Douglas County Regional Parks - Turf Alternatives

Located between the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas, Douglas County sits in the transition between the grasslands of the Great Plains to the east, and the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west, and ranges in elevation from 5,380 to 9,836 feet above sea level. This area is somewhat arid and receives approximately 12 –15 inches of rainfall per year.

Not only is Douglas County very diverse geographically, it has also been one of the fastest growing counties in the country over the past fifteen years. Douglas County continues to be one of the fastest growing counties, with this growth trend expected to continue for the next twenty years or longer.

This ever-expanding population has created an on going need for additional parkland, not only in organized athletic fields, but also playgrounds, picnic areas, unprogramed play space, and transitions between other spaces.

In 2001 the Rocky Mountain Front Range experienced the start of a drought cycle. While not unanticipated in geologic terms, the area had not experienced drought conditions in over thirty years (when the population of Colorado was less than half of what it is now) and the general public, including designers had become somewhat complacent regarding the effects of a limited water supply.

In the late 1990’s Douglas County undertook the Master Planning of two large regional park facilities to address the present and anticipated need for park and athletic space. These parks were master planned in the typical classic park design, with all areas being irrigated blue grass turf, whether it was planned as a programmed athletic field or a transition between spaces.

Why all this background information? Because between the time that the original Master Plans were completed and the final design was started, the design parameters changed significantly, and Douglas County had to rethink the way that we went about designing parks.

The population was continuing to grow rapidly, so the need for parks and athletic facilities was also growing, and our elected officials had committed to the development of additional parks, but FTEs were not being approved at the same rate as development was taking place, due to an economic down turn that caused budget short falls. Water was also becoming a design issue, not only from an availability standpoint, but also from a cost standpoint. Water was being rationed and the costs were skyrocketing.

The dilemma that Douglas County faced, was how do we maintain or increase the expected levels of athletic play and park space that were included in the original Master Plan, while conserving water, decreasing operating costs, maintenance time and costs.

This proved to be a very exciting time at the design table. The design team composed of a Landscape Architectural Consultant (design), the Douglas County Parks and Trails Planner (design and construction), The Douglas County Manager of Parks (maintenance), and various other engineers and consultants from both Douglas County and the Private Sector (design and engineering) had many spirited meetings on how to best address all of the seemingly diverging ideas and goals. The design team really expanded their visions of what the park should end up looking like and how best to achieve that end, as everyone lobbied for their ideas in the final solution.

Although there were many design suggestions that would have substantially decreased the water and maintenance costs (hard surface, zeroscaping, etc…), some were not feasible, or aesthetically pleasing in all areas. The final design solution proved to be a combination of diverse ideas, new thoughts and experimentation, that has exceeded expectations.

Instead of the classic park design where all areas are irrigated bluegrass turf, Douglas County and the design team really looked at each area of the park, as to how it functioned, and what were the demands on the surface area.

To that end Douglas County developed a template of four turf alternatives, a mixture of hard and soft surfaced areas and ornamental grasses in our new regional park designs. This design template has reduced the amount of designed irrigation consumption by 50% - 60% and reduced the maintenance cost by 30% - 40% relative to the same acreage in other previously developed regional parks within our system.

As a case study we will examine the new design and construction (for purposes of comparison) of the Douglas County Fairgrounds Regional Park located in Castle Rock, CO, and look at the amendments that were made to the Master Plan that was developed in the mid 1990’s. These changes were made to the design template in the final master plan that was developed in 2003 and constructed between July 2003 and August 2005 and reflect the new philosophy in design that Douglas County is now using.


Bluegrass turf. For these zones we used an 80% bluegrass 20% fescue blend commonly used in this area. These were zones of high athletic use and sustained pedestrian traffic. We felt that the irrigated bluegrass would best stand up to the constant use, and recover the fastest with the least amount of labor, in those areas where more water conserving turf types would stress or die under the constant pressure and wear from pedestrian or athletic use. These areas included; existing baseball/softball fields, areas around picnic shelters, playgrounds, transitions and seating areas around synthetic turf fields, and entry areas. These zones are the most labor and material intensive, and we have tried to keep these areas to a minimum, or where necessary to accommodate extensive pedestrian traffic. These areas are mowed and/or fertilized two to three times per week throughout the growing season.

The original master plan had 100% of the turf areas in Fairgrounds Regional Park as irrigated bluegrass turf; the final plans have cut that amount to approximately 40% of the total turfed areas.


Synthetic turf. Douglas County has taken a very aggressive approach on the installation of synthetic turf within our park system. The synthetic turf is used as an athletic field surfacing only, and has been a big hit with both our users and maintenance staff. While I do not believe that synthetic turf is the end all be all of the parks and recreation profession, I do believe that it does function exceptionally well as a surfacing for over programmed athletic fields. Douglas County installed over 5 acres of synthetic turf on this project. This acreage accounts for three full sized (football/soccer) multi-use fields. Two of these fields are lighted and scheduled twelve months of the year.

