Pre-Season Prep + High-Tech Fields

In this article we will examine what you should do to have your athletic fields in top condition prior to a grueling season of sports. Your primary objectives should be to provide safe, playable and aesthetically pleasing fields for your customers.

Your mission should then be to "back plan" from that opening day to each activity you need to accomplish in order to make that field the best. This will cause you to do different things to different fields at different times of the year.

In other words, you won't treat your spring/summer baseball and softball complexes the same as you would your fall football/soccer facilities. The first thing you'll need to do is determine when the busiest part of the season begins for any particular field or complex.

Spring Sports

Spring baseball and softball and other spring use fields are probably the most difficult to have in prime condition when the season begins. Oftentimes play begins while the grass is still dormant, inflicting additional damage to the turf.

Agronomically speaking, fall is the time to prepare the turfgrass for a spring season sport. Fertilizing cool season grasses in the fall with 1 lb. of N/1000 ft2 of a quick-release source of nitrogen will prepare the grass for a fast green-up in the spring and in some cases reduce the severity of dormancy throughout winter.

The timing of this can be a little tricky though. You'll want to make the application after the grass has stopped top growth in the fall but before it goes into full dormancy. This fertilization forces the growth to concentrate in the root system, which will grow well into late fall and early winter.

Carbohydrate reserves are built up in the root system for use in the spring. When the grass begins growing in the spring, it draws upon the reserves and provides a steady growth without that fast flush you can get from early spring fertilization.

You should then wait until mid to late spring to apply fertilizer and use a slow release or combination of slow and fast release nitrogen sources.

When spring does break you should do a complete safety survey of your fields. Roll your fields if they have had a lot of frost heave; repair "lips" around your skinned areas and base paths; check your fields for foreign objects such as bottles, cans or rocks before mowing; check and repair signage, fences and walkways; repair any dugout damage and make sure your bleachers are safe.

Summer Sports

Sports that don't begin until summer afford you some time to do some major repair work in spring. The sooner you can begin work in the spring the better your fields will be when the season begins.

Aerifying, overseeding and topdressing in early spring will give the grass time to heal and establish. Using sod to patch areas that are thoroughly worn out is also a viable alternative in the spring and will be well healed in by the time season starts.

Once again, on cool season grasses a mid- to late-spring application of a combination of slow- and quick-release nitrogen will keep the grass growing into the summer season but not at a rate you cannot keep up with.

Pre-emergent herbicides can be applied, but remember you won't be able to overseed throughout the season with pre-emergent applications. An alternative might be to use post-emergent herbicides if crabgrass or other annual grassy weeds become problematic. Remember, the best way to keep weeds out, either grassy weeds or broadleaves, is to have a good, thick stand of turfgrass.

On warm season turf, summer is the time to really force the growth. Aerifying during windows of opportunity and applying quick release nitrogen will keep Bermuda grass healthy, thick and strong.

Fall Sports

If you have the luxury of having fields that are only used in the fall you have the entire growing season to prepare them. For warm season turf, this means mid-summer aerification, topdressing and fertilization to produce a thick consistent surface that will last well into the fall, whether or not you overseed.

For cool season grass, the summer months are quite stressful. You should complete the aerification, overseeding and sod patching in the spring and fertilize with slow release fertilizer in the hot summer months then increase your agronomic activities in late summer and fall as the season progresses. In either case -- warm or cool season grasses -- you want the turfgrass to be as healthy as possible going into season with a moderate layer of thatch and mat to withstand the rigors of fall sports such as football and soccer.

Multi-Use, Multi-Season Fields

Some of you maintain fields that are used nearly year round if not all year round. On these fields you must look for windows of opportunity to do the work that needs to be done whether or not it is the best time agronomically.

Try to aerify whenever you can; it is one of the best cultural practices you can do for your fields. If you are concerned with the time constraints and clean up of core aerification use solid tines.

Keep nutrient levels moderate to high with slow release or a combination of slow and quick release nitrogen sources to keep grass growing without a flush of growth. And, in the case of cool season grasses, keep viable seed in the ground at all times.

