U.S. National Park Service officials were looking for a home run when they consulted John Royse, then the head groundskeeper at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, about ways to minimize damage to the National Mall and Memorial Parks grass during large events.
Royse was using panels to cover the Nationals’ turf during a concert featuring Elton John and Billy Joel. Among other things, park service officials wanted to know how long the grass would stay green under the panels without any sunlight hitting it.
Royse fielded the question and ran with it — all the way to Virginia Tech.
“There is little scientific data on this topic,” Royse said. “We needed a university to research that question.”
Royse left his job to do the research himself. In 2010, he started work on a master’s degree in crop and soil environmental sciences under the supervision of Erik Ervin, a professor of turfgrass culture and physiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Virginia Tech Department of Athletics and the U.S. National Park Service funded Royse’s research.
The existing panels blocked sunlight from the ground, resulting in dead, brown grass after a few days. Re-establishing damaged grass after a major event is timely and expensive and may not be successful.
Royse had an idea from his childhood days when and his brother played wiffleball under backyard lights at night. “Why not put lights on the panels to keep the grass healthy?” he thought.
Before coming to Virginia Tech, he built a series of panels embedded with LED lights and tested them on a simulated stage in his wife’s back yard. LED lights continued photosynthesis, he said.
Royse’s research at the university evaluated four panels and the impact of lights when the grass was covered for up to 20 days in the spring, summer, and fall.
Different light, temperatures, and soil moisture yielded different conclusions, he said. Some covers provided greater protection in summer heat and color retention in all seasons.
But there was one constant: Grass did not do well under unlit panels in any season. Though grass under translucent panels survived up to 12 days in an open field, those panels did not work under stages with limited light.
Grass under lighted panels lasted up to 20 days before the grass lost its color. Panels with LED lights seemed the best solution, he said.
The research also showed that too much light during the summer months could create heat stress, causing the grass to turn brown. “The proper amount of light is crucial,” Royse said.
“John’s motivation and entrepreneurial spirit came together during his experience at Virginia Tech,” Ervin said. “This resulted in an excellent set of turf protection recommendations for the National Mall and the invention of a new product to keep turf grasses photosynthesizing even while covered.”
While in graduate school, Royse put his panel system to the ultimate test: a concert stage at a major league baseball field.
“The grass was perfectly green,” Royse said. He found the lit panels also protected the turf before, during, and after public events, minimizing damage to the playing surface.
Europeans have already discovered the advantages of using artificial light on sports fields to keep the grass green in the winter, he said.
“Now, we have an American product, and we can throw some rock ‘n’ roll into it,” Royse said.
He awaits a patent on his invention. Royse graduated from Virginia Tech in 2012 and is hoping the National Park Service will either rent or buy his panels. And there are countless other applications for his product, including other professional sports arenas that want to hold events without damaging their sports fields, he said.
Royse said he created his niche.
“I’m in a place where I can make my own opportunities,” he said.
The Virginia Tech Turfgrass Research Center is the focal point for field research efforts for the departments of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Entomology, Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science. It serves as an outdoor teaching laboratory for undergraduates, graduate students, and Virginia Cooperative Extension outreach efforts.
“The center is where research and Extension come together,” said Mike Goatley, professor and Extension turf specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It’s a teaching laboratory and a place where we teach short courses.”
The site has about 20 acres of maintained turfgrass, including warm- and cool-season species.
Lane Stadium's Worsham Field isn’t one large field of grass but is many smaller ones.
The playing surface is covered with an innovative, natural grass system. Created by GreenTech ITM of Richmond, Va., the modular system relies on 4,224 4-by-4-foot trays of sod positioned on pedestals above an asphalt base. The drainage system can handle up to 16 inches of rain an hour.
Turfgrass specialists in the College of Agriculture and Life Science work closely with the Athletics Department to develop turf management strategies to help ensure the best playing surfaces possible.
The sod tolerates Blacksburg’s cold temperatures and a mowing height of 3/4 of an inch, which makes for a fast playing surface.
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