Industry veterans weigh in on turf topics

George Toma

NFL Hall of Fame inductee, STMA founder and industry legend

Whether natural grass or artificial turf it all starts the same. You must have a good design for the field, construct it correctly and maintain it right. When it’s not right, identify the problem and fix it. That’s why they put erasers on pencils. Learn from your mistakes, don’t repeat them.

It’s hard to beat a great natural grass field, but artificial turf fills a need for fields that must handle multiple sports plus other events, and there are many good artificial turf products out there. To avoid the blame game, for a new installation, I’d have the artificial turf company take the project all the way – from the drainage system through the finished product – so one company is responsible if problems occur.

Groom an artificial field before the fibers are lying over and matted or you’re always playing catch-up. Keep the infill level uniform across the entire field. Get a magnet and use it.

Maintenance matters. Keep the inlaid lines and numbers looking sharp. Take a little Simple Green, apply it by hand and hand brush them. If they don’t brighten up like new; paint them.

Walk the field like a hawk. If you see a tiny tear, fix it. Check the seams on indoor, removable, artificial fields for little flaps and tack them down with hot glue so a cleat won’t get caught.

To create the light and dark striping pattern for football or soccer, go the extra step and pull that drag by hand. Put double-sided tape on your hands and walk the field to pick up debris from rehearsals and pregame and halftime performances.

On all fields, measure and stretch string lines to make sure markings are accurate. Artificial turf fields, indoors or out, can shift, moving the lines. Have crew members kick them back in place or use a ratchet-type kicker behind a utility vehicle, but get it right. All games should be played on a regulation field.

Michael Tarantino, CSFM

Director of facilities, maintenance and operations

Poway Unified School District

I currently maintain approximately 19 acres of synthetic turf and 158 acres of natural grass including warm and cool-season turf at the Poway Unified School District.

There are pros and cons to both synthetic and natural turf. While the natural turf on the high-profile fields requires heavy maintenance (approximately $40,000 per year per 2-acre parcel), the synthetic maintenance cost is running approximately $7,000 to $8,000 per year per 2-acre parcel, regardless of the application. The real pro and con of this subject is overuse on natural turf versus replacement cost of the synthetic turf. Many entities using synthetic are not thinking about the replacement cost, however, if you have an overused (multiple sports running in parallel) high-profile field, synthetics may be your answer. But, don’t forget the replacement costs.

Maintaining isn’t the issue with synthetics, it is performing the needed maintenance, i.e., cleaning, brushing, grooming and GMax testing. If your hope is to have the synthetics outlast the warranty, the above mentioned maintenance procedures must be done on a monthly to bimonthly schedule.

My ideal surface to maintain doesn’t exist, but if I can dream, it would be a warm-season turf that doesn’t go dormant on a high-profile baseball or softball field. What more could a turf manager want? Turf and soil to play with!

Ross Kurcab, CSFM

Turf manager, Denver Broncos

“Which is better, a natural grass or artificial turf field?” is not an appropriate question. Only when you consider the situation (the type of use, amount of use, range of weather conditions, budget considerations, and preferences of the athletes for the primary sports) can you assess the pros and cons of each field type realistically.

In some instances, artificial turf can be a better solution, but I’ve seen many installations of artificial turf that weren’t warranted by the event pressure or weather extremes. Athletes are now coming in at the professional level who have played almost exclusively on artificial turf. The lead athletes need to know how to play on both types of fields.

A key issue is the heat factor on artificial fields during summer use. While that is being studied, it is one of the issues that need to be addressed. The depth and evenness of the infill is an important factor that can change pretty quickly with use. That needs to be tested. The hardness issue also must be tested. Study and discussion are ongoing on that, and the NFL has taken steps to address it for games at the pro level.

I’m also seeing a trend where a municipality or school can apply for state funds for construction of artificial fields, but not for any maintenance/renovation needs for natural grass fields. While that can be useful, are there going to be funds available when replacement is needed?

