Orioles’ McFadyen on Growing KY Blue in Transition Zone

MaFadyen PictureNicole McFadyen can’t imagine life without a close connection to baseball. Growing up in New Castle, Delaware, she was a tomboy who enjoyed all sports. But she zeroed in on baseball after playing outfielder for her high school team and first base for her community college team, before transferring to the University of Delaware to earn a degree in agriculture.

“Once I got into my agriculture studies, I quickly realized my interest was in plant science and turf management,” says McFadyen, who graduated in 2001. “I worked on a golf course a few years during college, but I always knew sports turf management was more up my alley.”

After stints as assistant groundskeeper at the Baltimore Orioles and head groundskeeper at the Minor League Trenton Thunders ballpark, McFadyen returned to the Baltimore Orioles in late 2006 as head groundskeeper. She holds the record as only the second female head groundskeeper of a Major League Baseball field in the country.

Apart from the challenges of being a woman in a traditionally male field, McFadyen’s biggest hurdle is growing two acres of Kentucky bluegrass smack in the middle of the Transition Zone.

“I arm myself with anything and everything to get it through the season,” says McFadyen. “It’s better to manage cool-season grass through two and a half months of hot weather than to struggle through one of our tough, cold winters with warm-season grass.”

Turf Management Tricks

But McFadyen has a few tricks up her sleeve for managing that Kentucky bluegrass.  For starters, she takes data tests twice a day and root-depth tests weekly, from March through November. In summer months, she adds a canopy temperature test to ensure the turf plant hasn’t overheated. During the off-season she dials back data tests to once or twice a week.

“The turf plant is a living thing and you want to make sure it keeps living!” she explains. “We take data tests at random spots to measure soil temperature, once in the morning and once in late afternoon. The tests show us how much change there’s been and help us determine our irrigation demands.

“Kentucky bluegrass only likes temperatures of 85 degrees and below,” notes McFadyen. “When soil temperatures get really hot, the turf root system starts cutting its supply…It’s a self-defense mechanism and a natural instinct of the plant.”

McFadyen’s root depth tests are particularly revealing. “In warm weather, the turf grows closer to top layer so it can benefit from quick rains, whereas roots stay deeper during cooler temperatures,” she adds. “Our root depth tests allow us to manage water and nutrients so the plant has all it needs to get through both hot and cold days.”

Once temperatures reach 55 degree F. for three consecutive days, McFadyen begins her fertility program. Every two weeks throughout the growing season, she makes a granular application of nitrogen and potassium, followed a few days later with a liquid micronutrient package. For seven years now, she’s used a five-product package from Macro-Sorb Technologies to give turf “that extra push” and facilitate green-up.

Liquid Micronutrient Package

The liquid package includes:

  • Macro-Sorb® Foliar to increase stress tolerance and improve photosynthetic capacity
  • Macro-Sorb Radicular to enhance root mass production
  • Quelent® Ca for readily available calcium
  • Quelent® K for increased potassium
  • Quelent® Minors for additional micronutrients

“When I first started as an intern at the Orioles back in 2001, they were using these products,” notes McFadyen. “The groundskeeper before me saw a great response and swore by the package. I took the program to New Jersey with me and continued using the package after returning to the Orioles. Applying all five products together as a package — with a little added iron — gives us the best output.”

From the picture window in her office behind the right-field fence, McFadyen views  everything happening on the field. Mowing, spraying, painting and all turf activities fall under her strict scrutiny. But in addition to her data tests and technology, she relies on visual observation of the turf. She can definitely see the grass green up after her liquid package application.

“Looking at the field and being out in it every day, I see the response,” she adds. “You can also see it after cutting when you lop off the tired part of the turf plant. Once we go through a ten-game home stand and the plants are starting to stress a bit, we can give it a jump with the Maco-Sorb package and it looks better right away.”

McFadyen mows at 1-1/4-inch all season long. With a stadium that seats 48,000 and sell-out crowds for many games, she relies on her crew of 26 fulltime, in-season employees to keep the 23-year-old field and facility ship-shape. They irrigate on an as-needed basis and try to pull out the tarps only when necessary.

Still, McFadyen wields a lot of power at the ballpark. “I provide input whenever I can when it comes to rain delays or canceling a game, but it’s ultimately up to the ownership,” she says. “Any torrential thunderstorm has to be taken seriously since there’s a lot at stake….not only for the fans, but for the players and ground staff, as well.”

Fortunately, the biggest storm to hit the area — Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — struck during post-season when no games were scheduled. It was particularly lucky for McFadyen. “I got married three days after Sandy, so my attention was elsewhere at the time,” she jokes.

This article originally appeared on the May 2015 issue of SportsTurf

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