Blade By Blade

By Sarah Martin

Maintaining the largest sports complex in Arizona certainly comes with challenges, yet there are many rewarding aspects I still enjoy. Seeing all 18 soccer fields and four Little League baseball fields provide playability for the athletes and peace of mind for parents makes me feel like I have a meaningful impact on their lives. For all other foremen or sports-turf managers who are using Bermuda grass, here are some ways to create the perfect surface when dealing with the approaching summer heat.

Watching Water
When I’m getting ready to work on a specific field, the first thing I do is check the irrigation system. If it does not adequately water the entire playing field, there will be trouble areas that are difficult to fix while the rest of the field is thriving. I encourage you to walk around the field and check each irrigation head; this will indicate which areas are getting coverage and which are not. Consider replacing certain heads early in the process before it’s too late to make a difference.

Next, be sure to examine issues such as water times and pooling. For instance, watering in the early morning or late evening is best for water retention and to minimize loss due to evaporation. Additionally, do not irrigate during high winds, or the much-needed water will be blown away from a specific field. The complex has nine lighted, international soccer fields (225’ x 360’) of natural Tifway 419 Hybrid Bermuda sports turf, which covers 33 acres. A standard field should be 50 yards away from the next-closest field so blowing water will not be an issue; however, depending on how a complex is set up, water may puddle in valley areas, making it more difficult for fans to navigate.

On The Surface
For departments with a small budget, maintaining Bermuda grass doesn’t have to be expensive. Simply raking and de-thatching the grass will stimulate it and allow fertilizer and water to more easily reach the roots. This also eliminates any dead grass that has remained on the playing surface.

For departments with a larger budget, gas-powered thatchers can be rented or even purchased, depending on the scope of a park. There isn’t an exact acreage that determines what needs a thatcher, so renting first and seeing the difference between manually raking and machine thatching makes for a more informed decision.

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Along the same lines, checking the surface for hard spots is also important in keeping Bermuda grass as fresh and healthy as possible. Take a pitchfork and check for hardness to determine how to aerate the surface. Combining air and water is vital for grass, so make sure you provide the correct amounts of both. This will go a long way to ensure the surface is ready for athletes.

Again—depending on the budget—some type of aeration equipment will make the process faster, but using a pitchfork will provide exactly what you need at a much cheaper cost. Since you are directly poking and physically feeling the ground react, you can gain a better idea of what is needed.

Mowing Matters
In terms of mowing, I prefer blades to be as low to the surface as possible. This allows the sun and the heat to get into the Bermuda grass and aid in the growing process. With droughts in Arizona, the department has to be especially careful about scalping the grass and checking the weather diligently when making decisions. Something tried recently was fraze mowing. Fraze mowing is a process that is popular in Europe and has spread to the United States recently. It removes the top layer of the field because that layer includes materials that can cause issues with a field. These detrimental build-ups from a growing season are annually removed to create a better environment for plant strength and field playability. After mowing four fields in May 2016, the plan is to put this practice into regular rotation so all fields with be fraze mowed about every five years.

When it comes to soil and fertilization, I prefer ammonium sulfate—also known as 21-0-0,which means it is essentially all nitrogen. Mowing a few times post-fertilization is natural, considering how much the Bermuda enjoys the nitrogen. This gets the grass growing quickly and in good shape. Be aware of how much fertilizer is used, so as not to overdo it. Consistently spreading fertilizer all over a field is crucial so you don’t have to think about over-fertilizing areas that are barren.

Weeds And Pests
At the Reach 11 Sports Complex, being diligent about weeds and broadleaf also comes with the territory. Be sure to reduce the weeds in the early spring to make weed removal that much easier as summer approaches. Plus, the weed-treating then will be routine and won’t have to be built into an already-packed schedule.

Another nuisance is soil-based insects. Soil-sampling methods, like a soil probe or shovel, will uncover the highest number of insects in the root area. Usually, it is in the top inches of the soil, and depending on how many grubs are found, treatment may be necessary immediately.

As for guarding against more dangerous creatures—such as scorpions and snakes—calling animal control is always the best and safest practice. Even if there is pressure to start a game on time—especially a championship game—ensuring that athletes are safe trumps the need to play a game.

Ant hills on a playing surface or even near a playing surface must be snuffed out immediately to prevent injury to athletes. While there are physical dangers associated, the appearance of anthills does not necessarily indicate that top-notch fields are provided.

A Growing Plan
Letting a field rest is another way to ensure it remains as healthy as possible. Excessive practices on complex fields are not allowed in order to maintain the quality of the playing surface for games. Shutting down fields for a prolonged amount of time will only allow for healthier grass and more time to make the playing surface just right.

With so many details that go into turf care, having a plan that addresses and proactively covers these tasks is the only way to ensure that all the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed. By watering first, you are able to accurately assess one of the keys to a healthy surface before getting into more technical issues. Having a proper feel and perspective for a field through soil checks, aeration, mowing, and consistent walking on the field will only make it easier to prepare and maintain. Guarding against weeds, pests, and field overuse will make you a better sports-turf manager and a better practitioner of proper turf maintenance. Once all of these items are completed, then the real fun begins, but the peace of mind in knowing that a field is in top-notch condition is priceless.

Sarah Martin, CSFM, is the Park Maintenance Manager for the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation’s Reach 11 Sports Complex in Arizona. Reach her at sarah.martin@phoenix.gov.