Posts Tagged ‘turf’

Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

On the outskirts of Minneapolis, in a town called Eden Prairie, a vegetable patch is growing. This is not an average kitchen garden; the corn, beans, melons and tomatoes have a mission greater than feeding their gardener. Instead of filling plates with salad and side dishes, the plants here serve as canaries in a coal mine, providing early warning for problems cropping up on nearby grass.

Known as indicator plants, the vegetables are part of a holistic approach to turfgrass management on the professional practice fields of the Minnesota Vikings football team.

“The public thinks we practice at the Metrodome (inMinneapolis); they don’t know we have fields,” says Grant Davisson, Head Sports Turf Manager for the Vikings, who play in an indoor stadium. “But we have a lot of activity all year on this turf, from the end of March through the end of the season.”

With higher humidity and rainfall – they receive 30 inches per year – disease poses a challenge for managing the 210,000 square feet of turfgrass the Vikings practice on. Leaf spot, pythium, pink snow mold and Brown Patch are chronic problems.

Many high-use sports fields rely on a combination of play rotation and pesticides, but this facility is next to a riparian area protected by law. Because all of the runoff dumps into the wetland, Davisson is conservative in his turf treatments and prefers alternative means to controlling problems. “We don’t want any runoff, and we want as few applications as possible.”

That’s where the vegetables come in. In a 10-foot wide swath, watermelons, corn, tomatoes and soybeans act as sentinels for conditions that spur disease, succumbing to sickness a few days before the problems show up on the turf.

Rooted in the knowledge that disease outbreaks require the right environmental conditions to thrive, Davisson watches his vegetables for signs of oncoming turf problems. “Watermelons get hit by pythium, and though it’s not the same pythium that affects turf, they both need the exact same conditions,” he said, speaking of the disease that sends chills through turf managers’ spines due to its rapid destruction.

“It’ll hit the watermelons on the third hot, humid day and they’ll get killed, often by July 1. But once it shows up on the watermelons, I have a day or two lead time to spray the turf.” That’s all the time he needs to target his controls, knocking the dread fungus back behind scrimmage lines to keep it in check.

“Then we get cloudy days and the tomatoes get leaf spot. I’ve tracked it – three to four days later the turf gets leaf spot.” Affecting crown, rhizomes and roots in addition to leaves, in the heat of summer it kills the turf, leaving bare spots. “I hate leaf spot. It’s a bigger problem on rye than bluegrass.”

Replicating his plots in full sun and part shade, Davisson mimics the variable conditions on his fields, which receive differing amounts of sunlight. Applications of fertilizer are made at the same time to keep turf and vegetables even.

In addition to watermelon and tomatoes to watch for pythium and leaf spot, Davisson has corn and soybeans for rust. The peppers and peas are “because I like to eat them.” Harvested produce goes to coaches and staff.

Following a set schedule for fungicides calls for applications to be made every 90 days, and on fields this size, every application cost $35,000 to $40,000. But through this vegetable sentinel system, Davisson has been able to stretch out applications to 142 days between applications, saving money and lowering the impact on the environment. “It’s easily to most successful means to gauge disease,” he said, “and I save two applications per year. That’s a lot of money.”

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Heading into winter is when many people forget about yard care, putting the lawnmower away for the season. We fill our time cleaning the house, scrubbing the nooks and crannies we ignored in favor of being outside. But after a summer of heat, a fall of drought and a winter that’s slow in arriving, your lawn needs a little coddling to keep it healthy until spring.

The ability of turf to survive winter depends on healthy root systems. The stresses of summer often take their toll on roots, which need to regenerate in fall during cooler weather. To help lawns recover, fertilize now.

Late season application of nitrogen is recommended for Kentucky Bluegrass, Tall Fescue or Perennial Rye. Fertilize by applying 1 pound of nitrogen per thousand square feet during the first week of November, while the grass is still green and the ground isn’t frozen (if you have sandy soils, don’t fertilize after September). With the warmth lingering late this year, lawns will get the benefit of a slow cool down of the soil, which will give fertilizer the chance to help roots regrow.