While these fields are not NO MAINTENANCE the worked needed to keep these fields in a safe, playable conditions for the fields sports (soccer, rugby, football, lacrosse) has been substantially reduced, no mowing, no fertilizer, and the water use is at zero. We do sweep and drag these fields once a month, but the time needed to do so is much less than to mow the same area.

The synthetic turf fields account for approximately 20% of the turfed area of the park.

An interesting sidelight of the installation of the synthetic turf is, that by taking all of the field sport play off of the bluegrass fields, it has allowed those fields to recover at a much faster rate and with less maintenance and water than was needed when field sport play was going on the bluegrass fields. It now takes our maintenance staff less time and a lot less water to keep our bluegrass turf baseball/softball fields in great condition than it did in the past when field play was programmed on those fields.


Douglas County Low-Growth Mix: In those zones that were very visible to the public but had little to no foot traffic, Douglas County developed a low growing (3” – 6”) turf mix. This mix will provide an aesthetically pleasing low maintenance turf in those very visible areas. This mix will require mowing only 2 –3 times per year and irrigation was installed throughout this zone to aid in the establishment of the turf and/or to supplement natural water if necessary. The irrigation is for the establishment period only, and we expect to be using little to no irrigation by next year (three year establishment period). In this zone weeds are eradicated by hand (spot spraying or mechanical means) as necessary. This is somewhat labor intensive at the beginning of the project, but labor time should diminish over the years as the turf becomes more established.

The mix was developed specifically for Douglas County, but may work in other areas and regions of the country.

This turf area is approximately 15% of the total turf area of the Fairgrounds Regional Park

Douglas County Low-Growth Seeding Mix

Species Variety % in Mix PLS#/Ac.

Buffalograss Texoka 20 3.2

Blue Grama Hachita 20 0.6


Wheatgrass Arriba 20 3.2

Sideoats Grama Vaughn 20 1.8


Wheatgrass Critana 10 1.0

Streambank Sodar 5 0.6


Douglas County Permanent Drill Seeding Mix: n those areas that were not as visible, or were not located in the interior of the park Douglas County used a taller low water turf that we call our Permanent Seeding Mix. This turf generally grows to a height of about two feet in our area and is quick to establish as a ground cover. As with the low growth mix, irrigation was installed in this area to help in the establishment of the turf and to supplement natural water in/or when necessary. The irrigation is for establishment only and we expect to be using little to no water by next year (three year establishment period). This mix will require mowing once per year in the fall. Weeds in this zone are eradicated by hand by spot spraying or mechanical means, this is somewhat labor intensive but should diminish as the turf establishes itself in the years to come.

Like the Low-Growth mix the Permanent Drill Seed Mix was specifically developed for Douglas County Colorado, but may work in other locations.

This turf area is approximately 25% of the total turf area of Fairgrounds Regional Park.

Douglas County Permanent Drill Seeding Mix

Species Variety % in Mix PLS#?Ac.

Big Bluestem Kaw 10 1.1


Indiangrass Cheyene 10 1

Switchgrass Blackwell 10 0.4

Sideoats Grama Vaughn 10 0.9


Wheatgrass Arriba 10 1.6

Blue Grama Hachita 10 0.3


Wheatgrass Critana 10 1

Prairie Sandreed Goshen 10 0.7


Needlegrass Lodorm 10 1


Wheatgrass Pyror 5 0.6


Wheatgrass Sodar 5 0.6


Throughout Fairgrounds Regional Park, Douglas County, as a design detail, used hard surfacing (concrete) and soft surfacing (granite crusher fines) of different colors and textures to create areas of visual interest, reduce overall maintenance, and aid in the movement of pedestrians through the park.

The area of the hard and soft surfacing was increased approximately 150% over the original Master Plan, but the additional installation costs have been more than offset by the decreased maintenance in the areas that surfacing was used.


In keeping with the updated design palate, Douglas County has extensively used ornamental grasses throughout Fairgrounds Regional Park as a strong visual statement, in and around all athletic fields, picnic areas and playgrounds. In some cases the grasses were installed in place of more traditional shrub beds and have added a very strong visual design element throughout the seasons.

These grasses are cut once a year (spring) and the cuttings are removed from the site. This creates an additional level of maintenance, but is only performed once per year, and the visual and aesthetic benefits to the users offsets any additional efforts needed to maintain the grass beds.

While I would not expect the plant palate that Douglas County used to work in all locations, the design concept that was implemented should work throughout the country. Agencies may not see the same savings that we experienced in water costs, but by rethinking old design standards, and using a mixture of appropriate plant material and surfacing materials, most should be able to recognize cost savings in maintenance, while not loosing any programmed/unprogramed recreation areas.

Randy Burkhardt ASLA, is a Landscape Architect employed by Douglas County Colorado as the Parks and Trails Planner.