Maintaining Sports Fields & Grounds
By Emily Tipping
ith the Super Bowl celebration now past (though it's Super Bowl Eve as I write this), we can pause to appreciate the views of the pros when it comes to turf. The NFL Players Association recently conducted its bi-annual survey of its player members and ranked the 31 pro fields as a result.
The players still seem to prefer natural grass, with four of the top five fields being natural. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts and an artificial turf surface, was ranked fifth. But three of the bottom-ranked five fields are also natural turf.
In the last survey of the players, conducted in 2006, players' number-one suggestion was to make all fields grass to prevent injuries, but that suggestion was followed up with a request to keep grass fields well maintained, not to allow multiple-use fields, and to put artificial infilled surfaces in cities where the weather is bad. That might explain why Chicago—home to some nasty winters—is among the lowest-ranked natural fields in this year's list.
But when you come down from the heights of pro football to the day-in, day-out managing of turf at a high school stadium, a park district baseball field or any of a number of other facilities that must stretch their dollars—and their fields—to meet the needs of the playing public, you'll find agencies across the country looking for all kinds of ways to do more with less.
Many suggest that switching to synthetic turf will allow you to maximize your programming capabilities, but if you're choosing to stay with natural turf fields, that's OK, too. There are benefits—and drawbacks—to both types of surfaces.
Many players—and turf managers and grounds professionals—simply prefer natural turf, as seen in the NFL Players survey, and there are other benefits as well. The UC Riverside Turf Web site reports that natural turf reduces runoff and soil erosion, protects groundwater and surface water quality, dissipates heat, helps decompose pollutants and even protects from injuries and reduces stress. And because they are regenerative, natural turf fields are easier to fix when bare spots occur. They sequester carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air, and they are cooler than synthetic fields.
The key to keeping natural turf in good playing condition is a careful maintenance routine and ensuring the fields are not overused. As the UCR Turf site states, "A smooth, durable, uniform turf surface is important to the play and outcome of a game. Ball roll and bounce are influenced by the turf cover and its management, as are player movements, such as running, cutting, veering, stopping, pivoting, dodging, lunging, jumping, landing and walking. The overuse of many community sports facilities can push the limits of turf to recover."
David Anderson, grounds manager with Hempfield School District in Landisville, Pa., works on a combination of synthetic and natural turf fields, and said there are benefits to both types, though with his background in horticulture and agronomy, he has a natural preference for natural. The district has three relatively new synthetic turf fields, used for football, soccer, lacrosse and hockey, as well as several natural grass fields used for baseball and softball, some lacrosse, soccer and hockey.
"All things considered, I'm more of a natural grass person," Anderson said. "I'd just as soon all of the fields be natural grass and have more control over who's on the fields. In my mind, on natural grass fields when the usage is monitored correctly, I think you can get a lot more accomplished."
But he added, "…in this day and age, when everybody wants to play and you can't seem to keep people off, the synthetic clearly has its place."
This is why so many communities—especially where space for more fields is limited—have turned to synthetic options.
Synthetic surfaces are typically made from a combination of fibers, made from nylon, polypropylene or polyethylene connected to a backing material. The aim of most manufacturers is to make the fibers resemble natural grass as much as possible. In addition, there is a base material, or infill, typically made from granular materials such as crumb rubber, made from recycled tires, plastic pellets, sand, or a combination of sand and crumb rubber.
In New York City, where space is at a premium, synthetic turf is used in about 13 percent of the Parks Department's 952 playing fields. The department says it uses synthetic turf because it: provides even playing surfaces, has padding that prevents injuries, needs no watering or mowing, uses no fertilizers or pesticides, can be used all year and in most weather conditions, does not need to be closed to protect or re-sod, and lasts a long time with little maintenance.
Many of these benefits are showcased at the new 183,961-square-foot synthetic turf playing surface at St. Joseph Collegiate Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. The field is home turf to football, soccer, lacrosse and baseball.
"We wanted to go with a turf-type product because of the longevity," said Robert Scott, president and principal at St. Joseph's. "With the traditional type of fields, we found that by the time we were finished with football practice, the field was damaged for the entire year."
