How to Prepare For and Recover From Severe Weather’s Impact on Natural Grass

Paul Steinbach Headshot
20170410 075815
Photo by Amy Fouty

The forecast first called for up to a foot of snow — then, mere inches. Not unusual ambiguity for late March in Madison, Wis., but even after 8 inches ultimately blanketed the University of Wisconsin’s Goodman Field, groundskeepers seemingly had ample time to ready the playing surface for the Badgers’ home-opening softball double-header March 28 against UW-Green Bay.

“We were a bit caught off guard by the snow total,” says Derek Johnson, the head groundskeeper at Goodman since 2016. “Our infield typically handles snow and/or rain somewhat well. And the fact it was a Tuesday game, and the storm came overnight Friday, we knew we’d have two full days to prepare.”

Johnson and his team shoveled off the infield and used a Kubota snowblower to begin clearing the outfield. They took a drum spike aerator for a single spin around the diamond in the hopes it would break through the ice and snow, expose the grass underneath and expedite melting. Results were underwhelming, and by the time temperatures warmed to the degree aeration might be effective, it was too late. In another sense, warming temperatures actually worked against the recovery efforts. “The timing was just never really set up well for us to succeed,” Johnson admits. “There was too much standing snow to really do much with it in the immediate aftermath. Then by Monday, we were having success early in the day, but as it got warmer, the snow became too heavy and slushy to move effectively, and would clog our snowblower.”

The games weren’t canceled until late Tuesday morning, a mere four hours before the scheduled first pitch. By then, certain parts of the field were ready. At least one wasn’t — and that proved to be the deciding factor. “It was a very close call,” Johnson says. “The infield was in fine shape, as we suspected it would be. The outfield was clear of snow. Granted, it was very wet and soft in a few spots, but arguably playable. The warning track was wet, soft and in our opinion, unplayable.”

This, despite the use of turbine blowers to dry both the infield and the warning track. “For all the work everyone put in, it was really unfortunate to not play those games,” says Johnson. “That’s never the outcome we want, but we are also committed to player safety.”

As is anyone who cares for the natural turf on which America’s athletes compete. It’s no small — or easy — task, given the predictably unpredictable nature of today’s weather episodes. From surprising snow totals in temperate parts of the country to record rains in others, groundskeepers must be prepared for — and recover from — the nastiest curveballs Mother Nature throws at them.

Here’s a look at the techniques veteran professionals have used when dealing with inclement weather.

679Photo courtesy of the University of ColoradoSnow

During a 16-year stint at Michigan State University, Amy Fouty had occasion to cover Spartan Stadium’s football field with a network of four tarps held together at the seams with Velcro. Those seams were further reinforced with duct tape in anticipation of a measurable snowfall in order to prevent her crew’s rubber-edged plow blade from catching and opening a seam.

Fouty, now a field consultant for The Motz Group in Cincinnati, preferred tarping the field in advance of snow to best protect the grass during the plowing process, which — during particularly persistent snow events — could last all night. “It’s important to keep up with it,” says Fouty, who might have crewmembers plow in three to four shifts during a single snowfall. “We never wanted to be pushing more than an inch or two at a time. If you’re getting feet and feet and feet of snow, you can’t keep up at that point.”Img 2204Photo by Derek Johnson

For crews that don’t possess a rubber-edged plow blade, an 8-inch corrugated drain pipe can be slit and affixed to the blade bottom, allowing it to skim over the turf surface with minimal disruption to the grass plants. Fouty, who’s been at this for more than 30 years total, has even taken the tube on which a tarp is typically rolled and stored, strapped it to a tractor bucket, and used that to move snow off a field.

Ryan Newman, the current director of athletic grounds at the University of Colorado, doesn’t have the luxury of tarps or tubes, since Folsom Field doesn’t have sufficient space outside the sidelines to store them. His crews, which have plowed an atypical eight times over the past 22 home football games, instead float rubber-edged blades attached to John Deere Gators directly over the turf, plowing in the same direction as the field’s mowing patterns. “Generally, when we’re plowing snow in either October or November here, it’s a big wet snow,” he says. “The ground is not frozen, so you have to be really careful with what you’re doing.”

The heaviness of autumnal snows in Boulder actually works to CU crews’ advantage. “The snow will stick together, like in really good snowman or snowball weather,” Newman says. “Once your blade fills up, generally, it’ll just kind of create a V off your blade and the snow will just keep creating a bigger and bigger V. The snow will actually push the snow off.”Img 2206Photo by Derek Johnson

If time permits, and the sport dictates, Newman will go back and drag brush the field in the opposite direction it was plowed. “Sometimes plowing will just really lay the grass blade over,” he says. “In a situation where we plow for a sport that’s played primarily on the ground, like soccer, we’ll plow pretty much one direction, and then we’ll drag it in the opposite direction to stand the grass back up so you get a true ball roll.”

The GreensGroomer brush attachment is not the only finishing option after a snowplowing session at Colorado. “We had USC here” for a football game in October 2019, Newman says. “We actually plowed in the morning and mowed that afternoon.”

20170409 074141Photo by Amy FoutyFloodwaters

The Iowa Cubs were at the midpoint of the 1993 season when heavy rains turned the team’s ballpark, located at the junction of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, into ground zero for one of the region’s most infamous floods. The field itself was submerged for days.

“I was very concerned that the plant was just going to suffocate underneath all that water, and then you get the heat of the July sun, you’re going to warm the water up. Then you really have no shot,” says Mike Andresen, the Cubs’ head groundskeeper at the time. “There wasn’t much we could do. It was just hope for the best. We were okay. The water receded so that it wasn’t standing anymore, but the soil was certainly at capacity. It was still waterlogged — like walking on pudding.”

