How to Give Your Lawn the Home Field Advantage This Spring

From watering to mowing techniques, we've got the bases covered. (Photo: StefanoT/Shutterstock).

Every kid who has ever walked into a Major League ballpark has been awed by that great expanse of lush, green lawn, spreading from foul pole to foul pole, from front row through the outfield, interrupted only by the dirt of the baseball diamond.

Getting that kind of big-league lawn for your home isn't easy, though, and it's not nearly as romantic. Harder, still, is making sure that your personal green expanse is environmentally sound.

But it can be done. With both spring and the Major League Baseball season upon us, we talked to an expert on stadium turf, David Gilstrap, Ph.D., of Michigan State University, on what the big-leaguers do — and what we minor leaguers can do — to get lawns green, keep them green and be green at the same time:


Mark Razum, head groundskeeper for the Colorado Rockies, prepares the infield

A lawn is a living, growing thing. A baseball field is a really big living and growing thing. But they both need water. Sometimes a lot.

The best modern baseball parks now have drainage systems that keep water from pooling (you can't have a multimillion dollar outfielder slipping on standing water in the outfield), store the water and recirculate it. Those systems help inhibit the nutrients that groundskeepers use on their fields from slipping past the root system and into the underlying soil, possibly harming the environment. That's one of the ways Major League Baseball, over the past several years, has worked toward being more green.

Unless you live in a modern stadium like Target Field in Minneapolis (home of MLB's Twins), though, you probably don't recirculate the water you use to water the lawn. So you have to be more careful. The rule here is pretty simple.

"You should limit your watering so there's no runoff. If you see runoff then you need to stop watering," says Gilstrap, who is the coordinator for the Sports and Commercial Turf management program in Michigan State's Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. That program has produced three heads groundskeepers for Major League Baseball teams. "Wait until it's absorbed into the ground."

That can be tricky, too. When has a lawn had enough to drink? Gilstrap says that water should reach the depth of the roots. Getting down on hands and knees with a shovel or trowel may be the only way to make sure the water is getting there.

How do we know it needs water in the first place? "During high temperatures in the summer, when you walk across the lawn, you can see footprints," Gilstrap says. "If that's in the afternoon, you're okay. But if you're seeing footprints in the morning, then you need to water."

Finally, there's an age-old question: When's the best time to water?

The research, Gilstrap says, is unclear. But he likes early morning.

Fertilizing and weed control

A close-up view of new grass in Yankee Stadium in 2008

Grass needs more than water. A regular feeding schedule — maybe three or four times a year — helps keep lawns healthy.

Fertilizing, though, is another challenge. Too much can harm the grass. Excess can end up in runoff, too, which is no good for the environment. And not enough water simply doesn't do the job. It's tricky.

How much, then? And when?

The Internet is filled with all sorts of suggestions on when to fertilize and apply weed control. Generally speaking, it's critical to fertilize a few times a year, especially in the fall, after the top growth of the grass stops, so that the plant can store energy for the winter. Herbicides (weed control) should be applied in the fall, too.

How much? Well, that's tied in with the feeding schedule. Some professionals, Gilstrap says, have taken to applying lower amounts of fertilizer and doing it more often. Professional lawn care companies, for example, may fertilize several times a year. "One technology that is being used more," says Gilstrap, "is foliar fertilizer at very low rates." Foliar feeding is liquid fertilizer applied directly to the leaves of the grasses. That's available for consumer use, too.

Also available for consumers — often used in professional sports stadiums, including on baseball fields — are products that contain non-toxic, biodegradable dyes. Or, in perhaps a simpler term, lawn paint. (One such product, Lawnlift, boasts, "It's like a facelift for your lawn!")

Dyes do nothing to feed the grass or stop weeds or pests. But for millions watching on TV, or just for the benefit of a nosy neighbor, they can help a lawn look great.

"Sports turf managers, at any level, the thing they care most about is playability and safety. Color is secondary," Gilstrap says. " like to see a green field."


A man mows the grass of a baseball field

Nothing transfixes a young first-time visitor to a big-league ballpark more than the mowing patterns on the field. From a simple checkerboard pattern, the way the grass is cut has evolved into an art form.

The Red Sox have had their Sox logo trimmed into the infield grass at Fenway Park. The Padres have done their iconic interlocking "SD" in the outfield grass at Petco Park. We've been treated to skylines, baseballs, stripes of all widths, concentric circles and waves.

These patterns are mostly just fancy tricks, bending the grass with rollers so the light reflects off the lawn differently. Awesome tricks, granted, but nothing homeowners can't pull off if they so choose.

First, though, a healthy lawn is needed. And a big part of that is...yep, mowing.

"There's a rule of thumb, the 1/3 rule, that says that you should not remove more than 1/3 of the leaves with a mowing," Gilstrap says. So take a ruler, gauge the depth of the lawn, figure out the desired depth and go from there.

The exception to that is in the spring (and some pros say the fall), when the lawn is coming into growing season (or going out of it). In the spring, as soon as the last freeze has passed, the lawn should be cut low, which opens up the crowns of the grass (the base of the leaves and the top of the roots) to the sun and promotes regrowth.

Homeowners should bag and compost those early clippings (like the pros do). After that, the idea is to mow as often as necessary — probably more often than most people would like — so that the height stays uniform and clippings don't have to be gathered.

Yeah, it's a chore. But baseball fields often are mowed three or four times a week.

Other tips: Vary the direction of the mowing, so as not to put ruts in the lawn. Don't freak out about a weed here or there. Roll it, if a big-league finish is desired.

But, more than anything, don't ignore it. Big lawns are eminently worthwhile for a lot of reasons. Even green reasons.

"The most compelling benefit is erosion control. That's why they put turf grasses on roadsides and on banks. The greatest pollutant of all is sediment, and anything the sediment might carry with it," Gilstrap says. "That's really what grass does. It keeps soil in place."

Done right, those lawns can leave us with lasting memories, too, whether they be in a backyard or a big-league ballpark.