Do a Google search for “green sports” and you’re likely to come up with a wide array of information on laudable efforts being undertaken by various college and professional teams to conserve water, divert waste, reduce energy use, and generally operate more sustainably.

Several groups, including the Green Sports Alliance and the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Sports Project, are bringing stadium managers and facility operators together to share great ideas on recycling, low-flow toilets, compostable concession packaging, and many other innovative green practices. The results of these efforts are impressive: Anytime you can make a small change and multiply that by tens of thousands of people at a game and dozens of games each season and hundreds of teams across the country, even small changes can quickly make a big impact.

However, this information almost universally relates to sports stadium operations and isn’t focused on the management of the fields themselves. The Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) is hoping to fill that void with a new environmental certification program that’s in the works. “It’s almost like the patch of green in the middle of the stadium has been overlooked,” says Rich Watson, grounds supervisor with Pine Hill Public Schools in New Jersey and chair of the STMA subcommittee that’s working on the new certification program.

Update: The STMA unveiled the Environmental Facility Certification Program in June of 2016.

Last fall, Watson attended a meeting of the Green Sports Alliance. Even though issues of sustainable turf management weren’t a primary topic, he came away from the meeting inspired by the energy and idea sharing that was taking place among stadium operators. He wants to bring that same exchange of sustainable ideas to the sports turf industry.

Sports fields within the Aspen Parks & Recreation Department are maintained without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Good cultural practices make all the difference, says Blair Elliot, sports turf manager. For example, the area in the foreground is steep and difficult to aerate, so there are some dandelions present, but the playing surfaces themselves are weed free, he notes.
Photo by Blair Elliot

“We’re trying to create a program for STMA members that will help point them in the right direction when it comes to environmental turf care. There’s just not a lot out there right now. Audubon has a golf program, for example, but there’s just not a lot tailored to sports fields specifically,” notes Watson.

An STMA membership survey showed interest in the concept of environmental field management. “It’s not necessarily the number one area of interest, but it was in the top three,” he says.

“We’re hoping that this program might help them look at things a little bit differently,” states Watson. “This is more about an IPM approach, where you treat the cause instead of the pest. It may not be for everyone. And it’s not about saying that synthetic pesticides don’t work – they do.” Instead, Watson says the STMA’s environmental certification program will focus on other options that could be tried first. “It will be about logging and monitoring,” he adds, noting that being able to record the condition of a field over time and how it responds to different nonchemical treatments can help create a better understanding of other strategies that might work.

“If you look at what you do with your fields and your shops and your equipment, maybe you don’t think you can make much of a difference, but if everyone starts looking at the impact they have, one member at a time, it makes a big difference. There’s a ton of sports fields out there, and right now there’s not a lot of people talking about this.”

Watson says the STMA environmental certification program is still taking shape, and input gathered at the annual meeting in San Antonio is being used to further refine the form it will take.

Of course, many sports turf managers are already taking steps – some big, some small – to make their operations more “green.” Personally, Watson is cutting back on many of the treatments he once used, experimenting to see how far he can go while still maintaining acceptable field conditions. “It used to be we would get to a certain point and then we would spray. But now we wait and see how far we go before something becomes a problem,” he explains. “For example, I’ve sort of learned to live with crabgrass, and we’re trying to see how much clover we can tolerate.”

When he does treat, say for white grubs, he treats only the field and not surrounding areas. Or he may try to treat only the center of a field, between the hash marks, rather than the entire playing surface. These approaches aren’t earth shattering, admits Watson, but they are a dramatic change from the way he did things in the past. He thinks sports field management will continue to go in this direction.

For some the future is now. The University of Colorado Boulder, which has a long history of environmental stewardship, stopped using pesticides and herbicides four years ago. Dave Newport is director of the university’s Environmental Center, a position that has existed for 43 years, long before most other schools started placing an emphasis on sustainability. The Environmental Center operates the zero-waste recycling program, alternative transportation programs, energy and climate conservation programs, and many other initiatives. It also helped shape the school’s organic turf care program for all sports fields.

“We worked with the grounds department here, who are great, to develop some alternatives to pesticide use,” states Newport, who credits Turfgrass Manager Ryan Heiland with successfully implementing a campus-wide pesticide-free turf program. That includes the sports fields, where mechanical control methods are used.

“One reason the fields are able to hold up is because we’re slit seeding and speed seeding so often that the weeds are getting torn out of the ground all the time,” explains Heiland. Hand pulling of weeds is also used, when necessary.

Heiland says a pesticide-free approach to sports turf management requires aggressive fertilization and seeding. “You just have to pound seed at the field, to the point where you can practically stand there and watch the grass grow,” he says of the strategy to create such a dense stand of turf that weeds can’t get started.