Before installing its new field, St. Joe's had to limit the use of the field to just football in the fall. "We could not use it for soccer because of overuse. We would have a mud ball out there," Scott explained. "We wanted a field that could be used 12 months out of the year and could be used for multiple activities. We saw the turf as an opportunity to allow our athletic teams, physical education and summer programs to have access to our field without worrying about damage."
At Midwood Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., an NFL-donated synthetic turf field is considered one of the best sports surfaces in the greater New York area, and the field sees a lot of use from both Midwood High School in Flatbush, as well as nearby Edward R. Murrow High School. The field also hosts city-wide playoffs, all-star games and many other events.
According to Midwood Athletic Director Mary Anne Elder, "everyone's banging on the door to use it." She added, "We have two football teams, two soccer teams and two lacrosse teams using the field, in addition to over 8,000 kids who get to enjoy the field for PE. It's fabulous, and we are extremely grateful to everyone involved that helped provide this to our community."
The 66,500-square-foot field was donated by the NFL as part of NFL Play 60, a youth health and fitness campaign that encourages kids to be active at least 60 minutes each day.
Other benefits that are often cited for synthetic turf fields include consistency and maintenance costs. Though consistency should not be a problem when natural turf fields are well cared for, the problem is that many are not. And when a natural turf field is not maintained well, problems can develop that may lead to injuries.
According to Keep America Playing, there are some key steps to take to keep your natural turf in playing condition. First, use fields as little as possible when they're wet. Second, rotate play areas. And third, allow the turf to recover in the spring before you start practice.
We'll add a fourth essential step here: keep on the grass. In other words, maintenance is the key to keeping your fields in playing condition.
The UCR Turf Web site states, "It is unwise to cut the school maintenance budget (irrigation, fertilization, pest and thatch control) for athletic fields planted to turf because developing athletes are put at significant risk." UCR Turf cites a study of football injuries at a dozen Pennsylvania high schools, which revealed that one-fifth of injuries were possibly field-related. When the turfgrass is properly cared for, the fields have better traction, better cushioning and better resiliency, and lower hardness, which reduces the probability of injury.
When you think about taking care of your natural turf fields, the first thing you need to remember is that you're caring for a living thing.
The Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) emphasizes that natural turfgrass fields are "living, breathing organisms that require mowing, watering, fertilizing, time off from play, and depending on disease and pests, the application of plant protectants." Additional maintenance includes aerification at various times of the year to ease compaction, and removing debris.
Here is a basic list of things you need to consider when it comes to making sure your natural turf fields are properly cared for. For more specific information on your particular field, consult—or better yet, hire—a professional grounds manager:
- Know Your Soil and Fertilize: You can't know what your field needs if you don't know, well, what your field needs. If you haven't already done it, you need to get your soil tested. That information will help you learn how and when to fertilize. There are entire books on these subjects alone.
- Cut the Grass, As Often as Possible: The essential rules for caring for your home lawn applies to your sports fields as well: keep your mower blades sharp, never remove more than a third of the growth in a single mowing, and don't collect your clippings—leave them in place to provide food for your growing grass. If you mow as often as you can, you'll be rewarded with an actively growing, lush green field.
- Aerate: Aeration is essentially shaking things up to relieve compaction of the soil. It's important to do this when your field is actively growing, so spring is ideal. Don't do it in hot weather, when your grass may be dormant.
- Quench the Thirst: Ideally, you want 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week. If rainfalls are few and far between, you'll want an irrigation system set up.
- Topdressing: This means adding more sand or soil to the surface. It can give you a chance to improve the quality of your soil or just even things out when the surface develops ruts and wear patterns where the play usually occurs.
- Grow More Grass: Overseeding is a regular part of maintenance. You can fill in bare spots and encourage better growth by adding more grass seed to the field.
Again, these are just the basics. Depending on the type of field and the amount of use, you'll need to adjust what you're doing.
