Michael Stachowicz is a turf expert, the man who helps the National Park Service grow and maintain healthy lawns on the National Mall and guard against the wear and tear that comes from the millions of visitors a year and some 800 sanctioned events.
“We have to protect this iconic landscape,” said Stachowicz, the Park Service’s first full-time turf management specialist.
“Turf is like paint on a house,” he said. “It’s the first thing people see and the first thing people will judge an area on.”
But the long-time traditions that bring festivals, marches and inaugurations to the nation’s capital as well as softball, touch football games and Frisbee players “don’t go well with turf.”
Over the years, everyone from the Park Service to Congress to the public has complained about the bedraggled state of the lawns in the nation’s “front yard.” In 2006, the Park Service began to develop a comprehensive plan for an overhaul that would get and keep the turf as healthy and attractive as possible in the heavily used areas.
The Park Service invested in a high-tech turf and soil system similar to what is used on professional sports fields, and is in the midst of a restoration project that involves landscape architects, engineers and contract managers. Stachowicz is the grass guru, as he is known by some, who has 20 years of experience as a golf course superintendent.
New turf already has been placed on the Mall between 3rd and 7th streets, N.W., and this summer, the Park Service will begin reconstructing additional areas between 7th and 14th streets.
The system includes a four-foot deep drainage system, cisterns that harvest water for irrigation, soil that no longer compacts to a hard-as-a-brick texture that can grow only weeds, and a mix of grasses that can withstand heavy usage.
When Stachowicz started his job on Dec. 31, 2012, he found an operations and maintenance manual on his desk, which he read from cover to cover. The manual compiled best practices from parks around the world, including Central Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago and Hyde Park in London, and focused on the need to protect a cultural resource in what is a well-used urban park.
“I read that and got on board really quickly with what was needed from me,” he said.
Stachowicz relies on the manual to help change Park Service business practices and culture for managing Mall events.
One important new approach is the shift from damage repair to prevention. In the past, according to Stachowicz, the Park Service would lay down new sod on ruined lawns, often getting funding from those who ran the events. But the new sod needs to sit idle for two months and those areas can’t be used by others.
Instead of having lawns under constant repair, the Park Service now is getting more stringent about how events are set up. Stachowicz reaches out to those who use the turf to get them to help sustain it.
For example, most event organizers have been good about moving heavy structures off the lawns and onto nearby gravel strips, some of which have been widened under the project, according to Stachowicz. And, he said, cleat-wearing ball players know they have to be “shut down” every so often.
During grass growing season, turf maintenance is ongoing and includes weekly seeding and monthly aerating.
“You have to be really consistent in treating it to get it to grow and respond,” he said, comparing it to brushing teeth daily rather than once a year. “The amount of things we have to do to keep grass there, given the traffic, is pretty amazing,”
Stachowicz is the “perfect match,” for the new turf job, according to Sean Kennealy, chief of professional services and one of Stachowicz’s managers.
“He’s passionate about what he does,” Kennealy said. “He understands the importance of this place, the Mall, and the monumental core we’re charged to maintain.”
Indeed, Stachowicz, who came here from Boston, is awed by a city that, before he applied for his new job, he had last visited during an 8th grade field trip.
“It’s hard not to be inspired by the architecture and the property,” he said. “There’s a sense of civic engagement that goes along with it.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.