Blades Of Green

Really, it's so much easier when it's your own yard. You mow it as often as necessary, you spread fertilizer, and depending upon your location, you water it to keep it lush.

Figure out what the best choice of grass is for your athletic field. Photo Courtesy of Beals Alliance, Sacramento, CA

When it's not a yard but an athletic field, and when it belongs to a municipality, however, it's a different matter entirely.

Field maintenance--including mowing, fertilizing, watering, and weeding--must be done on a regular schedule to keep the facility playable, but that schedule also has to work around the demands for field usage. Then there's the budget to manage, the equipment to maintain, and more.

Yes, keeping up your own yard is definitely easier. But that doesn't mean a natural field is unmanageable. It's just a matter of knowing the fields, and understanding what grows there.

And when it comes time to seed or sod a new field, it's absolutely essential to have an understanding of the different varieties of grass. And there is a wide variety.

What To Consider

So where do you start when it's time to make repairs, or create a new surface? One place not to start is a home-improvement store, looking at bags of seed and trying to decide between a shade mix or a quick-growing mix. Put down that seed bag, and back away slowly.

Instead, pick up a notebook and start itemizing what you need.

The most important choice you're likely to make immediately is the type of grass to use in the field. According to Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual , the choice will depend on the area of the country and the specific performance characteristics of the grass:

  • Time and method for establishment

  • Traffic tolerance (durability)

  • Recuperative potential

  • Water use

  • Thatch formation

  • Need for and method of repairing damaged areas

  • Heat or cold tolerance

  • Early green-up and late color retention

  • Local availability and cost of transportation

  • Initial cost and cost of long-term maintenance

  • Mowing height

  • Performance characteristics (traction, hardness, ball roll) as they relate to specific sports

  • Amount of maintenance

  • Texture (coarse, medium, fine)

  • Density

  • Susceptibility to insects and/or disease.

Top-Two Turf Grasses

Generally, turf grasses (those popularly used in sports fields) are classified as warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. In geographic regions where either may be appropriate, the choice of which type of grass to plant is made based on soil and climate conditions.

Some grasses don't do well in shade. Photo Courtesy of Stantec, Portland, MA

There are multiple options within each category, but two of the more popular grasses for sports field use are the following:

In the Sunbelt, bermudagrass is the dominant species used for sports facilities. It grows best in areas with mild winters (where the temperature does not drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit), where there is moderate to high rainfall (25 to 69 inches annually), and where there are extended periods of high temperatures (75 to 99 degrees).

Bermudagrass loves full sun and has a deep root system that can tolerate the occasional drought, but that doesn't mean it likes it--too much dry weather will turn it purplish and send it into hibernation. Extended cool temps (30 degrees or below) will turn it brown.

It isn't a big fan of shade, where it will not grow well. The range for bermudagrass is generally north to New Jersey, south to Florida, and even as far west as Texas (although depending upon various climate extremes, there may be areas within that region where it does not flourish).

Give bermudagrass sufficient water, moderate fertilization, and regular mowing, and it'll reward you with a great sports surface. However, remember that as it grows, it develops a thick thatch. This is great since it allows the grass to stand up to foot traffic, but not so great when it comes to water penetration. Vertical mowing is necessary, as is core aeration.

Cool-season areas of North America often use Kentucky bluegrass for sports turf. It is a perennial, cool-season, sod-forming grass that when mature has a pleasing, dark-green color.

The color is part of the reason for its popularity as a sports surface; the other is that it forms a thick thatch layer that provides a cushioning effect for players using the field.  It is hardy and can tolerate poor soils (although it certainly grows much better in soils that are well-fertilized). It tolerates light shade and even moderate drought.

This grass prefers temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees. It goes dormant and turns brown in excessively hot or dry weather. The thick thatch requires coring and verticutting. It likes to be kept at a height of about 1-1/2" to 3"; a lower height will be tolerated only briefly.

One drawback to bluegrass is its slow growth cycle. A timeframe of one to two years may be necessary to allow it to grow from seed to fully established field; as a result, many field builders will start with sod.

Sod must always be well-watered, however, to encourage its establishment.

Bluegrass is also vulnerable to disease and infection, as well as insects. However, because grass seed is generally sold in blends (two or more of the same species with different characteristics), or mixes (combinations of different species), it is possible to find the right mix for a given installation.

The right grass choice will mean a beautiful sports field. Photo Courtesy of Atlas Track & Tennis, Tualatin, OR

Other Choices

These are not the only types of grasses. Paspalum is a popular warm-season perennial. Perennial ryegrass is often chosen for cold-season installations, as are some of the tall fescues. Each has strengths and weaknesses, as well as a specific tolerance for drought and shade. Managers of fields should investigate all options thoroughly.

Because the answers aren't going to be found on a bag of seed, however, it might be time to call in a pro. A Certified Field Builder (CFB) who works in the area will understand the climate, soil conditions, precipitation, and more, and can make the appropriate recommendations, given the parameters of the installation. (Note that CFB is an individual designation, rather than one applied to a company as a whole.)

Additional Resources

Another way to learn more about what grasses work well in a given climate is to use the resources of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), which is a cooperative effort between the non-profit National Turfgrass Federation Inc., and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is supported by a number of other organizations, including various state universities, Turfgrass Producers International, the Turfgrass Breeders Association, the American Seed Trade Association, the United States Golf Association, and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

NTEP ( ) evaluates 17 turfgrass species in field plots throughout the United States and Canada, assessing such characteristics as quality, color, density, resistance to diseases and insects, tolerance to heat, cold, drought, and traffic. NTEP makes its data available online.

But remember--looking up something online isn't a substitute for actual knowledge. An experienced field builder can provide information on what works in a given area.

And here's the best tip of all: Find the best field in your area and talk to the owner or manager. Ask about the type of turf, whether the soil has been modified, and any maintenance program used. The owner or manager is sure to have ideas and tips you can learn from. Information is the best crop of all. Find it and use it.

Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, and health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.