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It's Not Easy Being Green

How to keep 110 acres of athletic fields looking great despite cleats, traffic at the goal box and Cardinal-red paint.

Rod Searcey

TURF TEAM: Schinski and Ahern keep the outfield at Sunken Diamond one inch high--just the way the coach likes it.

Summer baseball camp ended on a Wednesday. On Thursday, Joel Ahern went straight to work on the field at Sunken Diamond.

“Each node shoots out a little runner,” the sports turf manager said as he pulled a scraggly strand of common Bermuda grass from center field, where seed had been deposited by shoe soles, birds, wind and lawnmower tires. “The longer you let it get established, the more it will interweave. And that’s where it obtains its durability and resilience.”

Ahern then got down to the business of aerating the grass—mostly a blue/rye blend—so that water and fertilizer could better penetrate the clay soil. He went to the sprinkler box and turned on each station, one by one, as helpers marked in-ground sprinklers with red flags. Ahern then climbed aboard a tractor and dragged a machine behind him that punched three-inch-deep holes in the ground, two inches apart.

The following day a sweeper plucked up the dried and scattered cores of earth. And a week later, there was no evidence the aerator had been there. Deep, landscape-green grass grew one inch high in the outfield, half that height in the infield—just the way head coach Mark Marquess, ’69, likes it. “Each coach has a preference about height and moisture content,” says Dave Schinski, assistant athletic director for facilities operations. “If it’s a faster team, they might want to play on turf that’s shorter. And some baseball coaches will let the infield grow a little taller to slow down ground balls.”

Schinski, Ahern and landscape maintenance specialist Kevin Moore are the go-to guys when it comes to keeping Stanford’s 110 acres of varsity fields and 50 acres of recreational fields mowed and manicured. (Course superintendent Ken Williams keeps the golf course’s terrain up to par.) Competition fields are sodded with one of two types of grass, depending on the demands of the sport. A resilient, heat-loving, hybrid Tiff-2 Bermuda grass (originally developed to take the punishment of hooves in horse races) goes on the rugby and football fields, where players set their cleats and then pivot in place. The blue/rye blend, which thrives in cooler weather, is designated for baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse. “It’s about feet and turf contact,” Schinski says. “A football hits the ground, and who knows which way it goes? But you want a soccer ball to roll a certain way.”

Then there’s field hockey, which is the only varsity sport played on a knit nylon synthetic turf. “They like a pool-table surface, because it’s important for the ball to continue to roll,” Schinski says.

In season, the competition fields are mowed two or three times per week—always on game days—and the football field grid lines are painted at least once a week. White latex paint, Ahern says, does the least harm, while darker colors retard growth: “Bermuda’s not happy when you paint it red.” Certain fields require extra-special care: dew has to be vacuumed off the football practice field for early-morning sessions, and anything with a goal box needs frequent seeding with a hand rake. “The way lacrosse is played, it’s like a bee swarm right in front of the goal, and it gets a lot of wear,” Ahern says.

At summer’s end, Schinski, Ahern and Moore were monitoring the progress of the 100,000-square-foot field in the new stadium. After the field was graded and covered with topsoil, 50-foot rolls of Tiff-2 Bermuda were laid down in mid-August. Since then, the landscaping trio has been, well, watching grass grow.

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