When it comes to field maintenance, fall can be the best of times, and the worst of times. The weather is often ideal (certainly better than spring) for making field repair, and the grass is recovering from the heat of summer. But most fields see a lot of use this time of year, so it can be tough to find time to get everything done, and you can’t help but hear the sound of the clock ticking before winter arrives.
Northfield Park District – Northfield, Illinois
For Bill Bryon, superintendent of parks and recreation for the Northfield Park District in Illinois, which includes four baseball/softball fields and two soccer/lacrosse fields (all natural grass), fall maintenance actually begins in late summer. After lacrosse ends in late July, the crew begins solid-tining those fields. “We also overseed them and put down just a little bit of spot topdressing, as well as light watering,” Bryon says, explaining that the goal is to get the new grass germinating before fall soccer practice begins in early August.
Ideally, from a turfgrass perspective, Bryon says he’d wait another month to put seed and fertilizer down, but he has to work within the very brief window of time he has available when there’s no activity on the field. And with heavy fall use coming he wants to get the grass started: “We want to get ahead of it,” he adds.
He also tries to lightly core aerate the soccer fields before heavy play begins. “And anytime we aerate, whether it’s solid or hollow tine, we’ll follow up with some seed just to get it down in the holes.”
Overseeding continues on a nearly weekly basis through the fall. “Once the season really gets going, we’re using 100-percent ryegrass, just for quick-germinating purposes. We keep putting seed down pretty much until we feel it’s pointless,” he explains. Aerating also continues, using light core aeration in places where it’s needed but mostly using needle tines. “That’s a newer practice for us, so we’re really going to pay attention to how it works. We have seen some good results already, and the soccer teams don’t care because they don’t even know when we do it,” says Bryon. The solid-tining will be done at least twice a month. “And we don’t always do the whole field; we’re focusing on the bad spots,” he says. Leaving the aerator hooked up on the tractor makes it quick and easy to go out and do it, Bryon adds.
Even after the fall sports teams end their seasons, aerifying and overseeding continue. “In late November, we’ll go out and core aerate the field like crazy – basically destroy it with our core aerator, where it looks terrible but we know that it’s going to be OK,” says Bryon. “Then we heavily overseed it and do a late fall fertilization.” At that point, the crew puts down Covermaster turf growth blankets. “We can cover about 80 percent of our soccer fields,” he adds.
The covers, along with the fall seed and fertilizer, can make a big difference in the spring, says Bryon. When the covers are removed around late March (about four or five days before spring play starts), “it’s always pretty green underneath them…and sometimes we get really lucky…one year we had temperatures in the 80s in March and when we pulled the covers up we had six inches of new grass where there had been total bare spots,” he notes.
Fall can also be an effective time to use herbicides for weed control, advises Bryon. The Northfield Parks fields are treated with PBI-Gordon’s PowerZone broadleaf herbicide, and while results in the spring have been mixed, “We’ve had really good results with mid-October spraying, because we’re knocking out stuff that’s just starting to show and is going to be there all winter and still be there in the spring,” states Bryon. Ideally, he looks for a warmer day (above 70 degrees) in October, and says the results show very quickly, in 24 to 48 hours.
He’s found spraying in the fall not only more effective than in the spring, but it’s easier to find good whether to spray in and it takes one thing off the to-do list when the busy spring season does come. “There’s a million things to do in the park in the spring,” says Bryon.
Prairie Ridge Sports Complex – Ankeny, Iowa
Elliott Josephson, sports field coordinator at Prairie Ridge Sports Complex in Ankeny, Iowa, has a lot on his plate in the fall: Prairie Ridge sits on 120 acres and includes 15 baseball fields, six softball fields, 10 soccer fields and five football fields.
Starting at the beginning of August, when the baseball season is over, off-season maintenance on those fields begins. “We edge the lips, do our mound and plate work,” says Josephson. “This year we’re going fraze mow the lips, too, to keep them even with the transition areas – the machine will remove the clay and thatch build-up. It helps take the hump out to keep the transition smooth.” Josephson says the fields are also laser-graded.
Football fields at the Prairie Ridge Sports Complex are set up in the fall on some of the baseball fields, with the football surface cutting through part of the infield skin, around second base, so the grading on those fields may just need to be touched up after the season ends. “The football there is 10-year-olds, so it doesn’t do much to the field compared to the 18-year-olds playing baseball on it,” says Josephson.
