Supplement Feature - September 2014
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Fields of Dreams

Making the Best Turf Decisions

By Dawn Klingensmith

Natural Maintenance

Avowed "grass guys"—and there are a lot of them—maintain that healthy natural turf can take quite a beating. "With the right cultural practices, natural grass is very viable" at all levels of play, says Jeff Langner, brand manager for a Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based company that makes topdressing and other turf products.

The biggest threats to a natural grass field are overuse and neglect. After doing nothing but mowing for years, a Rhode Island school saw the consequences of the latter. Compaction on its multiuse sports field was so bad, it felt like cement underfoot and athletes across all sports were getting injured.

Woonsocket High School determined that inadequate maintenance was to blame, but rather than replace the exhausted turf with a lower-maintenance synthetic system, the school vowed to master and consistently perform proper maintenance, with the help of a consultancy for the field rejuvenation and a full-time turf manager for ongoing maintenance.

People mustn't forget that turf is a living organism requiring at least three basics for optimal health—air, water and nutrients.

"It's like people. You can go for a little while without water. Without oxygen, you die," Langner said. "The root system needs oxygen."

Compaction prevents oxygen from reaching the root system. Aeration addresses this while improving soil drainage.

Compaction is a result of inadequate maintenance and overuse, and is common in schools and communities where demand for field use is high. Though the intent is to accommodate a range of users fairly, over time, excessive traffic causes natural turf to be unsafe and unplayable. To keep natural fields in optimal health, users should rotate activities among fields, if that's an option. Limit field use to necessary events only, and don't practice or play in weather that is likely to tear up the field. Change the daily location of practices on the field to prevent excess wear in one area, and move a portable goal around the field to limit wear around the goal posts.

Perform warmups off the field and team drills outside painted numbers. Where wear does appear, spread seed on those areas before games and practices. Ideally, stressed turf requires up to several weeks of "rest" (disuse).

Synthetic Maintenance

Synthetic costs less in day-to-day maintenance but it's not maintenance-free. Synthetic turf requires grooming, cleaning, topdressing (with infill) and even watering, to keep it cool on hot days. This type of field requires occasional repairs because it can rip or wear out in certain places. But though the maintenance should be on a schedule to ensure compliance and consistency, it's not time-sensitive, whereas natural grass requires proper timing of mowing, watering, fertilizing, applying pesticides and aerating.

Of course, if a synthetic turf system comes with maintenance instructions, stick to the manufacturer's recommended schedule and methods; to do otherwise might void the warranty. Many contracts stipulate that the turf company will train the school's maintenance crew to ensure the field is properly cared for.

Ironically, the more grass-like an artificial field, the less maintenance it needs. In general, artificial fields require two to three hours of maintenance a month with the right equipment, Dobmeier said. Infill needs to be added to areas on the field that undergo the most wear and tear, but less so on fields with longer, denser fibers that make it harder for infill to move about. So, the plusher or more "grass-like" the field, the less maintenance, Dobmeier said.

Compaction can occur on artificial turf fields, as well. Compaction of the infill can cause poor drainage, standing water, matted fibers and slipperiness, which can all lead to injury.

When synthetic turf is specified for a project, it is often because the field is expected to see a lot of use—perhaps near-constant use. While it's true that synthetic turf stands up quite well in these circumstances, its life expectancy may be shorter than the eight-year industry standard.

"Synthetic turf is seen as indestructible," Nardone said. "But if you use it from sunup to sundown, all day, every day, with that much use you're not going to get eight to 10 years out of it. People need to be aware of that."