Prep fields now and enjoy the benefits next spring

To the list of certainties in life – death and taxes – we could probably add one more: winter. For most parts of the country, it’s inevitable that temperatures will cool, turf growth will slow, and athletic fields will generally settle in for a long winter’s nap. The way fields are prepared for this nap will have a huge impact on how they respond once spring wakes them back up, say the experts.


This is perhaps most critical when it comes to fertilization. “Late-fall applications are probably the most important applications of the year,” says Bill Worley, consultant and sales rep with Advanced Turf Solutions (, a distributor of fertilizers, chemicals, grass seed and other athletic field products. While the results won’t be realized until the following season, it’s essential to fertilize prior to winter. “All your earlier applications in the year will already have been used up,” he notes.

Many parts of the country experienced drought this summer, which makes pre-winter fertilizer applications all the more important this year in order to help the stressed turf prepare for the colder months ahead, says Worley. “When we apply fertilizer in the spring, 75 percent is moved from the roots up to the grass blade. At this time of the year, the reverse takes place. Probably 75 to 80 percent [of the nutrients] is held in the roots for the winter. At that time of the year, top growth is very minimal, but the root system is still very active. It takes that product in and holds it.”

Having these energy stores built up increases root mass to help the plant tolerate harsh winter conditions and helps produce quicker green-up and greater density in the spring, but even more important, says Worley, it helps create a generally stronger plant. “I think the most important characteristic of a late-fall dormant feeding is that it gives you a more stress-tolerant turf going into the stressful period of the following summer – the hot months,” he states. “The plant will have just a little bit more tolerance for those conditions.”

Conditioning and grading the infield on ball fields in the fall can help improve drainage and ensure there are no standing puddles during the long winter, resulting in a field that’s ready for play sooner in the spring. Here, a crew from Scientific Plant Services ( works to get a field in proper condition

Late-fall dormant fertilizer applications should be done using an all-mineral product, says Worley. “You don’t want to use slow-release fertilizers at this time of year. Most slow-release products have between an eight to 16-week residual, so they would still be releasing in January and February, and by then the grass plant has shut down,” he explains. Timing is important with late fall fertilization; if you put it down too soon, the grass plant will use the nutrients to promote top growth.

Worley recommends that sports field managers use a high-potassium fertilizer throughout the year, but says it’s especially helpful in the late fall. That often means using a fertilizer blend prepared especially for sports applications. “A lot of phosphorus and potassium has been taken out of many residential lawn fertilizers to help save money, but on athletic fields, potassium is just so extremely important to the overall health of an athletic field,” says Worley. “It really helps the sports field turf stand up to the heavy foot traffic and wear and tear and other stresses it receives.” He recommends that the final late-season fertilizer application for athletic fields be made with a fertilizer containing at least 6 percent potassium, with 8 or 15 percent being even better.

Late-fall fertilizer applications can be equally effective when applied as a spray or granular product. However, Worley cautions that if sprayed fertilizers aren’t watered in within 24 to 48 hours, UV breakdown can take away some of the benefits of the fertilizer. Granular fertilizers, especially all-mineral products with no slow-release component, can last a little longer, but also need moisture to make them work, he points out. If possible, then, it may help to apply a dormant feeding prior to shutting down and blowing out the field’s irrigation system, or schedule the application prior to a soaking rain.

“A good, late-fall aeration is also crucial for athletic fields,” says Worley. “That can be difficult if you’re dealing with a football or soccer field that’s still in play until well into November or early December. But it’s never too late to aerate; you can aerate any time.” The only caveat, he says, is for those who want to overseed as part of the aeration. “You can dormant seed. A lot of athletic fields do that after the season is over, even after the first of December, but at that time, you really should slice-seed to get the seed into the soil, especially on heavily worn parts of the field,” explains Worley. “The seed will overwinter just fine, but the goal is to make sure the seed stays in place and isn’t washed away during the winter. Aerating first and then slice-seeding is a good combination.”

Scientific Plant Services (, which provides custom care for sports fields and landscapes in the Baltimore area, uses a John Deere Aercore to open the soil and reduce thatch on athletic fields. Core aerating in the late fall can help grass seed establish without being washed away during the winter months

Phil Hargarten, an Illinois-based sports turf consultant (, seconds the benefits of aerating in the fall. “If you can core aerify in the late fall, if the fields aren’t still being used, that really works well,” he states. “If you can do it after playoffs end and before the ground freezes, I recommend it. The holes left by the coring tine generally produce a longer-lasting hole.” For fields that won’t be used for several months during the winter, late fall is the perfect time for this management practice, he says.

Hargarten also agrees on the importance of late-fall fertilization. “Getting fields ready for the winter means a good late-fall feeding,” he says. “Usually I suggest a little heavier application of nitrogen – 1.25 to 1.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. That will replace early spring fertilization,” he explains. “The plants will store it up. It will potentially promote two to three-week earlier spring green-up, which is something you can’t achieve with spring fertilization, and that green-up should carry well into May, which is when you’d want to do your first fertilization of the year.”

University research shows that late-fall fertilization promotes an overall sturdier turf, he adds. “It gives the plant deeper roots, healthier roots and roots with greater density for the following year. That’s exactly what you need for sports turf.” Prior to the late-fall feeding is a good time to take annual soil tests, Hargarten notes. This gives sports turf managers several months during the off-season to study the specific needs of the turf and devise a plan for the following year.

An organic-based 18-24-12 starter fertilizer was applied as part of fall field work at New Canaan Country School. “The reason for using a fertilizer with a high phosphate rating was due to the low phosphate content of the soil in the fields indicated by the soil test,” explains Justin LaRoche, field manager. “This application will help the new seed to take and provide the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy stand of turf.

It’s not just turfgrass that needs pre-winter attention. In Ohio, Lewis Landscaping ( handles maintenance for a number of different athletic venues, primarily baseball fields. “A lot of that work is concentrated on baseball infields – the dirt,” explains Wilson Lewis, owner of Lewis Landscaping. Getting that challenging part of the field back into shape prior to winter ensures the field will be ready for play as early as possible the following spring, he states.

“Many baseball fields use a dirt that’s a real fine sand, almost a silt-like material. There’s no percolation. That makes it very hard to get on the fields in the spring to do any work or to play,” says Lewis. In late fall, Lewis Landscaping tills a conditioner product into the top 2 inches of ball fields in order to improve water percolation and make the field play firmer, even when wet. “That way you could have a 10 a.m. thunderstorm and be playing baseball by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. Amending the infield fill in the fall allows the natural freeze/thaw cycles that occur during winter to further mix together and incorporate the new material, Lewis explains.

Following late-fall aeration and overseeding, a member of the maintenance team at New Canaan Country School in Connecticut rolls the turf to ensure good contact between the new grass seed and soil

When Lewis Landscaping employees are completing the fall soil amendment, they also cut the infield grass lines back to their proper location and remove any lips that have built up. “We edge those lines and pull the lips back and then level everything out. Then we add additional material if it’s needed to get rid of any low spots. That makes sure that puddles don’t form and sit in the same spot all winter long,” says Lewis. “It’s really tough in the spring to try to level out the ground when you have standing water in places because nobody filled those cavities in last fall.”

At many school and rec fields, it’s hard for the maintenance team to find the time to attend to the baseball fields at a time of the year when football and soccer fields are the priority, but Lewis says fall is the perfect time to get a handle on baseball fields. “In the spring, the first day it’s dry enough to get out and work on the field is usually the same day it’s dry enough for the kids to get out and start playing,” he says. “We try to take care of everything before winter. Baseball season, for us, starts in the fall.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 16 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.