To manage something well means to help it perform at the highest level it possible, whether that thing is a group of people, a business, a sports team or one’s personal fitness regime.
The same goes for turf. A turf manager’s job, whether he’s in charge of the grounds of a corporate campus, the greens of a golf course or the lawns of a homeowners’ association is to help that grass perform to the best of its ability for the purpose it has.
It’s a demanding, multifaceted task, a bit like herding cats, as Nolan Butterfras, president of Texas Turf Management, Cypress, Texas, knows. Ninety-eight percent of his clients are large commercial sites. The obstacles his turf managers face include high foot traffic, grass-killing pet waste or someone monkeying with precisely planned watering or fertilization schedules ... and nature herself.
“Mother Nature is with you — and against you — every day,” he says. “So one of my favorite sayings is, ‘get boots on the ground,’ which means you need to walk the sites you’re working on. Look at the watering and the mowing practices. See if the fertilization is being done safely and correctly and whether it’s working or not. Look for any signs of pests, diseases or fungus.”
The job gets really tough when she throws you a curve ball, like the prolonged Texas drought a few years back. “It was the worst I’d seen in 20 years of being in business,” says Butterfras. “The watering restrictions were so tight, scheduling was tricky. We had many meetings at the office just to calculate watering times.”
Dealing with the drought was so difficult that Texas Turf ’s main goal changed from making their clients’ properties shine to preserving their investments in plants and turf. “Our properties had just enough [water] to keep everything alive and almost zero losses while meeting all the different municipalities’ requirements.”
I asked Butterfras what the most important aspect of keeping turf healthy is — Fertilization? Irrigation? Soil conditions? Mowing practices? Pest, weed and disease control? He answered, “All of the above, and more. A turf manager has to pay attention to all of them; they’re all equally important.”
It all starts with the soil, says Dr. Nick Christians. An agronomy professor at Iowa State University’s Ames campus. He co-wrote the book on this subject, Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management. He says if any single aspect of turf management ranks above the others, it’s soil.
“The quality of the soil is number one,” Christians continues. “And yet, I see so many lawns in our region, the Midwest, established on terrible soil — subsurface clay or gravel. For years afterward, they’re going to have problems.”
What’s a turf manager to do when faced with poor soil? Christians says, “Adding organic materials will help, mixing some compost or peat into it.” Sand can also be mixed in, as is often done with athletic fields. However, he cautions that one should never mix sand into clay soil, because then, “What you’re making is concrete.”
A soil test is always a good starting point. It tells the turf manager not only the type of soil he’s dealing with but where it might be deficient.
The soil profile also dictates how he should irrigate, as Casey Reynolds knows. The executive director of Turfgrass Producers International, Lombard, Illinois, spent 10years at North Carolina State University doing research and extension work on turf grasses. Later, as a professor at Texas A&M University, he taught landscapers how to manage lawns and athletic fields.“With sandy, coarser soils you can irrigate deeply, heavily and infrequently because the soil can infiltrate a lot of water at once,” Reynolds says. “But with clay, if you ran your system for an hour and a half, the first 30 minutes of it may get into the soil. The rest of it would just wash off the top. It’s better to use cycle-and-soak; run all the zones for 20 minutes, then go back a couple hours later and run them another 20 minutes. It slows the application rate but still gets the same amount of water down into the soil.”
The long, drawn-out Texas drought demonstrated to Butterfras the power of water auditing. “It’s one of our highest priorities at Texas Turf. In a drought, if you’ve done your auditing correctly, you’ll soar above your competition.”
I’ve often heard that when it comes to turf, there’s no such thing as too much water. Right? “Wrong,” says Butterfras. “You can absolutely water turf too much. It not only wastes water, it promotes fungus and root rot.”
Medrano agrees. “If you’re in a shady microclimate and you’re overwatering, it doesn’t give the turf enough time to dry. Then you will have problems with fungus and turf diseases like fairy ring and necrotic ring spot.”
A good turf manager would never allow grass to be “scalped,” cut too low. How high it should be mowed will vary. What never changes, though, is the need to do it with sharp blades. Dull mower blades rip and tear at grass rather than give it a clean cut, so turf management companies make sure their mowers’ blades get sharpened at least once a week.
As for the right cut height, “that will differ by species,” says Christians. “Kentucky bluegrass should be mowed to 2 to 3 inches; Bermuda grass can be mowed much lower. If you try to mow a coolseason grass like bluegrass the same height as Bermuda grass it won’t make through the summer.”
“In early spring and in the fall, our mowing height is roughly 2½ to 3 inches,” says Justin Trimble, COO of Signature Landscapes LLC, Reno, Nevada. “In the peak season, it’s anywhere from 3 to 3½ inches. It really depends upon the site and how fast the turf is growing.”
To bag or not to bag?
It’s one of the landscape profession’s great debates: to bag or not to bag lawn clippings. CoCal Landscape, Denver, comes down firmly on the no-bag side. “We never bag clippings,” says Carlos Medrano, CLT, QS, maintenance department manager. “In fact, if we have a potential client who insists that we do it, we’ll turn down his business. We’ll mulch-mow because it adds organic matter to the soil and releases nitrogen back into it. That reduces the amount of fertilizer we have to put down each spring.”
If it’s better not to bag, why do so many landscape companies follow a “no clippings left behind” policy? Because their clients want it, of course. “Homeowners, property managers aren’t educated about this,” says Medrano.
