Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2012 and has been updated for comprehensiveness. Author Mike Schiller, CSFM, has been in the sports field management industry for over 40 years and is a past president of the Sports Turf Managers Association. At the time of publication, Schiller served as grounds manager for GCA Services for the Community Unit School District 95, Lake Zurich, Illinois.
From Mississippi to Fairbanks, Alaska, back to Northern Texas and finally home to Northern Illinois, I have been able to work on athletic fields of all types in a variety of climates during my career in sports field management.
The common factor throughout my career has been preparing fields for the winter, or in most cases getting facilities in northern climates ready for the following spring. By doing the heavy prep in the fall you get a jump on having your fields ready in the spring, especially your baseball and softball fields.
The timing of performing these tasks may vary greatly. Those in cooler climates, such as Alaska and our friends in Canada, have a shorter spring and summer and may need to plan winter prep as early as mid-August to early September, as we did when I was stationed in Alaska.
Here in the Chicagoland area, our fall sports begin to wind down in mid to late October. However, our football season and soccer seasons were extended when our varsity teams advanced during state playoffs, and we had to adjust our schedule accordingly.
We do a lot of baseball and softball field prep in September and October as the schedule allows. We can generally look for a period of nice weather in the fall when we can repair the pitcher’s mounds and home plate areas. As we are working on this, we can add a bit of ball mix and calcined clay where needed, work it in, and then pull the large leveling bar across the surfaces to have them ready for spring play.
If necessary, we will replace the clay bricks in the landing areas on the mounds and heavy-wear areas of the batter’s boxes. Weather permitting, we try to slice or core the fields in two directions as time allows.
One of the most important things we do each fall is our major fertilizer/herbicide application. I have found the most beneficial application of fertilizer we can do here in the Midwest is a late fall application, and I have waited until Thanksgiving many times to apply the product.
The late-fall feeding means plants will be taking up the nitrogen and other nutrients and storing them for the spring. When you add a broadleaf weed control application at the same time, the weeds think they are feeding and absorb the weed killer at the same time. I have had good control with this application schedule.
Winterizing the field
In my current position, working for a school district, I have been directed to apply fertilizers or pesticides during periods when the students will not be on campus. We schedule our applications for three-day weekends or longer breaks when possible.
The fertilizer blend I have had great success with includes Nitroform. The product can take up to 16 months to break down and become available to the plants. Because of timing, activities and tight budgets, we may only get to make two fertilizer applications each growing season, so by making Nitroform a major component of the blend, we get the most for our money.
When we use the Nitroform as 50 percent of our blend we can put down as much as 1.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet without rapid flushes of growth. The Nitroform breaks down slowly and evenly. Our formulation the past three years has been a 21-1-5 blend with Nitroform, a combination of other organic products with a bit of urea and sulfate of potash. We get it from a local supplier.
Aerification and overseeding are done as frequently as possible before September 15, or as a dormant seeding prior to snowfall. While mound, infield repairs and fertilization take up quite a bit of the fall, we must also prepare for the first snowfall. We make repairs, prep plows and salt spreaders and get them placed throughout the district. We also take down windscreens and tennis nets prior to snowfall.
A major area of our responsibility is the stadium synthetic turf (carpet). The carpet is utilized from early April until late November. During a typical school day, our stadium turf can be in use from as early as 7 a.m. until 10:30 or 11 each night. Students utilize it for PE and sports at all levels, and the local youth soccer association and youth football association use it in the evenings and on weekends.
With this much activity, it is necessary to give the carpet a rest. A local vendor has a great unit on a modified older model Toro work truck that can spray anti-static as well as a germicide on the carpet. It then sweeps and vacuums the carpet, cleaning the crumb rubber and returning it to the carpet. The vacuum cleans all the dust, organic material and hair from the carpet, and a large magnet pulls out metal objects that can be hidden in the fibers of the carpet. A late cleaning has us ready to go in the spring
These are just a few steps we take to keep our fields playable for our student athletes.