Grass-Roots Communication

For sports turf maintenance, there’s a lot of handy information for those in the field

By Stacy St. Clair

The high-school turf managers felt a tad unworthy. Here they were at an annual conference, standing within mere feet of field maintenance royalty. Within arm's reach were managers from Qualcomm Park in San Diego, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Seattle's Safeco Field. There was even a representative from Chicago's Wrigley Field, where the ivy-covered walls serve as the sport's greatest testimonial to the importance of a good groundskeeping crew.

These were the people who oversaw some of the most visible and cherished baseball diamonds in the world. The knowledge they possess would be invaluable to a small-town high-school groundskeeper.

But no one dare ask the kings to impart words of wisdom. In fact, most were too afraid to even approach the Big League guys with questions about field aesthetics, mowing tips and weed control. They figured their problems and questions would be of little concern to the industry elite.

They were wrong. At the urging of the Suz Trusty of the Sports Turf Managers Association, the high-school groundskeepers introduced themselves to their professional sports counterparts.

The MLB crew greeted them warmly and answered countless questions. There would be no caste system in place during the association's annual conference. A field maintenance headache at a Major League ballpark was given the same importance as a problem on a Pop Warner gridiron.

"It's not unusual to see a high-school turf manager talking with some of the [Major League] baseball people," Trusty says. "The baseball guys take a problem on the high-school field as seriously as they would a professional one. They want to help."

Once they overcame their initial shyness, the high-school groundskeepers learned the greatest—and refreshingly unique—thing about turf managers: Turf managers, in general, are one of the most helpful and generous groups in the recreation industry.

These professionals go out of their way to help each other achieve the perfect playing fields. They're always willing to lend advice on improving safety, beating tight budgets, enhancing aesthetics and enriching the environment.

"They kind of have to be because of the very nature of their job," says Eric Grammer, communications manager for the Professional Grounds Management Society. "There's a whole lot more to the profession than mowing grass."

Turf managers have myriad responsibilities. One minute they'll be handling fleet management, the next they'll be tracking a nasty storm as it moves toward their facilities.

They have to be amateur botanists who understand why certain weeds pop up where and when they do. They also have to be armchair chemists, who know how to find a pesticide that will do its job without hurting the environment.

And, darn it, that field better look beautiful come game time.

Turf managers, in short, are expected to know it all. That's why they turn to each other when they have trouble finding the answers.

"It has been that way since I entered the field," says Doug Karcher, an assistant horticulture professor at the University of Arkansas, who has been working in the field as both an instructor and a consultant for 15 years. "Most of these guys don't view themselves as competitors."

As such, it's not unusual for a golf-course groundskeeper to telephone a friend at a nearby club and ask how he's battling a troublesome weed. An increasing number of groundskeepers also are turning to professional organizations and the Internet to seek advice from a national network of experts.


Caring for Artificial Turf is a Real Job

Some worry turf managers' jobs are being threatened by the increasing popularity of artificial turf.

It simply isn't so.

The managers know that synthetic grass requires real care, too. That's why national groundskeepers associations and societies have expanded their focus to include the maintenance of artificial surfaces.

Truth be told, those who deal with artificial grass may actually need more peer support than their real-turf counterparts. The industry is changing rapidly, with more and more facilities opting for the synthetic stuff.

The recreation world has become more accepting of artificial grass after the industry introduced a new type of turf with improved rubber and sand infills. This next generation, which has been installed at several NFL and college stadiums, has more give and seems more like natural grass than its predecessor.

Now a growing number of school districts and parks departments are turning toward the product, too, as a way to increase programming abilities. A natural high-school football field often can only be used a dozen times each season. An artificial turf, however, can withstand the pounding of hundreds of students, all day, everyday—with the right upkeep, of course.

And that's where the turf managers' networking comes in. More than ever, the groundskeepers are relying upon each other for advice on how to care for the fields and keep them in pristine condition.

One of the best ways to do this is by simply sharing success stories. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, has found a winning formula for its new soccer complex, which opened in August.

The facility, home to nationally ranked men's and women's squads, was one of the first college soccer complexes in the country. While in the design stage, the athletic department made the daring decision to use artificial turf.

Though fake grass long has been considered taboo in the soccer world, it recently has become the vogue playing surface in Europe. Creighton officials took a gamble, and it seems to have paid off.

"It's very popular there, and it's becoming more accepted here," says Don Barnum, the architect on the project.

When the turf first was installed, the school's maintenance crew dragged and watered the surface everyday. The water was absorbed by a massive drainage system under the pitch, another benefit to the state-of-the-art facility.

