- As always, management practices must be worked around field use and weather conditions. In cool-season grass regions and parts of the transition zone, winter may close in before the end of the playing season, or very shortly afterward. Warm-season fields may have little or no down time between the sports of one season and the next.
- Weather patterns have shifted. Few regions have experienced a “normal” winter or spring for the last several years. So, the greater the preparation prior to the winter season, the better the likelihood of safe, playable fields for early spring sports.
- Prioritize. When time and budgets won’t stretch to cover everything you want to accomplish with your winter prep, focus on the most critical areas first. Start with the fields that will be used first in the spring. Tackle areas in the prime playing zone before sections on the sides or ends of the field that experience less traffic. Work on the out-of-play areas last, such as the outer edges of the sidelines. Borrow ideas from your peers and don’t be afraid to think out of the box.
- Schedule late fall/early winter fertilizer applications to coincide with the growth pattern of your turfgrasses. As grasses wind down into their dormant state, top growth slows and more nutrients are channeled to their root systems. The stored energy increases root mass, equipping the plant to better tolerate the winter and to emerge stronger and green up sooner in the spring.
- Fertilizer applied too early in this process stimulates top growth that will be tender and more susceptible to cold temperatures and desiccation (loss of water).
- If you’ve missed the optimum fall fertilization timing for cool-season grasses, consider a dormant application to put nutrients in place for the grass when temperatures warm enough to trigger spring growth.
- If your fields are still in use, take advantage of any short breaks to spike aerate or slice small wear areas, such as the soccer goalmouths. This will help alleviate compaction and allow easier passage for air, water and nutrients into the soil.
- If you don’t have access to a walk-behind aerator that fits into small areas, purchase or make a hand-held, step-on aerator (a tool often used on home lawns). Or, borrow an idea from George Toma — he had crews aerate narrow bullpens by hand using pitchforks.
- If weather allows after play has ended, aerate your fields. Balance the method you use — core, solid tine, needle tine or slice aeration — with any in-season aeration you’ve done and how susceptible your fields will be to desiccation at the sides of the aeration holes.
- Consider deep tine or shatter aeration to relieve compaction within the soil with minimal surface disruption.
Read More: Aeration 101
- With cool-season grasses in the north and the upper levels of the transition zone, a dormant seeding is better than not seeding. Much of the seed will be in place to start growth before you can get out on the fields in the spring.
- Apply seed right after core, solid tine or needle tine aeration. The openings provide protection for the seed during the winter and for the tender seedlings that will develop in the spring at the onset of the growing conditions required for that turfgrass variety.
- If seeding without aeration, slice seed if possible. Also, topdress lightly for even more seed protection or go over the seeded area with a mat drag to get better seed-to-soil contact.
- Plan to sod your smaller, bare or highly trafficked areas. Till or use a bow rake to loosen the soil and then firm it prior to placing the sod. Even though the sod may be dormant, it can be installed any time it can be harvested. The sod will start rooting as soon as conditions are right for growth.
- Consider using growth covers. They allow passage of air and water while providing greenhouse-like protection and warming for the turfgrasses they cover. Your budget will dictate the area covered, ranging from full field to smaller, high-traffic areas.
- With overseeded warm-season grasses, focus your maintenance procedures on keeping the cool-season turf in shape and ready for play. As temperatures change throughout the winter and early spring, make adjustments to reach the right balance so the cool-season grasses are able to hold up to the traffic they’ll take before the warm-season turf base comes out of dormancy.
- In year-round warm-season areas, take advantage of any break in field use for aerification and topdressing. Sprig worn and bare areas if time allows. Resod where necessary.
- Continue mowing while your grasses are still growing.
- Consider lowering the height of cut during winter on grasses that will go dormant, as shorter grass blades will stand up straighter. Reduced leaf tissue will also cut down on the plant’s exposure to disease organisms.
- Monitor soil moisture in all regions. Pull plugs to assess subsurface moisture prior to the winter shutdown of cool-season turf fields. Irrigate if necessary before shutting down in-ground irrigation systems.
- Be prepared to restart irrigation if needed during winter warm spells and then winterize the system again.
- Monitor pest problems and follow standard Integrated Pest Management procedures for late-season pest control. Treat insect problems as needed based on the level of activity and the degree of damage.
- Watch for weeds. Postemergence weed control products are only effective when weeds are actively growing. Thoroughly read the product label and follow directions precisely.
- Preemergence herbicides may be applied in late fall or early winter to prevent weed infestations. However, nearly all of these products aren’t to be used if you have overseeded, as they’ll prevent the turfgrass seed from germinating. Weigh your options to determine if your potential weed problem is greater than your desire for increased turfgrass density.
- Be cautious if you plan to apply nonselective controls, such as glyphosate, on nonoverseeded, dormant warm-season grasses for control of persistent weeds such as Poa annua. Any green turfgrass tissue will be susceptible to those products.
- Make preventive applications for disease control of recurring problems such as snow mold.
- Put infield repair and renovation at the top of your list, as these sports will want to be on your fields in early spring — or even late winter (depending on locale). You can tackle the infield even if the outfield area is being used as a practice site for football, soccer or lacrosse.
- Be aggressive in lip repair. If lip buildup has been kept under control with daily maintenance during the playing season, this may be as simple as a heavy raking to remove the infield mix from the turf edge, followed by end-of-season working and leveling of the base path.
- Where lip buildup is extensive, consider cutting away the lip area with a sod cutter. Extend the cut into a large enough area of the bordering turf to allow space for a strip of replacement sod. Position the seam between the new sod and existing turf beyond the main traffic route, if possible. Level the soil before laying the replacement strip to eliminate any height differences between the new sod and existing turf.
- Check the level and degree of slope along the base path, making adjustments where needed to control water movement. Watch for low spots. Anywhere water puddles during the offseason will be a wet spot to contend with in the spring.
- Work around the outer edge of the base path, where the skinned surface meets the turf to create a level transition between the two materials. Do the same along the inner edge for turfed infields. Work the turf edge bordering the warning track, too.
- If these fields are in open, windswept locations, consider placing two-by-four boards or long sections of used hoses along the turf edge. This reduces or eliminates the blowing of infield material into the turf.
- Repair the mound and home plate areas and cover them for winter protection. If your budget allows it, also cover the baseball field base paths. Cover the entire softball field skinned area, if possible.
- Consider field modifications, as winter prep may be the easiest time to make them. If you’re continually repairing or replacing the turf at the front of home plate and the mound on a baseball field, cutting out the turf and running a path of infield material between the two areas may be a good alternative.
- Remove debris using a blower, power brush or a combination of the two. Walk the fields to find and remove any gum.
- Groom the entire field to even out infill and make sure fibers are standing straight.
- Inspect the fields to identify any issues with seams, edges or overlays. Note their locations and schedule repair by your staff or synthetic field service provider as soon as winter weather conditions allow.
Read More: Snow and Ice Management for Synthetic Turf
- When winter weather shuts down your outdoor activities, use the indoor time to organize your shop and office.
- Develop a game plan to clean up areas that need attention.
- Gather your staff for a brainstorming session on how to reorganize your shop to improve efficiency.