I bet you’re sweating right now, thinking about how to create a little shade and protect your grass from turning crispy. But August is the last hurrah of summer, and before you know it, the nights are going to start turning cooler. Fall can sneak up on you, so now’s the time to make a plan for the next season.
With turf that has taken a pounding all summer, start making a recovery plan. For Virginia Tech, a change of sports also is coming--the return of football and soccer. I have many balancing acts to perform in taking care of the turf and readying all my resources for fall.
Testing … 1, 2, 3
I always think it’s funny that I have to take my tests before the students are even back in school. This “pre-fall” season is the time to test equipment and check the supply list--before you absolutely need it. There’s nothing like heading down to a field to squeeze in a job between activities, only to find the leaf blower won’t crank, or the aerification tines are so rusty they’re falling apart. If the equipment works year-round, schedule some time for a thorough cleaning and tune-up.
For me, with new sports about to begin, I’m also looking at what supplies I need to order--from turf supplements to field paint. To help your budget, order an initial supply, then add more as the season goes on. For example, I usually order two skids of paint to start, then another at mid-season and a fourth in November. If you have sports teams that use your facilities, check to see what changes they’ve made for the fall season. Are there more or fewer teams? Are more practice sessions to be added? Did you previously host 6-year-olds but now the high-school kids will be pounding on the turf? Knowing what’s coming will help you make the best plan.
Fall is also a great time to run a soil test. I see many guys do the same thing year after year because it’s “always worked before,” or “that’s what the last guy did.” It may have worked before, but the nature of what we do means that the soil will change. It may not need lime today, even though it did 10 years ago. The weather, foot-traffic, nearby construction--all of these affect the soil and, in turn, turf. Especially if you’re in a new position, invest a few dollars with your state extension agent and have a soil test done. Without one, you might be creating more problems than you solve--and wasting money--by pouring the same old mixtures on year after year.
Transitioning from summer to fall is naturally tough on turf. Particularly as Bermuda grass goes dormant, spots on the turf can be unsightly, whether it’s from disease, wear and tear or weeds.
The temperatures are the first challenge, with highs still peaking during the day but plunging at night. Those fluctuations mean I’m keeping a close eye out for diseases like spring dead spot, and dollar spot later in the fall. Because it’s always a balance between keeping the turf healthy and keeping the boss happy, adding a specialized fertilizer can help the turf recover faster when it has been damaged.
Annual bluegrass (poa annua) also makes turf look ragged, but it is one of the toughest weeds to kill once it’s arrived. If you have it, I feel for you. If you don’t, be thankful. Either way, make sure you have pre- and post-emergent herbicide in stock, and make some time to spray it in the fall. If it has infested the turf already, be sure to mow often, and spray thoroughly with a plant-growth regulator to reduce the number of seed heads.
Don’t Get Worn Down From Wear And Tear
Wear and tear can also cause ugly bare spots or divots in turf. Sports fields obviously show the most damage, but areas used for picnics, concerts or even playtime can also suffer from “too much love” from users. But you can’t just tell people to stay off the grass, so start by making the grass a little more durable.
The fall is an ideal time to apply potassium to harden off the leaf tissue and strengthen it. A stronger leaf is more likely to hold up under the pounding of fall sports while hardening the turf for winter dormancy. It will also help the turf recover more quickly from use. I like to start with a few applications in the summer then increase to the full label-rate in the fall. Spraying with a silicone product will also coat the blades and harden the plant from the outside.
Overseeding is also a way to help build up a thicker, more solid layer of turf that’s less affected by wear and tear. I like to overseed in September and October, ideally after aerification. You can even sling seed by hand if need be, so don’t feel that you don’t have the time or equipment to do a proper job. I’ve heard one professor describe overseeding as creating a “seed bank,” where you’re giving the field the resources to replace the torn-up grass with new grass. Your goal is to have a field that is constantly replacing the damaged grass with new grass.
The Extra Mile
Trying to keep turf strong is always a challenge, especially when it’s being kicked and crushed by the likes of football and soccer spikes, but there are a few extra things you can do to get fields through the end of the season.
Keeping up with divots is the key to maintaining a playable as well as an attractive field throughout the season. When football practice kicks off in August, I usually let the team play on it for a week (eight hours a day) before I start filling in the worn areas. My crew and I just take buckets of sand and seed to the field, and fill the divots by hand. The next day, the mixture is worked into the turf as the team plays on it. I generally arm everyone with a gallon bucket filled with basic mortar sand and a fast-germinating seed mixture, usually NuDestiny Bluegrass and Revenge GLX ryegrass. It’s not fancy, but it helps us keep pace with the players. Usually, I run short on manpower rather than funds for the materials; with the use our fields receive, I try to fix divots on a daily basis, but it may only be done a few days a week when we’re busy.
If there is more extreme damage, such as bare spots around a goal mouth at mid-season, a temporary fix is to topdress with crumb rubber. The crumb rubber helps protect the crown from pounding feet. Its insulating effect can help keep Bermuda grass warm, but be careful--it can make a cool-season grass too hot.
Regardless of what you put on the turf, be smart about how you do it. Be especially careful with phosphorus and nitrogen because they have a tendency to run off, so over-applying can be harmful to the environment. Potassium is slow-moving, but can leech into the soil. Again, a soil test can reveal what you have and what you need to ensure you provide the perfect mix of fertilizer and supplements.
So enjoy the last dog days of summer, but start planning your pre-fall maintenance. Before you know it, fall will have arrived, so the secret to happier, healthier turf is keeping ahead of the season.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.