Good Sports Fields

How to make your grounds look like the pros

By Melissa Bigner

Photos, above and left:  Members of the Reading
Phillies ground crew in action.

Work smarter, not harder. The cliché has spread out of offices and into nearly every field of business these days, including grounds maintenance programs. The message is this: If you want to survive in an unforgiving economy, you have to economize, in the best sense of the word. That means using your assets and maximizing your manpower in such a way that you waste neither minutes nor money.

The smarter-not-harder philosophy shows itself many times over in the latest innovations taking place in ground maintenance. And good news—the advances have little to do with the scale of your operation. No matter whether you tend a little-league diamond or baby its big-league brother, there's something on the following pages that is sure to apply to your situation. But enough of the drumrolling. We asked a handful of the country's experts what has piqued their interest of late, what new developments they were most excited about in the field. Here's what they had to say.


We've all heard it: The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. If that's as true as it seems, guys—and gals, too, of course—should be pretty excited about what's going on with grounds keeping equipment today.

Seminars, conferences and other industry
events are good places to hone your field
maintenance skills.
Beam me up

Precision laser leveling, in which a field is graded with the use of laser beams, has been around for years and has become more and more prevalent. But Paul Zwaska, the former groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles, sees something else on the horizon. He predicts that the next big thing will be combining groomers with laser leveling, so you can do grading touch-ups with the same machine. Multipurpose equipment like that knocks out wasted hours and is ideal for smaller ground crews, as one person can do the work of several. Thus the investment pays off: Put a little more money out front and reap the rewards in less man-hours and manpower.

Radio head

You gotta love any gadget that does the math for you, especially while you sit cozy at home, miles away from work. That's how radio- and satellite-controlled irrigation systems operate. Dr. Gil Landry, professor of turfgrass management at the University of Georgia in Griffin, says this simple technological advance does wonders for groundskeepers, whose lives are ruled by weather reports. Sensors placed throughout a targeted area measure the amount of ground water and detect rainfall. From the comfort of your home, office or some other remote place, you get readings of what is going on water-wise at the field. A report relates the stats to the amount of water you've budgeted that month to ensure healthy turf. Thus you are directed to either turn off irrigation systems (remotely, of course) or head out to cover the fields. Of course, the system is especially useful if you live far from your keep, Zwaska says, as it may be raining on one side of town but not the other.

Mama Mia, what a mower!

Here's one that will make the little guys cheer. But first, a quick lesson: There are two main mower classifications when it comes to cutting grass, according to Landry. The first cut by reel, in which one blade lifts grass and a second blades it slices the tips off, much like a Norelco electric shaver operates on facial hair. The second (called a rotary mower) is akin to a spinning whip, in which the blades chop and whack grass short, not unlike a weed eater. The former gives a cleaner cut, Landry says, but they tend to be price-prohibitive for smaller operations. That's where the innovation comes in. Landry says he's been impressed with a new generation of rotary mowers that compensate for their shortcomings without breaking the bank. How? First off, they have shorter blades and multiple discs, which improve the mower's cutting radius, and allow for a better cut on contoured land. The result is a better look for less money done in less time. And, says George Van Haasteren, president of Sports Field Management Systems, there are rotary mowers outfitted to create the striped look of the pros—something only the expensive reel mowers used to do.

These two views of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore show there's more
than one way to stripe a field, proving groundskeepers are truly the artists of
sports fields.
Another two-fer

Machines don't corner the market when it comes to product innovations. Landry says that companies are now combining lining paint with a plant growth suppressor. Why?

"The biggest reason that you have to paint and repaint your lining is that you end up cutting it off with a mower," he says. "By stunting the grass growth, you rule out the frequency of that problem."

Get Bowled Over

Several universities compete in annual turf bowls. Pitting team against team, they tackle everything from basic turf management to related trivia. In the Carolinas, Clemson is the reigning winner of the Carolinas Student Turf Bowl Competition, which takes place at the annual CGCSA meeting. For more information, visit


Innovations need not be strictly tangible. One of the most interesting things going on these days, according to Floyd Perry, who has written several books about grounds maintenance and is president of Orlando-based Grounds Maintenance Services, is that people are having to get more creative with their budgets.

"Budgets are being cut, and staffs are shrinking," he says. "Those who are left have to learn how to get the same work done with less assets."

Diamonds are your best friend
An on-field mound demonstration by the
Sports Turf Managers Association.

A big fan of starting off on the right foot and front-end investments that pay off in the long run, Zwaska offers up proper grading of a diamond as an example of creative budgeting. Here's how it plays out: If you don't have a level playing field, water builds up and can destroy turf and creates pools on the infield, which carries away your top dirt and leaves a hard, unforgiving surface when the sun returns—not good.

The problem is exacerbated by teams who don't want to be rained out; often players whip out the brooms and sweep water off the infield, sweeping precious top dirt along with it. At worst, that brushed-aside dirt chokes turf and can kill it off, and at best, the sweeping builds up lips along the diamond's edge, creating ridges that interfere with ball play.