Nitrogen is the most important food to feed the turf – extra potassium or phosphorus is not as critical. At this time, nitrogen in the fertilizer should be from sources such as urea, ammonium sulfate or others that don’t need microbes in the soil to release them. Soil microbes slow their activity during cold weather, which may delay release of
nitrogen to the plants, making the late application unsuccessful.

For quick benefit to plants, make sure the soil is moist, which helps the nitrogen dissolve easily. If the ground is dry, irrigate a day before fertilizing. But if you’ve already blown out your system for the winter, apply fertilizer just after one of our rain squalls have passed through.

Then protect roots from drying out during winter by giving it a bit of water if we’re having a dry spell. Dry soils can lead to dieback of the root system, which will limit the top growth of turf during the growing season.

Typically, lawns benefit from watering once every four weeks if we are not getting much rain or snow fall. Keep tabs on how much rain or snow falls at your house – not across town or in Denver where the TV stations are located – and water your lawns when we don’t get 1 inch of water, cumulative, over four weeks.

The late fertilization means lawns will green up early in the spring but not put on a lot of top growth, saving you the effort of mowing before you’re ready to swing into summer chores. Keep in mind that the March-April application may not be needed if you fertilized in November the previous year. As long as the turf greens up and grows, delay fertilizing until May or June.

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Today’s post is a long one, but I’ve filled it with pretty pictures.  Twins marquis

Not many people would get up at 2 a.m. to drive a couple of hours to see sod cut, but hey, it’s summer and I didn’t have anything better to do.  Barreling along in my pickup east of Greeley and headed to Fort Morgan, CO, Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly added a touch of the surreal to an otherwise crazy trip.

 You see, I wasn’t on my way to see just any sod lifted; this was the cutting for the Minnesota Twins’ brand new ballpark, Target Field.  And though I’m a Rockies fan, I love baseball enough to want to see where the emerald carpets come from, here at Graff’s Turf Farms.

But it wasn’t easy.  Graff’s grows plenty of sod for major league ballparks – they’re one of the four companies nationally who provide high quality sand-based turf.  They’ve covered Coors Field, Invesco, Wrigley Field, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, and Busch Stadium in St. Louis.   James with roots

But it wasn’t until the Twins contracted them that Graff’s started having…visitors.  Apparently Twins fans aren’t normal; they travel great distances to get a peek of their teams’ sod.  Fearing that fans would try to yank a souvenir fistful, Graff’s hid that bluegrass the only way they knew how – in the middle of 440 acres of other lawn grass.

Getting a glimpse was near impossible until the day came – one year after seeding – to cut, roll, load and haul the turf to it’s new home in the frozen north.  Any media members crazy and willing to come view this at 4 a.m. were welcome.

 So there I was, crazy enough to go.  And what I learned out there is this:  it’s bloody dark at 4 o’clock in the morning.  Bouncing over a few fields to get to “location X,” we were handed reflective vests to wear, because sod cutting is all about the accessories.   HarvestingRoll offNetting roll

Dr. Tony Koski, my friend the Colorado State University Turf Specialist, had  trotted off into the darkness to follow the harvester and talk shop with the Twins’ bigwigs.

Dawn eventually arrived and by then I’d gotten to know the turf pretty well, having tripped and fallen face first onto it a few times.  This didn’t matter to the other three media folks – they were having their own darkness-negotiating moments, one involving a calling card left by an animal.

As the sun crested the horizon it lit up one of the biggest trucks I’ve ever seen sitting mammoth-like, waiting for its load.  Roll after roll of sod, 4-feet wide by 75-feet long and 2,200 pounds each (just over a ton!) was placed gently onto the trailer by forklifts.  The huge machine pulled the rolls up the hill to refrigerated semi-trucks, pre-chilled to a perfect 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Waiting for pickup

No ordinary trucking company was contracted to haul the dreams of Twins fans.  To do that, Fortune Transportation (Windom, Minnesota) was selected, mainly because they carry the good things in life:  beer, pizza, and ice cream.  “We know they’ll keep their reefers on,” said James Graff, who owns the farm with Marty Thiel, “plus this company is willing to park 18 trucks in order to double up the driving crews.”

Doubling the driving teams was the only way to keep those 18 wheels rolling from Ft. Morgan straight through to Minneapolis, which they had to do without stopping, because the contract called for cut-to-laydown within 24 hours. 

