All Eyes On You

Summertime can present a unique set of obstacles for turf and playing fields. Particularly for public parks and recreational areas, summer is the time when these fields experience the most wear, use and stress. If you’ve waited until now to do field maintenance, I’m sorry to inform you that the best defense is a good offense.

The best way to combat summer stress is proper maintenance year-round. The summer months should be a time to step back and analyze your practices--determine what’s working, what’s not, and what impact those practices are having on the environment.

Environmental impact is a huge aspect of my job, especially since I work for Virginia Tech University, a state-funded organization. Oftentimes government officials, boards, committees and concerned citizens are watching my practices to ensure they are in the best interest of the institution and the environment. There is an added level of scrutiny that goes into what I do, and I am sure a similar level of oversight plays on your work as well. All eyes are on you--not only to consider environmental issues in the area, but to serve as a model for the rest of the community.

Let me give you two examples.

Water Restrictions

Last summer was similar to others in terms of temperature here in Virginia, but the uncharacteristic lack of rainfall created drought-like conditions. In areas across the Southeast, mandatory water restrictions were put in place for turf and lawns. At Virginia Tech in Montgomery County, we were lucky not to have such formal water restrictions, but as a state institution, we still needed to be conscious to conserve as much as possible.

During the heat of summer and especially during a drought, there are several ways to produce top-notch turf, and to conserve and help the environment at the same time. To start, controlling the amount of watering is a great offensive maneuver.

Monitoring watering schedules is probably one of the quickest and easiest ways to conserve water. Several different gauges can be purchased to help determine how much moisture is in the soil and the amount and frequency of water to provide. Selecting the ideal time of day--generally morning and evening to reduce evaporation--and watering based on grass and soil type are also key tips to saving water.

Since my cool-season turfgrass is in sand-based soil that drains more quickly, I usually water it a little every morning. Conversely, I water my bluegrass every other morning since it is in a native soil that tends to drain more slowly. Deep watering with an irrigation system is best since the water can easily soak into the roots while minimizing the risk of evaporating or drying out too quickly. In addition to scheduled watering, I occasionally water dry spots by hand.

It is important to remember that shallow watering or watering too often is not only ineffective, but minimizes the ability for turf to develop a deep root system, which compounds the risk of wasting water in the future.

If you consistently find dry spots on the turf, apply a wetting agent to the dry area. In some dry spots, there is a soil-born microbial fungus that attaches to the soil and causes it to have a waxy texture. When you water the soil in these dry areas, the fungus causes the water to bead off instead of soaking in. By applying wetting agents, the soil is able to absorb and hold the water, minimizing the need to continually water.

If you’re expecting a particularly stressful season, ramp up the offense by adding a mycorrhizae product such as ROOTS endoRoots. Mycorrhizae are microbes that increase root health and help roots better absorb nutrients and water, while providing resistance to stress. Roots stay healthier and stronger so they have a better chance of making it through the hot, dry summer, and they hold up better through the increased use.

Environmental Safety

As water is a dwindling resource that affects us on a global scale, we obviously want not only to conserve the amount but ensure the supply remains as clean as possible. So I carefully follow restrictions when applying chemical and biological fertilizers. Regardless of the season, I always apply only the amount prescribed on the package and no more. I’ve found that applying more than directed can either adversely affect the turf, or will have no effect other than saturating the surrounding environment. Inaccurate amounts of nitrogen can be especially harmful.

As a partner and steward of the environment, my staff and I work hard to voluntarily limit our chemical and biological usage under the guidelines of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Like environmental groups nationwide, the Virginia DCR acts to help conserve the land and soil throughout the state.

Following its guidelines, I apply limited amounts of fertilizers, nitrogen in particular, to the soil. With bluegrass, for example, I only apply about three pounds of nitrogen in the soil of this cool-season grass per year. For Bermuda grass, which is a warm-season grass, I apply approximately four pounds of nitrogen in the soil per year, which can handle more fertilizer and not burn out. The important issue for both of these grass types is not to over-fertilize; if you do, the excess fertilizer runs off into the water table and other soils, causing larger environmental issues.

Surprisingly, the overuse of nitrogen is a common problem for many people. When brown or dry spots develop in the summer, most people realize it is the result of poor fertilization in the spring and fall. Often the result is that they try to overcompensate by adding additional fertilizer or nitrogen in the summer. Unfortunately, this usually makes the problem worse, and ultimately harms the environment in the long run. Therefore, it is extremely important to know what nutrients the turf needs, how much to apply, and when to apply them. Taking an annual soil sample to be tested at the local university or agricultural extension office is a great way to stay on track.

Keeping plants healthy year-round is a delicate balancing act between applying nutrients and then monitoring responses. Again, the best offense is setting up the turf to succeed from the beginning, rather than waiting to treat problems as they emerge. For example, in the summer, I usually spray ROOTS KCS on the turf, which is loaded with potassium. The potassium helps the turf hold up better to heat stress, and also lessens the need for additional additives or chemicals, which can potentially harm the environment.

Monitoring chemical, biological and water use are only the most basic steps for helping to preserve the environment. Remember, conservation and environmental impact affects your fields, organization, community and the country at large. The sooner you put environmentally friendly practices into place, the lighter the impact will be on both the world of today and tomorrow. Now is a great time for you and your staff to update your knowledge of the environmental guidelines of the community or organization, and to ensure you’re implementing them in turf maintenance practices. While you may see that impact most in the summer, the effects of environmental stewardship will be felt by the earth year-round.

Jason Bowers, CSFM, is the Sports Turf/Athletic Grounds Manager at Virginia Tech University. Before his current position, he worked as an Assistant Superintendent at Whiskey Creek Country Club 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