Post-winter field renovation

Photo courtesy of Sportsturf Drainage Solutions.

With today’s packed field use schedules, spring sports are often followed immediately by sports camps. In many instances, a field that hosts spring play does double duty as the game or practice field for one or more fall sports. With fall sport practices starting mid-August, or earlier, there’s little downtime for field renovation and recovery.

Professional sports fields face similar challenges. Baseball leaves spring training for the home fields, football camps begin and soccer play starts all before the turf has much growing time. Football practice fields usually take a beating in the summer as well, with players working to make the cut for preseason play.

Ideally, ongoing field management strategies, including rotational field use, will keep a field in good condition. Damage occurs when fields are used during poor weather, play is excessive or budgets have not allowed sufficient resources for regular upkeep. With any of these situations—especially a combination of them—minor problems quickly become major.

By using the Shelton wheel trenchers, narrow trenches can be cut with the soil conveyed into a trailer running alongside, leaving a clean surface.

Field evaluation is the first step to determine significant wear areas and how great and the degree to which they may be damaged. There are several resources available to aid in the evaluation process. The Ohio State University Field Evaluation & Diagnostic Tool Guidelines and Turf Field Evaluation & Diagnostic Report Card can be downloaded from

In-house renovation

When damage is concentrated in the high-wear areas, such as soccer goalmouths or between the hash marks on football fields, spot renovation may bring a field to safe, playable condition through the next use cycle.

Aeration is usually the first step, with the method determined by the degree of surface disruption that can be tolerated within the downtime allowed and the options available with the facility’s equipment: coring or solid tine in various sizes, shatter tine, deep tine and slicing.

Seeding or sprigging into the existing turf cover is less costly than resodding, but the time for turf establishment must be considered. If the timing is too tight, weather conditions, unauthorized field use or other unexpected factors could limit turf growth. In that case, it would be less costly to resod initially and gain the extra grow-in time, rather than risking the need to resod later and pay for both.

Topdressing and leveling are two more parts of the renovation process that can be done with existing staff, if time and equipment are available. Again, the extent of the area to be covered, the cost and the time are the deciding factors. Spot work may be relatively easy to fit into the schedule. Full field coverage can be handled, if there are few uneven areas and any sloping for surface drainage remains intact. Minor drainage issues may be corrected through small surface adjustments during the leveling and topdressing process, or through spot applications of sand or other porous materials, such as calcined or vitrified clay, applied following the aeration process.

The DryJect system combines the aeration process and filling the holes with porous material, yet causes little visible surface disruption. The DryJect system uses streams of water to fracture the soil and a vacuum process to draw the porous material into the holes that were created.

Contracted services

When staff time or equipment options are limited and downtime is minimal, contracted services can be the best strategy for renovation. Laser grading has become one of the most used contracted services for field construction, as well as renovation. With good equipment and a skilled operator, the subgrade and final grade can be accurate to specifications within a fraction of an inch. That accuracy can create the desired slope or crown for directed surface drainage and eliminate low spots that collect standing water.

Alpine Services, Inc., based in Gaithersburg, Md., has developed a Rigid Roller to “iron” fields. Grove Teates, company president, says, “It’s 12 feet wide and completely covers most surface fluctuations, moving the high spots to the low spots, for a smooth finish. We use it in conjunction with laser leveling, but it would work well for facilities with multiple fields to purchase for their own use, and we’ve developed a portable unit that is easy to pull between fields.”  

Trenches installed on 6.5-foot centers and topped off with sand allow grass to grow through in a few weeks.

With larger, specialized equipment outfitted with turf tires, contractors can perform aeration processes much faster. Skilled operators can also make the process more effective, adjusting the equipment as needed to deliver the best depth and spacing for field conditions and the allowed downtime.

The DryJect system, an alt­­ernative to aeration and topdressing, uses high-pressure water to fracture the soil and a vacuum process to pull porous material down into the rootzone, filling the holes with little surface disruption. Darian Daily, head groundskeeper for Paul Brown Stadium, has contracted for this service on the Bengals’ natural grass practice fields twice a year for the past three years. Daily says, “We’ve used the Profile Field and Fairway Soil Amendment, a medium size particle. With our Cincinnati, Ohio, location, the best timing is in April, just before the mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities), and again in early June before the summer on-field activities are in full swing. We broom drag the surface right after the procedure, mow the next day, and there’s no sign that the work has taken place.”

