The first buck I made, and it was exactly one dollar for a full afternoon’s work, was for raking leaves.
Some 60 years later, I regularly drive by that same lawn in Bedford, surrounding a storied 18th-century tavern, and easily recall the pattern we raked — always starting under the huge chestnut tree, then over to the stone wall — and how empowering it felt to make 25 cents an hour.
The public school campus, for grades 1-12, was directly across the street. On early October afternoons, the school janitors piped the radio broadcast of the World Series into the PA system, and the play-by-play would echo through the schoolyard and waft across to where we raked, allowing us to suffer the heroics of Mantle, Maris, Boyer, Richardson, Ford, et al, as we worked.
The early-'60s Yankees were mighty and magical, while the Red Sox were the reason as kids we spent warm October afternoons raking leaves for two bits an hour.
Most of us take our green spaces for granted, including those of us who first scratched out our first pennies from green, craggy New England lawns. Some of the most vivid memories of our childhood come from the playgrounds and ball fields where we first kicked a soccer ball, slipped our first tackle, or saw the grounder trickle through our legs (Arggh!) for the winning run in the ninth.
“One of the best parts of being a groundskeeper,” said Dave Mellor, the longtime overseer of all that grows at the emerald jewel that is Fenway Park, “is being behind the scenes to help people create memories in whatever field you’re involved in.”
Two years ago, Stonyfield, the yogurt company based in Londonderry, N.H., devised its “Play Free” initiative aimed at helping US cities make their recreation spaces and ball fields herbicide- and pesticide-free. “Organics” is the Stonyfield mantra.
Since 2018, the yogurt folks have doled out more than $2 million in “Play Free” grants to municipalities, including a recent $5,000 award that the City of Cambridge plans to use to up its organics game at Donnelly Field.
According to Mairead Dunphy, the Stonyfield manager of mission communications, the company’s research found that more than 26 million children in the United States play on fields that, in two of three cases, have been sprayed with pesticides and harmful chemicals.
“And since we are all about organics and sustainability,” she said, “and our cows are out on organic pastures every day, and we are sourcing organic ingredients every day, we need to get involved in communities that need help.”
Donnelly Field is a particularly busy place, according to John Nardone, the city’s deputy commissioner of the public works department. It’s roughly a 4-acre parcel, about half of which is turf, and when the weather warms up, the constant churn of baseball and soccer games place high stress on the lawn.
Per Nardone, virtually all of Cambridge’s fields transitioned to organic practices “at least” 10 years ago. But the Stonyfield grant, he said, offered a welcomed opportunity to explore different methods and approaches to what can be a complex exercise, incorporating such things as fertilizing, cutting, seeding, aerating, dethatching, and myriad other cultural and maintenance practices.
“We feel Donnelly’s been a pretty healthy field,” said Nardone. “In our mind, it’s a great looking field to begin with, but if there are other things we can do, or other things that maybe aren’t as organic as we think they are, that’s where we want to get some technical advice.”
For the technology, Stonyfield calls in Charles “Chip” Osborne, a turf expert from Marblehead, for the hands-in-the-dirt advice.
As for the essential act of raking, well, no one bothered to mention that vital skill. But, hey, such is the life in the groundskeeping game. To be honest, it’s not as if anyone is apt to drive by a ball field and marvel over the organics being employed, the way, say, someone would swoon after seeing the perfect spread Mellor and his gang groom at Fenway.
“No, I can’t imagine that…” said Nardone, now in his 23rd year on the job in Cambridge, “The only time, I guess, is when we have used fertilizer product that has chicken poop in it. So if we have freshly done something with chicken poop, every now and then we’ll get a couple of comments on that.”
Cambridge was Stonyfield’s first “Play Free” foray into the Bay State. According to Dunphy, the company also awarded grants this year to Manchester, N.H., and Portland, Maine. The company has spread its organics as far as Salt Lake City, Houston, and Richmond, Calif. One of next year’s targets: the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
“It’s a passion project for everyone at Stonyfield,” said Dunphy.
Locally, few can challenge Mellor’s fervor for all things green. Fenway’s Master Green Jeans has nearly 40 years of experience in MLB parks and sincerely sympathizes with the challenges, particularly the high-traffic usage issue that a spot like Donnelly Field faces.
“Grass grows by the inch,” he said, recalling the long-ago words of his mentor, George Toma, “and is killed by the foot.”
So tread lightly out there, people, and keep in mind, that with the right organics, things can be greener and safer on the other side of the fence.