Seven Keys to Athletic Field Maintenance
By James Bergdoll
If I had a dollar to add to my maintenance budget for every time I have heard the phrase "Do more with less," there is a good chance I could purchase a new piece of mowing equipment or hire a sports field manager. Unfortunately, in most cases, park maintenance tends to rank lower in priority when it comes to budgeting and, in a bad year or change in administration, be a place where cuts are made. When budgets are cut and staff is reduced, the amount of responsibility never seems to decrease. Therefore, park maintenance managers often have to be creative to ensure natural grass athletic fields are safe and playable without the help of a dedicated sports field manager. There are a few basics that should be followed to provide safe and playable athletic fields.
Mowing is the most basic and important aspect to athletic field maintenance, whether this is done with in-house staff or contracted out. Depending on the type of grass, climate, sport, etc., there are a lot of variables to consider for proper mowing height of cut and frequency. However, for the health of the plant, never remove more than a third of the leaf blade per cutting. This may require changing the frequency to adjust with the growth of the plant. Also, having sharp blades for a clean cut will help reduce potential for stress, pest susceptibility, and give a better-looking, consistent cut. If contracting out, be sure to develop detailed specifications for vendors to follow.
If available, irrigate deeply and infrequently. What does that mean? Irrigate as needed to wet the top 4 to 5 inches of the soil profile. Deep wetting improves rooting depth, and roots are what sustain the turf during periods of high wear. Routinely do an irrigation audit to verify the system is operating effectively, getting proper coverage and putting out the needed amount of water. If irrigation is not available, a change to a more drought-tolerant turfgrass variety or species is recommended. The turfgrass breeders and producers are releasing new varieties better suited for less water use. Even if irrigation is available, it would be prudent to consider a more drought-tolerant turfgrass to reduce water use.
3. Plant Nutrition
Proper fertilization is key to plant nutrition and every site or field is different. It is recommended to do soil testing for each site or field as the first step in planning annual fertilization. Most states have free or very low-cost options to provide the basic information from soil testing. Fertilizer vendors may also be able to assist with soil sampling to come up with a program that best fits the specific field. Turfgrass types and soil types will be factors that determine the amount of nitrogen, considered the most important nutrient for plant health, applied per growing season. Fertilizer vendors and contractors can provide fertilization to sites if in-house staff is not available or capable of handling.
4. Drainage & Aeration
Proper field drainage is important for maintaining athletic fields whether through surface draining or infiltration. Surface drainage moves water off the playing surface, allowing for quicker use after rain. Aeration reduces soil compaction, promotes root growth and improves air exchange between the soil and atmosphere. Aeration also allows water to infiltrate the soil and reduce runoff or puddling. For recovery purposes, it is best to aerate when grass is actively growing, and some field experts will tell you that you can never aerate too much!
5. Pest Management
Proper plant nutrition, mowing and cultural practices greatly reduce the chance of pests. Also, newer varieties of turfgrasses are being bred and released that are showing resistance to diseases and other pests. Weed control is probably the most important aspect to pest management. If possible, a pre-emergent application of herbicide is helpful for keeping unwanted weeds at bay throughout the playing season. Note: If mowing contractors are being utilized to mow athletic fields, there is a high probability that weed seeds can be brought in from other sites. Therefore, I highly recommend using pre-emergent herbicides in these cases. Fertilization contractors can also be used for pesticide applications timed with fertilization, if needed.
If possible, depending on the location and grass type, overseed thin areas throughout the playing and growing season for most cool-season grasses. Be sure to consider your timing on this if you are using pre-emergent herbicides, however. For warm-season grass types this is not really an option without quite a bit of oversight and input. In that case, sodding or sprigging may be best for thin or worn areas.
7. Research & Networking
This is listed as a basic for providing safe and playable athletic fields because there is a lot of information available regarding proper maintenance practices. It is highly recommended to join the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and local chapter whether your organization has a dedicated field manager or not. The STMA has a large collection of beneficial information and articles related to athletic field maintenance. Also, there are nearly 3,000 members who are just a phone call or email away who would be happy to help out with field maintenance inquiries. Outside of the STMA, most state universities with agriculture programs have information for turfgrass management. These programs also have a wealth of knowledge for athletic field maintenance specific to the region where they are located.
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