The Root Of The Issue

If you rely on athletic fields for most outdoor programming, take a proactive approach in influencing the budget and quality of the fields. Strategic planning and caring for the fields--especially those that support multi-purpose activities--cultivate a safe and attractive space that fully supports camp programming.

However, before you start to see the maintenance dollar signs and worry about how it will drain the budget, you might be surprised to learn that most of the strategies don’t cost a penny, and they will pay dividends in retaining campers and staff who will enjoy being outside and active. Also, the proper “care and feeding” of athletic fields can minimize the risk of injury, which can prevent costly litigation that may result in accidents from standing water, bare spots in high-traffic areas, exposed sprinkler heads and uneven playing surfaces.

Here are eight strategies in making the most of athletic fields:

· Keep a log, a permanent record that includes the dates and times of mowing, irrigation, fertilizer applications, broad leaf weed control and aeration. Also, be sure to document the protocol for field inspections, which should be conducted before every activity. From sprinkler heads to equipment left behind to securing the footings of the goal cages, there can be many moving parts to even the most basic athletic fields, and serious injuries can result when these hazards are discovered after the fact.

· Talk it over. Whether you can afford to hire a professional landscaper or decide to use the resources of a local agricultural extension agent, discuss the kind of testing that needs to be done to select the right grass that will thrive in your geographic area. Conduct soil testing to determine the field-specific needs for fertilizer. And while you are at it, assess the field’s susceptibility to disease and damage from insects. If the extension agent doesn’t have the time, ask if there is free literature or a Web site that has information tailored to the local climate and soil conditions.

· Preach the values of rotation. Make sure staff is trained to rotate activities away from high-traffic areas used in competition. This will make a huge difference in the cost of maintaining a safe and playable athletic field. This is especially true for fields that have areas in front of soccer, field hockey and lacrosse goals. Also, be sure to have plenty of traffic and field cones available for the leaders of activities. They should use these whenever possible so that the goal mouths’ grass can recover until there is a need for full-field play. Incidentally, small games that use cones for goals make sound, instructional sense because they involve more players who are directly involved in the action, which means their fitness and skill develop more rapidly.

· Insist on a great cut. Don’t hold back on the suggested intervals for sharpening blades. Also, avoid cutting the field when it is wet, and be sure to alternate directions of the mower after each cutting. Another tip is the importance of mowing at a consistent height and knowing when it’s time to mow.

· Avoid night watering. It’s so tempting to irrigate in the evening to avoid scheduling conflicts with people who want to use the fields during the day. But to avoid fungal diseases, the best time to irrigate an athletic field is at dawn. An added bonus of watering at dawn is that the demand for the water supply is the lowest. You’ll benefit from better water pressure and a more even distribution of water.

· Find money to aerate. Spending money on weed control and fertilizers and then skipping aeration is much like getting a blood transfusion but opting out of an urgently needed coronary bypass. Aeration provides the channels for nutrients that keep grass healthy. Aeration is a process of drawing out three-inch plugs of turf and soil to keep essential nutrients flowing to the grass. It prevents soil compaction so that oxygen and water can reach the root system. In addition, it prevents fertilizers from becoming stagnant and thatch buildup, which commonly strangles the grass plant.

· Select seed over sod. In the majority of athletic fields, seeding and over-seeding will be more effective and less costly than installing sod. With the proper care, the root system from seeding will take less time to become fully established, and it will be less susceptible to disease. In many cases, it can be difficult to prevent the seams of the sod strips from knitting, and the uneven spots can cause injury.

· Invest in an irrigation system. You will actually save money over its lifecycle. Manually providing water is labor-intensive and puts fields through the stress of the summer heat and increased wear and tear. However, irrigation at the optimal time before dawn (thank goodness these systems have automatic timers) will relieve some of the pressure. Additionally, most applications of fertilizers and broad leaf weed control will be more effective when irrigation follows.

One other suggestion that ties together all these strategies is to think about attending seminars on turf management. Check out a local college or university agronomy department to find how to attend a workshop at little or no cost. That might just be the best investment in the safety and quality of athletic fields.

Susan Langlois has over 25 years experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sports facilities consultant. She is currently the campus director at Springfield College School of Human Services in Manchester and St. Johnsbury, N.H. She can be reached at