Conventional wisdom tells us that fall renovations take place in the fall, but at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md., fall renovations take place in July.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STOCK.XCHNG/WERDOK WERDOKARIAN.
“We don’t do fall renovations. We can’t. It’s our heaviest time of traffic,” says Jerad Minnick, director of grounds and equipment for the 22-field Maryland SoccerPlex in a suburb of Washington, D.C. “We do our renovations in July, which is 100 percent against what anybody will ever teach anyone about cool-season turf. But July is the only five-week period that our fields get off the entire year, so we actually do our renovation in July. We use the same concepts, but Mother Nature essentially is against us at that point.”
An Imants Recycling Dresser.
Going against conventional wisdom seems to serve Minnick well. How well? In 2011, the Maryland SoccerPlex was named the Sports Turf Managers Association’s Field of the Year for Schools and Parks.
Minnick says he has tried to do fall renovations in the fall, but the amount of play he gets on his fields at that time of year makes it a recipe for failure.
“When we overseed our bermudagrass in late September or early October, we can’t get our ryegrass to come up in our bermudagrass,” Minnick says. The area where the ryegrass won’t grow is in a diamond shape, where most of the play takes place: from the goalmouth on the soccer field to the midline on an angle to the outside of the field, then from the midline on the outside of the field on the other end.
Taking a look at the pattern was his aha! moment.
“You start looking at this and you start to realize, no wonder we don’t get the germination that we want, especially from bluegrass when you’re waiting more days for bluegrass to germinate and fescue to germinate than you are for ryegrass. That’s what made us step back and realize that doing it by the book, that’s not reality, not for us,” Minnick says.
Of the 22 fields at the Maryland SoccerPlex, seven are grassed with warm-season Patriot bermudagrass; three are synthetic fields; and 12 are cool-season grasses, a mix of fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. The fields see play in soccer, rugby, lacrosse and flag football. Team play ranges from 3-year-old youth leagues to professional organizations including the El Salvador Olympic Team, the Panama National Team and the D.C. United soccer team.
Having a mix of warm and cool-season grasses at the complex gives Minnick the flexibility he needs to do the fall cool-season renovation in July. Just when the bermuda- grass fields are at their summer peak, Minnick moves all play onto the bermudagrass and shuts down play on the cool-season fields.
The fields are almost in constant use. Minnick says the cool-season fields support 700 to 750 hours of play, and the warm-season fields see 900 to 950 hours per year.
When Minnick tells people the amount of play at his complex, “They look at me like I’m insane, he says. Adding that most people believe you can’t go over 400 hours of play per year on an athletic field.
What’s his secret? Aggressive aerification.
“If I had my way, we would aerify every field once a week,” Minnick says. “On a sand-based rootzone on a grass field, if you were to aerify once a week you would not wear it out, ever. It’s a combination of proper nutrient management and making sure the plant never gets too juicy, never too much nitrogen to have too much vigorous growth, a very controlled, very strong, rigid, healthy plant. We prove every day that the grass field will take more traffic than we ever thought. The more we evolve our ways, the more a grass field will be able to take,” Minnick says.
As it stands now, the grass fields at the Maryland SoccerPlex are aerified every nine to 11 days. Minnick uses a variety of methods with five different types of aerification machines: deep tine; core aerification; verticutting/slicing aerator; soil wave aerification that uses sound waves to break up the soil; and a recycling dresser that pulls cores, puts them on a conveyor belt and drops them behind the machine as a topdress.
Brad Aldridge is a product manger for John Deere Golf. The company manufactures four aerification machines from 32 to 80 inches wide. Aldridge believes in aerification as a part of any renovation program.
“Aerification is critical. It maintains playability. For sports fields, it relieves compaction. As a field gets compacted you don’t have places for the roots to grow. Eventually your grass can show weakness or damage or sometimes even die from compaction,” Aldridge says. “It’s very popular to put down additional seed in the fall for cool-season grasses to have a better turf stand, so you aerate and it gives a good seed-to-soil contact for new grass to grow.”
A Shockwave aerator on a 6330 John Deere tractor.
During a fall renovation, the standard practice is to prepare the field for new seed that will germinate and create a stronger stand of turf when play resumes in the spring. However, if the turf is already sparse at the time of fall seeding, it’s probable that opportunistic weeds have also noticed weak spots in the turf – spots that are an ideal habitat for weed populations to take root.
In order to take out weeds before they have a chance to colonize a sports field, FMC Corporation developed Square One herbicide. A dispersible granule formulation, the product mixes easily in water for use in a sprayer. Square One is labeled for crabgrass and many small broadleaf weeds.
Unlike other products that are too harsh on newly seeded turf or require multiple applications, SquareOne herbicide can be applied just one day before seeding or as early as seven days after emergence on most cool and warm-season grasses. This means weed populations are reduced from the start, allowing for maximum turf density with fewer herbicide applications or the need to reseed the following spring.
Many herbicides have restrictions for use around seeding, typically seven to 30 days prior to seeding, or 30 days or three mowings after emergence. The idea of using an herbicide prior to seeding is to allow turf to grow in faster without competition from weeds, giving renovations a better chance of success.
“If you have a stand of weeds, they’ll be robbing your desirable turf of what it needs to give you a nice playing surface,” says Bobby Walls, Ph.D., product development manager for the turf and ornamental segment of FMC Professional Solutions.
To that end, prior to renovation and seeding, Minnick changes his daily maintenance practices.
“All of our preventative maintenance practices, whether it be fungicide, pesticide, fertilizer, we’ve essentially stopped all of those things. We’re losing some grass currently where we have some gray leaf spot on some ryegrass. We’re OK with that. We’re OK with losing some grass because we want the new stand of grass, the new seedlings that we put down, to fill in weaker areas. We’re really doing kind of a survival of the fittest, if you will,” Minnick explains.
To keep the plant lean and mean during renovation, Minnick limits inputs.
John Deere 4320 tractor with 2000 Aercore aerator and a Ford tractor with a Wiedenmann 63-inch Terra Spike XF deep-tine aerator.
“Really core to our renovation process success in the heat of the summer is low nitrogen inputs to keep nitrogen away because it leads to disease. Nitrogen is core to photosynthesis, but only in small levels. Our nutrient management program mirrors golf greens, only 3 to 3.5 pounds of nitrogen per year. We really focus on potassium for durability, and we feel like we really get good health. Our goal is to keep the plant lean and strong. If it’s growing fast, we will get them shut down with the growth regulator,” Minnick says. “We’ll turn to a biostimulant program and get natural, healthy growth from biostimulants from plant hormones to control the growth we want.”
Minnick says the combination of low nitrogen, potassium and biostimulants helps the plant stay stronger during the summer heat stress. All of this somewhat radical thinking has led to quite a few epiphanies for Minnick.
“Sometimes, during a renovation program, I feel like I had been too timid. If I lose some grass, especially if it’s ryegrass or Poa, I’m not sure why I’m worried about losing it. It’s actually a good thing, but our mentality as managers is we don’t want to lose any grass, so we’ve had to change that mentality. We have been losing a little bit of grass, but we see that as a positive. The good strong Kentucky bluegrass that’s there that we have on a good feeding program, on a growth regulated program, it’s strong, it’s resilient,” Minnick says. “That’s the Kentucky bluegrass we want to survive and be part of the stand of grass in the field when we get done with the renovation and open for play the last week of August.”
Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What’s Your Avocado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash.