Blossom Music Center’s noted lawn area makes it a landmark

Tens of thousands of concertgoers enjoy the Blossom Music Center lawn throughout the summer.
Photos by Roger Mastroianni.

Without a doubt, the favorite picnic ground in Ohio is the lawn at the Blossom Music Center. Every summer, guests from all over the Great Lakes area flock to Blossom, located in Cuyahoga Falls, to listen to the Cleveland Orchestra’s summer program, to attend rock concerts or to groove to the sounds of country artists.

Yet, it is other features, including grass-roofed structures and the sweeping beauty of the lawn in front of the pavilion, that makes Blossom a landmark.

“The image of the iconic stage shell and the view across the lawn captivates people,” says Mary Ann Makee, director of facilities management and operations for the Musical Arts Association. MAA is the parent organization of the Cleveland Orchestra, Blossom Music Center and Severance Hall.

What actually goes into the turf mix that makes the lawn at Blossom such a rich experience?

“It is a mixture of annual rye, Kentucky bluegrass and fescues,” says Ron Tynan, general manager of Blossom Music Center. He is an employee of Live Nation, which manages the facilities and oversees operations for the MAA. In the past, MAA did its own management of the turf, but eventually decided they preferred to focus on music and let the day-to-day operations go to someone in the business, Makee says.

Blossom Music Center consists of 780 acres, with about 197 in the lawn and other developed areas. The lawn space in front of the pavilion itself is about 4 acres. With such heavy public use of the lawn, all parties are well aware that their every move is under public scrutiny.

“We have a formal agreement detailing the expectations,” Makee says. “They are the day-to-day site managers, and we are the owners. The arrangement has worked really well,” she adds. If there are major capital projects, like the one undertaken recently to bring the lawn and grounds up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements, then MAA takes charge.

Tynan has been at Blossom for 10 years in several different capacities. A graduate of Kent State University in recreation and sport management, he has overall responsibility for operation and maintenance of the facility.

There are regularly monthly meetings with MAA, Makee, Live Nation and Tynan to update situations. Practices are reviewed annually. “We create a checklist of items for each of the monthly meetings and ask Live Nation to follow up on them,” Makee explains.

A key point she likes to emphasize is MAA’s desire to reduce its carbon footprint. “We give a lot of consideration to the environment,” Makee says. One way is replacing higher-maintenance turf areas with wildflowers. Ohio Prairie Nursery Group (OPNG) manages the plantings, and also does the annual burns required for the wildflowers to thrive.

Grass roof growing

Some features of the Blossom Music Center might escape notice by the casual observer. One of the more remarkable features is the grass-roofed backstage building. Just as the orchestra is on the cutting edge of music, so too the architectural design at Blossom was on the cutting edge when a grass roof was specified by architect Peter van Dijk as part of the overall design.

“It was way ahead of its time,” Makee says. In fact, the grass roofs are so far ahead of their time that they have lived their useful life and are scheduled for replacement and expansion in about two years.

“They specified grass roofs to maintain the natural setting,” Tynan says. With the huge ocean of grass that comprises the lawn, the top of the building fit right in to the overall look and feel of the place.

The roof, Tynan notes, is low maintenance, and that maintenance is low-tech. “There is some occasional trimming,” he says. “Mowing is done with a push mower.”

The grass roof is on the “house left” side of the pavilion. As currently presented, it sits behind an area with refreshment concessions and a series of several wood buildings that serve as restrooms. Although the wooden structures do blend with the surroundings, the concessions grab the eye abruptly.

In about two years, that will be gone. Preliminary designs say most of the buildings will disappear underground and more grass roofs will appear. The restrooms and the refreshment stands will be sunken into the ground and covered with natural grass, Makee says.

“A gentle contour will roll down the hill, and there will be different sight lines in that area,” she continues. Landscape lighting will be installed to help the entire area blend into the feeling of one large, expansive lawn.

Emily’s Garden was opened in 1992 to commemorate Emily Blossom’s many contributions to Blossom Music Center.

The main lawn

Anyone who has been in northeastern Ohio for any time will recognize the lawn.

The actual mixture of grass varieties on the lawn varies from place to place around the grounds, depending on the degree of shade (Blossom has many areas with trees) or the amount of foot traffic. The site sees a lot of walking from garden to garden, up and down the lawn, from picnic area to pavilion. The lawn regularly is completely blanketed with picnic cloths.

The plans for the lawn require a lawn seed mix of 45 percent 98/95 bluegrass, 25 percent creeping red fescue, 5 percent perennial ryegrass, 15 percent Park or Merit Kentucky bluegrass and 10 percent Boreal or Pennlawn red fescue.

The main Blossom lawn is mowed a minimum of twice a week. “It depends on the show schedule and weather,” Tynan explains.

The height of the grass depends both on the anticipated weather and the volume of guests that are expected. Typically, they maintain the grass at a cut height of 3 to 3.25 inches. “For some shows we mow as low as 2.5 inches,” he adds.

While the schedule is more aggressive than the typical lawn, it is somewhat short of the program on a golf course fairway. Still, the grass is being taxed, and the crew needs a solid fertility program to keep it healthy.

