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 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.
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 bermudagrass healthy, thick and strong.
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
Many 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.
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.