Weathering Winter

Staff reduction, inclement weather and a decrease in visitor traffic make the winter season a challenging, but ideal, time for park maintenance. Across the country, parks and recreation departments focus on different areas when preparing for this unpredictable season.

Cutting Off Water

Winter weather brings freezing temperatures, so in order to keep everything flowing smoothly once spring arrives, most parks systems opt to cut off water supplies.

In Washington, D.C., all of the irrigation systems are winterized. Everything is taken off-line in pool bathhouses--fixtures such as shower heads are removed and windows and doors are secured. Pools are covered, antifreeze is put into the pool water line, and valves are capped.

Throughout Oregon, most camp loops are closed, along with restrooms and shower buildings; irrigation systems are drained and blown out to secure them during the winter months.

Topping Off Landscaping

In Seattle, Wash., most tree pruning is completed during the winter. According to Judy Blecksmith, Senior Gardener, the winter months are the best time to remove dead, crossed or damaged branches. Since deciduous trees are dormant at this time, it reduces stress and the chance for infection to pruning cuts. A chipper is brought on location whenever possible to limit the amount of material transported off-site.

Along with tree pruning, park staff uses the winter months to renovate shrub beds. Dormancy also makes plants easier to transplant, and they require less water.

“Our crew is able to renovate older shrub beds and install new plant material,” says Blecksmith. “We incorporate community volunteers if there is a request or heavy community involvement in a particular park.”

Tending To Fields

Winter weather can wreak havoc on ball fields, and prevention is the key to maintaining them. In Washington, D.C., athletic fields are fertilized, aerated and seeded in October; once the fall sports season ends, the heavily used rectangle fields (football, soccer and rugby) get an additional over-seeding.

“We protect them before the weather gets cold and the grass is damaged,” says Ximena Hartsock, Director of Parks and Recreation. “The most important thing is to prevent damage to the fields. It’s a long-term investment. We are sure to cover and protect our fields.”

Once heavy fall rains pass in Seattle, crews work together to renovate the arcs of the ball fields, using sod.

“This work is dependent on a funding source for materials and dry weather. Infield material that migrates into turf can cause a lip to form at the turf edge,” says Blecksmith. “This allows water to puddle on the field when games are in play. Late winter is our only … window to do this work because fields are in use at other times.”

Because high traffic during winter months can really damage fields, Washington, D.C., park officials limit use during inclement weather, and issue advisories warning users of the potential damage they may cause.

“Keeping the fields off-line during rain, freezing-cold temperatures and snow helps keep the fields in good condition. These weather conditions can lead to severe damage of the fields,” says Hartsock.

Dealing With Snow

In areas where snow is prevalent, it’s important to not only have a plan for snow removal, but to have a process and equipment available to do it efficiently. In Oregon, crews use a Bobcat with a snow blower and other attachments to replace other pieces of equipment. Winter maintenance includes plowing snow from roads, shoveling snow from sidewalks and paths, and cleaning restrooms, cabins and yurts.

Staff Challenges

Since staffing cuts usually occur in the winter months, it can also pose a problem when staff members want to take vacations or receive further training. “Our shoulder seasons are busier than in the past, which stretches the full-time staff after seasonal staff has left,” says Jim Hutton, parks superintendent for the NE division of Oregon Parks and Recreation.

Because of the staff shortage, many maintenance tasks are outsourced in Washington, D.C. About 80 percent of the work on the city’s 110 ball fields is contracted to ensure they all are maintained properly and safely. About half of the plumbing work is outsourced, and pool maintenance is contracted out as well.

“We don’t have the expertise or the machinery in-house,” says Hartsock. “Some facilities need a very high level of maintenance, and we contract as much of it as possible so the right people do it.”

The contracting companies have higher performance systems, and are able to invest in more efficient machinery since they use it on a larger scale.

Heather Reichle is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at