Supplement Feature - September 2009
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Tackling Turf

Finding the Right Turf Solution for Your Fields

By Emily Tipping

All Natural

So when you don't have 60-plus fields to choose a surface for, but just one or even a small handful, you're less likely to mix it up the way New York has on Randall's Island. Many municipalities, schools, colleges and sports facilities choose natural turf. It's less expensive than synthetic, but there are many steps to proper maintenance. Steadfast care of your natural turf fields is the key to ensuring they're safe, accessible and will last through the playing season.

First of all, you need to be aware of which turfgrass is right for your area and application. Some varieties of turfgrass will do better in warmer climates, some in cooler climates, some can handle a bit of shade, while others cannot. Choosing the right variety for your application ultimately will save your maintenance dollars as you'll need less pesticide, less herbicide, less fertilizer, less water—and less energy, staff resources and time to apply those necessities.

To maintain a healthy field, however, you will need to periodically apply these solutions. Plants are growing, living things, so they do need water. You'll need to be prepared to irrigate your fields, especially in a drought, or suffer the consequences—a dried-out, brown field not suitable for play. You can install an irrigation system when you build your field, which will save labor in the long run, or you can get a less costly, portable system that can be moved around the field to where it's needed (a more labor-intensive option).

In addition to regular application of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides throughout the growing season, you'll also need to aerate your field a handful of times throughout the year—two to five times, according to the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). This helps reduce the soil compaction that comes from heavy play on the fields. As the fields get more and more compacted, game after game, they might eventually become hard enough to impact safety for the athletes on your field, the association states.

OK, you've watered, fertilized, applied weed and pest control and aerated—that's it, right? Nope, you're not done yet. To maintain a nice, dense field, you're also going to need to overseed throughout the season, and you may also need to top-dress the field with sand, the STMA reports.

With all of that input, there are still things you need to do to ensure your field remains healthy and safe for play. One of the most important is to remember that your field needs a rest. Natural turf can't handle constant 12-hour-a-day play, seven days a week. You'll need to schedule your field carefully to ensure it's not overused, and when it rains, you might have to cancel play altogether to ensure the field doesn't get torn up.

That all adds up to a lot of maintenance, and the reason so many facilities are switching to synthetic turf is that all of this maintenance can be difficult to keep up with.

"I think in an ideal world, natural grass would be the situation that everyone would love to have their athletic field be," said Mark Novak, senior associate in the sport group at Stantec, "but we don't live in the ideal world. Most don't have the ideal climate, resources, facility teams or maintenance teams to keep up with the physical demands of a natural grass field."

That's especially true, he said, in New England, where keeping the fields safe and playable for competition is a huge challenge, especially for municipalities and high schools, which tend to have less experienced teams to handle the fields' requirements.

"Being a former athlete—and a majority of our staff here are former athletes—natural grass is what we would all love to play on," Novak said, "but in the end, it's not always the best choice."