Feature Article - February 2018
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Get Ahead of the Game

Successful Sports Field Maintenance

By Dave Ramont

No doubt about it, whether it's soccer, lacrosse or baseball, sports fields take a serious beating, and that's without the extra pounding that Mother Nature often provides. And when one game or practice is over, it's expected that they bounce right back for the next one. This predicament is made even more challenging if it's a municipal, parks and rec or local school field, since they are in near-constant use, often serving as multipurpose fields.

"Almost every field I have at the municipal parks level, regardless of what it's intended for or the shape of the field, is multi-use," said Nick Pappas, a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) who oversees the sports field side of Green Source, a company specializing in landscaping and property management services based in Southwest Ranches, Fla. "We do maintenance and renovation, we do a lot of contracting out to municipalities, private schools, universities or anybody that's got a field that needs help," Pappas said.

As an example, Pappas points to the city of Weston, Fla., where they maintain a 104-acre park that houses 16 fields, including six full-size natural grass soccer fields, two full-size synthetic fields, and two quads for softball and baseball. "The athletic fields on the soccer side, they see non-stop play of soccer and anything else that they can put out there, from lacrosse to rugby to flag football," Pappas said, adding that this could include concerts, movie nights and yoga events. Pappas explained that while the baseball fields are more restricted due to their shape, they will sometimes paint soccer fields in the outfield for games if the soccer fields are too busy.

Another challenge at this level is tight budgets, according to Pappas, since fields require a lot of input to meet customers' high expectations. "Between fertilizing, cultivation, aeration, verticutting (vertical cutting), fraise mowing, topdressing—the list goes on and on."

Jim Biggers, CSFM, vice president of field maintenance for Carolina Green, a full-service athletic field construction company based in Fairview, N.C., said that when maintenance budgets are insufficient, tough decisions are required. "I believe a field turfgrass manager must make an effort to supply the turfgrass with proper nutrition. Take a soil sample and apply necessary fertilizers to achieve good healthy plant growth." Biggers suggested that if this can't be done on all fields, then prioritize the championship or game fields. "Proper weed control is secondary in importance, since weeds steal fertility and water," Biggers said, adding that aerification and mowing come third and fourth in priority.

In fact, Biggers suggests developing an aerification program and aerifying as often as schedule and budget allow, since compaction of the playing surface is the biggest challenge to keeping turfgrass cover and density. Pappas said their biggest challenge is managing wear traffic, and trying to see how far they can go without having to re-sod the fields, yet still keep them safe, playable and aesthetically pleasing. "We're not just talking about your typical wear areas from one sport," he said. "We're talking about multiple sports and multiple events that all come with their own traffic patterns."

Pappas described seeing three mini soccer fields on one full-size field, so now you have players and coaches and parents standing in the bench areas along each of the little fields, and you might have a couple hundred people standing on one field. "So wear is our biggest battle and obviously compaction goes along with it," he said.

Biggers suggested avoiding wear areas by rotating play between boundaries and redirecting heavy traffic areas. "Limit or stop play in frozen or saturated wet conditions," Biggers said, "and if possible, postpone events when field conditions are poor."

When repairs do have to be made, Pappas said that they do more sodding then seeding, specifically because the types of Bermudagrass they use aren't types that you can seed. "They have to be vegetatively planted, so either sod or sprigs, though a lot of municipalities won't give us a long enough window to sprig a field."

That's a hurdle in itself, according to Pappas, since sprigs will typically produce a stronger and longer-lasting field. "It's the idea of growing 'in' something, rather than growing 'on' something," he said. "Lay sod and now you have to grow grass into the dirt, versus once you've got a sprig down, it's growing out of the dirt."

And while the shutdown time is a bit longer, Pappas said it's amazing how fast the Bermudagrass can grow in.

Jody Gill, CSFM, grounds coordinator for Blue Valley school district in Overland Park, Kan., said that he and his team, which includes 15 full-time and 10 to 12 seasonal employees, oversee 38 schools on 1,300 acres spread over 91 square miles. Gill said they maintain well over 100 fields, which host many sports, including baseball, softball, soccer, football, lacrosse, track and field, and cross country. "PE classes and elementary recess use fields as well—sometimes recess is extremely competitive! Rugby and cricket are growing in popularity," he said.

General use of sports fields by the community causes the most excessive wear, and overuse is the greatest challenge that Gill's team faces, especially since most of their fields are unsecured and the only way to manage traffic is with signage and temporary fencing. "I have very supportive athletic directors and coaches," Gill said. "We try to educate them on ways to spread the wear and tear. Most of them buy in and do a good job of moving practices around."

Gill tries to educate user-groups and coaches whenever possible on the best ways to avoid excessive wear on fields through articles, newsletters or face-to-face meetings, explaining how it's in their best interests to take care of the fields. He also said that budgets and lack of manpower are frequent concerns. "We're dealing with labor budget issues by converting a few full-time, year-round positions to many more seasonal positions, to fill the need for more labor during busier times of the year."