Part I: See what you are not looking for

One of my toughest college courses was The Biology and Control of Weeds. We had a demanding, old-school professor who actually thought that getting educated was work. It’s the student’s job. Funny how our toughest challenges look great in the rearview mirror. He taught us that critical thinkers and innovators see what they are not looking for. In other words, they have developed the ability to observe without the intent of finding or seeing something. Great teachers rarely get to see the fruits of their efforts, it takes too long for their lessons to find purchase in their students. This simple approach to observation has really been the basis of my day-to-day turf management style and system I call sight turfing.

Your field didn’t come with an instruction manual. So, on a daily basis someone needs to decide what work needs to be performed on each field. Should we aerify? Is it time for a fertility application of some type? Should we paint today or wait for the better weather forecasted for tomorrow? Should we pull the field covers on? When? Can we wait for the dew to dry before we mow today? Irrigation tonight? How much? It sometimes feels like there are 100 turf decisions a day to make in managing high-end, natural grass sports fields.

Mother Nature and the field use planners make this a daily task, sometimes hourly. Hitting for a very high average on these calls is what separates the great sports turf managers from the ordinary. And while you’ll begin to develop a monthly template of your field and turfgrass management plan with experience, a number of factors can alter your plan. I borrow a term from athletic trainers and physical therapists: treatments. At its core, our craft is a daily update to a plan based on our read-and-react approach in making field treatment decisions.

The high-standard, high-input sports field manager has to be constantly updating a lot of information to make these treatment calls correctly at a high percentage. Refining and sifting through mountains of information is a key skill these days for everyone, and the most useful information to the turfgrass manager comes from effective observation skills; she needs to see what she is not looking for.

How do you look at your fields? If your passion is sports turf management, you have a long answer to this question. Do you have turf eyes? You get your turf eyes by practicing a methodical way of looking at turfgrass and sports fields. Turf eyes can be your most valuable tool as a turf manager. You won’t find it in the textbooks, but here’s how I look at my turf. (Imagine Gordon Gekko saying, “Now let me show you my charts,” to Bud Fox in “Wall Street.”)

There are two steps in the sight turfing approach. First, you methodically analyze the turfgrass. Next, you use what you observe in developing the best field treatment action plan.

Here’s how it works. When you look at a stand of actively growing turfgrass, the naked eye is basically overwhelmed with green. Several shades to be sure sometimes, but too much green. Fortunately, the human eye processes visible light in the green wavelength more efficiently than any other color. My theory on this is that early in human evolution it became advantageous, from a natural selection perspective, to be able to spot patches of green in the distance out on the vast savannas. Green meant food, both plant and animal. Just a theory.

The fact that our eyes can most efficiently process light in the green spectrum is a good thing for sight turfing. But too much of a good thing can be a problem. When light from the sun or stadium lighting hits the leaves of grass, the green light is reflected. Healthy turfgrass has little use for light in the green part of the spectrum, and it’s cast off as reflected light. That’s what hits our eyes, the reflected green light. The problem is that turfgrass is so good at casting off green and absorbing or scattering the other colors, our eyes can get overwhelmed by “green wash.” So much green light hits our eyes, we can’t notice the other, more subtle non-green colors coming off the leaves that can serve as early indicators of plant stress.

Our eyes not only process light best at certain wavelengths (colors), they also have a certain range of brightness where they work best. The brightness of light is most often measured in a unit called lumens. You may sometimes hear of other units like foot-candles or candelas. They all measure the brightness of a light source. For example, typical artificial indoor light is about 400 to 600 lumens. Natural outdoor light on a sunny day can range from 2,000 to 6,000 lumens, and the human eye has difficulty absorbing light above 4,000 lumens. Above 10,000 lumens of brightness, light can begin to damage the human eye. If you ever ski or hike on a high-altitude snowfield on a sunny winter’s day without the right sunglasses, you will get a good case of snow blindness, and while it’s usually a temporary ailment, it can get serious. We can literally get blinded by the light.

The question here is not whether I always wear sunglasses because my future is so bright – it is very bright. But I use them as light conditioners for sight turfing. To me sunglasses are an important tool. They are my way of getting around the limitations of the human eye in terms of light quality and quantity, so I am able to visually “hear” what the turf is saying through all the noisy wash of reflected and scattered light. Step one in sight turfing is to get yourself a good pair of the right kind of sunglasses. Do you want to be the first one on the team to spot turf issues? Stay tuned …

Coming in May, Part II: Right Shades, Right Approach

Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 29 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager. You can reach him at ross@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com.