Feature Article - February 2007
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Turf Wars

How to win the battle against overuse and other enemies

By Kyle Ryan

Defining usage

As with all things in life, turf maintenance relies on good communication. Fields have to be scheduled properly, with proactive attention paid to their condition at all times. But any facility manager will tell you that not all fields are created equally, and not all require the same amount of care. Dr. David Chalmers, a turfgrass scientist for Texas A&M University, separates them into two groups: spectator (high-end) and participant (heavily scheduled lower-end).

"You cannot have the same expectations for all the fields in the community," Chalmers said. "There are fields that are going to require a lot of resources."

A former colleague of Chalmers' in York County, Va., came up with a program called "Second Wind" that tiered fields according to performance expectations and required maintenance: Tier 1 had all the necessary resources at its disposal, tier 2 less so, and tier 3 had only the basics. It's a common-sense system that allows facility managers to efficiently use their resources on the fields that need them most. In a shaky economy, those resources are always limited, especially when it comes to natural turf.

"The biggest problem in the sportsfield arena that I see in grass is that these people don't provide enough budget, manpower and equipment to maintain the fields correctly," said Dr. Jim McAfee, extension turfgrass scientist for Texas A&M University. "Everybody's hurting for money. You talk to anybody in the city, and they'll tell you the quickest thing to get cut when budgets get cut is parks."

Trails Go Green
Taking turf on the trail in Kentucky

Bernheim Arboretum in Clermont, Ky., throws mowing rules out the window. The staff just doesn't mow some areas. Others they mow at an astonishing 5-inch height. Of course, no sports teams are playing on that turf, so the arboretum can afford to let things get shaggy. It is a nature preserve, after all.

Although the park uses natural forest paths and a limited amount of gravel for other trails, it recently began experimenting with what grounds manager Gerald Dobbs calls "green paths." The staff limits turf height on the paths to 2 or 2.5 inches (but lets the surrounding area grow taller) and regularly over-seeds, aerates and fertilizes them.

Dobbs said they're also trying to make the paths' color a more bluish-green to make them stand out more.

"It's a little more maintenance-intensive," Dobbs said. "We're getting there. We just started on it last fall, and this year we've started working on it some more."

The arboretum takes up more than 250 acres of space, which makes maintenance a formidable challenge for Dobbs and his small staff. He used to work at Virginia Tech University, where he had 850 acres with five crews to handle them all. At Bernheim, he has one full-time employee and seasonal help. "The biggest challenge is the place is so big, and there are so few of us, that we sit down and think how we're going to get it done," Dobbs said. "The amazing thing is a lot of it does get done. As a result, there's a lot of innovation and a lot of creativity in terms of management. We ask ourselves this question: Is this necessary to be worried about? Can we let it go? What's the most important thing we have to do today?"