Feature Article - February 2007
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Turf Wars

How to win the battle against overuse and other enemies

By Kyle Ryan

Irrigation and drainage

McAfee has performed countless irrigation audits over the past decade, and he sees one problem more often than not: over-watering, to the tune of 40 to 50 percent more than necessary. Just about everyone—field managers, homeowners, golf-course supervisors—does it, and it has the exact opposite of its intended effect.

"When you over-water, you're limiting available oxygen in the soil for that plant's root system," McAfee said. "You actually wind up with a weaker grass than you do with one that's watered correctly."

With much of the country facing drought conditions, over-watering is a luxury no one can afford. How much water turf needs depends on a lot of factors, the most important being geographical location and the rate of evapotranspiration (evaporation of water in the air and from within the plant).

In north Texas, McAfee uses about an inch of water a week during the spring and fall (if there's been no rainfall) and 1.5 to 1.75 inches during the summer. Most over-watering problems stem from poor water distribution, with automated systems being the worst offenders.

"One, they don't know how much water they're putting out, and two, when they see brown areas in the field, they water the whole field," McAfee said. "A lot of cases where the real issue comes in is a lot of these systems are put in poorly. They're not designed and put in right, so you're not getting good coverage of water. Therefore you'll have areas that will start showing a wilt before you really should see wilt. Therefore they start watering everything."

The problem is often compounded when organizations can't afford to fix it: All the money went into installation, and now they're stuck.

The soil itself also can present problems, like in Texas with its aquaphobic clay. Water fails to seep through the soil, so the top inch or two gets saturated, but the roots aren't getting anything. Once those top layers get saturated, additional water has nowhere to go, so it just stands on the field. Poor drainage also exacerbates soil compaction.

"This is probably the biggest rub and biggest problem that I see," McAfee said. "The majority of fields are built incorrectly, so they're not designed for drainage. The water just stands."

Good fields not only have turf that moves water downward well, but also are constructed on a grade that helps move water to the edges, where drains take care of the rest.

Staying ahead

If only there were a little pipe or some kind of system that took care of everything—the aeration, the pests, the irrigation. No dice. Even synthetic turf is hardly maintenance-free. Its infill components must be replaced over time, some types need to be groomed regularly, etc. There are always strings attached.

"We're still learning," Pula said. "We're the parks-and-recreation business; we don't have a lot of high-paid professionals here to detect problems. We try to stay on top of everything and do a real good job, and we really care about how our facilities look."

That learning process never ends, according to Chalmers. As a specialist of continuing education, he knows that better than most people. It comes down to patience, flexibility and the simple passage of time.

"If I have a recommendation for anyone," he said, "it's find out what's your most limiting factor in sports-turf performance or recreational-turf performance, and you try to work on those things that are most limiting, and not neglect them. And that takes expertise."