Major drainage issues

Shelton Sportsturf Drainage Solutions, based in the United Kingdom, recommends a three-phase drainage system using the trenchers they’ve developed for installation. The primary drainage system consists of inground piping installed in trenches leading to an outflow source. The material is removed from the trenches and channeled via conveyor directly into a vehicle for removal. The trenches are backfilled with gravel nearly to the surface, and then topped with sand or a sand-loam mix. The secondary drainage system incorporates a series of narrow, closely spaced drainage slits in the upper soil surface that are filled with sand to channel surface water into the soil. A topdressing of sand helps maintain  surface drainage.

Shelton’s Mick Claxton says, “Spring is the end of the season here for football, what you call soccer in the U.S. It’s the best time to undertake work on improving pitch drainage. When done at this time of year, it causes minimum damage to the playing surface, and the rapid growing conditions enable the drainage scars to heal over quickly.”

AFT Trenchers for sports turf drainage were developed by A.F. Trenchers Ltd. They operate on a similar system, creating the trench, removing the material, installing the drainage pipe and incorporating a network of narrow, sand-filled slits for rapid surface drainage.

Blec USA, Inc. offers the Sandmaster, which is used in conjunction with the Groundbreaker for a two-part process. The machine runs on wide, flat skids that hold the turf down to eliminate surface disturbance. The blades of the Groundbreaker cut a continuous slit and move the ground laterally to relieve compaction. The 1-inch tines of the rear-mounted Sandmaster open up the slits to a depth of 4 to 8 inches and feed the sand or other porous material into the slits. Compression wheels and plates pack in the material to eliminate air pockets, and a row of flotation tires roll the surface level.

Jeff Hartman, of the Hartman Companies, Inc., based in Victoria, Minn., says much of their work on sports fields involves drainage issues on existing fields.

The Rigid Roller, developed by Alpine Services, is 12 feet wide to cover most minor surface fluctuations, bringing material from high spots to fill in low spots and create a level surface.

Hartman says, “We analyze the field conditions and propose a solution that will allow the field to handle a specific number of inches of rain per hour or per day and be ready for play within a specific time period, which could be a few hours to a day, depending on the time and budget involved and the needs of the facility. The trenchers make a narrow slit, and they’re laser-guided for depth, so pipes can be precisely placed to fit needs, existing conditions and budgets.”


Contractors are continually looking for faster, more effective equipment, machines that combine several processes. Blec offers several such pieces of equipment to the sports field industry. One, the Blecavator, cultivates to a depth of up to 10 inches, channels rocks and debris to the bottom of the trench and deposits the fine soil on top. The machine then levels, rakes and rolls the soil, leaving a firm surface for sodding or sprigging. A hopper unit can be added to sow grass seed during the one-pass process.

The GKB Combinator is a dual-purpose machine designed for fraise mowing or verticutting and is capable of removing and discharging the unwanted grasses or thatch into a trailer or dump truck.

Fraise mowing removes only the top layer of turf, thatch and weeds, down to soil level. The root system remains, providing a stable base, while the surface is clean and level, ready for reseeding, sprigging or resodding. Different blades are used on the same machine for verticutting, with spacing options of 1 or 2 inches, and variable depth options.

Nolan Thomas & Co., Inc., based in Stoval, N.C., provides field construction and renovation services. Owner Nolan Thomas says, “About half of our field renovations are half-field or smaller areas. The full-field renovations often are long-term problems that have developed beyond the point of short-term fixes, because they receive so much use. The multipurpose equipment gives us the ability to accomplish a lot in a very short time; so, we can do partial field to full-field renovation and bring these fields back into play with minimal downtime.”

The Koro Field TopMaker is a one-pass piece of equipment built in the Netherlands by Pols International. Alpine Services has added this unit to its arsenal for multiple renovation services. Teates says, “It strips and removes the top layer of sod and soil up to a 2-inch depth, following the field grade precisely so the surface is ready for seeding, sprigging or sodding. This waste material is channeled directly into a trailer for removal, so there’s no debris left on the field surface. It can also be set up for fraise mowing or verticutting, so we can match the process to the specific needs of each field.”

With so many new options for field renovation, sports field managers are better equipped to find a strategy that fits their needs, their time frame and their budget

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.