Have you ever moved an area rug and been amazed at the pristine condition of the floor beneath it? Well, that’s what the whole room once looked like. That’s what the whole room would look like, if all of it was as well-protected and unused as the small area beneath that rug.
It’s sort of the opposite when it comes to maintaining high wear areas on athletic fields. Most of the field can look great, but there’s always those smaller sections – soccer and lacrosse goalmouths, between the hash marks on football fields, etc. – that reveal just how much use the field is getting.
“If we could find a way to get players to use the entire field, we wouldn’t have problems!” jokes Jerad Minnick, lead advisor for the Natural Grass Advisory Group, an independent education and support organization that exists to help sports turf managers better manage their natural grass fields.
In his former role as a sports turf manager and now as a consultant, Minnick has seen plenty of cases where specific high-use areas show excessive wear. While the visible symptom in these areas is bare spots, he says it’s actually what’s happening below the surface that’s creating the biggest problem. “The number one issue when it comes to wear areas is compaction,” Minnick explains. “On a lacrosse goalmouth, you’re going to wear away the plant. But on every other type of goalmouth and high-wear area, turfgrass decline happens faster because of compaction than it does because of the wear itself.”
Hard lessons, innovative solutions
Even for those relatively new to turfgrass science and caring for high-wear areas on fields, it’s easy to identify what’s different about those areas just by walking on them, says Minnick: “The automatic response from every single person is, ‘The soil is too hard.’ Well, then we need to aerify and decompact the soil.”
But Minnick says this approach sometimes flies in the face of conventional wisdom. “I still see guide sheets that recommend sports turf managers not aerate the center of their football field during the season,” he notes. Using a deep tine aerator or slicer can only benefit the field, he says. “We know that not aerifying will result in your field wearing out. So why not change your approach?”
Increasing aerification frequency, even during the season, is easier now than it was in the past thanks to the introduction of new types of equipment, Minnick explains. While pulling cores and running a shallow-tine aerifier used to be the primary options for sports turf managers, he touts the advent of technologies like deep tine aerators and Shockwave (Campey Turf Care) and Verti-Quake (Redexim) machines that can decompact the soil. “And they don’t affect the field; you can play on it right behind the machines,” says Minnick. “And Air2G2, to me, is one of the most exciting new tools we have; we can now blow high pressure air into the field while [athletes are] playing on it, and that decompacts the soil.”
New generations of grasses
While it may sound too basic to be true, fixing worn turfgrass problems is as simple as decompacting the soil. “Or, at least, it starts with that,” says Minnick.
The next step, he explains, is to get grass growing again. “And we’re talking about the proper grass,” he emphasizes. That means the best varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and rye in a cool-season environment and the best varieties of Bermudagrass in a warm-season environment. “Anything else, like a tall fescue/ryegrass, is not going to work on a high-traffic field, because divots that form are going to remain on the field because the grass is not going to spread to fill it in,” says Minnick.
Regrowing grass in these areas is the single biggest challenge sports turf managers face, says Minnick. Overseeding helps, but for established fields with strong stands of grass, it’s amazing how quickly that grass will regenerate once it’s been decompacted, he says. In either case, it’s critical to use not only the correct species of grass, but a newer variety that’s designed specifically to stand up to high wear. “We’re fortunate because the seed companies are pushing the envelope…. They’ve got Kentucky bluegrass germinating at seven days and they’re putting traffic on it on day eight,” he marvels.
Just as advances in aerification equipment have helped sports turf managers be able to treat high-wear areas, advances in grass genetics are creating stronger plants that can better tolerate wear. “With seed, you get what you pay for,” says Minnick. Again, he realizes that budget constrains are a reality for many, but says the highest quality seed can be limited to the highest traffic areas. On the edges of fields, which receive less use, a lesser seed might be sufficient. (Similarly, in warm climates, a Bermudagrass variety like Celebration might be what’s needed when sprigging goalmouth areas or the middle of a field, while a less aggressive – and less expensive – option might work for the rest of the field, he notes.)