“We fertilize at least four times a year, with additional applications depending on season,” Tynan says. Key parts of the fertility program include applications made both spring and fall. However, unlike some highly managed turf stands, Blossom is not spoon-fed through the summer, even though it is the busiest time of year.

Materials are provided by TruGreen, which provides its natural commercial products on the site. In addition, Tynan applies lime once a year at the beginning of each season. It all adds up to a solid, lush stand of grass for the summer concert season.

“We know we can’t control the weather,” Makee acknowledges. The rock concerts, run by Live Nation, generally get larger and more active crowds. “By mutual agreement, if there is a rock concert and it causes damage to the turf, they have to have the lawn ready for the orchestra the next day.”

There is no question that presents challenges. Many times it has been so bad that repairs required new sod to be rolled out. Where sod is used, the mixture is 50 percent Kentucky bluegrass, 20 percent tall type fescue, and 30 percent perennial ryes. The design specs call for commercially grown sod to be strongly rooted, healthy, mature and not less than two years old. Soggy turf caused by rain is a more frequent problem. Often, straw is used to help with drying.

Tynan also has a chip product that serves as a ground cover in this sort of situation and works well. “It’s a lot like the bentonite drying materials they use on baseball fields,” he explains. The only problem he has with it is the reddish color. Since he is drying turf, he would like to find the material in green so it matches the grass.

While too much water can be a challenge, too little is also a problem. Irrigation serves much of the Blossom property, and Makee says the system is a combination of jets and pop-ups. “The irrigation was installed in phases and improved as the systems available improved.”

The irrigation was installed by Excel Landscaping & Sprinkler Systems in Tallmadge, Ohio.

While irrigation helps management, other things present challenges: most concerts have rehearsals or sound-check programs so the performers can get a feel for the acoustics of the place. That means the grounds crew must mow at different times of the day.

“We change schedules so as not to bother guests or performers,” Tynan says. “It depends on rehearsals and other on-site activities.”

The lawn at Blossom is notoriously insect-free. “We use a grub application once a year,” Tynan says. Other than that, they spray for insect control depending on weather and the concert schedule. There are no materials applied for diseases.

Major upgrade

In 2003, a major redevelopment was done on the grounds, with special attention paid to blending the Blossom grounds into the natural landscape and adjacent Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“The image of the iconic stage shell and the view across the lawn captivates people,” says Mary Ann Makee, director of facilities management at Blossom.

The flower beds are a key accent point for the Blossom Music Center. Over 1,000 new trees of 20 varieties, thousands of perennial flowers and woody shrubs, and tens of thousands of resilient ground cover plants were installed throughout the grounds. Two existing gardens were upgraded, and a new garden was added. The three gardens include walking paths and benches.

The flower beds are edged, but that is the only edging that is done in the bed area, Tynan says.

The team does mulch. “We mulch every other year with touch-ups through the season as needed,” Tynan says. There are practical motives for the edging and mulching, as they serve several purposes including aesthetics, weed control and keeping the mowers away from the trees on the site.

The Frank E. Joseph Garden was opened in 1970. Named in honor of the president of the Musical Arts Association at the time of Blossom’s construction and opening, it was relocated next to the Eells Gallery, an art gallery selected and displayed by Kent State University that regularly features local artists. Emily’s Garden, opened in 1992 to commemorate Emily Blossom’s many contributions to Blossom Music Center, is now located in the center of Smith Plaza. The Herbert E. Strawbridge Garden, named in memory of Musical Arts Association trustee and civic leader Herb Strawbridge, was added in 2003 and located next to the information and merchandise center in Smith Plaza.

“Harold Lecy is our gardener. He carries out and supervises all maintenance to the gardens on the property,” Tynan says. Lecy is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in horticulture, however his background goes much deeper than his academic ties.

Lecy had worked on the original Blossom family estate in Lyndhurst, Ohio, for 13 years. He came to Blossom in 1996. The Blossom Music Center is named for the family of Dudley S. Blossom, who served as president of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1936 to 1938. Blossom maintains a small gardening crew on the grounds on a daily basis throughout the summer who report to Lecy.

“We also have a full maintenance and grounds crew that carries out the mowing, trimming and other grounds upkeep,” Tynan says. Charles Grell is the maintenance manager who oversees that team. He has been in the department for six years.

Tynan notes that the gardens are all perennials and set as a formal garden with stone walks for guests to meander before concerts.

“There are over 150 varieties of perennials,” Tynan says. The native species have not been neglected, either, as wildflowers are abound on the property.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., landscape architects, redesigned several turf areas to low-maintenance, low-input wildflower areas. “They did a lot of wonderful things,” Makee notes.

“It is an ongoing goal to maintain the natural setting of the venue,” Tynan says. For example, he notes that the area around the main entrance is now planted to wildflowers.

“We are very sensitive to public impressions and feelings,” Makee says. Each year during the concert season, MAA does surveys of the visitors, and one key question is how the public feels about the lawn.

“People just love the lawn,” Makee concludes, “It’s an acoustically bright, inviting place to hear music.”

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Turf. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.