Going green in Greensboro

Sustainability is more than a buzzword for Peter Ashe, CSFM. He is the sports turf manager for the University of North Carolina (UNCG) at Greensboro and the campus grounds representative on the university’s sustainability committee. The committee members are charged with developing options for consideration, setting up potential goals and assisting in finding the funding needed to make it all happen.

Ashe says, “It’s a two to four-year project, which is a bit futuristic in some ways, but it also presents opportunities for developing current initiatives and taking immediate action. I see our industry in the process of an evolution working towards sustainability. We try to take the minimalist approach throughout our program, following the model of reduce, reuse and recycle. We focus first on the cultural methods to improve the areas we manage and that has been beneficial to our overall program.”

Photos courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Pattern mowing on the UNCG baseball field.
Two interns groom one of the UNCG fields.

UNCG is a mid-major NCAA Division I school in the southern conference that competes well within the major team sports, including softball, baseball and men’s and women’s soccer. Ashe and his sports turf team manage 17 acres of fields and golf grounds. The baseball and softball stadium fields have sand-based, USGA-type rootzones with subsurface drainage systems. The baseball field has Tifway 419 bermudagrass; the softball field has Tifsport. The UNCG soccer stadium is a native soil field with a Cambridge drainage system and sand topdressing with a Vamont bermudagrass surface.

Three additional fields are used for team practices and student recreation. These are native soil, a mix of sand, rock and Piedmont clay that is slow to drain and easily compacted. The practice soccer field has Vamont bermudagrass, the other two fields are Tifway 419. Ashe says, “These are next in line for improvement. We’ll re-crown them and probably install a sand bypass system with a series of sand-filled slits in one direction channeling into perpendicular slits going the other direction.”

The stately, 2-acre student union lawn is also used for recreational sports. It has a native soil profile topped with Greg Norman II bermudagrass.

A baseball infield amendment is applied.
A bird’s-eye view of campus.
UNCG crew member Keith Siler renovated utility vehicles, rather than purchasing new.

The UNCG sports turf team also maintains the six-green practice golf range used for physical education classes, campus recreation and private lessons. “This space isn’t used for golf rounds, so these are essentially practice and target greens used by the golfing community and to help grow the game. Two greens have USGA sand-based soil profiles with Crenshaw bentgrass. The other four are push-up greens, one with bermudagrass and the other three with a mix of bentgrass and Poa annua,” Ashe says.

The different soil types, transitional varieties of turf, environmental variations and kinds of usage provide an ongoing management challenge—and a great venue for testing sustainability practices.

The first step in working toward that goal is getting the right staff. Ashe follows the maxim: hire smart, train hard and manage easy. On the management side, he coordinates his department’s activities with the administration and other departments, establishes goals, develops the master plan, follows the budget, orders the supplies and equipment, and sets the schedules. He still enjoys being a working supervisor who leads through example.

Doing it now

All of the fields and golf area have inground irrigation. Keeping it functioning is an ongoing component of sustainability. Ashe says, “The original irrigation system for soccer, softball and golf has been added on to and patched over 40 years. Though we’ve tracked and noted much of the layout, we don’t have a master map of the complete system. So, it’s almost inevitable that every contractor that works on campus breaks into the system at some point.”

The Southeast experienced severe drought conditions in 1998, 2002 and 2007. After the 1998 drought, the chancellor made the decision to convert campus irrigation to on-site wells, rather than using municipal water. Ashe says, “The wells were in place when I came to this position in 1999. They’re 600 to 800 feet deep reaching to groundwater. I’m very conservative about mining that water from aquifers and using it wisely. We have quick couplers strategically placed so we can hand-water hot spots on the fields. I walk the fields daily to observe conditions and determine what irrigation is needed when and where. That’s the biggest decision each day of the growing season. We probe the soil, and irrigate at the point of wilt, using the irrigation system for large areas and hand-watering localized dry spots. We also use wetting agents to make the best use of this valuable resource.”

Aeration is a major tool in relieving compaction, improving internal drainage and increasing air movement for maintaining a healthier turf that can stand up to wear. Ashe incorporates a variety of solid-tine aeration techniques, from standard spiking to deep tine, shatter tine and the Aerovator. “We aerate frequently, whenever we can work it in; we’ll put steel in the ground,” he says. “We’ll hit the native soil practice fields at least monthly and the sand-based fields at least twice a year. We also topdress the sand-based field once in the spring and again in late summer.”

Ashe has added tissue testing along with soil testing to more accurately fine-tune the fertilization program. He uses both organic and inorganic granular fertilizers, all slow release for steady, long-term feeding. Also, spoon-feeding with solubles, combined with minimal water use, eliminates any nutrient leaching or runoff.

The concentration on sustainability guides these practices, too. He says, “We’re doing fewer full-field applications, concentrating more on the heavy-use areas. For example, on the soccer practice field there’s one big, oval, high-use area where the majority of the wear damage from cleats will occur. That area needs more fertilization and cultivation to recover, and maybe more water, than the extremities that are used less often. We’ve used recycled crumb rubber in some of the high-traffic areas for years. We’ve also added growth regulator to the turf program, especially late in the bermudagrass season, and again before overseeding in the fall.

“It’s all about being more pragmatic in our management strategies. In the long run we may find that poly-stands, with two or three varieties in our warm-season bermudagrass, may be more beneficial than the mono-stands we’re currently using. Blending is a standard practice in the cool-season bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses. The type of grasses can vary, as long as the playing surface is safe, the turf stands up to wear and recuperates quickly. After good grooming practices and a pretty mowing pattern, few people other than the sports field managers would know multiple grass varieties were being used.”

On the sports fields, all of the bermudas are drought-tolerant and dense enough to withstand weed or insect invasions. The integrated maintenance program results in little pathogen activity and when it does occur, the turf generally tolerates the disease and grows out of it. Ashe says, “We do use herbicide to transition out the overseeded perennial ryegrass on the fields we need to transition back to bermudagrass in time for summer camps. We’ll use the lowest effective rate of either Monument, Revolver or Manor, depending on what timing we want for the transition. In the future, we may do it mechanically using the fraise mowers instead to remove both the rye and top organic layer, leaving bermudagrass stolons the freedom to grow.”

Looking ahead

Extensive changes are anticipated as the sustainability program moves into broader, full-campus usage, indoors and out. Everything from waste recycling to heating and cooling, traffic flow and parking will be affected.

One of the long-range plans that Ashe is exploring is water harvesting off of the buildings. His team has set up a simple rain barrel system to capture the water from the roof of the sports turf care center as an irrigation supply for the lawns and plant beds nearby.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.