“While the rest of the campus is completely organic, we have stuck with our synthetic fertilizers on our sports fields, just because of the amount of play that we have to grapple with,” notes Heiland. In the past few years they’ve been using compost tea on the sports fields. “We’ve definitely been seeing some response from that,” he adds. In addition, they’ve begun alternating between synthetic and organic fertilizer applications on one sand-based baseball field.

Managing sports turf without pesticides while maintaining high-quality conditions is not an inexpensive proposition, emphasizes Heiland: “You need plenty of money for agronomic practices, including manpower. We’ve been fortunate here that I was able to make that case, and we got the funding we needed to get very high-end seed and a lot of aeration equipment, so we can fight with aggressive cultural techniques.” It’s also important to be able to control use and wear and tear on the field in order to give it the best chance to withstand weed pressure, he adds.

Another case study in sustainable sports field management can be found in Aspen, Colo. About eight years ago, the city council set a goal to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and do everything possible to be sustainable. “In our department, we’ve done things like switch to LED or fluorescent lighting in all of our shops, and we’re currently trying to install our own hydro-electric power source,” cites Blair Elliot, sports turf manager with the Aspen Parks & Recreation Department.

When it comes to turf management on the sports fields, Elliot doesn’t use any herbicides or pesticides. Aspen’s short growing season helps make this possible, but he also credits good cultural practices for the ability to maintain quality fields even without chemical treatments. “It’s how we fertilize and how we control our compaction through aeration and everything else that we do. We really have very few pests or weeds,” says Elliot. He can spot spray if a serious problem develops, but he says it’s rarely necessary. “The whole key is to aerate and topdress and keep the plant as healthy as possible,” he states.

Elliot uses organic fertilizers whenever he can, and he recently oversaw the installation of a fertigation system on the sports fields, which will allow him to further reduce his use of synthetic fertilizers because the foliar applications can be effective at much lower rates. “There are still going to be times when I need to use granular, but I’ll be able to use less overall, and it’s going to be more beneficial to the plant,” he explains.

While Aspen may be a leader in green topics, Elliot says, “Really, the whole country is leaning in this direction.” He notes that a number of states and municipalities now have tight regulations regarding the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Marlins Park Continues Green Mission

The new Marlins Park stadium, home of the Miami Marlins, underwent a complete field conversion to Platinum TE Paspalum turfgrass. The turf was chosen because it meets the specific performance needs of the team and of the retractable roof, warm-season stadium, and it supports the stadium’s environmental priorities, such as predictability and reduced water and nitrogen usage.

The fluctuations between an open and closed stadium environment present concerns of extreme shade and temperature differences.

“Everything changes when you factor in a retractable roof,” said Chad Mulholland, director of grounds for the Miami Marlins. “Field temperatures can reach over 100 degrees during the day and drop to as low as 72 when we close the roof on game days. But even more challenging is the shade. There are days when some areas of the field get no sun at all.”

The Marlins Park stadium has the LEED Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, placing additional demands on performance. The conversion to Platinum TE yielded a marked reduction in water usage and inputs, specifically nitrogen.

The push for green thinking extends beyond sports field maintenance to the construction of the fields. Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, Mich., recently received certification through the Sustainable Sites Initiative for its new multi-field sports complex. Run by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Sustainable Sites Initiative is intended to “create voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance practices.”

In certifying the new GVSU sports complex, which includes a rugby field, a lacrosse field, a 400-meter track, two softball fields and other amenities, the group cited their environmentally conscious construction. “When we started construction, we weren’t setting out to win any type of awards, but the way that we went about it ended up being very good as far as sustainability,” says Brad Wallace, director of athletic and recreation facilities at GVSU.

For example, a great deal of soil was reused in the project, rather than trucking soil to or from other locations. In the end, some 180,000 cubic yards of soil were excavated but kept within the project boundaries. “We moved a lot of dirt around, and used some on-site soil from other projects that were taking place on campus, including our football stadium, which at the time was being dug out and lowered,” explains Wallace. “All it took was a little forethought about where we were going to be working and where we could store soil.”

In addition, the stormwater from the new complex and other facilities on campus was rerouted. “We were able to take all the stormwater runoff from these fields and the buildings and put it into some nearby stormwater retention ponds,” Wallace states. Finally, the Sustainable Sites certification recognized the value of all the recycled rubber infill used in the construction of the synthetic turf fields and track at the massive complex.

It’s not the first such environmental honor for GVSU: the indoor turf building that sits adjacent to the new outdoor fields is gold certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Among many other sustainable features, all of the rain and snow melt from the building’s roof is collected, routed to retention ponds, and then used to irrigate natural turf fields on campus. These types of sustainable strategies are likely to become more common throughout the sports turf industry, just as they are in all aspects of our lives.