Given the heavy load of football, soccer and softball in the fall, work on those fields often has to be put off until late September and early October. The one exception is aeration, as fields are deep-tine aerated with a Wiedenmann XF8 once a month, even through the fall playing season. Then, beginning in mid-October as sports teams begin wrapping up their seasons, a final core aeration is done using a Toro ProCore. “Our goal is to have everything aerated (and a fall fertilizer app completed) by Halloween,” Josephson explains.
Generally, the third week of October is when the softball fields are aerated and last graded; the last week of October is when the crew aerates the soccer and football fields, which themselves take up 25 acres. “We can knock those out in about a week,” he notes, adding that during the summer core aeration in June, the cores are typically harvested. “But in October we typically leave them, and mow them and chop them up.”
The fall fertilization program involves a 1-pound rate of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. “We do it a little earlier in October than most people would, just because we’re trying to get some top growth while they’re still playing on it,” Josephson says. “It gets the grass to grow just a little bit during the last two weeks of October.” This helps to compensate for the lack of overseeding (given the acreage, that would be cost-prohibitive), and helps the grass fill back in after the aerations.
Hope College – Holland, Michigan
Jim Speelman, sports turf manager at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, uses the fall primarily to take stock of the condition of the school’s baseball and softball fields after a year of play. Work on those fields can’t start until mid-October because, as is becoming the norm in college athletics these days, there’s a non-traditional fall season where players are still on the fields. “We’ll look at how bad the lips have gotten – in the fall we typically target and really go after the lips,” he explains. “If they’re really bad, we’ll take a sod cutter and cut the outer edge off and roll the sod back and get it out of the way. Then we cut down to where we need to be, usually a half-inch or so, and then put the sod back down.”
Sometimes, Speelman will flip the sod around when replacing it if the edge has gotten rough or it’s become a little undefined by Roundup applications during the season. “When we turn it around, it gives us a good edge on the outside,” he notes. Speelman says fall is an ideal time to do this work because the growth of the grass is slow and yet soil temperatures are still warm enough for root growth to being to take hold, versus spring when conditions tend to be cold and wet. Plus, “by the time spring comes, you can’t even tell we’ve done anything,” he says.
Fall is also a good time to work on the mound and home plate areas, if necessary, and to set the grade on the infield to get things level, Speelman adds. If there are any worn spots in front of the mound, etc., he “sneaks some sod” from other places on the field to repair those areas, and then uses seed to fill in the harvest sites. The last thing he does on the ballfields is to tarp the home plate and mound areas for the winter.
As far as the turfgrass areas, the baseball infield was resodded several years ago and a problem has developed with necrotic ring spot; Speelman uses a granular fungicide in the fall for that. “And we also put it to bed in the fall with a heavy shot of iprodione and chlorothalonil, which we put down to prevent snow mold, because if conditions are favorable we can sometimes get socked with snow mold,” he states. “We really got hit with it a couple of years ago…and lost about one-third of our infield…so our program is now to go with those two preventatives.”
Hope College has synthetic turf fields for soccer and football. “With the addition of those synthetic fields, that’s put the usage on the natural turf fields down quite a bit, so now they’re able to hold their own,” says Speelman. Those natural fields are now used mainly for occasional practices (primarily leading up to an away game that will be played on natural grass), as well as for band practice – the latter of which, especially in the fall, can make for maintenance challenges on the natural grass football field. He aerates before the band gets on the field, at least once during the season, and once more at the end of the fall season. “We put it to bed with holes in it, as well as fertilizer, and let that all cook in during the winter. And, if time allows, we’ll topdress, too,” he says.
With the synthetic fields taking a lot of the wear, Speelman says can get away with less overseeding on what are now the practice fields. “We would overseed every week with 100 pounds of seed per field, rotating between a high percentage bluegrass blend, and then go two or three weeks with straight ryegrass, and then one more time in late October put down one more bluegrass application to try to get it to germinate before winter.”
His approach then was to put the seed down prior to Friday football practice in order to let the players help cleat the seed in. “By the time they came back on Tuesday after a Monday film day, there would usually be grass coming up,” he says. Now, he overseeds only on an as-needed basis.