Turf Wars

How to win the battle against overuse and other enemies

By Kyle Ryan

o one wants to watch Flicka die.
It's blunt, but that's how Roy Arnold, president of the Arlington Park horse-racing track in Arlington Heights, Ill., put it at a press conference in early December. Inside Chicago's ESPN Zone restaurant, he announced that Arlington Park would become the fifth track in North America to switch from dirt to synthetic turf for its racing surface. The dead-Flicka comment arose from the more than 20 fatal "catastrophic breakdowns"—i.e., on-field horse injuries—that occurred at Arlington Park during its 2006 season.

Although independent investigations concluded that Arlington's dirt wasn't to blame for the accidents, the park saw a 15.6 percent drop in earnings, according to a published report ($6 million according to another). The new surface will cost $10 million, but Arnold and Arlington's parent company, Churchill Downs, believe it's money well spent if it keeps horses and riders safe—and brings families back to the park. No parent wants to be asked, "Daddy, what's wrong with that horse?"

The new surfacing, which looks like dirt from a distance, will be a composite of waxy sand, recycled rubber and polypropylene fibers, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. Below that will be a layer of porous asphalt, then a layer of drainage stone (leading to a pipe), which rests atop a dense aggregate layer. The exceptional drainage capacity means the days of muddy tracks are history. The whole project, which began in early December, will be completed in time for Arlington's first race of 2007 on May 4.

Lucky for humans, on-field injuries rarely result in euthanasia, but turf vitality remains a critical issue for every facility, from high schools to municipal parks to arboretums. Whether natural or synthetic, turf needs special attention. Without the proper care—particularly when it comes to overuse—problems inevitably arise.

Defining usage

As with all things in life, turf maintenance relies on good communication. Fields have to be scheduled properly, with proactive attention paid to their condition at all times. But any facility manager will tell you that not all fields are created equally, and not all require the same amount of care. Dr. David Chalmers, a turfgrass scientist for Texas A&M University, separates them into two groups: spectator (high-end) and participant (heavily scheduled lower-end).

"You cannot have the same expectations for all the fields in the community," Chalmers said. "There are fields that are going to require a lot of resources."

A former colleague of Chalmers' in York County, Va., came up with a program called "Second Wind" that tiered fields according to performance expectations and required maintenance: Tier 1 had all the necessary resources at its disposal, tier 2 less so, and tier 3 had only the basics. It's a common-sense system that allows facility managers to efficiently use their resources on the fields that need them most. In a shaky economy, those resources are always limited, especially when it comes to natural turf.

"The biggest problem in the sportsfield arena that I see in grass is that these people don't provide enough budget, manpower and equipment to maintain the fields correctly," said Dr. Jim McAfee, extension turfgrass scientist for Texas A&M University. "Everybody's hurting for money. You talk to anybody in the city, and they'll tell you the quickest thing to get cut when budgets get cut is parks."

Trails Go Green
Taking turf on the trail in Kentucky

Bernheim Arboretum in Clermont, Ky., throws mowing rules out the window. The staff just doesn't mow some areas. Others they mow at an astonishing 5-inch height. Of course, no sports teams are playing on that turf, so the arboretum can afford to let things get shaggy. It is a nature preserve, after all.

Although the park uses natural forest paths and a limited amount of gravel for other trails, it recently began experimenting with what grounds manager Gerald Dobbs calls "green paths." The staff limits turf height on the paths to 2 or 2.5 inches (but lets the surrounding area grow taller) and regularly over-seeds, aerates and fertilizes them.

Dobbs said they're also trying to make the paths' color a more bluish-green to make them stand out more.

"It's a little more maintenance-intensive," Dobbs said. "We're getting there. We just started on it last fall, and this year we've started working on it some more."

The arboretum takes up more than 250 acres of space, which makes maintenance a formidable challenge for Dobbs and his small staff. He used to work at Virginia Tech University, where he had 850 acres with five crews to handle them all. At Bernheim, he has one full-time employee and seasonal help. "The biggest challenge is the place is so big, and there are so few of us, that we sit down and think how we're going to get it done," Dobbs said. "The amazing thing is a lot of it does get done. As a result, there's a lot of innovation and a lot of creativity in terms of management. We ask ourselves this question: Is this necessary to be worried about? Can we let it go? What's the most important thing we have to do today?"

Synthetic turf

With limited funds, facility managers face a turf quandary: Pay a lot up front but less down the road for synthetic, or pay less up front but more for maintenance with natural grass.

