Do you ever look out at your overused athletic fields and think of that old David Bowie song, “Under Pressure”? You’re probably not alone. Heavy use puts many sports fields under pressure, and sometimes it’s too much for the turf and the soils to handle. We asked some experts in the sports turf consulting business for their advice in helping to relieve the symptoms of heavy demand fields.
“We run into that a lot,” says Jamie Mehringer with J&D Turf in Fishers, Ind. He doesn’t think that sports fields are necessarily getting more use than in the past, but, he says, “I think the level of expectations are rising, and I don’t know if the budgets at facilities are rising to the same level as the expectations.”
There are ways to cope with heavy demand without breaking the bank, though. “The big thing, if you have cool-season turf, like bluegrass/ryegrass/fescues, is to constantly seed the fields. Especially when the fields are in play … overseed them before you even see wear,” Mehringer advises. “You need to build up a seed bank in the soil, because once you get really heavy use and you wear down to bare soil, you’re not going to be able to recover that field that season.”
A common mistake is waiting too long to seed, he says, and people tend not to use nearly a high enough rate when they do seed. Mehringer adds: “I don’t shy away from ryegrass at 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet in high-traffic areas. That rate is about double from what you might see in a textbook.” It’s not necessary to use a rate that high on an entire field, but for high-use fields this rate is what’s needed between the hash marks on a football field or around the goal areas on a soccer field, he explains. “You have to account for some attrition with the seed,” says Mehringer.
There are also going to be times where you just have to resod, because the traffic is just too much, says Mehringer. Even at the end of the season, it’s often better to resod worn areas rather than trying to grow them back with seed. “In higher-traffic areas, like the front of a pitcher’s mound or in a soccer goalmouth, you can get one pallet of sod and have instant, mature turf. I see a lot of people who try to seed those areas in during the off-season, but they just get destroyed during the first few days of the next season because it’s all immature turf.”
To help know when it might be time to resod, Mehringer recommends that sports field managers monitor grass cover on their fields by regularly taking photos and maintaining a log of those photos. “That also gives you something to show your user groups or your supervisor,” he points out.
Mehringer says another good technique to monitor fields that receive heavy use is to use a shear strength tester to check the stability of the turf. “You can use that as another gauge. If your shear strength has dropped in half, then you’ve lost half of your ability to hold the field together,” he explains, adding that the information is valuable not only as a maintenance tool, but also for playability and safety considerations.
Heavy play can sometimes necessitate steps beyond maintenance, such as resodding worn areas. “When the time and effort to do the regular maintenance in order to get the games in becomes such a chore, then some thought should be given to renovations that could be done to the field to minimize the effort,” says Mike Parent, with H&K Sports Fields.
PHOTO COURTESY OF H&K SPORTS FIELDS.
Justin Cobb with Sports Fields, Inc. in Monmouth, Maine, says that when fields see increased use, “your traditional maintenance just isn’t going to cover the gap between the high use and medium use.” In order to maintain field conditions, budgets and inputs need to keep pace with the level of play, he emphasizes. “There’s a labor issue, as well,” says Cobb, observing that budget pressures have reduced the number of people caring for fields in many cases. “There are a lot of good people who are having to put a lot more effort in. The difference today is that there’s often one person doing the work rather than three or four.”
It’s when fields get heavy use that decreased budgets and manpower begin to really show, he states. However, there are ways to minimize the impacts. “If you have a mechanical aerator, just keep on it all of the time,” he advises, particularly in the centers of fields, goalmouths and other high-traffic areas. While it’s difficult to pull cores during the playing season, Cobb notes, “If you have a spike aerator, you could be out there every week to 10 days. I would try to do it about every third mowing.”
Second, he says, focus on the parts of the field that get the most wear rather than feeling that an entire field needs uniform treatment. On soccer fields, for example, Cobb says there is usually a diamond-shaped “wear box” starting at the goalmouth area and extending outward toward both midfield sidelines, and then back to the opposite goalmouth. “The areas outside of that diamond (mainly the corners of the field) usually is pretty nice turf and doesn’t require the nitrogen or nutrient input or the aeration that the rest of the field requires,” he explains.
For example, if fertilizer costs limit how much can be applied, he suggests covering the entire field at a half-rate setting on the spreader, and then going back over just the wear box with the remaining fertilizer. “That puts more nutrients where the turf is most stressed,” he says.
For fields that don’t have an integrated irrigation system, Cobb recommends the use of a water wheel to help maintain field conditions in heavy wear. “If you have a hydrant, you can run the water wheel right off that. They’re relatively affordable and you can move them around,” says Cobb. “Water makes a huge difference in helping a field stand up to wear.” It helps new grass seed or sod get established, and also helps ensure the health of the mature turf.
