Jon Dewitt has Georgia Tech’s fields looking picturesque.
Not only did Jon DeWitt have to transition to a new job in 2009, he took over the grounds and turf management with back-to-back historic weather years: a drought not seen in decades, plus the second-wettest spring in more than a century.
What’s more, this year the Rolling Stones’ “Zip Code” tour visited Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta, where DeWitt serves as the assistant director of facilities and turf, and DeWitt needed the grass to be in tip-top shape. If that weren’t enough, DeWitt faced another hurdle during the filming of the 2014 baseball movie “Million Dollar Arm,” which moved equipment around campus.
DeWitt, who previously was director of grounds at an Atlanta-area private school, took these obstacles in stride. After all, he’s been working with turf since he was 13. Now he manages 14 acres at Georgia Tech – home of the Yellow Jackets – including golf, softball, track, baseball, football and football practice fields.
But one of the toughest adjustments came when the university built an indoor football practice facility that wreaked havoc with his space for storage and equipment.
“We were in the wind for a year and a half,” DeWitt says. “Just the disruption, it was difficult.”
That summer in 2013 also was wet, causing severe problems for sod farms, which lost a harvest because it was too cool in the spring. Now with demand and building back up, sod delivery to Bobby Dodd Stadium for new turf following the Rolling Stones concert was 10 cents more expensive per square foot than it normally would have been without the slumping weather patterns.
“Things in agriculture kind of move in these big cycles,” DeWitt explains.
Keeping high standards
DeWitt’s philosophy for managing turf revolves around two basic principles: Make every day count and simply care to execute the plan.
Also, he knows that a hefty budget and shiny equipment don’t mean much if the correct plan isn’t carried out.
DeWitt works plenty of 12-hour days – during this year’s July 4 weekend he worked every day to keep up a pace that began April 18 – all pointing toward an Aug. 1 deadline, when football practice began.
His cultivation period begins in the spring because of the time horizon and because this is when there’s less traffic on the fields. Along with aeration, DeWitt pulled the ryegrass out early, which gave the bermudagrass more summer days.
For the first time since 2011, new turf – 100 percent clean sand with no peat – was applied to Grant Field using thin-cut regular sod to keep the initial sod layer to a minimum. But that application period came during a semi-heat wave in the Atlanta area with temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s.
“It was literally a challenge,” he adds. “We’ve got a sod layer going down, (and) we’ve got a guy with a hose trying to wet it. So that was a mad scramble in two different places just trying to keep it alive and, now that it’s established, that has moderated.”
He appreciates that kind of field because he could finish topdressing during a summer rainstorm when 0.75 of an inch of rain fell in 30 minutes, when that scenario might have hamstrung colleagues across the country for days. That also held true during a halftime rainstorm of a football game in recent years because the field drained – helping DeWitt make the case to his administration that the field cost was worth it.
And he works to make that investment last. While some programs replace turf more often, DeWitt believes in a five-year replacement cycle for turf. That’s partly because he recognizes there’s a limited supply of thousands of square feet of thick-cut sod available each year at $2 per square foot, especially when a National Football League or Major League Baseball team comes calling.
“I believe your best field is a three- to four-year-old field,” he says.
“That first year, it’s kind of bumpy, you know. An infant baby’s not ready to go out and ride a bike. That first year I’ll be happy with it, I’ll get it where I want it, but I think year two, three and four is when it really shines, and then, by the fifth year, that organic layer’s building back up, [and] drainage is being reduced.”
Sprigging is another option DeWitt appreciates, as it is about one-fourth the cost of sod. “Sprigging is much, much cheaper than sodding,” DeWitt said. “That can vary greatly, too, depending on how many bushels per acre you plant and other variables.”
One challenge, though, is that the south end of Bobby Dodd stadium gets almost no sun, especially after the installation of a new scoreboard.
Since he started at Georgia Tech, DeWitt said he’s learned how to operate in a city environment, while he also organized and “dialed-in” the equipment.
“Now I see the big picture,” he remarks.
While his inventory previously featured three older types of tractors, DeWitt chose two matching Kubotas.
“If I send a guy to aerate, the settings, the gears, all those ratios and stuff are the same, and they match up to the different implements without adjustment,” explains DeWitt, who added that he’s kept organized records of the equipment settings, saving a lot of time each subsequent time they’re used.
An English major who graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, DeWitt grew up with Kubota tractors, and got his first glimpse in the industry working for his father’s landscaping company. His first tractor in Birmingham was a B8200.