The more a field is used, the faster it will wear out. Budgeting for fields is based on an expected life span, so usage needs to be evaluated and events may need to be prioritized to maximize field life. A high-end, sand-based, natural grass field is designed to meet high expectations. It has higher inputs in labor and materials. The payoffs of that are the performance and aesthetics. Yet, it’s not a stable environment and can crash harder and faster than a native-soil field with lower inputs. For artificial fields, the projected life span may range from 6 to 12 years. Each entity needs to determine its long-range expectations, including at what point replacement is needed in terms of safety and playability, and build that into the equation when determining what type field fits best.

Murray Cook

President, Brickman Sports Turf

I have worked on bluegrass, bermudagrass and synthetic turf fields in 26 different countries. All of these surfaces have pros and cons. I am a natural turf guy, but at the same time, I realize that there is a need for synthetic turf in various situations. Decisions to select natural or synthetic turf are based on a lot of factors: weather-related issues, venue design, overuse of fields, lack of funds and lack of additional fields, etc. Another quantifier in selecting synthetic or natural turf has turned to revenue streams for the venue. It’s no secret you can do a lot more activities on synthetic fields, than natural grass, which is why we are seeing sport complexes, high schools and universities chose that direction. However, sports turf professionals are designing better methods in handling high traffic on natural turf fields allowing for minimal damage. Natural grass is toughing up by introducing new technologies such as LED grow lights, hydro farm concepts, hybrid turf systems and more shade-tolerant turfgrasses.

In the northern climates, unless you have a highly trained staff, top-notch equipment and field, it’s tough to compete with synthetic turf in a high-use venue. I recall when I was the director of sports field management at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex we designed the natural grass fields and operations to host 1,500 games at the complex in July-August while sustaining minimal damage. It worked, but the cost to maintain the fields was always questioned. The cost to maintain synthetic fields is also a big question.

Not all synthetic turf systems are created equal. It can be a very confusing decision for facility managers to select the right synthetic field product. A word of caution is the replacement costs and maintenance required to keep the warranty valid should be carefully reviewed. Annual G-Max testing and turf inspections may be needed to validate the warranty issues. Synthetic turf types continue to change as older generation synthetics are no longer installed or recommended.

Steve Wightman

Field and operations manager, Qualcomm Stadium

Natural grass sports fields can provide an exceptional playing surface for all types of sports activity. However, it requires a concerted effort and sincere engagement of all stakeholders to achieve. Owners, management, maintenance staff, leagues, teams, and all end users must understand the limitations of natural grass and its exceptional ability to grow and prosper under reasonable traffic conditions. If natural grass is allowed to exhibit its maximum performance potential, then prudent cultural care and activity scheduling must be provided.

Geographic location, turfgrass type, timing and duration of activity, quality of care and financial resources all play a vital role in the success of any natural grass sports field. Choosing the right type of turfgrass and providing adequate agronomic care is half the battle. The other half of the battle is allowing only reasonable activity on the field throughout the year.

So, how do we overcome the fact that in most situations not all of the stakeholders are engaged in doing what’s best for the turfgrass, but rather providing and allowing as many activities on the field as possible? The grim reality, at least in my experience, is that real life situations for us, the field managers, are to do everything we can to keep the field covered with grass for as long as possible before it becomes a barren wasteland from overuse and abuse. And, never stop communicating to the stakeholders the importance of intelligent field usage relevant to turfgrass longevity.

Growing deep, massive roots is the best insurance for turfgrass health and longevity. Concentrate on providing good drainage through adequate aeration. Allowing adequate oxygen and water movement through the rootzone is key in any turfgrass management program. Avoid excessive soil moisture during field activity and capitalize on inactivity to reestablish the soil moisture reservoir. Monitor irrigation scheduling daily based on climatic conditions and field activity.

Properly feeding the turfgrass plant is the third key component in the management program. Adequate fertilization based on existing rootzone nutritional values will dictate the fertility program during the growing season.

Mowing turfgrass at the proper height and frequency is the fourth key component of the management program. With quality mowing equipment, mowing at the upper end of the mowing height range will help the grass survive heavy traffic better, especially during the more stressful months of turfgrass growth.