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Task at hand: Saving SPAC’s lawn

Task at hand: Saving SPAC’s lawn

The period Aug. 15 to Sept. 15 is a magical time of year, according to David Chinery, turf grass afi
Task at hand: Saving SPAC’s lawn
Pictured is the condition of the lawn at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Aug. 4.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

The period Aug. 15 to Sept. 15 is a magical time of year, according to David Chinery, turf grass aficionado and extension educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

That’s because it’s the ideal time to plant turf grass.

The balmy days and temperate nights also make this a magical time of year to see an open-air show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. SPAC’s online calendar is filled with special events sure to lure people to the venue’s lawn almost daily through mid-September, leaving little time for the grounds crew to nurture the well-worn turf there.

Despite last fall’s intensive efforts to fortify the grass so it would stand up to the hordes of summer concert-goers, SPAC’s lawn is less than lush, with large bare patches plaguing the slope closest to the stage.

It’s a tough problem to solve, but Chinery and other experts had insight to offer.

One possible solution would be to limit the number of people tromping on the turf. That’s what Robert Rotner figures would work.

When the plans for SPAC were drawn up by design company Vollmer Associates in 1966, Rotner was lead architect for the project.

He said the venue was designed with the lawn as a seating area, but not for the massive crowds that can be found dancing there during concerts by popular acts like the Dave Matthews Band.

“In the first 10 years or so there was never a problem, but the rock concerts have drawn so many more people than were intended to be on that lawn that it was always ripped up after a performance,” he said.

The lawn seating was “designed very specifically for the ballet and for the orchestra,” he said.

Spectators with lawn seats for SPAC’s ballet and orchestral performances are typically fewer in number and tend to be gentler on the grass, often sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets. However, the rowdier crowds that pack the lawn during the rock and country shows booked there by Live Nation help keep the performing arts center afloat by subsidizing the other performances, said Marcia White, SPAC’s executive director.

lawn takes a beating

“We’re a not-for-profit. We don’t get financial support from the city, the county. We get an arts grant and capital improvements from New York state, but our budget is over $8 million and we have to raise the funds. Without the support of our partnership with Live Nation, it would be very difficult to bring the classical performing arts here. We lose a million dollars with the ballet and the orchestra, so it’s incredibly important,” she explained.

Next year, SPAC will celebrate its 50th anniversary and White said she hopes the venue will have another busy season. Unfortunately, that will again leave the lawn with little respite.

White said she has plans to meet with the facilities committee to figure out a new strategy to revive the lawn. Items to be discussed include sod and artificial turf.

White said she’s not sure artificial turf would be something the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation would want to consider.

Chinery, who works out of Cooperative Extension’s Rensselaer office, questioned whether sitting on plastic grass would be a pleasant experience.

Tending artificial turf involves a surprising amount of work, he noted.

“Any litter that’s left there — little bits of anything — never decomposes like it does in a natural turf system, so people that manage those sports fields that are artificial turf have to do a lot of grooming of those — vacuuming and sweeping and so forth,” he said.

Blanketing the lawn with artificial turf would also require a major initial investment, and Chinery said the turf would likely need to be replaced in about 10 years.

When it comes to living ground cover that can stand up to foot traffic, there is no good substitute for regular old turf grass, he said.

He suggested two hardy options:

Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most resilient varieties for foot traffic, is also a spreading grass. When injured, if there is still some viable plant life there, it could spread and fill in again, he said.

Tall fescue doesn’t spread like Kentucky bluegrass, but Chinery said it stands up to foot traffic better than other varieties and likely puts out the biggest and deepest root system.

White said the grounds crew at SPAC last fall used a newly developed hybrid seed to grow a strain of grass advertised to be resilient to foot traffic and shade. The sloping part of the lawn was re-graded and a special blanket was used to help protect the lawn from winter weather.

“Really, at the end of the day, the issue is that there was not enough time for a strong root base to grow because it was a long winter and we had a rainy spring,” White said.

Paving the outdoor seating area would eliminate worries about grass, but White is not entertaining that option.

“Not while I’m here,” she said. “This is a flagship state park. This is one of the most beautiful state parks probably in the country.”

tanglewood’s lawn

Tanglewood, in Lenox, Mass., is another open-air theater with lawn seating. The grass there gets a lot of foot traffic, but the venue does not have as many “popular artist events” as SPAC does, said Bobby Lahart, Tanglewood’s director of facilities. He said bare patches have not been a problem on the lawn.

Tanglewood’s grounds supervisor, Bruce Peeples said taking care of the lawn is a labor-intensive job that includes aerating, reseeding and regular fertilization. The grounds crew uses a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. Mower blades are kept sharp to avoid causing extra trauma to the lawn. The grass is maintained at an inch-and-a-half high and cut three times a week, which helps keep it healthy, Peeples said.

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