Feature Article - February 2010
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Breaking Ground

Making the Most of Your Sports Fields

By Kelli Anderson

It's in the Details

Like so many things, it can be attention to the little things that makes the biggest difference.

Take water audits. Whether your irrigation system is high-tech or hands-on, annual water audits indicate where there's a leak, if your system is efficient and what you may need to do differently.

It helps, however, if your irrigation system is the best you can afford. "My advice is that for anything you bury in the ground, don't cut corners," said Corky Buell, vice president of sports field construction and turf maintenance company Landscapes Unlimited, LLC of Lincoln, Neb. "A cheap fitting or valve is just ludicrous. I've seen a $3 valve flush out an entire green at a $30,000 cost."

According to Buell, another one of the most overlooked areas in sports field construction and maintenance is drainage. "They do everything else but get wet spots that can be so easily taken care of with top dressing," Buell said. "A golf green gets perfect by constantly top dressing. You can do the same with a wet spot in any field and it eliminates weeds. A lot of things don't cost a lot and pay huge dividends."

Eliminating weeds by strengthening turf and reducing wet spots will certainly cut down on the need for and cost of herbicides and pesticides. Add to that an economy that just won't tolerate the costs of blanket treatments and you have many who are willing to hold back longer before pulling the chemical trigger and only spot treating when they do.

"The economy has made us think more about what we really need to do and when we can tolerate holding off on pesticides," said Donnie Mefford, sports turf manager for the University of Kentucky's Nutter Training Facility, one of the nation's showcase football facilities located in Lexington, Ky. "For a few weeds do we spray the entire outfield? We have to be selective and remind ourselves to ask if it's really a problem—is it affecting the players? Aesthetics? Then it's time. Be smart in making decisions."

Time Out

Perhaps the only thing more challenging than correcting compacted, damaged turf is coping with the overscheduled activities that create them in the first place. While top dressing, coring, tining and soil conditioning are all good and well, perhaps nothing heals overused sports fields like a good rest. But when?

For those who have multiple fields, the solution might be as simple as a rotating schedule to let certain areas rest each season or as needed.

But for many, the problem isn't having a plan. It's getting others to go along with it. "Truly the biggest challenge is the time of year they are now playing and the pressure on the fields," explained Wes Matthews of the Centerville-Washington Park District in Ohio. "There wasn't much spring soccer at first, but it's grown and grown tremendously. That's a big problem because we do a lot of maintenance in the spring and fall and we can barely rest areas."

For Matthews the solution has been 10 patient years in the making. By working with coaches, programmers and parents he has gradually educated them about the necessary aspects of field maintenance in order to give them the kind of playing surface and safety results they want in return.

"It took a lot of time to convince our user groups to go along with this—eight to 10 years," Matthews explained. "And now we have a good relationship and they're on board. It's communicating effectively—we have meetings with football teams and our soccer teams and are in constant communication. That line of communication is huge."

While Matthews concedes that originally cooperation was a battle, he says they now see that the resulting improved field conditions are to their advantage.

Gaining allies was also achieved through changes in department structure. Having the athletic coordinator's position moved from programming to operations shifted the role from one of an "outside" adversary to an "inside" advocate that incorporates field maintenance needs into the decision making process.

Opening up communication has proven to be a successful approach for the Nutter Training Facility as well. "You have to be able to communicate," Mefford agreed. "We ask administrators, coaches and student players for their feedback so they understand what you are trying to do. We have to be visible and open up communication with coaches so we have a common goal. It's so important to express concerns and to listen."

As a result of the cooperative relationship between his staff and the athletic groups, Mefford has been able to put a plan in place that sets goals for regular field maintenance that all groups understand. "For field usage in general, there's not a lot of down time—that's really the challenge," Mefford said. "When dealing with grass that needs aerification, top dressing, irrigation, fertilizing and pesticide applications, it's finding time to make those things happen. We have to communicate the necessity to do things to be safe and look good." Meeting and discussing where and how these things have to take place to achieve a common goal has been a big help.