Yard Work: Is snow helpful or harmful to the field at Camden Yards?

Camden Yards is a gem, a rare baseball cathedral that blends classic, retro style with today’s version of the national pastime. But its lush outfield grass and manicured infield don’t happen by accident. They’re the result of a year-round effort by head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen and her talented grounds crew. Each month during this offseason, Orioles Buzz will check in with McFadyen to see what’s happening on the field at Camden Yards as the grounds crew prepares for the 2014 season.

First we were supposed to get a dusting, no more than an inch, the weather prognosticators said. Then the forecast grew, as the meteorologists saw a confluence of moisture and bitterly cold air over the mid-Atlantic. Two to four inches of precipitation became four to six inches, then six to 10 inches. Bottom line: We’ve all made friends with snow shovels and rock salt over the past 48 hours.

While you’ve been focusing on sidewalks, porches, driveways and parking pads, the field at Camden Yards has been overtaken by snow. Some of those green seatbacks are poking through the whiteness, but the field - the basepaths, mound, batter’s box and coach’s boxes - are totally obscured by inches and inches of pillowed whiteness.

Guess what? Turns out the snow is actually beneficial to the field.

“Snow, in a heavy amount or an amount that at least lays on the grass longer than a day, acts as an insulator for the crown of the grass, the heart of the grass,” explains Orioles head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen. “The snow protects that crown from freezing off or breaking off and acts as an insulator for the roots, as well.

“During the winter time, when the grass isn’t growing actively on the surface, the roots are doing all the work - it’s kind of like a bear hibernating. It’s storing up a lot of energy and the roots are pushing deeper and deeper into the soil. In the spring, whenever it thaws out, and it’s warmed up and conducive to growing, all of that energy gets refocused into the blades of the grass. So the snow is beneficial. As long as we don’t get it closer to opening day, where we have to shovel it off, I think it’s a good thing.”

When it comes to snow, the question McFadyen most often fields is whether she covers the field to protect it from the white stuff. Obviously, she doesn’t, instead allowing the snow to work its restorative magic. Cold can be another issue, and recent single-digit temperatures are something she’s rarely encountered since taking over her current role in 2007. But McFadyen is sure the Kentucky Bluegrass is hearty enough to withstand the bitter cold.

“That’s a new challenge for us,” she says. “It’s rare we get the polar vortex, but in history we’ve had it before. ... I’m not upset, I’m not worried, I’m not nervous. The plant has been around forever, and I think its genetic response will be able to push through. We’ll see how it bounces back the next few weeks after it warms up a little bit.”

That’s the beauty of maintaining a pristine baseball cathedral through a Charm City winter. Snow one day will be followed by moderating temperatures that help the thawing commence. Remember the back-to-back blizzards of the 2009 Snowmageddon? Remember the 70-degree temperatures that soon followed?

Mind you, McFadyen is on the lookout for the downside of winter’s wrath. Too much snow, or snow that rests on the field for an extended period, could lead to snow mold, a groundskeeper’s cold-weather foe. If snow remains for two weeks or more, grass is prevented from getting the nutrients it needs in order to flourish. That leaves circular, dead patches among the lush greenness, and means the Orioles grounds crew must work double time once temperatures moderate and the snow melts off.

Even in the dead of winter, it’s all about the grass.

“It’s a living organism, so it needs what we need,” McFadyen says. “It needs water, it needs oxygen, it needs food. Not having the oxygen flow through because the snow is acting as an insulator, could spark disease from it sitting around and being wet.”

Before this week’s snow and cold hit, the grass on the field was starting to take on a decidedly green hue. Even the spots the grounds crew replaced or repaired in October and November - the areas around the infield dirt, the mound, the circle around home plate and the turn areas near first and third bases - are starting to look as green as the rest of the field. That, says McFadyen, is proof this particular strain of grass has what it needs to survive a cold snap.

Still, she’s on guard for whatever the rest of winter might bring. Inclement weather means less access to the field, and, as McFadyen says, “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that Mother Nature always wins. Always.”

With snow blanketing and insulating the field, McFadyen and assistant groundskeepers Nick Rozdilski and Thomas Kirsch beat the storm out of Baltimore bound for San Antonio, Texas, and the annual Sports Turf Managers Association’s 25th annual conference and exhibition. There, a wide array of turn professionals - from parks and recreation departments and high schools to universities and professional sports - convene to learn about agricultural advancements, trade best practices and learn from one another.

“The industry’s finest attend these meetings,” McFadyen says. “You have people that take care of The Mall in Washington, D.C. - turf individuals that have far more to take care of than our 100,000 square feet. We talk about the challenges they see, whether it’s from traffic or events. You hear about new technologies - everything that benefits turf. I get to talk to some really well-known professors who have dedicated their lives to studying turf grass science. It’s really beneficial. I get to sit in some classes and refresh my memory from school.”

McFadyen chuckles at the notion of being thought of as a turf geek, but admits that her background makes such an event infinitely interesting and enjoyable. Remember, she earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Delaware and worked in that school’s Research and Education Center testing pesticides in her home state before joining the Orioles as an assistant groundskeeper in 2001.

“I studied agriculture, so the science of how anything grows is my passion,” she says. “Any time I can hear new ways of doing things, I remember why I’m in this business. I love learning about new things, it kind of puts you on a level playing field. Even though we’re Major League Baseball and we have one of the most beautiful parks in baseball, I go through the same challenge someone at the high school level goes through. It’s great to trade off stories and find out how they deal, or maybe I need advice from them. It’s a really good association to be a part of. We all help one another.”

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