August 13, 2021
Welcome to Super Secrets, a GOLF.com series where we seek out the heads of the game’s leading superintendents. We hope that not only can we give you a deeper appreciation for their important, innovative work, but we can also give you maintenance tips that you can apply to your own little paradise by shedding light on how course maintenance teams go about their craft. Have fun gardening!
Just as the U.S. Capitol is known as the People’s House, the grass around it is known as the People’s Lawn. It covers approximately 71 acres, including a recently re-landscaped parcel on the west side of the Capitol. While the renovation of this patch was carried out in consultation with the United States Golf Association, Mike Naas is the man in charge of lawn maintenance all year round. As a former vice superintendent at Carlisle Country Club, Pennsylvania, Naas is the lawn maintenance manager of the Architect of the Capitol, the government agency that serves Congress and the Supreme Court by looking after the landmarks and buildings on Capitol Hill. It’s a demanding job, but no one has ever said gardening is easy. We asked Naas to tell us what folk lawn care had taught him and what lessons there might be for those of us who tend smaller plots at home. [Eds.note: Naas declined to respond to questions on what impact the Jan. 6 riots had on the turf around the Capitol.]
Choosing the right lawn
6 creative ways golf courses are fighting pests, say the superintendents
Just as there are horses for courses, there are different grasses for different soils. Two key factors in choosing a type of lawn are where you live and how you plan to use your lawn. Where warm climates require grasses with warm climates, such as Bermuda, Zoysia, or St. Augustine, cool climates are conducive to cool climates such as fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. It’s pretty easy. It gets more difficult, however, in the so-called transition zone, a central part of the country, including Washington DC, where Naas says you get “the best and the worst of both worlds.” Consider the effects on a grass like fescue. In the transition zone, the fescue is beautifully green in spring, autumn and winter, but in summer it can struggle with heat stress and illnesses. In contrast, grass with a warm climate is more likely to thrive in spring, summer, and early fall, but dormant in late fall and winter.
Conclusion: There is no perfect all-year-round offer.
But you can set priorities. The recent renovation around the Capitol planted the western lawn with Tahoma 31, a hardy Bermuda variety that is drought tolerant, low in herbicide, and looks good in summer and fall when the property gets particularly heavy with frequent use.
Naas says many homeowners in the area choose to have fescue reeds in their gardens, which, in his opinion, puts things on the backburner. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t want my grass to turn brown in winter,’” says Naas. “Nevertheless, your grass struggles with brown spots from late June to early September. Those are the months when the family should enjoy the garden. “
Be smart with overseeding
The same practice superintendents use to keep their courses updated throughout the season can also be valuable when it comes to lawn maintenance. The idea is to have two different types of grass next to each other so that when one is asleep the other wakes up and vice versa. Whether or not you choose to overseed will likely depend on a number of factors including your budget, your gardening mood, and how important it is to you to keep your lawn green all year round. This fall, Naas and his crew at the Capitol are planning to replant the western lawn with a shade-tolerant hybrid bluegrass that they hope will do well when Bermuda goes into hibernation. “There are both success and failure stories in the golf and sports world,” says Naas. “We hope to be a success story.”
Knowledge of mowing
As with so much else in lawn care, mowing methods depend in part on the type of grass you have and the use it is being put to. Capitol Lawn attracts millions of visitors each year, much more traffic than the busiest golf course. It also hosts a number of concerts and other events, especially in the summer and fall. In short, the grass never gets much rest. On the renovated west lawn, Naas and his crew mow to 1 1/4 inches. Some of them do not go deeper in order not to hit one of the many anchors in the ground that are used for concert tents. But 1 1/4 inches also falls into the sweet spot for Tahoma 31, which cuts off between 1/2 inch and 1 1/2 inches best. Whatever grass you have, find out about its properties and mow its sweet spot too.
Whether (and when) grind and ventilate
Just as no golfer wants to play on punched and sanded greens, no picnicker wants to plop down on a ventilated lawn. But practice is important to the long-term health of lawns, especially lawns that are compacted from heavy use. In the Capitol, Naas has to choose his seats. If it ventilates at the wrong time, the grass may not recover from all the foot traffic. “If we can do it, we’ll do it,” he says. “If not, we’ll wait.” At some point, however, he can no longer postpone it, and September and the beginning of October are his usual “walking time to pull the plug”.
Stamping and sanding takes time, money, and effort – not the type of project all homeowners take on. Whatever your stance, Naas recommends taking this page out of his Capitol playbook: “Use Organics, Plaster of Paris, and Wetting Agents.” Organic material, he says, will nourish your lawn and improve the structure of the soil. Plaster of paris helps loosen the soil and improve water movement. And wetting agents “make water more humid” and make it easier for the grass to get a healthy drink.
Josh Sens, a golf, food and travel writer, has been with GOLF Magazine since 2004 and now contributes to all GOLF platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also co-author with Sammy Hagar of Are We Have Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.