Establish mowing patterns

How many times have you watched or attended a baseball or football game and noticed how beautifully manicured the fields were? The turf was striped with perfectly straight lines alternating in light and dark shades of green that looked painted on the field. The baseball field looked like a parquet floor, or a football field was branded with alternating pale, then dusky, 5-yard lines.

Game attendees often call to ask how the grounds manager creates such complex designs. Some callers assume it is done with paint, or by growing different species of turf or by mowing the turf at varying heights. Yet, you create these visions of beauty simply by mowing or rolling the turf in different directions. Patterns can be simple or complex, but they should always be time efficient and safe on the turf. Complex patterns take a little longer, but the extra effort is well worth it, as proven by the attention such designs attract. Whether you maintain a stadium or a home lawn, you can dress up any site with a striped design. It adds a professional touch and helps instill respect from others both in and outside our profession.

As mentioned, you create patterns by laying the grass blades down in a certain direction, allowing the turf surface to either reflect or absorb the sunlight. The direction the turf lays determines whether its appearance is light or dark. Grass blades laying down in the direction away from you appear light, while blades with their tips pointed toward you appear dark. For example, if you view one side of a football field that is striped, and you walk to the opposite side, the light and dark areas are reversed.

Effective striping equipment To achieve mowing patterns, you need to use the appropriate equipment-such as a reel-type mower or a sweeper-to lay the grass down in the direction you need to achieve the effect you want. Reel mowers already have rollers on the machine. Some commercial rotary mowers also have rollers. If your's doesn't, you can make one (see photo, page 40).

Initially, to accommodate the Milwaukee Brewer's team manager's request, we mowed the field's Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass mix at 2 inches with a rotary mower. We then rolled in our patterns. To create more complex designs, and to ensure a higher-quality cut, we currently mow at a height of 11/8 inches, all in one direction, using a triplex reel mower. We vary the direction in which we mow every day. We then roll in the design.

Mowing with a triplex (or rotary mower) first and then rolling the pattern guarantees a uniform cut. It also eliminates the chance of missing small areas, which can easily occur when you try to speed the process by using the walk-behind mower to both cut and roll a pattern at the same time. Once you've mowed the turf with a rotary unit, you also can roll it using a reel mower with the blades disengaged to create your pattern. On this pass, you keep the reels disengaged-thus, not cutting the grass-and use only the machine's rollers to bend in your stripes. Make slow, easy "Y" turns at the end of each pass before beginning the next pass. Doing so reduces the stress and wear that repeated turns can cause on the sides of your field or lawn area.

Sweepers also create effective patterns, especially on cool-season grasses that are maintained at heights above 1 inch. To avoid injury to the turf, use sweepers with nylon or polypropylene bristles. Also, with power sweepers, make sure the units are always moving when the brushes are in contact with the grass to avoid burning the grass blades.

Creating your masterpiece To create a patterned masterpiece, it helps to start with a turf that is healthy and uniformly green. Of course, the flip side is that mowing patterns can help hide many imperfections that exist in a turf, such as dry spots or scalped areas.

Before you begin mowing or rolling, make sure the turf surface is free of all debris, such as clippings and trash. A dark green, healthy cool-season turf is the perfect "canvas" on which to create your artistic pattern, although you can create dramatic designs on warm-season turf as well. Mow cool-season grasses at higher heights than warm-season grasses; the extra length of the grass blades adds to the intensity of special patterns. At County Stadium, we go a step further to enhance our turf's color by spreading Scotts' granular Step and PBI-Gordon's liquid Bov-A-Mura, mixed with manganese and iron.

Step 1: Plan out your pattern Before you begin to mow, determine what pattern you want to create. This may amount to nothing more than deciding which direction you want to mow. Or, if your's is a more elaborate pattern, sketch out the design on paper or on a computer before moving to the turf. Keep in mind that what works on paper won't always transfer easily onto the turf, and various vantage points show different parts of the design better than others.

