Feature Article - February 2010
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Breaking Ground

Making the Most of Your Sports Fields

By Kelli Anderson

By all accounts, sports turf managers are facing a tough season. With tighter budgets, Mother Nature's inclement-curve-balls and communities clamoring for longer playing seasons, sports turf managers are called upon to do the near-impossible: produce safe, beautiful sports fields with fewer resources and in less time.

"I've seen it all, and the problems are the same," said Abby McNeil, out-going president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). "Overused fields don't get a break, and they still have to be a safe surface. I went from Division III to Division II, and I still have to prioritize things. We're all stretched too thin and are faced with doing more with less."

Ironically, the difficulties resulting from the global economic downturn and tougher climate conditions are greatly responsible for producing smarter, more efficient solutions for the challenges facing today's sports turf managers and groundskeepers. While many of the components of sports field maintenance remain the same—

aeration, irrigation, fertilization and regular inspection to name a few—the way they are being done thanks to technological advances in the industry and the influence of best-practices teaching is saving money and time, and yielding better results.

Going Deep

Regardless of sport field—soccer, golf, football or baseball—compaction is often the biggest perennial problem. Although the wear patterns differ in each sport, the injuries resulting from these hardened surfaces and the damage to turf are a common concern.

Aeration—introducing air deep into the soil and root levels—is the key. If done right, aeration not only softens the soil but will reduce weeds, prevent runoff and even rain-outs, thereby reducing the need for and cost of herbicides, irrigation and lost revenue from missed games. And while aeration's importance may be common knowledge, it is a vital player missing in many groundskeepers' lineup or, if used, is misunderstood and misapplied.

"One of the greatest misconceptions for 30 years is that pulling plugs is aeration," said Paul Gillen, president of the Sports Turf Association based in Ontario, Canada. "The definition of aeration is getting air into the soil, and the only way to do that is with water."

While Gillen is quick to point out the good purpose and benefits of coring (to be used in top dressing, over-seeding and thatch removal), he explains that bringing oxygen into the soil to the root levels is best accomplished with vent tining. Vent tining enables water to infiltrate the compacted surface of the turf, percolate down deep into the soil and to create a vacuum that pulls oxygen down into the soil after it. It strengthens the root systems, growing them deeper, and improves their ability to take in water and nutrients.

"This past year we used a venting tine between 4 and 6 inches to get nutrients right down to the roots and reduce compaction," said Kristopher Myers, superintendent of parks and recreation in Bellefontaine, Ohio. "With the venting tine you can play on it right after. Compaction was a big issue for us—a lot of parks have this problem. It's one of my favorite pieces of equipment because you can get in there, aerate and still play."

But breaking up compacted soil is not limited to one approach. According to McNeil, using a variety of methods is better in the long run. And others agree. "The most underutilized of best practices is aeration," said Jerad Minnick, sports turf manager for the Maryland Soccer Foundation's Maryland SoccerPlex of Germantown, and previous groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals. "Without water roots can't grow. It's a matter of needing to open up the soil, and there are so many ways to do that now that money and time aren't an excuse. Just do anything to get water down."

Soil conditioners, for example, are especially useful for skinned infields and boast a myriad of benefits including reducing compaction, minimizing bad hops, and preventing rainouts and wet spots. They can work magic on turf as well. While initially costly, soil conditioners turned into the soil can last for decades and pay for themselves over time in reduced labor and traditional equipment/methods costs.

Pulling plugs in the spring and fall and top dressing the soil with a more porous, nutrient-rich material is also a great way to correct poor soils over time and to break up compaction nearer the surface.

Using a combination of methods efficiently—coring in the spring and fall to top dress, vent tining throughout playing seasons to loosen and aerate, and applying soil conditioning products where most needed—produces effective results.