Baseball and softball fields can be particularly challenging to maintain when usage increases. Sometimes it’s necessary to fix basic drainage and grading problems in order to help the field stand up to heavy wear.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTS FIELDS, INC.
“After each time the field is used, I wish someone would have a bag of seed there and just sprinkle some out, even by hand on the high-traffic areas,” Cobb adds. “Even if the seed doesn’t germinate right away, it will get cleated in, and when use slows on the field it will be there ready to take off.” For fields where the maintenance staff isn’t always present, he feels that talking to coaches or user groups to have them help with this maintenance practice can make a big difference.
Baseball and softball fields can be particularly challenging to maintain when usage increases. Beyond wear areas that can develop in front of the pitcher’s mound (Cobb recommends buying a small amount of sod at the end of a season or sooner if needed rather than trying to reseed this area), the batter’s box is usually a key concern on high-use fields.
Increased use can make it a challenge to keep field surfaces smooth and safe, but proper maintenance goes a long way.
PHOTO COURTESY OF H&K SPORTS FIELDS.
“We try to dig those areas out and put in some clay bricks and then bury those about a half-inch under the surface,” says Cobb. The uncooked bricks help to lock everything together and provide a much harder surface and resist the habit of batters to kick down while in the batter’s box. “They can help get you through a season,” he explains.
Sportsfields, Inc. in Alsip, Ill., specializes in working with baseball and softball fields. Owner Jim Walsh says that, whenever possible, it’s ideal to be able to rotate fields and take one out of play for a time to help it recover from heavy wear. “But, in the real world, that doesn’t happen very often,” he concedes.
Perhaps the best that sports field managers can do is to try to ensure that gates are locked when a field isn’t being officially used or to rope off high-wear areas during practice. It is also important to try to minimize play on heavy-use fields during and after heavy rain events, Walsh suggests. Dry conditions also present challenges for ball fields, because dried out infield mix can often blow away when raked. For this reason, he advises watering down the material before raking. “Unfortunately, the water and manpower often isn’t available for this,” he states.
Fixing pitcher’s mounds and batter’s boxes and adding infield mix to the skinned areas of the field are all important during the fall to get fields ready for the following spring, says Walsh. He notes that with increased field use usually comes increased work on the field, and, ironically, this can exacerbate problems. For example, the more a ball field gets used, the more often the base paths are raked, and the use of a power rake or improper manual raking can result in lips or dips. It becomes all the more important to rake properly in such instances.
Walsh says that perhaps the most productive thing sports field managers can do when the level of play increases on a field is to communicate with the user groups about steps that can be taken to minimize wear. “If you don’t have the cooperation of your teams or your coaches or your athletic directors, you’re going to have issues,” he says. “There’s a big difference when you get a coach or athletic director who really cares about the field and will work with the grounds maintenance department toward a common goal.”
Aerification is critical for high-use fields, says Jamie Mehringer with J&D Turf. He also advocates overseeding at very high rates on areas of fields that get the most wear.
PHOTO COURTESY OF J&D TURF.
Mike Parent, owner and president of H&K Sports Fields in Egg Harbor, Wis., says there are fields where no amount of maintenance can help keep up with increased demand. If the grade is wrong; lips or low spots have built up and need to be removed to allow drainage to take place; or the safety of the field is compromised and creates a liability, renovation may be the best solution, he explains.
“When the time and effort to do the regular maintenance in order to get the games in becomes such a chore, then some thought should be given to renovations that could be done to the field to minimize the effort,” Parent summarizes. For example, if it rains in the morning and a sports field manager must spend the entire day trying to get the field dried out for play, there are underlying issues that must be solved. In order for a field to stand any chance of standing up to heavy demand, it must be designed and built correctly, he states. “To give yourself the best chance, you have to be sure the field has the right grades, the right materials and so on.”
Whether it’s an irrigation system or portable sprinker, “water makes a huge difference in helping a field stand up to wear,” says Justin Cobb with Sports Fields, Inc. It helps new grass seed or sod get established, and also helps ensure the health of the mature turf.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTS FIELDS, INC.
Often, the problem of overplay on fields is out of the hands of the sports field manager, observes Parent: “With more and more play, and more and more users, and longer seasons, there aren’t enough fields to go around, and the fields aren’t given a chance to rest or recuperate.” He points out to those in charge of athletic facilities that lowering budgets for maintenance can ultimately cost more money in the long run, particularly on heavy-use fields. “You reach a point where adjustments have to be made that go beyond maintenance,” states Parent.
Conversely, he says, if local sports field managers can make a plan and have the budget to keep up with ongoing maintenance and minor field improvements, that will prolong the amount of time before it’s necessary to bring in specialists with laser grading technology and heavy equipment and conduct a more extensive renovation project. It will also give fields the best chance of standing up to increased playing pressure.