From The Ground Up
How Grounds Maintenance Professionals Keep Moving Forward
In Ames, Iowa, it's the day before a big Iowa State home football game against a conference rival. Players are likely running plays in their heads and readying for their pre-game rituals. Fans might be planning tailgate parties or laying out their Cyclones apparel. And Tim Van Loo is walking around Jack Trice Stadium thinking about soil moisture. "Friday night before a Saturday game I'll try to shoot for a certain moisture percentage, so I'll either irrigate that night or not irrigate, depending on where my soil moisture is."
Van Loo is director of facilities and grounds at Iowa State University, and he's also the current president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). He's discussing the benefits of new technologies as they apply to turf management. "Moisture sensors are huge; we bought ours in 2012 and it completely changed how we irrigate." He added that up until then, they were using ET (evapotranspiration) as an indicator. But now, using TDR (time-domain reflectometry), they know exactly what every field's wilting point and saturation point is as they strive to find that perfect balance.
Van Loo is one soldier in an army of grounds workers across the United States who are dedicated to providing a safe surface for athletes to play and practice on, whether it's at a professional soccer stadium or a Little League baseball field. Their foes can include limited resources and budgets, use and abuse of their facilities, and, the most formidable and unpredictable of all—Mother Nature.
The STMA was formed in 1981 and currently boasts more than 2,600 members. Their mission is to "advance professionalism in sports field management and safety through education, awareness programs and industry development." They offer continuing education, scholarships, grant programs and various awards. "Our membership consists of any level of athletic field manager, so K-12 schools, parks and recreation, colleges and universities, professional level—anybody that has their hand on any kind of athletic field could be a member," Van Loo said. "We have members that operate polo grounds, grass tennis courts, even horse racing venues that operate on grass."
The STMA's annual Conference and Exhibition will be held in January 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas, and Van Loo said it's a hallmark of the association. "Our education is as top-notch as we can make it. We have a lot of practitioners and academics that speak, and really it's all about creating the safest playing surfaces we possibly can for the athletes."
He added that networking is really big, and he believes that the STMA has no egos. "There aren't any secrets; if you have a question for an NFL guy, and you're a K-12 guy, that NFL guy has no problem telling you exactly what he does and why he does it."
Indeed, networking can be very helpful, especially since grounds and turf managers tend to wear so many different hats. Joe Kovolyan, manager of grounds at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., described some of their duties: "My staff and I maintain all trees, shrubs, grounds, athletic fields, irrigation, landscape installs and designs, solid waste, motor pool and snow and rain storm response." His crew numbers 12, plus six to eight student workers who help throughout the year. Some of the employees have specialized areas, such as an athletic field supervisor, an irrigation tech and a grounds supervisor.
Kovolyan is also supervisor of solid waste and automotive manager, plus he's a Certified Arborist. He said he purposely did a lot of different things in the green industry starting in college to see what he liked most, and that broad knowledge has helped him move up in the positions he's held. And he joked about how he gets bored quickly, so this allows him to always be doing something different. "In one week we can be doing a large crane-assisted tree removal, aerate and top-dress a field, spec out a new utility vehicle and be planting our winter annuals."
The University of Puget Sound has a variety of outdoor sports facilities, including baseball and softball fields. But Baker Stadium is the Loggers signature facility, hosting multiple sports, which can present some challenges. "We host men's and women's soccer, cross country and football in the fall; and women's lacrosse, and track and field in the spring. We also hold our commencement on the field along with numerous other events and camps," Kovolyan said. "Our biggest challenge is getting the field back together after football season for spring sports, and then a very short window between spring sports ending and repairing lacrosse goal areas for hosting commencement."
As far as grass, Peyton Field inside Baker Stadium utilizes a ryegrass annual bluegrass mix. "We manage it the best way we can with cultural practices and over-seeding. We do adjust heights for the various sports, depending on the schedule," Kovolyan said.
East Athletic Field, a 90/10 sand-based field, is also used by Logger soccer and lacrosse teams for games and practice. But it had a bad irrigation design, heavy thatch issue and was just plain "beat down." So the existing material was stripped off and it was resurfaced, with adjustments made to the pitch and the root zone mix. A blue/rye un-netted sod mix was brought in from Eastern Washington. "On this side of the mountains they don't tend to use much bluegrass due to the cooler, wetter temps, and they net everything for quicker harvest," Kovolyan said. "It definitely added to the cost, but the field has both played and drained well, including numerous games played during heavy rain events."
