Feature Article - January 2022
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Fields of Green

Smart Strategies & New Ideas in Sports Field Maintenance

By Dave Ramont

If you have to maintain the lawn at your residence, you know what a challenge and time commitment it can be to keep that yard looking healthy and pristine. And if you have children who put that lawn through the paces on a regular basis then you know how heavy use only increases that challenge. So imagine how demanding the task must be for those who manage and maintain sports fields, which typically see a lot of use in all types of weather and oftentimes have to be game-ready between events with very little recovery time.

"Maintaining parks and municipal fields is a great challenge with a lot of variables," said James Bergdoll, director of parks maintenance for the City of Chattanooga's Department of Parks & Outdoors in Tennessee. "We have a small athletic field maintenance team that focuses on a certain group of higher-profile and city-operated fields, while the rest are maintained through user groups, volunteers and contractors."

Bergdoll pointed out that when user groups are responsible for maintenance, they often tend to manage field use better. "Unfortunately, they sometimes don't have the resources or expertise to properly perform needed maintenance, so we try to help out where we're needed through contractors like mowing, aerification, topdressing, laser grading, etc."

Parks and municipal fields can be an extra big challenge since so many people use them and they are used for a variety of activities. "Different sports have different high-concentrated-wear areas, so managing that on multi-use fields is certainly a challenge," said Bergdoll. "Being able to rotate and move field layouts helps a great deal. Additional aeration and/or topdressing of wear areas, spot fertilization and resting when possible are other strategies for combating high-use wear."

Iowa State University (ISU) has a robust program for both men's and women's sports, including a football team that is consistently a serious contender in the Big 12 conference. Josh Tvrdik is director of turf and grounds for the ISU Athletics Department and he addressed some strategies for getting a field game-ready when there's heavy use and little resting time. "Our first line of defense for a quick turnaround is having an aggressive fertilizer program. Giving the plant what it needs to heal and recover in a quick amount of time is crucial. We also overseed the entire field before each game so the cleats from the athletes are cultivating the seed into the ground and we have constant germination throughout the season."

Overseeding is the process of applying seed to an existing field in order to improve turf density and help it recover from frequent use, and it's an important tool in the arsenal for promoting healthy grass. Research has shown that the best grass to use for overseeding is perennial ryegrass, even if a different species was used originally. "There's a school of thought with cool-season grasses to overseed high-wear areas such as goal mouths and player position areas," explained Bergdoll. "The player's cleats will 'dimple' the seeds into the soil for good seed-to-soil contact. You are also building a seed bank where grass seed will germinate and fill in wear areas while allowing play to continue during a season."