Spring Cleaning

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 that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

David Pinsonneault looks out his window as he speaks on the phone with me. He says, “I’m watching snow come down—when this storm is said and done, we’ll have more than 60 inches on the ground.”

I had called him upon the recommendation of Kim Heck, CEO at the Sports Turf Managers Association (http://www.stma.org). I needed expert advice on how to keep sports turf green and healthy coming out of spring season and into summer.

I made the call in February when the Northeast was in the midst of a record-setting blizzard, so you’d reckon one might think Pinsonneault wouldn’t have thought much about May as he pondered what to do with that enormous amount of snow. 

Planning Ahead

But indeed, the Operations Manager of the Public Works Department in the historic town of Lexington, Mass., was already ahead of the game. Being responsible for 22 baseball and softball fields, six multi-purpose fields, and a football field, among other duties, he has to plan well to keep his head above water—or snow, as the case may be.

“We’ve already ordered seed and fertilizer, we’ve planned how we’re going to organize our crews, and we’ve done this in between plowing snow, of course,” he says with a laugh.

But he wasn’t joking about advance planning being important. Even under the best conditions in coming out of winter, spring can be an uncertain time for maintenance crews trying to get fields ready for play. How well they do in spring will determine how they’re prepared for the short summer season—usually May and part of June—before the fall season kicks in again.

Planning even extends back to November. “We try to put everything to bed properly because we just never know how spring is going to be,” Pinsonneault advises. “Our native soil fields—this was previously a golf course—needs core aeration, which we do in November. All season we’re tine aerating and slicing, but we only get this one chance to core aerate, and it is very important to ensure the fields are healthy by spring.”

Another important item is irrigation: “We keep irrigation going as long as possible,” Pinsonneault explains. “People tend to shut it down early, but we push the window on that to get roots established and new turf coming up. In spring, we start it up as soon as we can.”

Salt Damage

“When you have this much snow cover, it depends on when it melts off and where the field is located,” Pinsonneault projects. “For example, if the field is close to a roadway, you have to factor in possible salt damage.”

Having lived in warm climates most of my adult life, I never equated salt damage with sports-field maintenance, but having grown up on a Wisconsin farm, it makes perfect sense. If a field is close to the snow-packed road in cold, icy climates, there will be overspray from plowing and remnants of salt. Plus, as the snow melts, the runoff is bound to leach onto the fields, especially if they are lower than the road, which they normally are.

“We watch the reaction of the turf, especially along the edges of fields as snow melts, and we may have to adjust our irrigation and sometimes fertilization, if needed,” suggests Pinsonneault, who is responsible for all parks and rec as well as school sports fields, including three synthetic-turf fields.

“We look at the synthetic fields as a tool to keep the pressure off the natural-turf fields, mostly for lacrosse and some soccer,” he says, noting that high school soccer teams use the fields in fall and for youth soccer later in the season. Having the artificial turf enabled the staff to renovate the football field with natural turf a couple of years ago.

Drying Out

Another issue with such large dumps of snow—or rain, or sleet, depending on the geographic location—is that fields stay wet longer in spring. “This delays what we can do to prepare for summer, such as getting onto the fields to aerate or seed or even implement the fertilizer program. It can really put us behind,” he laments.

Indeed, getting fields ready for summer when the weather isn’t cooperating can throw all types of schedules off. For example, if heavy trucks are needed to replace sports light bulbs, fix ballasts, or do other similar work, the vehicles will rut the fields or grounds. This often can’t be helped, but sometimes careful planning can solve a sticky situation; for example, that type of work can be done in more predictably dry weather.

But in spite of planning, Mother Nature just sometimes doesn’t cooperate.  

“High schools are the first scheduled to come to us, normally around March 20, although that’s not looking too realistic right now this year,” Pinsonneault surmises doubtfully. “We have great drainage on some fields, not so great on others. Fortunately, baseball and softball involves working mostly with infields, and though the turf gets used, it’s not as intense as football or soccer, which helps us.”

Year-Round Revenue Generator

As Pinsonneault was vexing over the upcoming season on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, 16 hours due-west Noel Brusius scratches his head in Waukegan, Ill., on the western shore of Lake Michigan, wondering how his spring and summer will go.

“We have 20 inches of snow right now, and the teams are normally ready to get out onto the fields in March—sometimes even February, but not yet this year,” he decides.

Brusius is Sports Turf Manager for the Waukegan Park District. The complex has 139 acres with 14 natural-turf soccer fields, four softball fields, and one synthetic-turf field for soccer and football. He also maintains 13 other athletic fields off-site, scattered around the city.

The complex was built about five years ago, approved by citizen referendum.

“Prior to that, we had random fields all over the place, so they built this beautiful complex in order to get many of the local fields in one site,” he says. “At some point, it was later designated to be become a revenue generator, so now we host a lot of local, state, and national tournaments, mostly soccer, throughout the year.”

As a result of the district’s hosting tournaments and accommodating recreational youth and adult leagues on the weekends, the fields take a pounding—which intensifies the need for care and maintenance. By the time a brief period of summer down-time comes in May, it’s full-speed ahead to get things done.

“We’ll get in and try to aerate, get some seeding done, and start our fertilization program going,” says Pinsonneault. “Our planning sessions are done in December and January to determine what we need to do to get each field ready. We sometimes over-seed with bluegrass or blue-rye grass mix, depending on how dry it is.”

When asked if he uses Bermuda turf, he laughs: “I’d love to have Bermuda, but it doesn’t grow up here. We use bluegrass mainly, but we over-seed with a lot of rye. We try to keep it bluegrass as much as possible because it handles the cold pretty well.”

He mentions something that is very interesting—using a turf blanket to promote growth in high wear areas, such as goal mouths. Turf blankets range from plastic to burlap to material that actually looks like sod. Not only does it keep the heat and moisture in the ground to help germinate seeds, but it can protect against unwanted human and animal traffic. The blankets are in rolls and can essentially cover an entire field—something to look into perhaps.

At this writing in mid-February, freeze warnings are here, with a prediction of mixed ice and snow where I live in sunny South Carolina. If this is any indicator, it could be a long, wet spring. By the time this is published in May, I hope everyone’s planning has paid off and the fields are ready for summer. If not, maybe there’s a tip or two in this article that will help you plan for next year, or share some of your own ideas for PRB readers’ benefit.  Just email me or the editor and we’ll get it in.

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 cwo4usmc@comcast.net.