"I'm always partial to grass, and I think that if maintenance practices are budgeted properly and usage of the fields is budgeted properly, you can do a lot with a grass field," Anderson said. He added that if you could take the money you would spend on the synthetic field and its maintenance over time and put it into a fund to use for maintenance of a natural grass field over time, along with controlling usage on your fields, you probably would come out even. "But if you can't or are unwilling to control usage on the field, you're probably better off going with synthetic," he said.
And in fact, that is exactly why so many communities do choose to go with synthetics: to maximize playing time on the field and to minimize maintenance. But while synthetic may often be billed as maintenance-free, and while the everyday maintenance and pregame requirements are definitely less than those required for natural turf, the fact is that some maintenance is still needed.
Synthetic turf requires periodic replacement of infill, occasional seam repair, removal of weeds and debris and so forth. That said, the maintenance requirements are much lower than natural turf.
At Albemarle County Public Schools' Monticello High School in Charlottesville, Va., just the high school teams currently use the school's football fields, but the school is making a switch to synthetic turf this spring. They cite the usual reasons—getting more use out of the field—but maintenance is also a factor. According to Athletic Director Fitzgerald Barnes, once the switch is made, maintenance costs are expected to drop from $35,000 to $5,500 annually.
Anderson at Hempfield School District agreed that maintenance is different for synthetic turf. "The time that's needed to get a field ready for a game is minimal with the synthetic, whereas with the natural there's mowing involved, lining involved and other things you need to do," he said.
"In addition," he added, "in overall maintenance on the synthetic of course you don't have to mow, fertilize or spray, and you don't have to be concerned about the wear and tear."
However, he warned against assuming that all of the reduced requirements mean that synthetic turf is maintenance-free.
"You do have to groom it periodically," he said, adding that in season that's every two weeks and out of season, it's once a month. "And there seems to be more trash pickup that has to occur on synthetic." Spills are also more of a concern on synthetic, he added.
To these tasks, the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) adds in its "A Guide to Synthetic and Natural Turf Grass for Sports Fields" (2nd edition), that while you should ask the manufacturer of your synthetic turf field for the recommended maintenance practices for your specific field, typical tasks include sweeping, dragging, loosening and redistributing of infill and cleaning, which may require special solvents and cleansers. (For more information on maintaining both types of fields and estimates of the various costs involved, check out www.stma.org.)
Synthetic or natural, the grass is (hopefully) green enough on your own field that you're not eyeing your neighbor's with envy, but what about that other shade of green? The kind that means you're using less water and helping the earth?
Manufacturers of synthetic turf have begun to point out all the ways they can help facilities earn points toward LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
How do they do this? By reducing or eliminating water used for irrigation, by diverting waste from landfills and reusing materials and by using plenty of recycled content (mostly in the infill, which is often made from recycled tires).
For those who want another option, check out the solution the International School of Boston is using. It's the first site in the United States to feature synthetic turf with an all-natural infill material.
The new surface was developed in Italy, where it is used on professional soccer fields, and is derived from coconut shells and cork—both renewable resources. It absorbs water, produces less runoff and the surface temperature stays closer to that of natural grass.
While this natural infill costs about 10 percent more than a field made with rubber infill, the school believes the safety and "green" aspects of the field are a selling point for prospective students and their parents.
And finally, getting back to the pros—and back to natural grass—we turn to the new Washington Nationals Park, which is the first major professional stadium to earn LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. This $611 million Major League Baseball stadium in Southeast Washington, D.C., opened in spring 2008 and features a variety of sustainable design elements.
Larry DiVito, head groundskeeper with the Washington Nationals, took part in choosing the makeup of the field, including grass and field additives, with the objective of conserving resources—both money and water.
"I was very involved from the start of the new stadium," DiVito said in a press release. "The new field holds more water and nutrients, and we haven't spent as much on fertilizer."
His field doesn't just stand up to the rain, though. It also stands up after being covered for a large event.
"Not long after the park was opened, the Pope held audience to more than 40,000 spectators," DiVito said. "The grounds held up well and the field was moist underneath."
It's a tribute to the efforts of DiVito and his team—and to turf professionals at facilities of all stripes—when the field can bounce back and be ready for play.
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