LBWA -- To Infinity And Beyond

Photos Courtesy of: Pacific Sports Turf

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

In Toy Story , the animated character of Buzz Lightyear, fighting all enemies of goodness, says, “To infinity and beyond!”

In considering the topic of this column I see that the star of the show in sports—the natural-turf field—is expected to withstand intense multipurpose use for football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, and other special events.

The casual observer might say, “Well, the field has the right shape for all those uses, so we’re good to go.”  But for maintenance professionals tasked with ensuring the longevity of such fields, it takes Herculean efforts, such as only mythical figures like Buzz can muster.

In the course of the playing season, certain maintenance functions must be employed to keep a field healthy—mowing, fertilizing, and watering. But a fourth equally important function and the subject of this column—aeration—is arguably one of the most effective and simplest ways of keeping natural-turf fields healthy.

Poking Holes

“The number-one cause of poor fields in Ohio is soil compaction,” writes John R. Street in a fact sheet from The Ohio State University Extension Service’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science. “Soil compaction is relieved by mechanically ’aerating’ the field.” He notes that the goal of aeration is to open up, or impact, at least 10 percent of the field surface.

Aeration, in its simplest definition, is poking holes in the ground so water, oxygen, and nutrients can get to the roots of the turf grass.

But as maintenance professionals will probably concur, nothing is ever as simple as it looks. There are many types of aeration using different equipment that will produce specialized results. There’s more than one way to aerate a field, and choosing one over another makes all the difference between a healthy field and one that is insufficient.

“Field maintenance is a combination of many practices, and introducing air back into the root zone is a top priority,” emphasizes Dick Fluter, president of the sports-turf management company Pacific Sports Turf, which aerates more than 300 fields annually.

“Compaction is the biggest problem on both soil- and sand-based fields. Aeration is the single most important thing you can do to your field besides the three basics of mowing, fertilizing, and watering,” stresses Fluter.

It’s Not Rocket Science

There is science involved in aeration, but it’s not rocket science. Without aeration, water and fertilizer will simply sit on top or run off the field.

Industry standards generally call for heavy-use sports field aeration up to six times per year with a minimum of three.  However, the problem is that on heavily used fields, especially parks and recreation fields at the local level, it is challenging to find free time to aerate.

“That’s a hard nut to crack when you have to take care of fields,” agrees Gary Bradshaw, President of SMR Farms, a 30,000-acre former ranch that is the site of Premiere Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch in Florida. This complex includes 140 acres with 22 Celebration Bermuda-grass fields and all of the amenities. The complex hosts soccer, lacrosse, football, rugby, ultimate Frisbee, and other grass sports and activities. It is a private, pay-to-play field used by such entities as U.S. Soccer, so field condition is critical. Bradshaw stresses that proper aeration is a must.

“We try to aerate at least twice a year with deep-tine machines,” says Bradshaw. “If I could and the playing schedule would allow, I’d do it probably four times a year, but if I can get two times a year I’m happy.

“We also just got a new machine called a recycling dresser,” he adds. “It has coulters (sharp-edged discs or blades) on rollers that are about 10 inches in diameter and deep tines that dig down 4 to 6 inches or more. It brings up existing soil and redistributes it; you’re actually verti-cutting and top dressing at the same time.”

Recycle dressers are designed to aerate the underlying soil vertically and horizontally, removing soil from the root zone and redistributing it across the playing field. Layering and compaction are eliminated, biological activity in the soil is increased, and fertilizer is better utilized.

Based on his experience and advice from consultants, Bradshaw says he does strictly deep-tine aerating down 6 to 8 inches instead of plug or core aeration. “I’ve just heard that the plugs pull up nutrients and put it at the top instead of at the root zone, and for our soil and water conditions I don’t think that coring is the best option.”

Timing Is Everything

There are advantages and disadvantages to aeration depending on the climate, soil type, the amount of use the field endures, and other factors. These will influence how and when to aerate.

If a department has a top-quality aerator, one that can get down into compacted ground, less-frequent aeration is possible. “Many of the recommendations out there will be based on the worst kind of aerator you can use, so they may say six times a year,” comments Fluter. “But that may be based on using a machine that just can’t get into the ground. But if you’re using a $30,000 machine that is very heavy and can crack the ground, that’s the best machine possible. They don’t make them anymore so I get them out of the boneyard and rebuild them. There’s nothing like them.”

The time of year makes a difference too. The field can be aerated to a point where the turf can actually be destabilized if aeration is done just before the football season, for example.

There is a dizzying array of aeration tines, each for different conditions in a given area, and each will yield different results. The sports-turf manager must choose which type will be best: deep or shallow tines, coring or solid tines, oscillating tines, slicing blades or vertical linear aeration—and on and on.

For this reason, many managers choose to outsource aeration. Not only does this eliminate the purchase and maintenance of expensive equipment, but it also brings in an expert who specializes in aeration.

“The trend is more and more to outsource,” suggests Fluter.  “We also see clients learn what we do, and then go out and buy their own equipment to do it in-house, and that’s fine. We do what clients can’t do—we don’t want to do anything that you can’t do yourself.”

Walk The Field

Regardless of how it is utilized, aeration is a critical element in turf care. However, field users often don’t understand that. They want to use a field that is green, pristine, and safe, but they don’t want to see core plugs, sand, or disrupted soil. For the field manager, this can present a problem.

That is why user education that is full and constant is important, especially for the leaders of user groups.

It is often a good idea to include the field coordinators in meetings with the contractors or maintenance crews that do the actual aeration. Besides getting firsthand lessons on the how’s and why’s of aeration, a personal relationship can be built between the key parties.

Communication is the key. There should be a regular meeting of the minds, preferably on the fields, where all parties concerned can walk the ground and—as this column’s standing title implies—lead by wandering around.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .