Cover Story: Mowing for the show

It’s always an incredible thing when the stars align and a person finds his or her true calling in life. It requires a virtual perfect storm. Natural talent, passion, pride, a willingness to learn, proper resources, support, and perhaps even a touch of luck – all must collide in the right portions at the right moment for it to work. When it does, the world is blessed with a “natural” such as a Michelangelo, a Willie Mays, a Mozart, a Mother Theresa, or a David Mellor.

Perhaps less well known, but equally as gifted at his trade, Mellor is the director of grounds for the Boston Red Sox, the reigning world champions of baseball as of this writing. As it happens, Mellor originally possessed aspirations of playing on the field, not maintaining it.

Change of plans
“Like a lot of kids growing up I wanted to be a baseball player,” Mellor recalls. “My grandfather played in the majors in 1902. I thought I would go to college and get a business degree and hopefully play baseball, then get drafted and play in the majors. One month out of high school I was walking into a McDonald’s restaurant and a lady drove in and stepped on the gas instead of the brake and hit me, throwing me 20 feet into the air.” Mellor endured 31 surgeries, including 19 on his knee and 9 on his back. He walked on crutches for 21/2 years. “At first I was mad at the world,” he says, “but my mom and two brothers told me ‘adversity makes you stronger. Look at this as a challenge. It’s a detour, not a roadblock. Find a career you love, otherwise it’s work’.”

Mellor decided that if he couldn’t be on the ball fields during the games, he would do the next best thing. He redirected his career and entered Ohio State University and earned his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, specializing in agronomy, turfgrass management and landscape horticulture. He honed his mowing skills at a golf course during college then found his way to the big leagues, starting on the grounds crew of the Milwaukee Brewers. Not content to settle into a rut, Mellor gained experience by sampling how other sports fields were maintained.

“There’s a lot of different ways to do the same thing, whether it’s a management style or taking care of the grass and clay,” he says. After stints in the majors with the Brewers, San Francisco Giants, and California Angels, he returned to the Brewers. It was there at County Stadium in 1993 when – again faced with adversity – Mellor began his elaborate striping patterns to cover up turf damaged by a stage set up for a Paul McCartney concert.

A growing trend
As Mellor’s mowing patterns became increasingly imaginative and intricate, job offers came from pro teams across the country, but Mellor held out for a move that would be right for his wife, Denise, and two daughters, Cacky and Tori. Twice while interviewing with the New England Patriots, he stopped by Fenway Park to chat with Joe Mooney, the long-time director of grounds at the venerable stadium built in 1912. In 2000, when Mooney prepared to retire, he called Mellor and offered him the position.

“I jumped at the chance,” he says. “My father was a Red Sox fan, so I grew up a Red Sox fanatic. Or at least I thought I was a huge fan until I met some of the fans around here,” he says with a laugh. Mellor believes that knowledge and experience are important, but he also surrounds himself with a crack staff that is almost as detail-oriented as he is. “You’re only as good as the people around you,” he says. With a crew that grows to around 40 during the summers, Mellor relies heavily on two assistants. On game days, he runs three crews (6 a.m. until 3 p.m., 3 p.m. until game time, and game time until closing). Mellor often logs long days, sticking around for all three shifts.

Tools of the trade
After Mellor’s first striping pattern was so well received, groundskeepers at other sports facilities quickly picked up on the trend. Rumors circulated about how grounds crews achieved these eye-catching results. There were theories on varied light and heavy fertilizer applications, spray-on dyes, and even alternating strips of turf cultivars. The simple truth, as Mellor explains, is the stripes are achieved by the lawnmower’s solid roller or rollers (often one in front of the reel and one behind). As the grass blades are bent in one direction by the roller, the sunlight catches the blades one way and they appear dark green. When the mower operator returns to mow the next strip in the opposite direction, the blades are bent the other way and the light bouncing off the blades makes them appear light green. Mellor sometimes uses dedicated rollers to fine-tune his designs. He has even been known to fashion his own rollers from a length of PVC (3- to 6-inch diameter) filled with concrete.