The solution: grading. If a field were properly graded, Zwaska says, you would save yourself many of these woes. Instead of backtracking and investing in a re-grade, which can last from 10 to 15 years, depending on usage, groundskeepers often add more drying agents to the diamond to absorb the water. In the short run, he says, the cost and convenience wins. But if you look at the long-term costs and labor, he bets you'll at least break even, if not better.

We want you

Remember those overzealous, water-sweeping team members? The pros suggest you harness their energy and direct it where and how you really need it.

"TV has been a blessing and a curse for athletics," Zwaska says. "You should see photos of early baseball games—the fields were in terrible condition compared our standards now."

Soccer fields score plenty of TLC for a regional
soccer tournament in Sylvania, Ohio.

Fans see how fields look on television and want the same for themselves, paying little mind to the fact that the pros work full time with large staffs to get the fields looking like they do.

"Unlike the pros," Van Haasteren says, "on the park and rec level, maybe one or two people have the responsibility of overseeing several fields."

And on the high-school level, it's often the coaches and the teams that tend to the turf. So you can see those with limited resources have a tall order to fill.

But listen to this creative approach. Perry tells the story of a local high-school football coach who dressed up the field NFL-style, paint and all, for a homecoming game. The town liked it so much, they wanted the look for every Friday night. "Sure thing," the coach said, "but only if you pitch in."

"The parents helped out, and now they've got the big-league look for all the games," Perry says. The lesson learned here is that coaches and groundskeepers serve themselves well to look off the field and beyond their payrolled staff for assistance. And too, when community members invest their own time and effort, the payback in pride is priceless.

Tips from the Top

Want to make your operation look like the big-time, even though your budget is little league? We asked the experts what advice they would give to the asset-strapped. Here's what they said.

Dan Douglas director of stadium grounds for the Reading Phillies and president of the Keystone Athletic Field Managers Organization:  "Start by improving your mowing practices. Mow more frequently with sharp blades. Next, soil test your fields and fertilize according to the recommendations. Last but not least, create an aerification program. And remember, all fields need a period of recovery. Meet with whomever schedules the field and reduce the abuse of the field."

George Van Haasteren president, Sports Field Management Systems:  "There are no real shortcuts in this business. To have your fields stand out, it is important to have the basic knowledge of field maintenance, budgeting and hard work. Use one piece of equipment to perform several tasks, use a drag mat to produce a striping effect on the turf, and have players and coaches help with the upkeep. Networking with others in the field is also a great way of improving ways to have the best fields.

Dr. Rick Brandenberg professor and state extension turfgrass entomologist at North Carolina State University, Raleigh:  "Stay on top of things. Don't let lips build up or low areas become bigger. On ball fields, keep your edges sharp—that's the easiest way to look professional. On turf, do everything you can to keep it covered. Over seed, or slit seed thin areas and move traffic around on practice fields. Aerate regularly to eliminate compactions."

Lance Hauserman ATD Sports Field Specialists:  "Make sure a professional in the field evaluates your field. Know what needs to be done, how much it will cost. Develop a plan [blueprint] so if you need to phase the project or use volunteers everyone is on the same page."


The way you learn about turfgrass management and field maintenance is changing as much as how you practice it. That's thanks in part to the proliferation of related programs offered at state colleges nationwide and due to technological advances. Landry outlines two major innovations.

Go the distance

Schools like UGA offer correspondent courses for out-of-towners to complete the turfgrass management program. For a fee, students receive the course materials and lessons and mail in assignments.

"At test time," Landry says, "they can go to a public library or some other supervised, designated location."

Crawl the Web

A bevy of groundskeeping information can be found online, but don't just take in the static stuff. There are loads of interactive learning tools, from quizzes to online courses. Because the nature of the Web, it can provide you with some of the most up-to-date advice and innovations.

Grow Yourself

"Never stop learning," Van Haasteren answers when asked for the one piece of advice he'd give over all else. He's right—lag behind and you miss out on the latest time- and money-saving innovations. Stay in the dark and you don't master the basics. To be on top of your game, the pros suggest these outlets for continued learning.

Conferences and shows: Panel discussions and networking are priceless, according to Paul Zwaska, the former groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles. "But," he admits, "odd as it may be, you learn just as must in the bars during those shows. That's where you can really hear the best advice."

For starters, the Green Industry Expo will be held Nov. 5 to 8, 2003, at the Cervantes Convention Center in St. Louis. For more information, call 800-303-3685 or visit

Seminars: Zwaska, for example, teaches short workshops across the country. Such programs give groundskeepers a chance for one-on-on instruction and hands-on learning. Tune into the latest seminars in your area by contacting local turf and athletic field associations.

Extension services: State university extension services offer learning materials, courses and consultations that are area-specific.

Internet: As we all know, the Web is an endless source of information. Tap in for the latest tips, previewing the newest products and use it to network your way to learning.

Associations: Joining groups like the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) is a good opportunity for continued learning. You can find your local STMA chapter by calling 800-323-3875, or visiting Likewise, look into the Professional Grounds Management Society at

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