Prep for the slow season
As you prepare to put your fields to bed for the winter, you’re really thinking about next spring. You want to do as much as possible in the fall because you don’t know what the winter or spring weather conditions will be. The objective is to have your fields so well prepared going into the winter that you’ll have absolutely nothing to do to set them up in the spring.
The more history you have, the better you can manage your program. Take the master plan for each field and make multiple copies. You’ll want to have one map to show the field’s soil profile and turf type; one to show the irrigation system; one to plot the annual field use; and one each to track fertility, weeds, insects and diseases.
When you send someone out to make a repair on an irrigation head or to spot-treat for weeds, you can show them on the map where the work is to be done.
Record each procedure on the appropriate map, showing what has been done and include the date. Record weather conditions if they are abnormal, such as extremely hot or wet.
The data collected on the maps becomes a problem-solving resource. If a specific head as shown on the irrigation map is consistently getting clogged, you’ll want to find out why. With the maps, you can prioritize cultural practices based on turf type and field use. The baseball field with an outfield used for football or soccer practice in the fall will be managed differently than one used only for baseball. If cold weather is closing in fast, you can identify the fields that will be used first in the spring and tackle the fall prep on those fields first.
Before you plan to do a cultural management task, check the weather forecast for at least one week and up to 30 days ahead. Use the weather data to set parameters for specific procedures. Our cutoff point for core aeration on warm-season turf is the combination of 85-degree temperatures and 85 percent humidity. On cool-season turf, that point is 80-degree temperatures and 80 percent humidity.
Fall is the best time to do the combination of core aeration and overseeding. The exact timing will vary by region and climate. In the Chicago area, we try to get it done in early August. Watch the weather patterns and field use schedules to find a window to work it in. Core aerate, put down the seed, and then drag the field to mix the soil and seed together and close the aeration holes. If funds and time allow topdressing, do it immediately after aeration.
If core aeration is too disruptive for the fall play schedule, use a slice aerator and drill in or broadcast the seed for the players to cleat in. Core aerate as soon as the season is over and drag the cores back in immediately after. Though the textbooks will tell you that’s not the right time for core aeration, with a field used nine months of the year, it’s probably the only opportunity you’ll have to do it. For cool-season turf, you may want to do some dormant seeding in conjunction with the aeration.
For warm-season turf, plan to overseed with perennial ryegrass, intermediate ryegrass or annual ryegrass for turf cover on a bermudagrass field. The intermediate or annual rye may be easier to handle for the transition back to bermuda, but be aware of the color variations among the various cultivars. You won’t want too much difference between the green of the rye and the green of the bermuda.
Stay consistent with your overseeding and stick with the varieties that work best for your field conditions. If you want to change to a newer variety, check the NTEP results and get feedback from other sports field managers. Again, be aware of the color intensity of the different turfgrasses and take that into consideration along with heat and cold tolerance, drought and disease resistance, or whichever other attributes you’re seeking. Too many different cultivars within a single field may result in patches of different colors.
The fertility program is an annual process. Start the season with soil and tissue tests if possible, and base the fertilizer formulas on test results. The months of August, September and October mark the most important fertilization period everywhere except the far North and Deep South. The timing must be adjusted to fit those regions and weather patterns. You’ll want to have adequate nutrients for the seeding you’ve done. The cool-season grass plants need to have carbohydrate reserves to start the spring. The turf won’t be able to take in the nutrients when the soil becomes too cool. So, if you fertilize cool-season grasses later in the fall, use a quick-release nitrogen that is readily available, but at a low enough rate that it doesn’t overly stimulate the turf or leach away.
With warm-season grasses, you’ll want to time the fertilization before the first frost, so the same principles apply, but the timing will vary with weather patterns.
New research from the University of Maryland and Penn State recommends keeping mowing at one consistent height throughout the year on both cool and warm-season turfgrasses. The exception would be a lower height for the first spring mowing to cut away the tattered edges. We prefer the highest workable height for the specific grass and field use applications.
As long as the grass plants are actively growing they will need moisture. Evapotranspiration still takes place, so run your irrigation as late into the year as you can. In the transition zone, use grass growth and weather patterns as your guide. Growth is stimulated when you add water. If you start getting a little green and the temperature drops too low, you could do more harm than good.
If the budget allows, consider purchasing growth blankets for your fields. They give a better germination period and keep geese and people off the field. You may need to apply a preventive fungicide under the blanket if snow mold is a problem. You’ll also need to monitor conditions beneath the blanket and be ready to remove it as air temperatures dictate for your region.
Do everything in the fall so your baseball and softball fields go into the winter ready to play. Tackle the skinned area work and any infield turf, even if the outfields are being used as practice fields for other sports. You can do that turf work when those seasons end.
Measure the baseball field mound. If it’s within .25 to .5 inch of standards and the slope is right, there’s no reason to invest the time and money to rebuild it. You’ll only need to rebuild the mound if the measurements are too far off or there’s been a long period without maintenance. The same is true for the batter’s box and the pitching circle on a softball field. If the irrigation system is shut down, you can use watering cans to get the job done; it’s that important.
Cover the plate and the mound areas with tarp. You’ll need to pull up the tarp periodically to make sure the moisture level is adequate. Measure the baselines. Only cut away sod if the lip buildup is too great to repair or the turf is badly worn in an area 6 inches or wider. If you must remove sod, take out a section the size of a strip of sod. You don’t want patches any smaller than that. Ideally, you’ll have an on-site turf nursery from which you can harvest replacement sod that matches the soil profile and turf of the field. If not, work with a sod producer that has as close a match as possible. Even when putting in these sod patches late in the season, you’ll get some rooting going into dormancy and an earlier start than you’d be able to have with spring sodding.
We like to work the base paths or skinned infields with an AERA-vator. Add calcined clay to the existing infield material and make four or five passes, working the material to a depth of 3 inches. You can also construct a heavy-duty nail drag, with the nail extension 3 inches long. Add weight to the top of the drag if needed to reach that depth. You’ll need to make eight to 10 passes with the nail drag. Go slowly, working the material well without throwing any up onto the turf. Make sure the surface is smooth and level. Run string lines or use a transit or laser level to make sure the grade is correct. Roll to tighten up the material. If the weather has been dry, you may have to water before rolling to seal the surface. Don’t add any loose material on top. It could blow off during the winter and create a lip.
Use the AERA-vator or nail drag to work the warning track. Apply a broad-spectrum preemergent, if one is needed, after you’ve worked the material, but just before you do the rolling to seal it. Apply a nonselective herbicide around the fence lines as needed.
George Bernardon is director of grounds management, and Tim Moore is assistant director of grounds management for GCA Services Group, Inc.