Outside of high-end facilities like Arlington Park and professional and collegiate stadiums, synthetic turf is often used on high-traffic multiuse fields—or, as Chalmers calls them, "multi-abuse fields." Those fields are commonly found in schools and recreational parks, which not coincidentally are the biggest growth areas for synthetic turf. These are places where the activity schedule doesn't afford grass enough recovery time to stay healthy.

"If you've got excess activities or play on fields, I say go to artificial," McAfee said. "If you've got a site where you're just playing all the time, grass is not going to hold up."

High-end professional fields use synthetics for a number of reasons, but the primary motive is performance. Synthetic turf offers a uniformity that natural grass can only match with the utmost diligence, and even then it's not guaranteed. Performance is also a concern at lower levels like high schools, but it's usually trumped by another problem: money. Synthetic fields cost a lot of it.

At Central Winds Park in Winter Springs, Fla., cost figured prominently in the decision to use natural turf on some new fields acquired by the park.

"The cost has been really prohibitive," said Chuck Pula, director of parks and recreation for the city. "We're talking half a million dollars to do one football field, and we haven't seen any prices below that."

Central Winds Park seems like a prime candidate for synthetic turf. The 103-acre complex features four baseball fields, four softball fields, two football/lacrosse fields and six soccer fields. All of them are heavily used by Winter Springs' 30,000 residents. Pula said his park has an adequate budget, but not adequate enough to drop a few million on new fields everywhere. Heat also factored into the equation.

"It is so hot here in Florida, between the sun and the humidity, that I'm hearing temperatures on the art turf are getting up to 170, 180 degrees," he said. "People are getting burned."

Synthetic manufacturers suggest watering the turf to cool it down, but that's little help, according to McAfee, who once measured a 173-degree temperature on a synthetic field. (A natural-grass field measured 101 degrees at the same time.)

"You can water it to cool it down, but it heats back up real quick," he explained. "It's very temporary."

The problem actually stems from radiation, not the temperature itself. "In other words, the brighter the sun, the hotter it gets," McAfee said. "Once it gets nighttime, or if you've got a cloudy day, it's not near as hot. Everybody thinks it's the temperature that heats it up, but it's the radiation that causes the heat to go up so much."

Synthetic turf makes up for the heat and cost concerns in other ways, like with drainage. A synthetic football field has a top layer of grass-like fibers resting above an infill layer of sand and rubber pellets. Water moves through it quickly and drains efficiently, which is always a problem on poorly designed low-level recreational fields (which often lack the necessary grading to move water to the edges of the field). The type of soil beneath a field greatly affects its drainage capabilities. Down where McAfee is in Texas, there's a "sorry clay gumbo" that's so tight it can only absorb an inch of water per hour.

All fields, synthetic or natural, have to face two issues at the end of the day: safety and performance. Really, everything else comes from those two, even drainage—a wet field doesn't perform well.

"We all are concerned about player safety—we don't want gravelly areas, we don't want slippery surfaces. We want a good turf in place," Chalmers said. "These fields are going to be maintained in a way that is going to maximize athletic performance… You want those athletes in their mind to know that their footing will hold when they do make a cut in soccer, when they do go around the end in football, when they do try to enhance their performance and skill."

Both well-maintained natural-turf fields and synthetics can offer good performance and reliable safety. Maintaining natural fields just requires more effort.

"I think most players would prefer to have turfgrass," McAfee said, "but they would also prefer to play on a good field than a tore-up, muddy field."

Recovery and aeration

Advances in science get all the headlines, but McAfee said that the biggest improvement he's seen in turfgrass over the past decade is decidedly unglamorous: better management. It sounds boring, but even the best field with the strongest grass, highest-tech irrigation and drainage, and most vigilant anti-pest regimen will have problems if it's managed improperly.

It could be as simple as mowing. In its Sports Turf Industry Fact Sheet, the Sports Turf Managers Association cites frequent mowing as essential for healthy turf because it "reduces scalping, disease incidence and the need for sweeping, and it improves field performance." No one who took the STMA's survey mows just once a week: 21 percent do it twice a week, 30 percent mow three times, 9 percent mow four times, and 40 percent do it daily.

In Texas, McAfee advises field managers to maintain their Bermudagrass at a 1-inch height, maybe 1.5 inches.

"In years past, they would mow it at 2 inches, 2.5 inches, 3 [inches] once a week, and it'd wear out in no time," he said. "If you mow it at 1 [inch] three times a week, it'll last at least twice as long, if not longer."

Frequent mowing creates thicker grass, whether it's Bermudagrass in the south or bluegrass up north. The key, McAfee said, is never to take more than 30 to 40 percent of the leaf tissue off at once.

