Good Groundskeeping

A closer look at innovations and best practices for maintaining high-quality sports fields

By Mitch Martin

Modular turf installation at
Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium

Colleges and universities have a reputation for favoring the sublime over the practical. True to the American spirit, Mark Twain favored practical experience over higher education, writing: "Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education."

However, today's universities are becoming more and more practical places of learning and training for grounds maintenance professionals. The college sports turf program is becoming almost as respected as the college football team.

Sports turf programs are providing the function of training academies for future professionals as well as serving the role as research institutions across the country. They are becoming more accessible information sources for the athletic field manager, often through extension offices.

Not matter what your facility, improving outdoor athletic playing surfaces is always a major goal.

Green grass and greenbacks

Of course, almost any sports field could be a superior performer with an unlimited maintenance budget. But since "unlimited budget" is an oxymoron, one constant struggle for field managers is to find the way to get the best field for the least amount of money.


A recent Michigan State University study performed in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences was designed to provide specific solutions for that challenge—at least for sand-based soils with native grasses in a cool climate.

Completed last year, the study was conducted by Lisa Lundberg at MSU's Hancock Turfgrass Research Center under the supervision of MSU crops and soil science professor John "Trey" Rogers III (a.k.a. "The Sultan of Sod") and fellow MSU Prof. James Crum.

"We have so many high schools and park districts across the country that have sports fields with limited budgets and lots and lots of play on them," Crum says. "We wanted to try and quantify what practices were the most effective for the least amount of money."

The study concluded that the best bang for the buck came from applying the same amount of fertilizer, more often. The second most important was increased mowing.

"The idea that these practices are more effective isn't a revelation to anyone," Rogers says. "But what the study does is provide exact numbers for a turf grass manager facing the administrator. The study was aimed to a large extent at the bean counters."


The study was conducted from 1999 to 2001, and half the fields included real game traffic.

The fertilizing changes improved longevity 40 to 50 percent, Rogers says.

The study showed that the increase could be achieved by applying fertilizer nine times a year instead of five.

Rogers says the study showed mowing improved the test fields longevity by 20 to 40 percent. The increase was achieved by mowing twice a week instead of once. Rogers says mowing to a consistent height is important.

Both Crum and Rogers say one easy miscue is to fail to keep up a consistent mowing regime off-season

"Athletic fields are just like athletics," Rogers says. "It's what you do in the off-season that dictates your success during the season."

Crum says the study results might change in other climates, soils or grasses.

"I think what probably would remain the same is that fertility and mowing are the two most important variables across the country," Crum says. "In other parts of the country, exactly how important is what would change."

Turf and mile

One of the toughest parts of being a turf manager is watching that bad section of a playing field slowly get pounded into literally dirt over a season. Many sports facility professionals have often wished they could simply rip the section out and replace it, like a heat shield on the space shuttle.

Modular sports fields fit this description to a T.


The football field at Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium was equipped with 4,800 natural turf modules in time for the 2001-2002 season. Unlike most other first-year fields, MSU players played their first game on a field with 18 months of root growth underneath. The turf grew from seed in the modules while the 2000-2001 season was played on artificial turf.

"We were basically playing on a two-year-old field from the start," says Rogers, who helped develop a previous incarnation of a modular system for the 1994 World Cup in the Pontiac Silverdome.

MSU's field was built with four foot by four foot polyurethane modules.

"They are basically flower pots on stumpy legs," Rogers says.

The modules used at Spartan Stadium are the same modules used at Giants Stadium and Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium.

One of the biggest advantages to a modular system is that they provide a four-inch space below the root system. That space is exploited for maximum ventilation, either pushing air up through the turf modules or pulling it down through them. The airflow gives the onsite turf manager several ways to improve turf quality, including an ability to maintain root zone temperature, breakdown organic surface accumulations and provide quality aeration.

"The space allows an environment in which you can manipulate the air quite easily," Rogers says.

By having a carefully controlled root zone mix, which is up to 11 inches at the deepest point in the module, the modules also allow for carefully controlled drainage. The modules may also contain the spread of disease.


Although replacement of damaged sections and removal of the entire playing field for nonsporting revenue events are two big advantages of modular systems, Rogers believes little of either will happen on the Spartan's field. He says while the MSU field could be moved, it isn't designed for rapid and routine removals, as some other module fields are designed.

And he says he hoped MSU staffers will manage the field well enough that the modules won't wear down on a regular basis.

"I try to remind people that this is a box that's doing its job, and you still have to do your job," Rogers says. "If you don't have your soils and your grass right, it makes no difference what else you have."

Rogers estimates that the modules add an extra 25 to 50 percent in construction cost over a regular natural grass field, though the modules may also promote savings after construction. For example, damaged turf areas can be removed from the playing surface and brought back to health, instead of being thrown away.

Rogers says he believes the modules, as they now exist, may not be suitable for lower profile, lower budget venues, such as smaller colleges and high schools. In particular, he says a field without an expert field manager would have trouble maintaining the system.

