At a sports facility, turf is king. As such, most of the time and resources should go to the culture of the turf and making it a safe, functional playing surface. On the other hand, there are areas that would benefit from the incorporation of ornamentals, such as shade trees, shrubs and ground covers. Each group of plants has a specific purpose.

Perennials, ground covers, low-growing shrubs and ornamental grasses are an alternative to turf in narrow strips.

Site assessment/analysis

Any landscape, regardless of function, can be improved through site assessment and analysis. Though more helpful when conducted before installation of plant materials, considering all aspects of the site is truly an underutilized and immensely advantageous process.

The difference between a site assessment and a site analysis is simple. A site assessment is a documentation of the status of each plant in the landscape, as well as the observed growing conditions for them. A site analysis is conducted after an assessment, taking the observations and assigning a diagnosis, value judgment or recommendation to them.

Dust from limestone parking lots can be problematic andnoted in a site assessment.

Step one is to walk the facility with a clipboard, sketching in the various hardscape elements (anything nonliving) and plants. As each plant is encountered, notes, such as “spots on leaves,” “gash in trunk” and “stunted current season’s growth,” are written on the sketch. This may be done field by field or as a whole facility; there are advantages and disadvantages to each. It’s usually easier to focus on specifics when smaller areas are reviewed, while a more cohesive and overlapping view is realized when larger areas are assessed.

Step two is to determine the cause and seriousness of each noted concern; to make a value judgment for each. For example, a tree might be struggling because the sprinkler system has been in disrepair recently and runs for an hour and a half every morning regardless of natural rainfall. Thus, “pale leaves and stunted growth” could translate into a recommendation for an audit of the sprinkler system. It’s also possible that weather conditions have led to the infection of common pathogens, such as apple scab and anthracnose, and a treatment program to address it may be necessary.

Site assessment/analysis promotes plant health directly, and prevents maladies through common sense changes in plant material. The opportunity to replace severe or moderately susceptible specimens is a good one in that it creates voids that must be filled with better-adapted plant material.

Depending on the level of change needed, it’s wise to consult with a landscape architect or landscape designer. A landscape architect can provide information on the plantings as they affect the health, safety and welfare of the public. This would be especially important where hardscapes (retaining walls, fences, paths, etc.) are accessible by teams and fans. Landscape designers specialize in plants and how they function in the landscape.

What’s needed?

After the site analysis is complete, the next step is to identify possible solutions through general groups of plant materials. It’s best to avoid choosing a specific plant until the soil type, sun exposure, disease pressure, size allotment and adjoining hardscape have been fully considered.

Are there picnic tables that aren’t used much because fans and players don’t like to sit in the sun? Would they be utilized more often if under a shade tree? Is the refreshment stand next to impossible to work in due to heat? A shade tree might be the answer.

Need to reduce mowing? Ground covers may be the ticket. Another possibility is to identify some of the out-of-play areas as no-maintenance zones and install wildflowers or no-mow fescues to replace fine turfgrass.

Need color? Low-maintenance shrubs, such as shrub roses, might work well. Also, bulbs can be planted with bloom sequence in mind to provide season-long color.

Have narrow strips of turf? Perennials or ground covers are easier to take care of in these locations; they don’t need to be aerated, mowed or overseeded, and usually require less water and fertilizer.

Shade can be welcome on hot summer days.

Right plant, right place

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 10 years, you’ve probably heard the green industry catch phrase “Right plant, right place.” If it weren’t such a good guide, I’d probably stop using it. The danger associated with a phrase such as RPRP is that it can become numbing or automatic in that it’s easy to overlook the many parts involved, and skip to the two or three that are most commonly used. For example, since sun/shade and eventual height are the most referred to plant selection guidelines, the others can be forgotten or ignored, especially if a choice must be made quickly.

These RPRP components are just as important as sun/shade and eventual height:

  • Width – The other side of eventual height. Commonly overlooked, especially with small trees, such as crabapple and cherry.
  • Soil – Moisture and pH.
  • Disease resistance – Disease resistance equals low maintenance, which is normally the case in terms of ornamentals for a sports facility.<
  • Leaf color – In summer and fall.
  • Growth habit – Columnar, spreading, etc.
  • Flower/fruit/fragrance – Butterflies are always welcome, but bees can be a real problem, especially for fans and players that are allergic.
  • Native choices – Chances are good that if it’s native, it’s going to survive.
  • Hardiness zones – Cold and heat.
  • Blooming sequence – Great to have something blooming at all times
  • Slope – Mowing can be tough on a slope; perhaps ground covers or low-growing shrubs are a better choice.
  • Level of maintenance – High maintenance can be tolerated in high-visibility areas, such as the refreshment stand, but other areas can be planted for low maintenance.
  • Color – Wow factor.
  • Safety – Landscape debris.

National/local resources

Is it best to choose ornamental plants on a national or local basis? The bottom line is the performance of the plant at your sports facility. National information and marketing sources can help identify species that have appeal and have been selected based on favorable ratings in the RPRP categories, but they must be locally validated with testing and recommendations for plant materials by local horticulturists and from local/regional information sources.

Once you find a specific plant that shows promise, use an illustrator tool, such as Google Images, to help determine if the features are the ones you’re looking for. After information has been gathered, contact or visit your nearest public botanic garden or arboretum. It’s one thing to see a plant on a web page or in a catalog, it’s quite another to see, touch and smell it in person.

After you’ve been at it a while, create a list of durable, “can’t miss” plants or “plant palette” and keep it handy to help choose plants. Strive to choose at least five for each plant category, subdivided by light requirements. Don’t stop with five choices for each category, or your facility may end up with too many of too few species.

The author is a horticulturist and certified arborist located in Omaha, Neb.