Turf Time

By Randy Burkhardt

Professional sports teams have certain luxuries that others don't. In the NFL, teams will often resort to re-sodding when a field starts to wear down.

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Some will even truck the sod in from points a thousand miles away to get what they need. Unfortunately, for most camps, we don't have that luxury.

Despite the luxuries, NFL groundskeepers still have to be on top of their game, so to speak. Though re-sodding is not unusual, it is still far better, obviously, to keep the field going, and going well, as long as possible.

And most of the best professional sports turf managers and groundskeepers have cut their turf teeth in less luxurious, and more budget-conscious venues.

One such professional is John Nolan, who's the head groundskeeper for Soldier Field, and who operates as a contractor for the Chicago Park District. Nolan has been working on Soldier Field for 11 years, and was with the park district before that, beginning in 1976. He's worked all over the city in various grounds maintenance and landscaping capacities.

Bending the Rules
Nolan says he "breaks all the rules" at Soldier Field, which includes having the wherewithal to re-sod when necessary. It also means having grow covers in the cold months, plenty of irrigation and seeding and fertilizing more than normal.

While grow covers and the ability to re-sod are definite luxuries, strategic fertilizing and seeding can still be done on a limited budget, and can extend playing seasons and save fields.

"I fertilize a lot, and I'm constantly seeding in the worn out areas, like the goal mouths. Sometimes I'll aerate it in, slit-seed it, just throw it out or topdress over it, depending on what we're doing," explains Nolan. "I spoon-feed the fertilizer.

I don't put a lot down, but I put it down more often -- 1/4 to 3/4 pound per thousand square feet, but I'll do it every 10 days or two weeks, unless it's too hot. I really don't use the slow-release stuff; I use the quick-release, old-style fertilizer. I like to be able to hit it hard. If the temperatures are nice in the spring or fall I'll do it every seven days. Over the season I put down anywhere from 10-12 pounds per thousand square feet of nitrogen, more than 12 pounds of potassium and about half that in phosphorus. At normal places they're lucky to get a pound or two per year. Our golf courses are probably about four or five pounds, mostly for greens."

But if you can work it into the budget, having more fertilizer and seed on hand can pay short- and long-term dividends.

"We use blue grass sod, and overseed with rye because it germinates a lot quicker. Bluegrass takes too long to germinate -- sometimes 10 or 20 days. With ryegrass I can get it going in two or three days. But we prefer to use blue grass seed and use it in the spring or fall, along with rye grass," says Nolan.

"One of the things we do is seed before the event, because they'll push it in with their cleats. For football, we throw seed just down the middle -- like 100 pounds of rye grass, between the 30s. If you're throwing seed in the summer you've probably got too much seed -- you're trying to keep it green for the cooler temperatures in the fall and spring. Moving those goals around is also real important. You can keep it going by not beating up the same spot all the time, and you can play more games. And once they see you're making it look good, maybe you'll get a bigger budget for seed and fertilizer."

The ultimate key to great-looking fields is rotation, rotation, rotation. Many switch the configurations of their soccer fields so that the same areas don't receive the same beating time after time. Either way, it's about giving your fields some rest, which is particularly important after a heavy rain.

Synthetic Synthesis
Another option that's becoming more realistic each year, considering both cost and quality, is artificial turf. Some parks and recreation agencies, particularly in areas prone to drought, are finding that installing artificial turf not only saves in water and maintenance costs, but makes their sports fields more desirable, thus raising revenues.

For a camp that has sports fields, artificial turf can be a potential marketing tool as campers brag about the awesome fields they played on at camp.

Randy Burkhardt, a landscape architect employed by Douglas County (Colo.) as the parks and trails planner says, "In the Denver area synthetic turf costs about three times more to install than irrigated blue grass turf, but we feel that we will be able to amortize the additional costs in six to eight years through the following factors: By using synthetic turf there is a significant reduction in the amount of maintenance hours per field, materials needed (like paint) to line fields, there's no fertilizer, no irrigation supplies, no weed control, no aeration, no water costs and no mowing. In doing the calculations on amortization we used present water rates and present usage rates, but we expect water rates to rise significantly in the next ten years. We use our irrigated turf fields about seven months per year, and are using our synthetic turf year-round, which will account for an additional five months of revenue."

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Quick-Reference
Maintenance Tips

By John Nolan, head groundskeeper, Soldier Field, Chicago

1. On fields (like football/soccer) where you have enough space, try to move the field over or turn it 180 degrees to try to spread out the high-wear areas. If it's a combination game and practice field ask the teams to move the practices around as much as possible to spread the wear out. Most teams have a habit of practicing in the same spot all day. Do it as much as time and budgets allow.

2. A recent study I read has begun to prove what I have seen before. If you know an area is going to get high use or wear, seed into it before the event happens. If you continue to seed it on a 7-10 day basis you have a good chance to keep the area green, assuming the weather cooperates.

3. We have cool season grass here in Chicago, and the sod is mostly bluegrass. A lot of people insist on reseeding with bluegrass seed and that is a good thing, but when the usage is high, seeding with perennial ryegrass will help heal the areas quicker simply because it germinates and grows faster. You can get ryegrass seed to germinate as fast as 2-5 days in good conditions as opposed to bluegrass germinating in 7-21 days. Use both if you can. They sell bluegrass-ryegrass blends, and the rye will help protect the younger bluegrass plants until they have a chance to get going. I have also found that you should talk to your seed supplier and ask about the germination characteristics of the different varieties. Some grasses grow differently in the spring as opposed to the summer and fall. We use straight ryegrass over bluegrass sod and seed with bluegrass as much as possible.

4. When you have spots that are low or compacted and won't drain, and you can't spend a lot of time and money to fix, try what I have heard called a French Drain. It is basically a hole dug in the center of the low spot and filled with sand or a calcinated clay type of product. Sometimes a piece of plastic drain pipe is used vertically in the center of the hole. You can do this on grass areas and skinned infield areas also. Leave it an inch or so below the turf or infield mix. If it is compacted try to aerate it as much as possible.

5. The more often you mow the thicker it will grow, regardless of how high you are mowing. We mow from one inch to 1 3/4 inches. The Chicago Park District mows from 2 1/2 in to 4 inches.

6. As a friend of mine and fellow groundskeeper likes to say, "Grass grows by inches and is killed by feet."