Feature Article - November 2014
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Take the Field

Managing & Maintaining High-Performing Sports Fields

By Chris Gelbach

Sustainable Turf Performance

At the University of Washington, sustainability is a major area of focus. The university is a member of the Green Sports Alliance, and in 2014 was the only campus in the United States to win a Sustainable Campus Excellence Award from the International Sustainable Campus Network. At the university, the natural turf fields are maintained using several environmentally friendly practices. Many of them hinge upon frequent testing of the soil, including the school's approach to fertilization.

"We get soil tests done four to six times a year on every field so we know what's in the soil before we go and add more fertilizer or chemicals of any kind," Pearson said. This enables the team to make sure each field is getting the proper micronutrients without adding excess fertilizer that creates run-off or leaching into streams.

The fields are also tested using a soil probe to regularly measure the soil moisture. "We water as little as possible, which means daily adjusting," said Pearson. "So we don't put a program in our irrigation to run an hour at night." In addition, a rain shutoff mode is used that kicks on if it's raining to prevent the fields from being watered in the rain. To further conserve water, the university also uses wetting agents on the soil that help the soil retain water.

The regular soil testing also makes it easier to determine if certain areas of the field need more attention that goes beyond watering. "If you keep getting a dry spot in the same spot of the field, you may need to aerate there—maybe it's impacted and not draining," Pearson said.

In Denver, McNeal is using newer grass varieties that are able to survive when irrigated with non-potable water. "Our non-potable water has high salt content in it, so our maintenance program gets adjusted for the parks that use it," she said. McNeal is seeing some stresses on the trees and grass plants from using the water, but benefits from reduced irrigation costs. "There are some cost savings, but you have to look at the whole picture to make sure it's worth it for you and your program," she said.

To help cut down on the need for chemicals like weed killer, Pearson recommends just focusing on maintaining a healthy stand of grass. "As soon as the grass starts getting thin, that's when weeds are going to find an open space," he said. To help accomplish this, Pearson and his coworkers hand-pick weeds on the fields anytime they encounter them. "As soon as we see one if we're on the mower or walking on the field, we reach down and just cut it out. We don't wait for it to get bad enough where we need to spray," he said.

One product the University of Washington does apply is a growth regulator, a chemical that keeps the grass from growing as quickly. According to Pearson, this gives the grass better root structure and reduces the need for mowing, which also reduces gas consumption.