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Athletic Turf-establishing a budget friendly, environmentally sound, and effective management plan

Athletic turf is America’s most high profile lawn–from the Master’s golf tournament in Augusta Georgia, to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, Americans spend hours watching teams from little league to the major leagues show off their skills on athletic turf.  Athletic turf most often shows up at schools and park districts and it broader than just baseball, football, and soccer fields.  Playgrounds also require management similar to athletic fields.  Because most of these facilities are in the public eye and involve our children, there are strong feelings, that are not necessarily scientifically founded, that skew the way we are allowed to manage the athletic turf.  We have invited friend and mentor Tim Madden from Northeast Nursery, Greenhouse, and Turf Supply to give some guidelines for some practical athletic turf management techniques.  Tim has an extensive background from the world of golf courses.  He was past superintendent at the Edison Club, Mount Snow Resort, and the Equinox–so without further fanfare here is Tim…….

Today’s expectation for the quality of the playing surface is pretty high for most of our outdoor games, but seemingly seldom able to please either the athlete or coaches. For decades now television has shown us just how perfect a venue for competition can be; The Masters, World Cup, and MLB all show us what turfgrass can look like with the right amount of knowhow and resources. The two things that many schools and towns are lacking during tight fiscal times. When money gets tight it’s typically the maintenance budget that takes a hit first, and often the maintenance of the playing fields, beyond mowing and marking, is the first area to be cut. Basic field maintenance does not have to be costly, and with a longer term view of the health of the grass, real results can be achieved.

First, test the soil by a reputable lab, and have results reviewed by a professional in the turfgrass maintenance field. The pH of the soil is typically the starting point to look at and the easiest to correct if necessary. Often this alone may result in dramatic changes to the vigor of the field. When the pH is in the correct range for the soil type and grass species the other nutrients in the soil are more readily available for the plants to use resulting in stronger, healthier fields. Adjustments and additional inputs can be made after this has been realized.

Secondly, make some holes. Athletic fields take a beating, and much of it concentrated in a few small areas; in soccer It’s at the goals and centerfield, in baseball the outfielders positions and the mound walk-off. You see this wear because the constant traffic compacts the soil eliminating the space between soil particles, pore space. Without pore space there is no place for water and air in the soil. Water as we all know is necessary for all life. The air in the soil is required for the chemical reaction to take place that allows water and nutrients to enter the root hairs to nourish the plant. Aerating the fields routinely helps relieve the compaction and results in a soil that can hold the air and water necessary for growth. This process does take a specialized piece of equipment of which there are many options, some better than most. The ability to make a deep, clean hole with proper spacing is key. Many machines only take shallow, widely spaced plugs and are more of a ‘feel good’ program than those that offer real results. Check with a company that focuses on turfgrass maintenance and see if they have the equipment and staff to do this properly.

Third, understand that not all grasses are created equal. Seed companies spend years and a whole lot of money, to breed and test grass species for specific applications; wear tolerance, drought tolerance, color, dwarf habit, low fertility needs, and much more. These typically are not what you will find on the shelf at your local hardware store. Sales people and your lawn care specialist are up to speed on what’s available and the best option for a specific area of use. What’s best on a soccer field may not be the same for around the school grounds. For additional information look at the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) website. Overseeding into an established stand of grass at aerating time is a great strategy, the holes make for very good seedbed; protected from foot traffic as they germinate and start to grow, and not as likely to dry out quickly being out of direct sunlight. Introducing newer species chosen for your site will help with the long term improvement of your fields.

Fourth, fight the weeds. This is a sensitive topic these days with pressure on to reduce the use of pesticides. But strong arguments can be made for the use of periodic applications of control products to reduce the populations of broadleaf weeds and weed grasses in in a playing surface, not the least among them is the safety of the athlete. While one goal of a good field may be to allow proper roll of the ball, proper traction and cushion during falls is another. High populations of clover, dandelion, plantain, crabgrass, and other weeds, diminishes those qualities sought for a great field. Organic options are available though, at this time, not especially effective and much more costly than traditional herbicides.

This was by no means meant to be a definitive’ how to’ take care of your fields, but a quick review of some of the basics required for managing turfgrass. Always consult with professional in turfgrass management before acting on any of these steps, there’s a bit more to each of them than what’s been written here.

To maximize the maintenance budget of your local parks and schools we suggest consulting with a turf professional like Tim or Aaron to get a balanced, budget friendly, environmentally sound, and effective athletic turf management program in place.

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