‘Build Itself’

Posted: July 9, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Nick Walker

Even if you have never met Archie Nesbitt, chances are you have seen his work if you’ve ever visited the Fairfax Campus.

Archie Nesbitt
Grounds supervisor Archie Nesbitt says, “I don’t try to impose my will on the landscape. I let the landscape build itself.”
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Nesbitt, who has been with Mason for 21 years, is the grounds supervisor of the university, and is responsible for the design of all campus landscaping. His efforts have inspired countless visitors to remark upon the beauty of the grounds.

His approach to groundskeeping begins with a philosophy of land management.

“I don’t try to impose my will on the landscape. I let the landscape build itself,” Nesbitt says.

Nesbitt starts this process by walking around and thoroughly analyzing each area. He begins with the topography and tries to work around any potentially problematic features.

“For example, if I see a steep slope by the roadway, I wouldn’t want to have grass because it would be too tough to keep a mower on it,” says Nesbitt, describing an area adjacent to the new Northeast Modules. “I look at potential sites for erosion, and I can use things like silt fences or stones to prevent runoff. I put the hardscape in first, so I can see what I’ve got. Only then do I walk around and consider plant materials.”

Archie Nesbitt placing rocks
Nesbitt places the hardscape first, then plantings.
Photo courtesy of Archie Nesbitt

Nesbitt also needs to think practically about how people interact with their environment. The landscape around Patriot Circle, for example, must be conducive to snow removal. While landscaping around bike paths or walkways, it is usually best to use plants or shrubs that are smaller. Lowered hedges are important for visibility and safety at night.

He must also be aware of conservation rules. “For example, you have to mulch or install silt fencing or some sort of storm runoff mediation technique if you disturb an area greater than 250 square feet,” Nesbitt says.

“I always imagine that people will see the landscaping and ask, ‘why?'” Nesbitt says. “Not everyone does things the way I do. In landscaping, you can do almost anything you want, but you always have limited resources. I have a staff of eight during the year and slightly more in summer. So we keep things as easy to maintain as possible.”

The slight staff increase during the summer months allows him to start on a few new projects.

Around the old site of Patriot Village, Nesbitt and his crew recently landscaped the area outside of the new Academic Support Module.

“Because this area will be used by intercollegiate athletes, we are adding lots of green and gold plants,” Nesbitt says. “This building has no outside water, so we plan on using rain barrels to collect water from the roof, which can then be used to water the plants until they are established. Also, trees are located up here to provide shade for the ramps and landings in front of the building, and also lower heating and cooling costs.”

Some other trees and rhododendrons from around Patriot Village will be relocated to other parts of campus, due to planned construction.

Rain garden near the Johnson Center
A rain garden near the Johnson Center drains within a few days.
Photo courtesy of Archie Nesbitt

Upon noticing a puddle formed in a low spot in front of the Academic Support Module during his initial evaluation, Nesbitt chose to make the area into a rain garden.

“I don’t impose on the landscape. I watch, and I observe,” Nesbitt reiterates.

He has done this around the rest of the campus as well, constructing rain gardens near Robinson and Krug Halls, Student Union Building I, and elsewhere. Nesbitt’s most recent garden was built adjacent to the Johnson Center.

“Most of the plants you see here are hostas,” Nesbitt says. “The alternative was to pave the area with concrete. This rain garden, like the others, will hold water for two to three days max, then drain.”

Mason’s administrators have recognized Nesbitt’s expertise and eye for detail. During Mason’s ongoing construction projects, he has been included in meetings to review new buildings prior to their construction.

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