Fortunately, between Cubs road trips and their league’s all-star break, Andresen’s team had two weeks to make the field playable again. “We got an aerifier on it just as quickly as we could,” he says. “We can’t get the water off of the roots. Let’s try to introduce some air. It paid off.”

Andresen, who currently serves as director of grounds maintenance at Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College, recalls starting in the center of the field behind second base and circling outward. He employed solid-tine aeration first, eventually getting more aggressive with core aeration where the field was firm enough to handle it, and finally waiting until the field was drier still to sweep up the pulled cores — the total process taking a full week.

That said, receding floodwater can leave behind additional problems in the form of contaminants — silt, mold and perhaps even foreign chemicals or sewage. If coated grass blades aren’t promptly power-washed (some groundskeepers will use a fire hydrant and hose), the plants can suffocate just as they would underwater. In addition, the Cubs’ field was mottled with roughly 30 laptop-sized mystery patches of dead turf. In time, some spots recovered organically, while others had to be dug out and resodded in the offseason. In the flood’s immediate aftermath, Andresen wasn’t overly concerned that chemicals had likely caused the mostly aesthetic damage. “I was just happy to have some footing,” he recalls. “I wasn’t worried about green grass at that point.”93flood, Grass PythiumPhoto courtesy of Mike Andresen

Floods can leave material behind, and they can take material away — for example, the conditioners used on the skinned areas of ball diamonds. “In the flood ways, it follows the current,” says Fouty, who for one week one spring dealt with 5 feet of standing water on a part of the MSU athletic campus that serves baseball, softball and soccer. “You have to let everything dry out before you can even get on it. How much silt is in this area? How much material moved from this area? How much material has to be removed? How much material has to be replaced? There’s a lot of assessment that has to be done on the fly.”

Can much be done in advance? “If they know a heavy rain event or flood is coming, a lot of athletic field managers will do some sort of aerification prior, to help with that percolation rate — the water getting through the soil — so that way it’s playable quicker,” says Andrew Marking, project manager for Milan, Ill.-based Bush Sports Turf. “And then also applying a fungicide prior to having a flood or a tarp on the field, where situations are going to be a little bit different than normal, with the bacteria and everything that might be coming in off of a river or creek and onto the field.”

Tarping a field in advance of potential flooding can backfire in other ways, too. “It depends on the type of event you’re expecting,” Fouty says. “Your tarp will float, and it could end up 10 miles downstream, wrapped around something.”

That said, a tarp that remains in place shouldn’t stay put too long. “You want to remove that tarp as quickly as possible, because it will cook the turf under the tarp. It’s just dead. There’s no turning back,” says Fouty, adding that soil and air temperature, and how active the grass is growing, will dictate the urgency of tarp removal in the summertime. “In November, when the ground is very cool, the grass is partially dormant, and the temperature is 10 degrees, I could leave that tarp on all week and not have any damage.”

20170414 104416Photo by Amy FoutyLack of precipitation

Another extreme weather condition that vexes turf managers is no precipitation at all.

According to Mike Tarantino, retired director of facilities for the Poway Unified School District, located 25 miles north of normally idyllic San Diego, there’s no substitute for an in-ground, centralized, programmable and remote-controllable irrigation system. And while his region of the country is currently experiencing about three times its normal rainfall due to tropical atmospheric rivers, the more common scenario Tarantino faced as a turf professional was water shortages.

Nine years ago, city administrators told him he needed to cut water consumption by 38 percent. Says Tarantino, “I met with my bosses, and I said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to stress the hell out of the decorative landscaping in front of the schools, even to the point I may start killing off grass and eventually coming back to you and asking for money for plant material. But I am not touching the sports fields, because not only do our kids use them, every kid in the community uses them.’ And I actually saved 40 percent. The city was jumping for joy. You just have to decide where your priorities are. Did some of the outsides of my schools look pretty ratty? Yes. Some did. Some didn’t.”

Tarantino found another way to cut corners without leaving drastic visual evidence. His evapotranspiration rate indicators would let him know how much moisture a plant was losing on a daily basis, and what it needed in terms of replenishment. “I would set mine at 80 percent of what it told me to do. I was saving water by not watering as much as I should,” he says. “And, I’m going to be honest with you, the fields didn’t look any better or any worse when I deducted 20 percent of the evapotranspiration rate.”

He used the same techniques on his landscaping. “I knew I could cut that evapotranspiration rate by 50 percent and keep shrubs alive,” Tarantino says. “So, if I had an area of grass that was stressed, I could up that evapotranspiration rate, so that it would receive the water that was actually being saved off shrubbery.”

According to Newman, who says it’s not uncommon for arid Colorado to go 60 days between drops of rain in the summertime, there are even ways to maximize the effectiveness of the irrigation water that does get used. “A wetting agent is kind of like laundry detergent, and I say that in the sense that it makes the water wetter,” he says. “It sounds funky, but when I say it makes the water wetter, it makes it move through the soil easier. Sometimes you’ll get localized dry spots, where there’s either enhanced or decreased microbial activity that locks up water, but your roots can’t penetrate it or access it. You’re trying to basically break down the surface tension of your irrigation water to create a wetter water — water that works better for you.”

No two weather events are exactly alike, and climate instability is only likely to challenge groundskeepers more in the months and years ahead. Each episode should be treated as a learning experience.

“I can never emphasize enough that you plan for the worst and hope for the best in these types of situations,” Fouty says. “And understand that every single one of them is going to be different.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the preparation piece,” Newman concludes. “Getting your administration, your board — whoever provides you your budget money — to understand the equipment necessary to manage those weather events. And then you need to obtain the knowledge of how to best use those pieces of equipment. It’s a lot of moving pieces and high-pressure stakes. You have to be able to manage your staff in an effective manner and put them in position to be successful.”

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