Geometric designs work well but you also can use numbers or letters. An example of this was the No. 19 design created in honor of Robin Yount when the Brewers retired his number. Admittedly, producing the nine was harder than first planned. Only half the circle showed when we rolled it as a complete circle. We mastered it by rolling two semicircles in the opposite directions and then enclosing the bottom and top. Going back the opposite way on each side helped the nine stand out. By mixing double-width and single-width lines, you can add depth to a pattern. Using the different widths of a walk-behind and a triplex riding mower can add dimension to the pattern. To enhance the pattern or to make it more vivid, you can carefully roll each stripe or every other stripe two or three times to "burn" them in.

Step 2: Make the first line or arc exact One important feature of every design is consistent-width lines. When starting a new pattern, use a line string as a guide to ensure that your first line is straight. Also, employ a tape measure to make sure you equally lay out all sections of the design.

If you create a circle pattern, lightly chalk-out the arc you want on the grass. Then follow that circular line to create the first stripe.

Step 3: Locate guide marks on your mower Find a spot on both outside edges of your mower that marks a 1-inch overlap of the previous cut. This overlap should be at least 1 inch but no more than 2 inches to maintain a sharp, defined line between one direction and the other. Make sure the mark you locate is determined when viewed from the operator's location.

Step 4: Establish a distant site line mark After you've made the first pass along your guide line (whether it's a string or you're following a foul line), after you've raised your cutting units, turned and you're lined up for the next pass, pick a spot at the far end of the grass area to serve as your site line. This can be a seat in the stands, a fence pole or a tree. Begin mowing, keeping your eye on the distant spot you've chosen. You'll need to keep moving the steering wheel slightly to correct alignment as you mow. Periodically, take a quick glance down at your mower marks to make sure you're within the 1- to 2-inch overlap zone.

Step 5: Check the previous line When you've reached the end of a line, check back to see if it's straight and consistent. If your pattern consists of straight lines, they all must be exact. If one of your lines mistakenly gets a little crooked, go back two previous lines and start over to straighten the errant one. If you continue with a line that is a "little off," the mistake will grow and become more noticeable.

A word of caution A design should add to the beauty of the turf without affecting its health or how it plays. However, if you continuously use the same mowing patterns, you can adversely affect your turf's health. This also can affect a field's playability. Why does this happen? Laying the grass down creates shading within the turf canopy. While this creates beautiful visual affects, it also contributes to a higher potential for turfgrass thinning and disease.

Also, when you don't alternate mowing patterns, you can adversely affect ball rolls and bounces on the turf surface, such as baseball or golf. This problem is even more pronounced on warm-season turfgrasses, which are typically mowed at shorter heights than cool-season turfgrasses. As the ball rolls across the turf, it follows the direction in which the grass is laying causing it to move side to side as it crosses each mowing lane. This is called "snaking," and it makes fielding a baseball much more difficult. Therefore, it's important to alternate your mowing patterns often to minimize the snaking effect.

As mentioned, you can more easily establish mowing patterns on cool-season turf than on warm-season turfgrasses. Warm-season grasses, which prefer shorter mowing heights, have shorter leaves in which to lay over and create a pattern. Continually mowing warm-season grass in the same direction will begin to lay the grass stem over. This can create severe problems with grain and snaking because the stem is much more rigid than the leaf. Changing mowing patterns that you've created in warm-season turfgrass also can result in severe scalping, which becomes even more of a problem if you have a heavy thatch layer. However, prudent cultural practices-such as alternate mowing directions and periodic dethatching, verticutting and aerating-can allow for effective mowing patterns even on warm-season turfgrasses.

Establishing mowing patterns can add beauty and professionalism to any turf area, whether it's a professional sports field, a golf course, a commercial office complex or a home lawn. Have fun with the patterns. The more you create, the more you learn. What started out as more work will become just part of your program and be created quicker and better each time. Use patterns to help achieve the aesthetics you and your clients desire. They promote a sense of pride for those who created it as well as beauty for those who see it.

David Mellor is grounds manager of Milwaukee County Stadium (Milwaukee), and Steve Wightman is grounds manager of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium (San Diego, Calif.).

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