By Jason Bowers
With spring at our doorstep, it is time to look at several aspects of turf management and biannual turf maintenance. Although spring and fall are crucial times to provide much-needed maintenance to grounds, factors will differ depending on where you live, what types of fields you maintain, and the level of wear the turf incurs. The first step in any maintenance program is determining what strategies best fit fields, how to prioritize those, and how they address any specific issues you may have. There are a few approaches at the top of my list every spring that should give you a push in the right direction.
Let’s start by first thinking about spraying fungicides. Using fungicides can be tricky because today most are made to treat a specific disease or pathogen, so it is extremely important to determine what type of disease is causing problems (or common diseases in an area) in order to select the fungicide with the greatest impact. At Virginia Tech, I have Summer Patch, Rhizoctonia Blight and Fusarium Blight to think about. In your area, the type and severity of disease may be quite different.
Once you identify what type of disease or pathogen is affecting the grounds, and the ideal fungicide is selected, application time is critical. Since diseases are harder to control once they begin to spread, it is best to treat turf before diseases appear. I usually start spraying around April 1, but weather is a factor. Don’t apply fungicide just before it rains or on an extremely sunny day, as it will wash away or decrease the effectiveness of the fungicide, and you will need to reapply more frequently.
When applying fungicide, I always try to cover turf as much as possible. For larger plants, it is important to even cover the underside of leaves, as any part of the plant that is not covered with fungicide can lead to a disease.
Another consideration before spring begins is the control of Poa Annua, also known as Annual Bluegrass. Poa and similar weeds tend to invade well-maintained lawns and sports fields, and are extremely resistant to a variety of defenses. On our turfs, I manage Poa by controlling its seed heads with an herbicide. I spray Embark around the first or second week of April and again in the fall. The time of year will vary slightly, depending on your location, but it is best to spray when germination begins taking place.
It is important to understand that Poa is not easy to control. Unlike other types of grasses, it resists many chemicals, releases hundreds of seeds, is not affected by low mowing levels, and turns brown during times of drought or extreme heat, leaving unsightly areas. It may be more economical and faster to manage the Poa (keeping it healthy and green), instead of trying to eliminate it altogether, depending on the type of grounds you maintain.
Aerification to relieve compaction also is a great activity. When I aerate, I usually pull cores--or solid tines--through the turf for the first session of the year, which usually takes place in early spring. Different types of turf and soils require different levels of aerification. It has been my experience that even if you have loose soil or a soil/sand mixture, aerification can be extremely beneficial to the overall health of the turf.
Although aerification is best done in the spring and fall, the timing depends on what the turf is used for. If you have fields that take a lot of wear, such as football or soccer, be sure to aerate after the season is complete, in addition to the usual aerification in the spring and fall. For my cool-season fields, I usually aerate around the end of March or the beginning of April, depending on baseball and softball game schedules.
One common misconception is that aerification increases weeds and decreases the effectiveness of disease barriers. From my experience, aerification actually loosens the soil, allowing turf to come in thicker, but it will not influence the barriers for weeds or pathogens.
Last, but not least, fertilization is the keystone of spring maintenance. Before fertilizing, it is best to do a soil analysis to identify which elements and nutrients need replenishing. Tests should be done at least once every three years since nutrients can drastically change with use and extended maintenance. A soil report will help determine what type of fertilizer to use and with what focus--potassium, phosphorus or lime.
One thing that will not be included in the report is nitrogen levels, which are extremely important to turf. Nitrogen application can be difficult because if it is applied too early when there is still a risk of a late freeze, it may be detrimental to the overall turf. For cool-season turf grasses, fertilizer plus nitrogen will help jump start growth for spring. On the other hand, with warm-season turf grasses, be sure to wait until the risk of a deep freeze has passed so the turf has enough time to establish a healthy root system before the nitrogen adds focus to shoot growth.
The type of fertilizer is based on the specific needs of the soil. I use a biological fertilizer--endoROOTS--because it poses a smaller risk to the environment, animals and humans. On high-use fields, you may have to use a different fertilizer that increases root strength and helps with excessive wear, such as ROOTS KCS.
Even if your grounds aren’t nearly the size of those at Virginia Tech, each of these maintenance concerns is critical to prepare turf for spring. All turf requires similar maintenance, but you should analyze your specific needs, and alter your maintenance program to achieve the best results. With proper maintenance, you can be on your way to providing healthy and vibrant turf throughout the year.
Jason Bowers is the Sports Turf/Athletic Grounds Manager at Virginia Tech University. Before his current position, he worked as an Assistant Superintendent at Whiskey Creek and Beaver Creek Country Club in Maryland, and as a Turf Specialist at Bozzuto Landscaping. He graduated from Virginia Tech with an Associate’s Degree in Agricultural Technology. Bowers can be reached at email@example.com