"When you remove excess leaf area, you inhibit the plant's ability to produce food that it needs for new leaf growth," he said. "So the more often you mow it, the less leaf area you remove, the better quality grass you'll have."

Another big change in management practices comes from aeration, the process of putting holes in the soil to allow air and water to reach it more easily. More field managers are realizing the importance of aeration, particularly with high-traffic fields.

"When you use fields, you've got a couple consequences," Chalmers said. "One is you have a physical abrasion of the grass, and the other is compacting the soil. The compaction is a very subtle thing that isn't nearly as obvious as if you have a soccer tournament one week, and all the goals wear out on the surface from the play, as an example. All the compaction's there, and it's harder for the grasses to recover the more compacted the soils are."

Aeration loosens up compacted soil, allowing nutrients to penetrate growth areas. Of course, aeration needs vary according to the field and who uses it: adults or kids, soil type, how often it's used and so on. Most runners don't do a marathon one day, then do another one the next, and natural turf shouldn't be expected to, either. It is, after all, a living organism with limits, just like any other.

"Unfortunately, most cities are just hurting for space for leagues to play," McAfee said. "[The grass] just never has the opportunity to recover. Any time you have excess use, I don't care how good your field's built or maintained, when you get excessive wear on the grass, you will wear it out."

A big public park like Central Winds Park in Winter Springs sees a lot of action, so it requires a turfgrass that can handle everything from baseball to cars parking on it. While much of the park uses Bermudagrass, park managers decided to try something new when they acquired 27 new acres: seashore paspalum of the low-growing sea-dwarf variety.

"We had heard about seashore paspalum in terms of it being a new grass, and what we heard was that it was a very tough grass," Pula said. Before committing to an untested grass on the new acreage, Pula and the parks department decided to try it out on a different park's football/soccer field. What they saw pleased them.

"We found that it was a very tough grass—it handled abuse in our opinion as good as or better than Bermuda," he said. "We really liked that we could salt it for weed control by using plain solar salt, the type that goes in water-conditioning units—it's a relatively inexpensive type of weed control. We also liked that it had a longer dormant season than the Bermuda; it seemed to go longer into the fall and start earlier in the spring than the Bermuda did."

Salesmen also touted the paspalum's need for less water than Bermudagrass, but Pula and company haven't found that to be the case (though he did explain that it needs less nitrogen in the fertilizer). It also has a tendency to clump in what the staff refers to as a "witch's broom," where the grass grows tighter and thicker. It's easily treated with more mowing and aeration, though addressing a Bermudagrass invasion at the fields' fringes has proved a little more difficult. The staff uses salt and herbicides to eliminate the Bermuda, but it has a tendency to creep back with time.

Still, paspalum's toughness is something to behold. For Central Winds Park's July Fourth celebration, Pula estimates 850 cars parked on the fields, with more than 30,000 people in the park itself.

"You could see some wear in travel lanes, but as far as where the cars parked, you'd see a little bit of burn where somebody may have been running their car a long time or a few oil spots, but it was really minimal when you looked at it. If you didn't know any better, you'd never know there were 850 cars on this thing for a whole day."

In chess, winners prevail by thinking several moves ahead. Chalmers advises a similar strategy when it comes to wear: Plan ahead for preventive maintenance.

"[There's] concentrated traffic and trampling in between the hash marks in football and the goal marks in soccer—you can't alter that traffic pattern, so you need to stay head of it in doing practices before problems develop," Chalmers said. "Management has to be proactive in cultivation and fertility so they stay ahead of declining quality. Once you have a field starting a decline, it's much harder to bring that back than it would be to bring the preventive maintenance all along the way to have it healthy and keep recovering."

The Green Grass Grows All Around

A look at the different types of natural turfgrass

BERMUDAGRASS Warm-season grass with an innate resistance to droughts. Grows dense with a dark green color and deep root system. Can tolerate heavy traffic and recover from it quickly, but it requires lots of sun.

CENTIPEDEGRASS Warm-season grass generally used for lawns. Works well in hot, humid, tropical climates and requires little maintenance. It's not good for athletics or high-traffic areas because it grows slowly and can't stand heavy wear.

FINE FESCUE Cool-season grass with deep green color that works well in cool areas and high altitudes. More of a lawn grass, it doesn't respond well to lots of traffic and has difficulty recovering from severe injury.

KENTUCKY BLUEGRASS Cool-season grass that grows densely with a rich green color. Although it tolerates cold, it requires a lot of water in stressful, hot weather. (It goes into dormancy during droughts.) Thrives in sunny areas.