"If they don't have a field manager, I don't know that it's necessarily going to be a cure-all for the problems most people have with their fields," Rogers says. In the meantime, the Spartans seem pleased.

Internet to the fescue

With the proliferation of turf management programs at major universities, there are an increasing number of knowledge resources at colleges and extension offices across the country. Much of this information is easy to access on the Internet.

Ohio State University has two interrelated Web-based programs that could be a model of future online help for turf managers. The Buckeye Sports Turf 10 Point Plan is a basic outline for athletic field managers to insure basic quality for their athletic fields. (The Web address is

Designed by several staff members and faculty at OSU, the plan is aimed at high schools and other budget-conscious facilities in the state.

Pam Sherratt is an extension specialist for Ohio State and is either the first or one of the first sports turf specialists for an extension program in the country. She prepared much of the content for the 10 Point Plan. Sherratt says the driving force behind the Web-based help was the fact that so many high schools have poor-quality fields because of a lack of expertise.

Good Field Guide

The Buckeye Sportsturf 10 Point Plan lists the following topics as the basics for maintaining a safe, well-performing athletic field.

  1. Maximize Rootzone Air
  2. Seeding & Sodding
  3. Supply Turf Nutrition
  4. Water Management for Performance
  5. Mowing for Performance
  6. Professional Field Presentation
  7. Manage Pests
  8. Manage Traffic & Wear
  9. Field Renovation/Reconstruction Options
  10. Enhance Personal Development

For more information, visit


"What we see on our field visits is a basic lack of understanding of the agronomy that is causing their fields to fail," Sherratt says.

The 10 Point Plan is designed to reinforce the basic tenants of sports field maintenance. A chief aim of the plan is to avoid what Sherratt calls "the classic quagmire syndrome" of compaction, leading to loss of grass cover, in turn leading to unsafe playing conditions.

"We could have had a 13 Point Plan, or a 14 Point Plan, but we wanted to have a basic, easy-to-understand plan that would promote safe, well-performing fields in the state of Ohio," Sherratt says.

Web users can click through the 10 points to ensure they are covering the basics for a properly maintained field.

Tim Rhodus, an OSU professor of horticulture, designed the site. Rhodus had the job of making the site both efficient and accurately transmitting the scientific knowledge of the turf grass faculty and staff. He says the Web site is based on his experience crafting distance-learning education classes.

"I tried to create a site that exploited both the environment of the Web and the knowledge of our sports turf program," Rhodus says.

OSU is on the verge of going online with an even more ambitious aid for athletic field supervisors. Rhodus is creating a Web-based Field Evaluation & Diagnostic Tool (FED) that will provide online feedback and resources based on the 10 Point Plan.

"Basically, once you've gotten results from the 10 Point Plan, you'll be able to find links to articles, contractors in your area or other information that will help address your particular deficiencies," Sherratt says.

Although the 10 Point Plan is based on the clay-heavy soils of Ohio and its extreme-ranging climate and conditions, Sherratt says the plan is applicable as a reference to a lesser degree across the northern part of the United States. (A native of England, Sherratt says the climate extremes in Ohio may make turf management more difficult in the Midwest than England, for example, but few in the United States have an English turf manager's drainage problems.)

"We have a joke that it only rains 15 minutes of every quarter hour," Sherratt says.

Many southern universities are excellent resources for warm-climate athletic fields, including, for example, the University of Florida and Texas A & M.

"Cool climate or warm climate, there are some fantastic college programs out there these days," Sherratt says.

Stay Sharp

Your athletic field could be suffering from a rare and incurable disease. Or it may simply be the victim of poorly maintained mower blades.

That's the conclusion of a recent short article written by Matt Williams, a grounds supervisor at Cynergy Field, the home of the Cincinnati Reds.

Williams says he was inspired to write the article when a local high-school football coach approached him about his disease-ridden football field.

"He was very worried that the field looked terrible, and nothing was working to make it right," Williams says.

The football field suffered from a white discoloration that somewhat resembled Pythium blight from afar.

The real problem was something much simpler, Williams discovered. Dull, even blunt, mower blades were shearing off the grass, exposing their white centers. Williams noted that soft fescue is particularly prone to shearing.

"Shearing can make a field look really bad, really quickly," Williams says.

He says it is easy for grounds maintenance staffers to simply underestimate how much blade sharpening is required.

"Mower blades should be sharpened every 10 hours of use," Williams says. "For a basic homeowner, that's twice a summer. For even a high-school ballfield, it means sharpening as much as three times a week."

Williams says mower blades can be sharpened at a repair shop or honed with a metal file (which can be time-consuming) or a grinding stone attached to a drill or rotary tool or with a grinding wheel.

Williams, an Ohio State University alum, submitted his article to OSU's "SportsNotes" section of the OSU sports turf program Web site, available at


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