Keeping sports turf safe, playable and looking good is a lot like playing golf; you can do things right 99 percent of the time but one little error and (in golf) the ball will go astray and (in maintenance) the fields will look as if you weren’t really trying.
Sports field maintenance is hard work, but the rewards are awesome. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / hwahl3
To make it more difficult, your patrons are bombarded with images of lightly trafficked, big budget, well maintained college and professional fields and often assume their local fields should look the same.
After all, “how hard can it be?”
Very hard. In fact, I’d be willing to bet sports field maintenance is either the most challenging or most frustrating part of your daily work.
Our patrons don’t recognize recreation fields get 10-times more foot traffic than those college or professional fields. We’re talking six to seven days a week, hours on end, non-stop. In other facets of society, the beating we subject our fields to would be considered a felony.
Add on problems caused by too much rain which leads to saturated turf ripe for the ripping or too little rain/watering restrictions leading to dry and brittle grass thatch easily ground down to the roots resulting in bare ground, holes and weeds.
What’s a parks and rec pro to do?
Step 1: Communicate Your Plan
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Shout from the top of the hills. Buy a billboard. Walk the fields and get eye-ball to eye-ball with users. Use social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). Make presentations during parent or association meetings. Stop in before practices and give a brief talk. Train your staff to do the same.
Do whatever it takes to make sure everybody who uses the fields – players, coaches, parents, sports associations, referee’s – understand what is really involved in taking care of their fields. Try to make them part of the solution – show them how they can help by doing simple things like raking dirt back into baselines on baseball fields or moving soccer or football field lines to reduce wear down the middle of the field and at the goal mouths.
Ask for their ideas. What are they seeing? Do they have any common sense solutions to those problems? This problem is bigger than one person – so the solution has to be bigger than one person too.
Step 2: Evaluate Your Maintenance Plan
If you still have energy after all that communicating, decide if your maintenance plan needs to be tweaked.
When it comes to sports field maintenance, one size does not fit all. Where you live determines what sort of turf grass works best – which drives how you water, fertilize, aerate, over-seed (or not), treat for weeds or pests and so on.
Normally, this knowledge is acquired by experience, which is another word for trial and error. Best-case, you have a staff member with the experience and background to lead the way. If not, there are ways to learn from others and avoid costly mistakes.
A good first step (and second, third and fourth) is to take advantage of the Cooperative Extension System with offices in every U.S. state and territory. The system is a non-credit educational network staffed by one or more experts who provide useful and practical research-based information. If they don’t know the answers to your questions, they know who to ask. You can find the closest extension agent by going to the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture website located here: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html .
Many times the extension agents are affiliated with a local or state college system, but if not, those institutions are often a good source for experts in areas such as turf grass, weed or pest control, fertilizer and other related fields. They are generally eager to help local recreation departments as part of their overall mission.
Extension agents and educational institute experts are also excellent training partners who can help educate your staff and users. They are very authoritative sources who will lend credibility to your effort to provide top-notch fields.
Additionally, many departments have a contract with a commercial contractor for fertilizer or pest control; these can also be sources for training and education. They do this for a living and most are more than willing to share their knowledge. You might even want to make it part of the contract to provide training. It benefits everyone involved – users, parks and rec pros and the company.
And, of course, there’s also all the readers of PRB!
As May turns to June, many sports programs will go into a summer lull and it’s a good time to think about field maintenance. So if you have any best-practice advice, share your experience here. Or, if you have questions, pose them here and let the professionals in the field help answer them.
It is said that knowledge is power; in this case, sharing your knowledge will empower other parks and rec pros with knowledge they need to provide safer and healthier sports fields.
Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.