And using an aerifier helps not only to decompact the soil, but also to get the seed down into the soil. For example, he explains, using a Toro ProCore with needle tines that are set to a 0.5 or 1 inch can make a lot of holes for the seed to get down into. Then a covering of sand topdressing can help, as well.
Treating different areas differently
Just as it’s not necessary to treat an entire field uniformly when it comes to aerification and the use of new generation grasses, Minnick says that high-wear areas also should get more attention when it comes to nutrient inputs.
He’s been tracking plant activity and nutrient use from the plants in different parts of sports fields: “It’s almost common sense. In areas where there is more traffic, the plant is having to respond more, and its response is to regenerate or regrow. That requires more nutrients, so the center of the field needs a little more fertilizer (not nitrogen, though, he emphasizes).”
One example where special treatment of high-wear areas is not necessary – or helpful – relates to mowing heights. Conventional wisdom has been to increase the mowing height in high-traffic areas to reduce the amount of stress the plant is under.
While that was a sensible approach in the past with cool-season grasses, Minnick says that, at least when modern sports field grasses are being used, higher mowing heights may inadvertently create more problems. “The best Kentucky bluegrasses we have now get lazy once they get above about 1.5 inches; they’re bred to grow sideways,” he explains. In the heat of summer, letting these grasses grow a little longer can help the plant fight the heat stress, but any other time of the year it’s better to mow low and foster the aggressiveness the grass is intended to have, Minnick adds.
From the manufacturer’s point of view
At the same time that turfgrass researchers and seed companies continue work to produce genetically superior varieties of grass that will stand up to increased traffic as well as insect pressure, reduced water inputs and other stresses, there are also products on the market designed to help grass meet the real-world challenges present in athletic field settings.
One example is CIVITAS Turf Defense, a product that is touted to “deliver healthier, stronger, and more resilient turf all season long.”
Matt Cimino, senior technical advisor with Intelligro (makers of Turf Defense), explains that the product is unique because “it works on the plant so it can deal with the problem.” Rather than directly killing a fungus, Turf Defense helps to create a more robust plant system. “Basically what it is doing is working within the plant— helping the plant defend itself; similar to our immune systems,” Cimino explains. “In that way, it moves the stress threshold out,” he says, meaning the plant is stronger and able to withstand greater outside stress, including increased wear on a sports field.
Turf Defense contains a highly refined white mineral oil with a similar structure to the natural paraffins found on the surface of leaves, which enables it to provide stronger plant protection while delivering optimal turf conditions. And because it’s pigmented, it provides the color and appearance benefits that many venues require, while also providing wear tolerance protection. “It can be used at different rates and different intervals for different issues,” explains Cimino. During high-stress times of the year, a higher rate can be used at shorter intervals (the product is tank mixable with most other turf treatment products, and is commonly applied alongside foliar fertilizers). “Wear is one big stress,” he notes.
“So you’ll see the most benefits at the full label rate every two weeks.”
Other tips and tricks
Beyond turf cultural practices, there are things that sports turf managers can do to help minimize wear spots on their fields, says Minnick.
“If you can move traffic around, you won’t have to aerify or feed the grass as much because it’s able to regenerate,” he states. That might include communicating with coaches and adding special lines in different areas to accommodate their practice drills. Rather than adopting the stereotypical “Stay off the grass” approach, Minnick recommends showing the coaches some data and photos to help make the case that the grass will benefit from moving things around.
If there’s a little extra space available, it might mean shifting the placement of the entire field from time to time in order to relocate the high-wear areas. Sliding things over even a yard or two can make a big difference. “And let coaches know, so there are no surprises,” says Minnick. Moving fields can be particularly effective with lacrosse, he explains. “If they’re playing on a full-size soccer field, there might be three different lacrosse field placements available.”
Reinforced synthetic grass products are another solution for high-wear areas like goalmouths, says Minnick. Products such XtraGrass and others use synthetic fibers to reinforce and support the natural grass plants. “For basic stability in a lacrosse goalmouth, for example, [these products] protect the crown of the plant so it can regenerate,” Minnick says. “You can do an 8-by-8-foot square and nobody looking at the field will have any idea that it’s a different surface.”