Those crazy Twins.   trucks

But it happened:  sod that left at 6 a.m. on the first truck – driven by Dave Bockelman and Dave Jorgensen (the 2007 Minnesota Truck Driver of the Year) – arrived at 10 p.m. that evening at Target Field.

laying sod rollmoving sod to fit snugBecause Minnesotans seem to like the dark, the turf was immediately unloaded and installed in the outfield along the 3rd base line.  Portable lights flooded the field, allowing the sod installers to put down perfect seams.  To protect the sand-based ground, donkey forklifts were brought from Graff’s for the job; they spread the weight of machine and sod out so it doesn’t form ruts in the soft surface.

My buddy, Alison Stoven O’Connor, was there, helping to cover the event from the standpoint of a native.  She’s crazy too.  Her notes, sent at the unholy hour of 2:30 a.m. this morning, read:

“I entered the stadium through the basement or ground level.  Then I snaked my way up to the first level and walked down to the seats on the 3rd base side.  They were padded.  Nice chairs.

The only thing lit up, aside from the portable lights on generators, was the Twins marquis. 

The Twins beat the Orioles tonight, 2-1.  A good omen.”  James in action

 Dave St. Peter, President of the Twins, spoke of the future of the field with Alison.  “Year one will focus on getting the turf healthy and fair for play; in future years the field will be customized to the players.  Over time, the field will be shaped.  At the end of the day, we want a field that fielders feel good about.”

The Twins hired Larry DiVito as Head Groundskeeper, who oversaw the installation of the Washington Nationals stadium last year.  To deal with glacial winter temperatures, DiVito will take this tender sod and coddle it this fall.  Once temperatures chill and the grass goes dormant, he’ll tuck it in with specialty blankets; underground heaters will keep it, and the clay infield, from freezing.  In spring, the warmed field will lift the sleeping grass out of dormancy for opening day on April 12.

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Aaahhh, summer.  The lazy days spent clipping the lawn, neatly trimming the edges and grass so that the carpet rolls along in one, smooth swath of green.  Nothing more satisfying than gathering up the tools and locking them away, turning to view the glory that is….

 …a dandelion, popping up like a summer festival tent smack in the center of the turf.  Soon it has friends and family surrounding it, while bindweed and black medic nestle in the turf, and kochia accents the edge.  Henbit

 If you’re struggling with weeds invading your lawn, before you reach for the super-nuclear chemistry, stop and consider: those weeds tell you what the grass can’t about conditions in the yard. 

Stressed lawns have groups of weeds that flourish together under similar conditions.  Some like hot, lean soil; others prefer cool shady spots.   Growing together in the yard, they’re known as indicator weeds, and they help homeowners sort out problem lawn spots.

Before yanking them out, make a list of them to see what type of care your lawn needs.  Here’s a primer on indicator weeds and what they can tell you:

 – Hot, dry soils sport black medic, bindweed, dandelions, kochia, stink grass and yarrow.  If the grass seems thin in spots with these weeds, increase the water to this area, or check the sprinkler heads for coverage.

 – Over watered yards have plenty of weeds.  Annual bluegrass, common chickweed, crabgrass, violets and ground ivy plague chronically wet lawns.  Sprinklers may be running too often or for long periods.

 –  Compacted soil is a favorite of mouse-ear and common chickweeds, goose grass, knotweed, annual bluegrass and prostrate spurge.  Core aeration several times per season over two or three years helps break up compaction.  Common mallow

– Lawns mowed too low have crabgrass, yellow wood sorrel, and white clover.  Increase the height on the mower to keep grass at two to three inches tall.

 – Not fertilizing enough, but over watering?  You’ll see black medic with plantains and white clover.  Cut back on the water, and feed the lawn.

– Over fertilizing?  Curled dock, henbit, yellow wood sorrel and annual bluegrass will pop up.  Fertilize lawns in May, September and November, and calibrate your spreader to drop only what the grass needs.

Recognizing turf weeds takes practice. Two websites can help you discover what’s invading your lawn, the North Carolina State University’s turf files or Michigan State University’s turf weeds.net.  They’ll take you step by step through a key to identifying what weed you have.  Then jump back onto the Colorado State University turf website to check for control tips that work in our area.

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