The dragging helped smooth the surface out, eliminating some pouches and awkward spots that come with any newly laid carpet. The watering was done to settle the rubber and make it "nice and tight."

It also helped reduce the static cling created by the dragging. The third purpose of watering was to reduce the heat on the field. The black rubber infill under the surface absorbed the sun's heat, often leaving the surface 20 to 30 degrees hotter than the actual temperature.

The initial maintenance took two to two-and-a-half hours a day. It actually required more man-hours than Tranquility Park, the municipally owned field where Creighton's soccer teams used to play.

"It certainly wasn't dragged and watered everyday," says Steve Brace, an assistant athletic director at the university.

In time, care of the Creighton pitch became less intensive. Maintenance crews eventually reduced their dragging and watering to one or two times per week. When the weather became too cold, they stopped watering for the season.

"The more they play on it, the better it gets," Barnum says. "It gets more packed in. At one point, the coach asked that it not be watered because the ball was playing so well. He wanted it to play the same way for the next game."

The athletic department was happy with the surface, too.

"For a first-year facility, we were very, very pleased with the field and the quality of play," Brace says.

The field isn't the only part of the complex that needs groundskeepers' attention. A tiered seating section also has been created with the help of artificial turf.

Architects opted for the unique design, rather than the traditional grass slope, and it has paid off. The section gives fans a rare opportunity to watch a game on the same type of surface as the teams use.

"It's neat for people to realize they're sitting on the same surface that the players are playing on," Brace says.

The soccer fanatics, however, give the open seating section a harder pounding than the soccer players. They eat on the turf, often spilling drinks and leaving food crumbs. They sometimes track in dirt and leave the area messier than they found it.

After games, the maintenance crews must hose down the area because a vacuum could harm the infill. The water is absorbed through a drainage system underneath the turf.

The section is so popular, officials feel it will be worn out much more quickly than the pitch. The picnics—coupled with fans who sit in one place for an extended period of time—eventually will take their toll.

"That surface is probably going to need to be replaced sooner than the one we play on," Brace says.

The complex is slated to be fully completed by this fall. The finished product will be a soccer lover's dream, with locker rooms, offices, chairback seating, luxury suites, picnic areas and several other amenities.

"It was a great year for us," Brace says. "It's going to be even better when we finish it."


The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, for example, created a task force dedicated solely to turf management issues. The committee—which consists of both administrators and maintenance industry representatives—aims to provide information on new products and improving field safety.

"There's a whole lot more to the profession than mowing grass."

The information is critical to athletic directors, the majority of whom have education and coaching backgrounds but find themselves with field maintenance responsibilities. The association helps make the job easier with committee recommendations and an Internet site with an "Ask the Experts" section. Most importantly, the panel offers advice on how to maintain an attractive, safe field without breaking the bank.

"The people on the committee are aware of the tight budgets that most school districts face," says Bruce Whitehead, a former athletic director who now works for the NIAAA. "They're always trying to show them what they can do."

Other turf managers share their expertise through associations and professional societies. The national organizations' local chapters offer an opportunity to meet other groundskeepers and swap advice. There also are annual conferences where managers can discuss their problems and share their concerns with colleagues from across the country.

The recent Sports Turf Managers Association conference, for example, had a variety of seminars, ranging from weeds to cold weather care to dealing with the media. Attendees also tackled subjects such as working smarter, using reclaimed water and managing native soil.

"The activity that takes place on the playing field is so abusive, it takes a great deal of knowledge and expertise to take care of fields," Trusty says. "That's why our members are always willing to help each other out."

More and more, they're helping each other out on the Internet on a daily basis. Most associations—including STMA and NIAAA—have Web site forums where turf managers can post questions and make recommendations. There are also weed databases and other field maintenance studies available online.

The vast electronic resources have made life much easier for the professionals. There's no more waiting until the morning to research a newly sprouted weed at the local library or calling for a reference on the latest mowing equipment.

"The new generation of turf managers rely on it a lot more than the veterans," Karcher says. "It helps me keep abreast of what's going on in the field."

While some have criticized the Internet for the erosion of personal relationships, industry experts say it has only strengthened the already tight bond among turf managers.

"There's still a lot of phone calls back and forth," Trusty says. "The Internet isn't lessening the relationships. It's making them stronger."


Site Lines

Need to know how to eliminate that pesky weed once and for all? Want advice before you purchase a new mower? Just need a buddy to commiserate with about turf troubles?

