Major League Lawn Care
Hall of Fame groundskeeper Steve Wightman shows you how to get your grass ready for baseball season
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. At least at Major League ballparks. But when you have a head groundskeeper like Steve Wightman. As the longtime Head Grounds Manager for Mile High Stadium in Denver and Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Steve has had to keep playing surfaces pristine for everything from Super Bowls to MLB All-Star and World Series games and even a World Cup. That’s why he was recently inducted into the Sports Turf Managers Association Hall of Fame, one of only 10 Major League Baseball groundskeepers to receive the prestigious honor. To help us get our lawn ready for spring training, Steve gives us a master class in grass.
What’s the number one mistake people make when it comes to their home lawn?
Probably thinking that it’s going to look perfect all the time, which it’s not. But agronomically, people don’t aerify their lawns, hardly ever. It’s something that should be done once a year to provide less compacted soil, which is the purpose of it. Turf grass needs oxygen, as much as it does water, to thrive. Some of the home lawns in the neighborhoods that I have lived in, people just do not aerify it enough in order to reestablish good drainage through the soil profile.
Is aerifying a complex process?
No, it just requires a special piece of equipment that can be rented. Back when I had a yard big enough to have some grass, I’d go down and rent an aerifier for half of a day. The process doesn’t take very long. It’s a specialized piece of equipment, but it’s not one you have to have in the garage. That will help your lawn more than anything else. You should do it once a year, and even more so if it’s a high traffic area.
For those of us who aren’t home a lot or are just plain lazy, are there certain types of grass that are easier to maintain?
If you live in Southern California, Florida, the warmer climates, Bermuda is the turf grass of choice. But even in Southern California, those grasses will go dormant in the winter time. The Bermuda grasses typically take a lot more care and management than the cool season grasses. The species and variety of grass certainly makes a difference. In most home lawns, unless you live in South Florida, which is the warmest part of the country, most likely you are going to have cool season grasses. Because these perform during the summer months, they then go dormant to protect themselves, which means they start turning brown. But I’d say maybe 95% of the country can go with cool season grasses and have green grass year round in the warmer climates. When I lived in Colorado, we all had cool season grasses because warm season grasses wouldn’t survive the winter.
Are there types of cool season grass that are most popular?
The three most common make up about 95 % of home lawns. Kentucky bluegrass is a cool season grass that probably has the best green color of all of the grasses, including the Bermudas. It’s the grass I had in Denver when I lived there. You also have Perennial ryegrass, which is another cool season grass that marries pretty well with Kentucky bluegrass. And then you have the turf-type tall fescue. Those three grasses are the most popular for home lawns anywhere, especially the colder climate areas.
How challenging is it to be a groundskeeper in a place like Denver, where the weather can either be 100 degrees or freezing?
Denver had four very different climates throughout each year. Each season was significantly different Here in San Diego, you basically have spring and summer year round. The challenge in Denver was making sure that whatever grass you have is prepared for the dormant winter months. Certain diseases come in if it the turf doesn’t have a snow cover during the winter months. When springtime comes, its difficult for the grass to grow out of that. It would require some pesticide applications. Colder climates are definitely more of a challenge.
What challenges do you have that are unique to being a groundskeeper?
If you are managing a baseball or football field, players want conditions where they can perform at high speeds. Cool season grasses don’t like to be any lower than an inch and a half, or maybe two inches, depending on the turf grass species. You need to have a good turf grass variety that would be tolerant to lower mowing heights to make it a faster playing field. For a home lawn, you wouldn’t have to worry about it as much. Different turf grass varieties do well at different lengths. Kentucky bluegrass, does well at an inch and a half to two and a half inches. That’s why we are constantly working with different species of grass that are bred together to give us what we need.
How do you come up with the blend you need?
Different universities have research stations that are constantly combining different varieties and species of grass. The biggest program would be at Georgia. They’ll work with hundreds of varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Some may tolerate lower temperatures than others. Some may tolerate lower mowing heights than others. Some can handle temperature variations better. Some are less susceptible to pesticide invasions. What these turf grass research stations do is cross breed these things until they come up with one that they are looking for. There are others stations at Purdue, Penn State, Michican, UC Riverside has one of the best.
As an elite groundskeeper, do you provide input on what you need so they can try to breed a solution for you?Absolutely. We have an ongoing dialogue with a lot of the research stations to let them know what we prefer and the circumstance. We want a turf grass that can withstand traffic the best. Most professional stadiums these days have football, baseball, rock concerts, all that is happening on the same grass.
Are rock shows worse for the grass because you have so many more people walking on the field?
When rock shows come in, the contract usually requires that they use material that would go over the grass to protect if from all of the traffic. You don’t just have people; you have 250-ton cranes that build stages coming in. We had our own material that we put down, because we wanted to control the potential for having a disease come in that wasn’t there but was on the material. Even when we use a mower at a pro field, we only use the mower on that field for that reason. You don’t want to start transmitting diseases from other parks or areas on to your field.
Wait, does that apply to personal lawns too? Should I not borrow my neightbor’s mower?
That’s correct. Not only that, you have to keep your mower clean. Like a hospital has to instruments clean all the time, the same is true for your lawn. If not, pathogens can manifest themselves as time goes on. If you are out mowing when the lawn is wet, and you don’t clean it off, dry it off, and it sits in the garage, it has potential to have something start growing on it. Then you start spreading it around. With your mower, you also need to make sure your reels are sharp and you have the right combination of the bed knife to the reels, so that it’s not too tight or loose, and you get a real clean cut on the grass. If not, you start tearing the grass, and, you start opening it up for any kind of diseases that come around.
Do people overwater or underwater?
I think they overwater. Most people feel like if the lawn doesn’t look good, then it needs more water, and 99% of the time, that’s not the problem. There’s lots of info out there on how to properly water your type of grass. Warm season grasses typically require about 25% less water in order to perform well than cool season grass. For cool season grass, the amount of water depends on what the air temperature is, what the humidity is, the duration of direct sunlight, whether there is shade or no shade; all of that has an effect on the amount of water that the turf grass needs.
Most people garden to get away from work troubles. What does a Major League groundskeeper do?
(Laughs.) Well I play golf. That was the best stress relief for me, when I get away. But it was hard, because in San Diego, the stadium is a year round venue, thanks to the climate. Here we rarely had a weekend where we didn’t have an event, but you can occasionally get out for a round of golf.
There’s a great irony that when you took time off, you went out to make divots in someone else’s beautifully manicured lawn.
(Laughs) That’s exactly right! And sometimes they were a lot worse than anything I saw on my field!