Dressing Up Turf

By Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s spring again. The skies are blue, the flowers are in bloom, and kids are counting down the days remaining in the school year.

And you have just realized it’s past time to get your fields in shape for an entire season of sports camps. The fields, including those for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and even football, are going to need serious maintenance to bring them up to the usual standards.

Creating a field-maintenance checklist is a great way to keep track of all the things that need to be done on a regular basis. Some items might only need to be checked off each month, but more essential tasks need to be completed weekly or even daily.

Synthetic-Turf Fields
Synthetic-turf fields don’t need mowing and fertilizing, but that doesn't mean the facility doesn't require some maintenance.

• Spend time removing debris from the fields, including leaves, seeds, trash, etc. A leaf blower may get the job done, but don't hold it too close to the surface. A soft rake is probably a safer choice.

• Next, groom the turf. Whether you're trying to help the fields rebound from snow loads, or just want the facility to look better, grooming is a great way to bring them back to a good playing condition. The frequency and type of grooming varies according to recommendations from the manufacturer. One form of grooming--dragging--involves pulling a piece of synthetic turf or a soft brush behind a utility vehicle. Power-grooming equipment also is available, with rotary-action brushes mounted on a motorized unit. A third form of grooming--scarification--involves using a sweeper or greens groomer. In all grooming, the goal is the same: preventing or remedying compaction of the surface, redistributing and re-leveling the infill, and bringing fibers upright again.

• Once the surface is upright, make sure all drainage systems are working properly. Check cleanouts and any areas where clogs might cause problems. Remember that no field performs well if it's wet (even one that doesn't get muddy).

• Keep machinery in good repair if it's used on or near the turf so that it does not leak oil or other fluids onto the sport surface. Equipment should also feature wide, soft tires, sometimes referred to as ”turf tires,” and should be driven slowly with wide turns to avoid disturbing the aggregate base of the turf. Do not park or allow machinery to idle on the surface.

• At least once a year, have the fields professionally inspected and tested to make sure their playing qualities remain stable. (Something to remember: infill may shift in high-traffic areas, such as goal boxes, batter's boxes and midfield areas.)

• Do a periodic walk-through of the facility, checking for loose seams or other problems. Remember that catching a problem early makes it easier and less expensive to repair. Although an experienced maintenance professional on staff may be able to repair problems, contacting an installer for advice is recommended.

Once the season is underway, maintenance should continue. Why? Because kids arrive to games armed with treats like soda pop, sunflower seeds and other snacks, and those pose a threat to turf because they get dropped and spilled, resulting in stains, contamination and more.

The fewer contaminants allowed on the surface, the cleaner it will remain. Prohibit smoking, food and beverages, gum, chewing tobacco and other substances.

Remove debris immediately, before it has a chance to decompose and filter into the turf and down through the infill. Each time a field is used, do a quick post-game inspection, and clean any spills or stains, using warm water and a mild soap.

Natural Fields
Ideally, all fields should be maintained year-round for strong turf that is resistant to wear, insects, weeds and disease. Realistically, however, by the end of winter, many fields are in rough shape. After all, not much can maintain or refresh snow-covered fields.

• Start by removing debris from the fields. If you are concerned about the health of the turf, contact a soil expert to do a test each spring and make recommendations.

• Test all irrigation equipment to ensure there are no leaks, breaks or blockages. If problems are found, consult construction diagrams to locate and investigate them.

• Look for any bare or skinned spots on the turf, and ascertain that no weeds are growing there. If grass seeding has been done or is planned, make sure no invasive plants crowd out the new grasses.

• If cool-season fields have not been dormant-seeded in the fall, many field managers will core, overseed, and drag the fields to break up the cores and ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Once all danger of frost has passed, begin regular aeration to minimize compaction and help grass plants develop deep, healthy roots. Core cultivation is one method of aeration; another is deep-tine aeration. The latter is used if compaction is minimal.

• Begin fertilizing. The type of fertilizer depends on the individual grass species, the climate and more. Once growth has begun, nitrogen-rich fertilizer is a good way to aid recovery of fields and speed green-up; however, the trade-off is that this type of fertilizer contributes to a weak root zone, which can make fields less resistant to constant use. Consult a turf manager or field builder for specific questions.

• Once grass is actively growing, begin mowing. Do not mow fields when they are wet, as the grass can sustain damage. Various types of grass are kept at different heights; however, the mistake most often made is cutting grass too short. Remember that a taller blade will shade the soil, keeping it cooler and helping to maintain moisture. It also resists wear, and has a better root system.

• Guard against weeds, which can ruin the consistency and health of turf. When to apply herbicides is a matter of debate (some turf experts believe spring is the best time, while others say fall is better). Find out what works best for specific fields. Remember that if you have already planted grass seed, you may need to forego using herbicides for the present.

• Insecticides may be necessary from time to time. Always use the least toxic method of insect control available.

• Other aspects of field care (sometimes overlooked by those who don't work with turf) are:

1. Thatch management--tending the tightly intermingled layer of living and dead grass leaves, stems, roots, rhizomes and/or plant parts that develop between the green, living grass and the soil surface

2. Topdressing--adding sand or soil to the surface of growing turfgrass to improve soil quality, control thatch, fill small depressions, and create a more even playing surface

3. Overseeding--adding grass seed to existing fields, often during the season if the fields become so worn that they are not recovering.

Throughout the season, work with coaches, grounds crews and others to keep the fields in good shape. If possible, limit the use of the game field to specific times, and allow it to rest between uses.

The grounds crew also can set up and rotate temporary goal posts for practice. There may be times when fields simply have to be closed for rejuvenation, such as after extra-heavy use or bad weather.

It may become essential to have backup plans for fields, since they shouldn't be used when they're wet. Not doing so will undo all the maintenance hours you've put in, and leave you with muddy, torn-up fields.

Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports- facility construction. For more information, call (866) 501-ASBA (2722), or visit www.sportsbuilders.org.

Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.