The Internet has become the turf manager's best friend in recent years. There are a multitude of forums in which to post questions and offer advice. It's also a great place to meet field maintenance workers from around the world. Cyber friendship is a fabulous way for meeting like-minded colleagues who can share tricks of the trade and serve as sympathetic sounding boards.

HERE ARE 10 GREAT SITES TO CHECK OUT:

www.turfnet.com

An excellent resource for golf superintendents. Its myriad offerings include employment opportunities, an active members forum and a product rating section. In a recent forum, a course superintendent described how he had lost more bearings this year than ever before. An engineer told him if the water is constantly oxygenated to keep the bacteria alive, it could cause more rust. Registration is required to access most areas on the site.

www.ngf.org/cgi/home.asp

The National Golf Foundation Web site offers extensive industry research. The site boasts important studies on declining round play in 2003 as well as advice on how to improve the bottom line. The foundation page also includes instruction on obtaining the Turf Brand Share Report, which details what equipment facilities are using now and what they plan to buy in the future.

www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/plants.html

Featuring an online plant dictionary run by Ohio State University, the site aims to provide information about various plant, pests and diseases. Registration required in certain areas.

www.ntep.org

The National Turf Evaluation program provides information and test results for all turf species. Studies can be used to determine if a cultivar is well adapted to a local area or level of turf maintenance. A new feature allows users to download information by state.

http://turf.lib.msu.edu

The Turfgrass Information Center, a partnership between Michigan State University and the U.S. Golf Association, touts itself as the most comprehensive collection of educational materials in the industry. Its primary database has more than 76,000 records alone. A subscriber fee is required.

http://ace.orst.edu/info/exonet

Known as EXTOXNET, the site provides extensive information on pesticides. Pesticide profiles include extensive information about environmental fates, ecological effects and toxicological impacts. It also provides an index of the pesticide industry's latest news and advancements.

www.uoguelph.a/gti/index.html

The Guelph Turf Grass Institute has a user-friendly bulletin board that allows grounds workers a chance to sound off. The board includes a jobs section for both available and wanted employment. There's also a buy and sell board.

www.weedalert.com

As its name suggests, the site offers alerts about weeds wreaking havoc across the country. The pertinent information is broken down by geographic region. In addition to providing warnings about current pests, the site offers solutions and germination dates. To combat annual bluegrass, for example, preemergent applications should be performed in the fall and spring to prevent germination.

www.irrigation.com

The Irrigation Association offers advice on the practices and products used to manage water resources. Topics include conservation, drainage, improvement and recovery of water.

www.uark.edu/camp-resources/turf/turflink.html

Designed by Douglas Karcher, an assistant horticulture professor at the University of Arkansas, the page offers links to every turf management site available. There's a listing of professional associations, commercial pages, even weather tracking sites. Skip Google and visit this page first.



Doing It the Old-Fashion Way

The Internet isn't the only way to keep on top of the turf-grass industry. Professional associations and societies still offer great ways to keep up with the latest advancements and meet fellow groundskeepers.

HERE ARE THREE TO CONSIDER:


Sports Turf Managers Association

The organization formed in 1981 when a group of sports turf managers decided sports fields could be improved through the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of ideas. The group's major focus for 2004 is promoting the marketing plan designed to improve the profession's image. The association aims to create awareness that its members are experts on the field and partners in the game. The association also has the SAFE Foundation—The Foundation for Safe Athletic Field Environments—that provides scholarships for industry research.

The STMA can be reached at 800-323-3875 or visit www.sportsturfmanager.com.


Professional Grounds Management Society

Unlike associations, the Professional Grounds Management Society concentrates on promoting individuals rather than the industry at-large. The majority of members are institutional grounds managers who work for organizations such as parks districts, colleges, municipalities and theme parks. The society contends its greatest benefit to members is the ability to meet other members. Its network of local branches gives members an opportunity to socialize and talk shop on a regular basis. Its nationally recognized certification program is rapidly becoming an industry requirement.

For more information about the society, call 800-609-PGMS. Details also are available online at www.pgms.org.


National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association

While not solely dedicated to field maintenance, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association tackles many important turf issues. It has to. Athletic directors often double as turf managers or at least overseen them. The organization's turf advisory committee—which is made up of both administrators and commercial partners—aims to teach athletic directors how to improve their fields while minimizing the risk to athletes. The group's sports turf advisory committee holds seminars for administrators and helps perform renovations on facilities.

For more information about the association, call 317-972-6900 or visit www.niaaa.org.




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