In addition to reel mowers and rollers, Mellor and his crews use blowers, brooms, leaf rakes and water blasted from hoses to create abstract designs, players’ numbers, letters, and patterns depicting stars, baseballs, the team logo consisting of a pair of socks, ghosts and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, an American flag for Flag Day, and a giant shamrock to commemorate the Boston Celtics’ recent national title. Mellor’s crews maintain a pattern for approximately two weeks before changing to avoid creating ruts.

“If you burn it in all the time you’re going to affect playability,” he cautions. “Safety and playability are absolutely our first priority, as they should be with any groundskeeper. But once we achieve that, we have fun with the aesthetics.”

Mellor notes that while any rotary blade mower might create stripes from the wheels and the blade, these patterns don’t last long or look very polished. Motorized reel mowers like he uses are not practical for most turf maintenance companies due to their high cost, their need for regular professional adjusting and sharpening, and their inability to cut tall coarse turf cleanly. The good news is Mellor’s turf antics inspired a number of manufacturers to produce riding rotary mowers with rollers mounted behind the deck. There are also inexpensive add-on roller kits that make it possible to attach a roller to a basic rotary walk-behind mower.

Arts and crafts movement
Mellor firmly believes the striping patterns showing up on residential lawns these days are not a passing fad. For some homeowners and landscapers, sporting a jaunty pattern on the verdant green carpet surrounding a home demonstrates attention to detail and an appreciation for the finer things in life. There is evidence his work has grown beyond craft status and entered the lofty realm of art. Slides of some of his patterns found their way into an art exhibit at New York’s American Folk Art Museum a few years ago.

Quality vs. quantity
Mellor laments the recent popularity of zero-turning-radius mowers is contrary to the striping trend. Rollers attached to ZTR mowers tend to tear into the turf on sharp turns. He suggests the refined patterns might be an option landscape contractors could offer to upscale clients.

“Too many people are trying to go too fast,” he says. “Slow down a little bit and get a better quality of cut with less scalping. I know the more lawns you mow in a day the more money you make, but I think you sacrifice quality for speed. Speed and quality – that’s what we stress to our guys. That’s where pride of workmanship comes in. And you don’t have to be at Fenway Park,” he adds. “A healthy, actively growing lawn is a perfect canvass for a design. Whether it’s somebody driving by your own lawn or your corporate account, you have that opportunity to make them say ‘Wow, that lawn is beautiful’.”

Tricks of the trade
David Mellor shares much of his knowledge for creating verdant, striped turf in his book, “Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes, and Sports.” Here are a few tips from his vast warehouse of knowledge.

Alter your mowing pattern: Mowing in the same pattern too often can lead to compaction and ruts where the tires dig in. Ruts also lead to scalping, twisted ankles, and dangerous grounders.

Return clippings to the lawn: Avoid clumping by cutting no more than one-third of the grass blades at a time. Unless you need to harvest a lot of weed seeds with your mower’s bag, use a mulcher mower and return the clippings (along with their nutrients) to the turf.

Turn carefully: Turning too quickly can cause the tires to damage the turf.

Avoid wet areas: Try to mow when turf is dry. Soggy soil leads to ruts, grass clumps, and mud stains that ruin your pattern. Mellor suggests fixing small wet spots with calcined clay (similar to kitty litter).

Keep it moving: Don’t stop the mower in mid-stripe unless it’s an emergency. If you need to take mowers, wheelbarrows or other equipment across the lawn after it’s cut, try to enter and exit on a light stripe. This means you’ll be driving in the same direction the mower traveled when it cut the strip.

Straight line: Pick a fixed spot in the distance or place a flag, a rag, glove or anything you can focus on to help you maintain a straight line.

We all make mistakes: There are several ways to erase a mowing mistake. You can mow in the opposite direction to bend the blades back to make them stand upright. Mellor has also used drag mats, leaf sweepers, drum rollers, brooms, roller squeegees, leaf rakes, blowers and even jets of water from a hose to create fine details or erase mistakes.

Consider the turf type: The turf at Fenway and most other sports fields in northern climes is Kentucky bluegrass overseeded with perennial rye. Their upright, waxy, dark green blades lend themselves to striping with rollers. Lawns in the South are often warm-season varieties such as Bermuda or Zoysia, which tend to have light green, low-growing blades that spread by stolons and runners. Grounds managers in the South have been known to apply iron or manganese in alternating stripes to achieve long-lasting results.

Parts reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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