As with many schools, Puget Sound also has an artificial turf field used for practices. Kovolyan explained that it's also great for club sports, and its heavy use helps him keep natural grass in the stadium and East Athletic Field. "Due to our extremely rainy seven months, it gives a place for all the different teams to practice regardless of the weather."
The Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), established in 1911, is an international organization with more than 1,000 members. Molly Baldwin-Abbott, director of communications and marketing at PGMS, said that their mission is to unite professional grounds managers and others working in the industry, to promote the dissemination of educational materials and reliable information pertinent to the execution of grounds management functions, and to assist in attaining a high standard of business ethics. College and university grounds managers make up the largest portion of members, which also includes managers working for municipalities, parks and recreation facilities, sports facilities, hotels and resorts, school districts, hospitals, cemeteries and theme parks. Many independent landscape contractors are also members.
A few years ago, Baldwin-Abbott said, they witnessed an increase in memberships of professionals from the same entity, so they created the Institutional Membership category. "This allows the grounds managers and three other grounds professionals from the institution to become members of PGMS. This has become one of the most popular membership types."
PGMS has several certification programs, including the School of Grounds Management Certificate program (SGM), which was developed to provide goal-oriented education opportunities for professional grounds managers attending the annual conference. There's the Certified Grounds Technician program (CGT), for professionals directly involved with performing the day-to-day tasks of grounds maintenance. And the Certified Grounds Manager program (CGM), which is the premier program of its type in the green industry, according to Baldwin-Abbott. "It is a highly coveted designation, and currently 169 grounds professionals have earned this designation."
The annual PGMS Awards Program brings national recognition to grounds maintained with a high degree of excellence, recognizing outstanding landscape design and construction, and the grounds professionals in charge. Grand, Honor, and Merit awards are offered in 15 categories, covering all types of private, public, commercial and industrial landscapes. Baldwin-Abbott said that the program has been steadily gaining prestige and popularity within the grounds community, with more applications being submitted every year.
Christopher Weavil is the assistant director of park operations for the Forsyth County, N.C., Parks and Recreation Department. He's been a CGM and member of PGMS for more than 20 years, and said those experiences have helped him get where he is today. "The experiences I've gained and the networking opportunities that PGMS has provided have been invaluable resources."
The Forsyth County Parks Department is facility-based, providing no programming. "We are basically land, facilities and open space managers. We oversee approximately 2,500 acres of property," Weavil said. The grounds crew consists of 46 full-time and 42 part-time members, which includes some seasonal workers. Weavil explained that they do require two-year horticultural degrees for several of their tech positions, and also prefer applicants with arborist or other trade-specific certifications. "We do provide training and certification opportunities for staff that are interested and willing."
Grounds managers at the parks and recreation level have a wide array of responsibilities. In Forsyth County, they maintain everything from horseshoe pits and a BMX bike track to fishing lakes and dog parks. Weavil listed just some of their responsibilities: mowing, tree care, athletic field maintenance, hike and bike trail maintenance, pool care, line trimming, equipment maintenance, special event setup, trash removal and recycling, disc golf course setup and maintenance, golf course operations, restroom maintenance and the annual Festival of Lights operation. They maintain more than 70 structures and roughly 500 acres of intensively maintained, mature grounds. To accomplish this, they require some "experts" on staff: "We have three Certified Golf Superintendents, two arborists, five Certified Playground Safety Inspectors, seven Certified Pool Operators, and more than 10 NCDA-licensed pesticide applicators," Weavil said.
Back in Iowa, Van Loo explained that he is also responsible for more than just the athletic fields, having to maintain the grounds and landscaping around all the fields and athletic buildings, totaling about 55 acres. And, since Iowa State offers Turf Grass and Horticulture programs, he has his own "farm team." "I'm spoiled because I get to hijack a lot of the kids because they need experience and internships," he said.
Van Loo has five turf majors and one student majoring in horticulture on his staff. "He's my landscaper. And once the season starts, we'll have two landscapers on staff and we'll ramp up to eight turf grass students. I get students that are dedicated to the industry, want to learn this stuff and the good ones really take ownership and start to think for themselves. We've graduated a lot of kids that go off and are really good field managers."
