Maintenance Pillars For Natural-Grass Athletic Surfaces

By Jimmy Simpson

Communal spaces unite communities. Athletic surfaces are not solely dedicated fields: In open and flat areas, spontaneous games pop up among friends, families, and sports teams. Facility and parks managers’ primary goal is to provide this safe, open space for people to enjoy. With expanding usage of venues, coupled with budget constraints, how does one ensure the surfaces remain safe?

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As a result of inaccurate information, natural-grass surfaces have been misrepresented in the past. Rumors of unfavorable playing conditions in high-volume areas, expansive maintenance budgets, and stoppages in play after rain storms are factually incorrect. Natural-grass surfaces can offer safe, viable spaces throughout the year if maintained correctly. Here are some tips and tricks to enhance current maintenance practices and extend the use of a natural surface.

Imagine a surface is a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. To make the perfect sandwich, several independent layers must come together. Soil and turfgrass are the bread, holding the system together. Proper maintenance practices represent the peanut butter, being used to grow a stronger plant. Lastly, the athletic play occurring on the field is the jelly

Hungry yet?

Individuals have different preferences—some prefer more peanut butter while others enjoy more jelly. Enter parks and facility managers. As independent experts, we determine what works best for the facility and ultimately aim to make the best peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for everyone to enjoy.

Pillar I: Soil
The above-mentioned “layers” form the pillars of a safe athletic field. To build a successful natural surface, let’s first dig into the soil and understand the foundation of a turfgrass system. Properly maintained soils will hold air, water, and nutrients required for proper plant growth. Additionally, soils stabilize the system so athletes can be confident with their movements. The soil pillar should be looked at from every angle during construction and throughout the life of a surface.

Remember, once the peanut butter is put on the bread, you are committed. The same can be said here. After selecting the soils for the surface and ensuring they’re graded to a proper tolerance, you are committed to the substrate that will support all successes or failures of the system. When selecting suitable soils, engage a professional soil scientist to test what you have, then develop specifications for the soils that you want to use.

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Pillar II: Maintenance Planning
To have a safe surface, one must commit to a quality maintenance plan. Routine inspections, aeration, fertilization, and mowing are a must to ensure the safety of end users.

  • Mowing
    Height and quality of cut, along with frequency, are crucial to turfgrass density, which has a direct correlation to the amount of wear a surface can withstand and from which it can recover. Pro tip: Whether mowing with a reel-type unit or a rotary mower, be aware that sharp blades help the plants recover from injury and reduce the instance of disease attack.

    All turfgrasses, whether cool season (Bluegrass, Ryegrass, Fescue, etc.) or warm season (Bermuda, Paspalum, Zoysia, etc.), have a preferred cut height. Remember—do not cut off more than a third of the plant’s leaf blade. This is where frequency and quality of cut enters the maintenance picture. The lower you mow, the more often you will need to cut to maintain a dense, healthy turf canopy.

    A great money- and labor-saving practice here is using a plant growth regulator (PGR). Most PGRs reduce the amount of top growth or leaf tissue, which means less mowing. This leads to savings on equipment-repair costs, fuel, labor, water, and even fertilizer.

  • Aeration
    The intersection of soils and maintenance starts with aeration—a major component designed to help keep the proper balance of air, water, and nutrients necessary for optimum turfgrass growth. Aeration also reduces surface hardness, which helps prevent injuries to athletes.

    There are many ways to successfully aerate a field, from using pull-behind units on the back of a utility vehicle to a full-scale, self-contained ride-on unit. Employing these units in the proper environmental conditions can vastly improve surfaces. Aerating a field in one direction can affect about three percent of the surface. While this may not sound like much, it greatly impacts the overall quality and turf health.

    If finding the time to aerate is a challenge, try “targeted maintenance.” Instead of treating the entire surface, aerate and fertilize the portion of the surface that actually needs attention. If a normal aeration takes two hours on a two-acre surface, the targeted approach covers the wear areas in 15 minutes, saving significant time and reducing the amount of fertilizer used. You can then work on the wear areas of multiple surfaces instead of just one. Pro tip: Test soil-nutrient levels regularly. Know what is there before applying more.

Pillar III: Athletic Play
Creating a surface to withstand the most use without compromising the appropriate safety protocols is paramount, and the third pillar integrates the playing schedule with the types of play on a given surface. We want to create a well-maintained natural turfgrass surface that provides individuals with a safe place to hone their craft or throw a baseball with their kids.

Programming surfaces to the fullest extent can serve many sports or activities. Pro tip: During walk-throughs, recognize wear patterns associated with the scheduled events and adjust the surface so wear areas from different sports do not align. For example, a soccer pitch can be used for soccer, lacrosse, and football simultaneously. Moving a soccer goal mouth only three to five feet can extend the hours of use on a surface without having to resod. This is the same concept as moving a pin position on a golf green.

This visual pillar is the reward for putting in the effort throughout the year as it relates to soils, maintenance, and play because the grass is what everyone sees and by which they judge our work. However, remember the old adage to never judge a book by its cover. I have seen many well-maintained natural-grass surfaces that may not look the best but have been very safe and playable in all types of conditions.

Ultimately, the goal as facility and parks managers is to give constituents the best venues possible with the resources provided. Natural-grass surfaces can take on more activities by our simply working with a turfgrass manager or Certified Sports Field Manger (CSFM) to implement a few of the ideas from this article. Focusing on these maintenance pillars will continue to push natural-grass athletic surfaces to new limits—all while meeting our goals and providing users with a safe surface.

Jimmy Simpson, CSFM, the Facilities Coordinator, for the town of Cary, N.C. Reach him at Jimmy.simpson@townofcary.org.