How do you choose?

It’s time to build a new field or renovate an old one. What should be your first thought? Geography. That’s right, geography. The first consideration when choosing a turf variety is location. Northern climates require cool-season grasses, and southern climates require warm-season grasses. Those in the transition zone, depending on the severity of the winters, may select from cool-season grasses or warm-season grasses that have dependable cold hardiness.

In the northern U.S., where cool-season grasses are grown, the primary turf used for athletic fields is Kentucky bluegrass, according to information provided by the Ohio State University Extension. It creates a fine-textured, high-quality, long-lasting turf. Kentucky bluegrass produces rhizomes that grow underground and give rise to new bluegrass plants in thin areas, which helps the turf to recover from injury and wear.

To a lesser degree, tall fescue is also used for sports fields in cold climates. Its coarse texture and open canopy can make for a less uniform sports field surface, but it does possess good wear tolerance, drought resistance and shade tolerance.

Both Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue are grown from seed. New fields are often established with sod grown from seed, though seed may be used to fill in certain areas. The sod or seed mix may consist of a blend of varietals, with the seed blend chosen to create a balance of certain characteristics such as drought tolerance, wear tolerance, quality or cold hardiness.

“Lower and midrange budget fields use tall fescue because it’s cheaper,” says Dr. Grady Miller, professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University. “But on higher-maintenance fields, Kentucky bluegrass will replace tall fescue.”

In the transition zone, bermudagrass is the primary turf used for athletic fields. This fine-textured grass creates a high-quality, dense surface, but because it’s a warm-season grass, bermudagrass goes dormant in winter. For early spring play, bermudagrass is often overseeded with perennial ryegrass to help with color and wear.

While seeded varieties are available, many bermudagrasses are vegetative, meaning they grow from sprigs, and are sold as sod or sprigs. TifWay (419) remains popular. Also gaining in popularity is Patriot, which offers notable cold tolerance and is used as far north as Philadelphia. Two of the newest vegetative varieties are NorthBridge and Latitude 36, released last year by Oklahoma State University. Popular seeded varieties are Princess 77 and Riviera, to name a few.

Jesse Pritchard, CSFM, is the sports turf manager at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville. Pritchard says he’s done several renovations in the seven years he’s been at UVA. He’s in the process of planning a renovation of Davenport Field, UVA’s varsity baseball field.

“It’s an older field with inadequate drainage. We’ve lost some games due to poor field conditions. College baseball, in general, has gained more national attention and it’s time for the field to be upgraded to the level of a top tier NCAA facility. I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Pritchard said.


Reliant Stadium , home of the Houston Texans, Houston, Texas.

“We’re in the transition zone, so there’s always a possibility to go with a cool-season grass. Pretty much everything we have is warm-season berumuda overseeded with perennial ryegrass. In making a decision about which bermudagrass to go with, it’s not as hard for a spring sport where the ryegrass will be in and look good. It’s much more difficult for a fall sport in which you’re going to be playing on a bermudagrass and those sports may be televised. That makes the decision much more important about the bermuda- grass variety you choose. And honestly, one of the top decisions is winter hardiness. We are at the extended level of where bermudagrass can grow, so the more winter hardy the bermudagrass, the more comfortable we are with the decision,” Pritchard explained.

At UVA there are fields with Patriot, TifSport, 419 and Latitude 36, which is installed on a track and field facility. The grass performed so well, the decision was made to use the grass on the new Davenport Field baseball facility.


FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, Landover, Md.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SAM WILLIAMS.

“I think Latitude 36 is going to be one of the new ones that, in this northern transition zone, more people will likely choose,” Pritchard said, because of the combination of the grasses’ fine-bladed texture, dark green color and cold hardiness.

Bermudagrass also remains the dominant grass for sports fields in the south. A number of varieties are commercially available. Among the most popular are TifWay 419, Celebration, and TifSport.


Dr. Grady Miller.

“And certainly as you move further south, you may see some seashore paspalum used. It’s an aggressively growing turfgrass,” Miller said. Seashore paspalum is a salt-tolerant turf primarily grown as sod and sprigs, though some seeded varieties are available on the market. Popular varieties are Sea- Dwarf, Aloha, SeaIsle 1, SeaIsle 2000 and Sea Spray (seeded), among others. The University of Georgia recently released a new seashore paspalum called SeaStar paspalum.

With so many choices, what’s the best way to select a turfgrass variety for your field?

A good place to start is online at www.ntep.org. This website is run by the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP). Located in suburban Maryland on the grounds of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the program cooperates with university researchers and others to test turfgrass varieties under varying climatic, soil and geographic conditions. The program evaluates 17 turfgrass species in 40 U.S. states and six provinces in Canada. An unbiased program, the NTEP website lists the results of multiple-year tests on turfgrasses.

Information the NTEP collects and summarizes annually from test sites around the country includes turfgrass quality; color; density; insect and disease resistance; and tolerance to heat, cold, drought and traffic. Perhaps most useful to sports field managers is the fact that all of the data is broken out by state and by test site, making this information locally pertinent. For example, for sports field managers in California, data from six test sites with diverse climates in Palo Alto, Pomona, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Riverside and Sunnyvale are all indexed, allowing a search of information best suited to a specific climate. Similarly, research stats for Washington state come from both the wetter climate found in Puyallup, and the drier desert climate found in the eastern town of Pullman. Rather than looking strictly at which variety faired best overall, Miller suggests sports field managers study the data that makes sense for their area.

The data covers both warm and cool-season grasses, and the sheer amount of information available can be daunting. The last NTEP test of Kentucky bluegrass varieties was published in October 2006. More than 150 entries were tested. In 2011, another round of Kentucky bluegrass trials began. The trials include 82 distinct varieties tested at 24 locations. If the data seems too much to sift through on your own, Miller recommends contacting the university extension office in your state.


Dr. Miller consulted on this NCSU Tifway bermudagrass field during construction.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STACIE ZINN ROBERTS, , UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

That’s what Jessie Pritchard does to help him make decisions about which turfgrass variety to use on the sports fields at UVA. Pritchard says he learns about new turf varieties through trade shows, the Sports Turf Managers Association, through his local sod producer, and by talking with the local turf researchers at Virginia Tech.

“Talk with the local turfgrass extension agent in your region, get their list of recommended varieties, that’s number one. And talk with people who have grown each,” Pritchard said.

Miller agrees. “I would suggest if people are serious about choosing their varieties or cultivars, go to your university and see what kind of tests they have. We do national and regional tests here are NC State. Most universities that have turf programs do the same thing, so they may have actual opportunities for you to see the grass at a field day or if you stop by and visit. Certainly you can look at sod farms, as well, to see what they have,” he said.

Miller also recommends visiting the NTEP website. “Go to that website and look at various trials that have been done and see if a grass is disease tolerant, wear tolerant or drought tolerant. It doesn’t test every cultivar, but there are hundreds of them on that website,” he said. “They’re all nationally administered tests. They’re not seed companies posting the information. It’s all an independent, non-biased assessment of these grasses. So, getting that information either locally or at www.ntep.org can be very beneficial during the research phase of selecting a grass

Pritchard takes the process of turf variety selection very seriously. “If you choose the wrong turf, a turf that is not cold hardy and you’re in a more northern climate, it can have extreme consequences with winterkill. And at the same time, if you choose a very aggressive turf such as Patriot and put it in a very warm climate, you’re going to make more maintenance for yourself with the aggressiveness of the grass,” he explained. “Doing your homework and choosing the correct variety is extremely important.”

Stacie Zinn Roberts is a contributor to SportsField Management. She writes from Mount Vernon, Wash.