Iowa State has one competition field that's artificial—the soccer field. "That one is artificial because it's in the middle of our Track & Field area, and that's open to the public, so we weren't going to be able to keep people off the field," Van Loo said. He explained that their natural fields are well-drained and sand-based. "So we don't have to have any muddy situations. We can play softball in just about any weather, and we can play football in just about any weather." He added that when it comes to growing grass, he's spoiled being in Iowa, as the weather usually cooperates in the spring and fall. "We might throw a little bit of rye grass, but it's really very small amounts—we never broadcast any. So we're essentially 100 percent Kentucky bluegrass."
And what about eco-friendly practices in the grounds management realm? After all, it is the "green" industry. Kovolyan feels that the landscape and athletic field industries have always been leaders in green practices, due to workers coming from agriculture backgrounds, combined with shrinking budgets along with rising costs for products and water. "You learn quickly to do more with less."
Grounds managers at the parks and recreation level have a wide array of responsibilities. In Forsyth County, they maintain everything from horseshoe pits and a BMX bike track to fishing lakes and dog parks.
At Puget Sound, he said, they leave clippings behind when possible, compost their green waste through a contractor, use more local products and reuse wood chips from tree work. "We constantly test and update our irrigation heads for water efficiency. We only spot-spray for weeds and haven't used any insecticides in six years. We pay closer attention to plant material that promotes pollinators, but it's always a fine line on a small campus because as soon as someone is stung, all bees are bad. Even in the garage we recycle all the fluids, metal, tires, batteries—even the rags through a service so they can be reused."
Van Loo said they also strive to be "greener." He described two steep hillsides adjacent to their stadium, and how it was hard to keep grass there because water runs off and they would dry out. So this year they tackled the west side, turning it over and planting some native grasses. "Now we're not out there mowing it every week, we're not spraying it for weeds. I'm hoping after next year of looking good, I get the OK to do the east side." He described other areas that rarely saw foot traffic, such as around their cross country course, and said they've turned these into no-mow areas, decreasing their mowing by around five acres so far. "Honestly, it looks better because of it."
The STMA recently launched its Environmental Facility Certification Program, developed to document the environmental stewardship of STMA members. Interested facilities complete an electronic assessment where they're judged in 10 different areas. If they achieve 80 percent compliance, then an attester does a walk-through of the facility to validate their environmental practices. Van Loo, who's personally attested three different facilities, said they were shooting for 50 facilities the first year and they were just shy of that.
PGMS recognizes that eco-friendly practices are a large part of most grounds programs, and in 2013 launched the Landscape Management and Operations Accreditation program, which "evaluates strategic grounds management principles and practices that produce and guide the delivery of properties to an attractive, healthy, sustainable and high-quality state," according to Baldwin-Abbott. PGMS has also presented programs on sustainability at the annual School of Grounds Management & Green Industry and Equipment Expo, including "Managing Your Water Needs in a Sustainable Landscape," "Organic Pest Control" and "Landscape Design and Management for a Sustainable Future."
Sometimes green practices and new technologies overlap. Van Loo said they've utilized GPS on their sprayers, which allows much more precision and eliminates overspray—especially on, say, a softball field where there are rounded edges and you don't want to overlap onto the infield. "The GPS has really helped us be more efficient with our chemical, and it's just better for the environment. That's one of the other technologies we've tapped into."
Over in Forsyth County, Weavil explained how GIS technology has allowed them to map their facilities and locations. "We can easily inventory grounds areas, locate problem areas referenced by visitors and pinpoint the area for staff to address."
Grass seed and bridge-type fertilizers have seen great advancements, according to Kovolyan. "The new generation of growth regulators is something we're experimenting with and excited about. Some of the new irrigation controllers and soil moisture meters are coming along. We're always looking for a better way to monitor and control the moisture at the root level of the plant," he added.
Kovolyan advises other grounds professionals, "Keep learning, stay involved in the industry and have fun doing it." He pointed out that both the STMA and PGMS have great national and local events and chapters all over the country. "It's a great way to meet with your peers, learn something new and share with others what you've learned. It's easy to feel like you're all alone facing the challenges of the industry, but there are a lot more of us than you think doing the same thing."