RYEGRASS Cool-season grass with solid density and fine leaves that's known for its quick growth rate. Produces tough turf and grows low. Responds relatively well to wear.

SEASHORE PASPALUM Warm-season grass native to coastal regions. (Consequently, it thrives in salty soils.) Known for its uniformity and toughness.

ST. AUGUSTINEGRASS Warm-season grass of a light-green color that works well in coastal regions. Responds well to wear, thanks to its rapid and resilient growth habits.

TALL FESCUE Cool-season grass with dark color and moderate density. Responds well to wear and recovers quickly, particularly during rapid-growth periods in the spring and fall.

ZOYSIAGRASS Tough, coarse warm-season grass that is known for its dense growth. Works well in hot, humid climates and tolerates heavy traffic.

Pest control

Even with all the advanced research, the Winter Springs parks and recreation department still encountered one completely unexpected problem when the much-vaunted paspalum finally arrived: mysterious straight brown lines.

"You'd swear it was an irrigation problem or somebody had sprayed some Roundup there or something," Pula said. The crew chief blamed the irrigation guy, the irrigation guy blamed the pesticide person, and no one really knew for sure. Turns out none of them were right. An entomologist found the real culprit: cutworms. They've since become repeat offenders at Central Winds Park.

"From what we understand, if you're getting any paspalum, you're probably good to treat for it right after you put it in with sod," Pula said. "It may be coming in from the sod fields that way."

Diligence is paramount on just about very level when it comes to natural turf, and that goes double for pest control. The key is simple, according to Chalmers: Maintain a uniform surface, control recovery time and avoid any additive stress.

Pests, be they weeds, insects or disease, cause breakdowns in turf performance, which in turn makes it easier for injuries to occur. Weeds themselves aren't as tolerant of traffic and make it easier for players to slip. To prevent them, Chalmers suggests maintaining a healthy, thick canopy of turf. When the canopy wears down, so does its resistance to weedy invaders.

Irrigation and drainage

McAfee has performed countless irrigation audits over the past decade, and he sees one problem more often than not: over-watering, to the tune of 40 to 50 percent more than necessary. Just about everyone—field managers, homeowners, golf-course supervisors—does it, and it has the exact opposite of its intended effect.

"When you over-water, you're limiting available oxygen in the soil for that plant's root system," McAfee said. "You actually wind up with a weaker grass than you do with one that's watered correctly."

With much of the country facing drought conditions, over-watering is a luxury no one can afford. How much water turf needs depends on a lot of factors, the most important being geographical location and the rate of evapotranspiration (evaporation of water in the air and from within the plant).

In north Texas, McAfee uses about an inch of water a week during the spring and fall (if there's been no rainfall) and 1.5 to 1.75 inches during the summer. Most over-watering problems stem from poor water distribution, with automated systems being the worst offenders.

"One, they don't know how much water they're putting out, and two, when they see brown areas in the field, they water the whole field," McAfee said. "A lot of cases where the real issue comes in is a lot of these systems are put in poorly. They're not designed and put in right, so you're not getting good coverage of water. Therefore you'll have areas that will start showing a wilt before you really should see wilt. Therefore they start watering everything."

The problem is often compounded when organizations can't afford to fix it: All the money went into installation, and now they're stuck.

The soil itself also can present problems, like in Texas with its aquaphobic clay. Water fails to seep through the soil, so the top inch or two gets saturated, but the roots aren't getting anything. Once those top layers get saturated, additional water has nowhere to go, so it just stands on the field. Poor drainage also exacerbates soil compaction.

"This is probably the biggest rub and biggest problem that I see," McAfee said. "The majority of fields are built incorrectly, so they're not designed for drainage. The water just stands."

Good fields not only have turf that moves water downward well, but also are constructed on a grade that helps move water to the edges, where drains take care of the rest.

Staying ahead

If only there were a little pipe or some kind of system that took care of everything—the aeration, the pests, the irrigation. No dice. Even synthetic turf is hardly maintenance-free. Its infill components must be replaced over time, some types need to be groomed regularly, etc. There are always strings attached.

"We're still learning," Pula said. "We're the parks-and-recreation business; we don't have a lot of high-paid professionals here to detect problems. We try to stay on top of everything and do a real good job, and we really care about how our facilities look."

That learning process never ends, according to Chalmers. As a specialist of continuing education, he knows that better than most people. It comes down to patience, flexibility and the simple passage of time.

"If I have a recommendation for anyone," he said, "it's find out what's your most limiting factor in sports-turf performance or recreational-turf performance, and you try to work on those things that are most limiting, and not neglect them. And that takes expertise."

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.