Many clients fear that leaving cut grass on lawns will look messy. But Justin Trimble, COO of Signature Landscapes, Reno, Nevada, says when mulch mowing is done correctly, you should never see the clippings, unless the turf is too wet or has been mowed too high. Signature mulch-mows “95 percent of the time. It gets nutrients back into the soil, and it also helps minimize the amount of green waste that goes into landfills.”
The other objection to mulch mowing is that it contributes to thatch buildup. Considering its other benefits, that seems like a minor consideration.
A couple of states over, at Omaha Organics, Omaha, Nebraska, the no-bag philosophy also applies. President and Owner Rob Elder says, “We’re highly against bagging, don’t even own a bagger. If you bag a yard every week, you’re losing up to 30 percent of your annual nutrients each year. Then you have to fertilize to replace them.”
Fertilizers and chemicals
When it comes to applying chemicals to nourish turf or achieve pest or weed control, “it’s all about timing, and that will vary, depending on whether you’re dealing with warm or cool season grasses,” says Christians. “People will put the herbicides or pesticides on at the wrong time. They’ll put the fertilizer on at the wrong time. It’s all got to have the right timing.”
Christians says, for cool season grasses, begin at the start of spring by applying a pre-emergent herbicide to control crabgrass, and then apply fertilizer. “But don’t put a lot of it on in midsummer because it’s hot,” he warns. “You might put just a little bit on and then do it again in the fall.”
“That’s just the opposite of what you’d do with a warm season grass,” he continues. “There, you’re going to fertilize through the middle of the season when it’s hot and not apply any in the spring or fall.”
Fortunately, grass has a “tell” that will signal the attentive turf manager that something is amiss. Phil Dwyer, a research principal for lawns and water at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., Marysville, Ohio, has a Ph.D. in turf grass pathology. He says turf that’s thinning, yellowing, going off color or that has high weed pressure is telegraphing its lack of fertility.
“Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for turf grass, more than phosphorous and potassium, which are often available in the soil,” says Dwyer. A soil test will show which nutrients you need to supplement.
Many lawn care companies fertilize four times a year. Trimble’s company tries to do it less than that. “We’ve been successful getting one job site in Reno down to two applications a year. You have to look at the slow release products and their longevity in the face of heat and water.” “Our season’s rather short in the Rocky Mountains, typically six to seven months,” says Carlos Medrano, CLT, QS, maintenance department manager at CoCal Landscape, Denver. “We fertilize one time in the spring and that carries us into the summer and fall. We use a fertilizer that slow releases over a period of five to six weeks. As a sustainable company, we don’t want to put too many synthetic chemicals into the ground.”
Turf that has been weakened by drought or other stressors is especially vulnerable, flashing a green light to pests, diseases and weeds to “Come on down!” Grubs are the primary turf pest, leaving behind brown patches as they feast on tender grass roots. “Every yard has seven to 10 grubs per cubic foot,” says Rob Elder, owner and president of Omaha Organics, Omaha, Nebraska. That’s no need for panic, though; he says it’s only a problem when there is more than that amount.
Imidacloprid, trichlorfon and halofenozide are some of the chemicals that will kill grubs. Some turf managers use a natural approach, distributing beneficial nematodes or milky spore bacteria.
But the best pest control of all is healthy turf. “Strong, vigorous turf fights off pests, weeds and diseases,” Trimble says. “Just like our bodies, when we’re strong and healthy we fight things off. It’s when you’re in a weakened state that you’re the most susceptible to attack.”
A turf manager must also deal with weeds — and the property owners and managers who feel that “the only good weed is a dead weed.” Yet, “there’s no such thing as a completely weed-free yard,” says Elder. “Even the nicest yard on the block has a weed on the edge of the sidewalk somewhere. It’s just a matter of how many weeds you can tolerate.”
For Elder, weed control goes back to the soil conditions. Once again, he says, soil testing is key. “We do a soil test for all our customers. The turf could have a low pH or be low in organic matter, phosphorous or nitrogen or have high sodium. If the turf is unhealthy, it’s going to attract a lot of weeds.”
Signature’s approach is to do an aeration first thing come spring and follow that up with an application of fertilizer and weed control.
“Some climates (Signature also works in California) need a preemergent blend, but not all; if they don’t then we apply post-emergent a couple times a year,” says Trimble.
Some tough weeds, like nutsedge, just aren’t going to go quietly; you’ll need some sort of substance to eradicate them.
Again, as with pest control, the best defense against weeds is a good offense. The healthier turf is, the fewer the weeds that will make their appearance.
Dethatching, aerating and overseeding are other tools a turf manager utilizes to make sure his client is getting the emerald greenswards he’s paying for.
Is it for you?
Butterfras says the frustrations of doing turf management include, besides the usual suspects of weather and pests, “third-party irrigation companies, commissioned sales teams from poorly operated competitors and many more. Owning a turf business means accepting that you need to wake up every day determined to be a fighter and a winner.”
But with great efforts come great benefits. The rewards of a career in turf management go beyond the monetary ones. “I love to walk our sites with a smile on my face gazing at lush, green turf,” Butterfras says. That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it?
Tips from a professional sports field turf manager
While you’re watching your favorite football, baseball or soccer team play, do you ever wonder what goes into keeping the playing field so green and safe? Hear from one such turf manager who shares some trade secrets in an online Q&A available here.
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.