Feature Article - November 2002
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Good Groundskeeping

A closer look at innovations and best practices for maintaining high-quality sports fields

By Mitch Martin


Turf and mile

One of the toughest parts of being a turf manager is watching that bad section of a playing field slowly get pounded into literally dirt over a season. Many sports facility professionals have often wished they could simply rip the section out and replace it, like a heat shield on the space shuttle.

Modular sports fields fit this description to a T.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENTECH

The football field at Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium was equipped with 4,800 natural turf modules in time for the 2001-2002 season. Unlike most other first-year fields, MSU players played their first game on a field with 18 months of root growth underneath. The turf grew from seed in the modules while the 2000-2001 season was played on artificial turf.

"We were basically playing on a two-year-old field from the start," says Rogers, who helped develop a previous incarnation of a modular system for the 1994 World Cup in the Pontiac Silverdome.

MSU's field was built with four foot by four foot polyurethane modules.

"They are basically flower pots on stumpy legs," Rogers says.

The modules used at Spartan Stadium are the same modules used at Giants Stadium and Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium.

One of the biggest advantages to a modular system is that they provide a four-inch space below the root system. That space is exploited for maximum ventilation, either pushing air up through the turf modules or pulling it down through them. The airflow gives the onsite turf manager several ways to improve turf quality, including an ability to maintain root zone temperature, breakdown organic surface accumulations and provide quality aeration.

"The space allows an environment in which you can manipulate the air quite easily," Rogers says.

By having a carefully controlled root zone mix, which is up to 11 inches at the deepest point in the module, the modules also allow for carefully controlled drainage. The modules may also contain the spread of disease.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GREENTECH

Although replacement of damaged sections and removal of the entire playing field for nonsporting revenue events are two big advantages of modular systems, Rogers believes little of either will happen on the Spartan's field. He says while the MSU field could be moved, it isn't designed for rapid and routine removals, as some other module fields are designed.

And he says he hoped MSU staffers will manage the field well enough that the modules won't wear down on a regular basis.

"I try to remind people that this is a box that's doing its job, and you still have to do your job," Rogers says. "If you don't have your soils and your grass right, it makes no difference what else you have."

Rogers estimates that the modules add an extra 25 to 50 percent in construction cost over a regular natural grass field, though the modules may also promote savings after construction. For example, damaged turf areas can be removed from the playing surface and brought back to health, instead of being thrown away.

Rogers says he believes the modules, as they now exist, may not be suitable for lower profile, lower budget venues, such as smaller colleges and high schools. In particular, he says a field without an expert field manager would have trouble maintaining the system.

"If they don't have a field manager, I don't know that it's necessarily going to be a cure-all for the problems most people have with their fields," Rogers says. In the meantime, the Spartans seem pleased.