As with everything else in today's world, even sport fields are going high tech. But what does that really mean in the construction of sport fields and what are the benefits to you?

Here are some high-tech basics... High-tech fields are built with a high content of sand (~80%), usually a smaller proportion of an organic component such as peat (~15%) and sometimes a soil amendment such as calcined clay or diatomaceous earth with specific water and nutrient holding characteristics (~5%).

This mixture of sand, peat and amendments is called the "root zone" and can vary from 8 to 12 inches in depth. It is usually placed over 4" of gravel.

Almost all high-tech fields have an underground drainage system to carry excess water away from the site and an automated irrigation system is a must.

This article isn't going to be a how-to article per se, but rather an exploration of the concept and what a high tech field may or may not do for you.

Why Sand? Or for that matter why high tech? There are three reasons to build high-tech fields, and they are drainage, drainage and drainage.

It only takes one game of football, soccer, lacrosse or field hockey played in the rain to ruin a natural soil field for the remainder of the year, and the best way to drain water out of a field is with sand.

Sand, or at least the right sand, is porous. It allows water to quickly penetrate the surface, yet if your field is designed properly it will hold a reservoir of water six to eight inches from the surface which will train roots to grow deep.

But not just any sand will work; it must be graded by particle size and particle distribution and mixed with the proper organic and other amendments in order to provide the drainage, footing and nutrient holding capacity needed to grow turfgrass and withstand the rigors of sports.

In essence, then, what a sand-based field does, if designed properly, is move water as quickly as possible from the surface, drain the excess water away and hold, either in organic matter, soil amendments or a perched water table, enough water to grow good strong sports turf.

If a high-tech sand-based sport field is designed well, built well and managed properly, you will have the best playing surface possible.

Struggles with Sand

While all of this sounds great, there are a few things to know before you embark on building a high-tech sand-based field.

First and foremost, they are not indestructible.

Over scheduling and overuse of natural grass sport fields will doom them for destruction whether they are built of sand or native soils. They are, after all, a living, breathing ecosystem that needs to be in balance with their use.

They need time between seasons to heal and repair themselves and they need to be managed properly in order to do so. However, if managed properly, they can take substantially more use and abuse than a native soil field and they will repair faster in the off-season.

Second, there is a learning curve to managing high sand content high-tech fields. Due to the large pore spaces in sand, when the water flows through so do the nutrients. Both watering and nutritional practices must be altered.

Remember, though, that these pore spaces also provide for an easy exchange of air for the roots and an easy place for the roots to grow deep into the root zone.

Third, not all high-tech fields are alike. There are many variations of depth of the root zone, types of sand found in the area, types of peat and types of soil amendments. Some designers are actually adding a small percentage of soil into the root zone to increase stability.

Bells & Whistles

What I've described in terms of a sand-based root zone is just the beginning of what can be put into a high-tech field. In the northern climates, heating systems are popular and in the warmer climates cool air is used to cool down the root zone.

Sub-surface air exchange systems can exchange the air in the entire root zone of a field in less than an hour. Special stabilizing fibers can be added to the root zone mix or "sewed" into the established turf make the field more firm.

As mentioned earlier, a well designed, well built, well maintained high-tech sand-based field will provide the best playing surface possible. So if you are in the process of planning a new stadium, new sports complex or field system I would encourage you to explore a high-tech field.

But remember, you must be able to control usage. Depending on your climate, turfgrass species, field design and management practices a high-tech field could be capable of handling 35 to 75 events; an event being defined as any activity on the field. A game would be an event, a practice would be an event, a band practice would be an event, and a picnic would be an event. You get my drift.

There are many proficient sport field design and sport field construction companies out there. The STMA (Sports Turf Managers Association) is a great source of information and contacts. There are also many sport field consulting companies at your disposal.

Please take advantage of the successes and mistakes made in the past and build the field of your dreams. You won't be disappointed!

Dale Getz is a Certified Sport Field Manager (CSFM) for The Toro Company. Getz has 18 years of experience in turf management, including 12 years as the athletic facilities manager at the University of Notre Dame.

Bryan BuchkoComment