By Wendy Nugent, Newton Now
Park Superintendent Hondo Collins thinks of himself as an urban farmer.
He was raised on a farm, but he didn’t want to go into farming because of the stress and the risk of having to watch the weather so much, he said.
“And I didn’t really think I wanted to do that, so I found something as close as I could to do,” he said, sitting behind his desk in the parks department.
At Kansas State University, he majored in park resource management and has worked for the local parks department for 23 years, replacing Burke Lewis in July 2016 as superintendent, after Lewis had that position for 30 years.
Collins finds the work rewarding.
“It’s nice to see events go off without a hitch and people enjoying the parks,” he said. “You do it for the kids, really. It’s their outside time. If you see kids and families outside having fun, that’s the rewarding part.”
Growing up, Collins said he was always outside on the farm.
“I was outside from daylight to dark,” he said. “My mom would whistle when it was time to eat and time to go to bed.”
His days now probably aren’t as carefree as they were on the farm, as he has a great deal of duties, overseeing a crew that maintains city parks, green spaces and the cemetery, covering a lot of land.
“The total number of acres maintained by the park and cemetery staff is 669.91 acres,” he said. “This is right-of-ways, waterways, parks and cemeteries. Over the course of the year, we mow 9,921 acres.”
That’s about 15.5 square miles of land.
This is the time of year the park department gets their machines ready for mowing, as they have two 10.5-foot mowers, eight 6-foot mowers and one 16-footer. He said they don’t have to mow many steep slopes.
“Getting ready for spring, we went through all of our machines, leveled up all the decks, changed all the fluids,” he said. “We went through ’em basically top to bottom.”
All the crew will do the mowing until the summer help arrives, and then they’ll be rotated through.
“Until we get summer help, we’re strung out, so we can’t afford to have a mower go down,” Collins said, adding the mowers will be out 10 hours a day, five days a week. “They go out with sharp blades every day.”
One reason they send mowers out with sharp blades is because it helps with fuel efficiency. Machines have to work a lot harder with dull blades, Collins said.
The department also is working on other things now, getting ready for the warmer seasons.
“We’re within a couple of weeks of spraying for pre-emergent control of crabgrass and other grassy weeds,” he said.
Those kinds of grasses grow faster and thicker and hold more moisture, Collins said.
“If you can cut back on that, you can save on fuel over the course of the season,” he added. “It adds up.”
He said a lot of what they do before the growing season is preventative measures.
After April 15, they plan to plant flowers in various locations. They like to wait until after April 15 because that’s usually the average first frost-free day. Collins said they’ve already tilled flower beds so the plants are ready to be placed, and they also plan to do another tilling the day they’ll be planted.
Soon, the park department plans on having water turned on in the park bathrooms and drinking fountains, as well as other plans.
“We’ll be firing up the irrigation system that we have,” Collins said. “We’ve been doing some trimming of trees so rollbars don’t rip off branches.”
During growing season, Collins said, unlike in the past, this year all the department’s mowers will be fired up at the cemetery at the same time. In years past, only three mowers were used out there. Collins said this is the first year the park department and cemetery are working more in tandem.
“We’re just changing how we do it to improve the maintenance out there,” Collins said about the cemetery. “So we haven’t done a mowing season [with the cemetery] to see how this is going to work. We’re about to get swamped.”
By getting swamped, Collins said now there’ll be ball games, school field trips, graduation, Memorial Day, the spray park and pool opening or starting at the parks, which all happen within a two- to three-week period. Parks need to be maintained for all of those activities, and those events generate a great deal of trash—just a fact, not a judgment.
“I like to see people using the park,” Collins said.
He said not everybody on the crew mows all the time. They rotate through people, and having 13 to 15 seasonal workers helps, as well. When they get seasonal workers, that helps free up time for the crew to work on other projects.
Collins also said he looks forward to the new events coming up in town, like Blues, Brews and Barbecue, which had its first year in 2017 and is run by Newton Now.
“Blue, Brews and Barbecue—that was a really good event, I think,” Collins said. “Trying to spur on some of these new events—I look forward to the challenge of trying to pull ’em off without a hitch—at least our half.”