Admittedly self-taught, he then worked on the grounds at his high school, Briarwood Christian in Birmingham.
All this effort has paid off, as the industry recognizes the continued excellence of the Georgia Tech operation, which DeWitt works hard to maintain.
It’s earned Best in the Nation awards from the Sports Turf Managers Association in 2003 and 2006, and last year, Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium earned the STMA’s “Field of the Year” award for college baseball. The stadium earned its first STMA recognition in 2008. This award is presented annually by the STMA to collegiate, professional and recreational venues based on playability, appearance and utilization of innovative solutions.
“I feel like we’ve always maintained an insanely high standard despite this construction, or the movie or the weather,” he says. “If we’re striving for a 10, I’d say we’re a nine or a 10 despite the drought, despite the rain, despite the outside events.”
Others in the industry appreciate that high standard, though, often luring away staff members to bring some of that excellence to their fields. DeWitt’s assistant recently was a finalist for the head sports turf manager job at Florida State University, a former groundskeeper at Georgia Tech left for Oklahoma State University, and several others left for private schools in the Atlanta area.
“People [who] are applying for jobs and work for me come out of here with that reputation,” DeWitt says. “As I get older, I’m as proud of the actual field results I produce.”
DeWitt prides himself in having an attention-to-detail mentality, and setting a high bar for all the facilities, not simply the ones in the spotlight and on television. “Everybody’s football field [looks good], because that’s the money-maker,” he says. “But as you get out from there, how’s your softball field? How’s your baseball field? Across the board, we try to maintain everything [at the same high level].”
And not just the turf. DeWitt said he also offers attention to ornamentals, perhaps a nod to his background.
“I’ve got a little soft spot for that,” he said. “It sets your [facility] off. Before someone sees the field, they walk in and see the shrubs and the landscaping.”
Tools of the trade
To help keep the turf in such good condition, DeWitt turns to POLYON 4,100, a 100 percent slow-release fertilizer. DeWitt says he especially enjoys the release timeline to avoid peaks and valleys, and the product’s been part of his program since 2002.
For his turf, DeWitt releases 0.17 in a week, and the consistent flow allows the turf to maintain in case equipment breaks down, employees are on vacation or a series of rainy days hits.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “It’s a really long, slow release, and it’s so stable. It’s great on a lot of levels. … That guy’s always working in the background, and you can spray over the top of that, and then hit it with some hot fertilizer over the top to push it, make it grow in.”
In the winter, IBDU fertilizers excel here because of the long, steady release curve in the cool temperatures. That does its work during damp mornings and when dew hits the turf. And, at Georgia Tech, the baseball field still gets plenty of traffic with former players coming through for winter workouts.
DeWitt relies on Trimmit – Syngenta‘s plant growth regulator – to help tighten up the ryegrass while also corralling a Poa annua problem.
“The Trimmit absolutely shut it down,” he said. “I would get on a box top and shout to the world about that.”
During the occasional warm spring day with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s, the plants experience an explosion of growth, and DeWitt said the Trimmit helps with that as well. (Timing with the application is critical.)
Another plant growth regulator DeWitt employs is a Legacy product used around the track area because it’s difficult to mow and navigate around traffic and obstructions.
“Instead of mowing that field three times a week, we can mow it once or twice a week, and ultimately that’s a savings,” DeWitt says. “The chemical pays for itself in the labor. We’re able to go out and do other stuff.”
Given his history with changing weather patterns even in his relatively short tenure at Georgia Tech, DeWitt says, his weekly schedule continues to vary. Something scheduled for Tuesday could get moved to Friday or even canceled depending on a rainstorm or cheerleading practice.
Earlier this summer, DeWitt spoke at a meeting of the Green Sports Alliance about his managing of water systems, especially the Grant Cistern system, which was built in 2007 and is used exclusively for a water source. The Cistern tanks keep the facility from using city water and help manage during drought and heavy rains. Bobby Dodd Stadium features 22 1,500-gallon Cistern tanks.
DeWitt admits the human resources and paperwork aspects of the job can be difficult at times. Not to mention working hours that “man wasn’t intended to see.” It’s the personal fulfillment that brings him back through all kinds of weather. When he pauses to appreciating the beauty of the grass and the opportunity to work the ground under a picturesque sky, he is reminded of why he entered the field.
“You can just feel the breath of fresh air,” he says. “I’m finally out on a tractor at sunset doing what I love to do.”