If you’re reading this in your office in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana or any other place in the northern reaches of the U.S., chances are your fields are now covered in snow and you’re relegated to indoor shop work. Unless you’ve got synthetic turf and a local band of lacrosse crazies, it’ll be spring before you’re back on your field.
Down south, though, it’s a different story. For sports field managers in warm-weather locales, the playing season never ends. And neither does field maintenance. But as the season changes from summer to winter, so do maintenance practices.
We asked a few sports field managers about their winter field maintenance strategies, and how they differ in the cool months versus the heat of summer.
Thomas Trotter is head groundskeeper with the Nashville Sounds (Class AAA affiliate of the Oakland Athletics), which moved into brand new First Tennessee Park facility this season. He’s had only one outside event since the end of baseball season, so the field hasn’t received a lot of wear, but maintenance continues with a focus on getting the field recovered and giving it a jump start for next season.
“As soon as the season ends, we try to get all of our bermudagrass fully grown in and re-sod any thin areas,” Trotter says. “We try to get 100 percent bermudagrass coverage.” This year, only about 100 square feet needed to be re-sodded; primarily the usual high-wear areas around the pitcher’s mound, as well as where umpires and position players stand.
Near the end of September, Trotter starts monitoring temperatures to determine when it’s cool enough to overseed the field with ryegrass. He uses a rate of about 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet of perennial ryegrass. “We’re really borderline,” he says of the Nashville climate. “I think we could get away without overseeding and have a good bit of green grass for the beginning of next season, but the overseeding is precautionary to make sure we have a green playing surface.”
In addition to the cooler temperatures themselves, the change to a cool-season grass also impacts how Trotter maintains the field during the winter. During the summer, he mows the bermudagrass at 0.5 to 0.625 inches. “We move our mowing height up to 0.875 inches for the ryegrass,” he explains. A starter fertilizer is put down shortly after the ryegrass emerges. “Then, we’ll typically do two or three foliar feedings of UFLEXX to get us through the winter,” he adds.
Mowing frequency also changes: in the summer, the field is mowed four to five times per week. “I try to mow as little as possible; obviously during a homestand that changes and we mow the infield every day and the outfield nearly every day,” says Trotter.
With the ryegrass, he averages about three mows per week. Irrigation is scaled back even more significantly. “I don’t really remember the last time I ran irrigation in the winter,” he says. “It has to be really, really bad for me to run the irrigation then; I need to see visible signs of drought.”
Mother Nature usually provides enough moisture during the winter, but, just in case, Trotter doesn’t winterize the irrigation system, just in case. For that reason, he does need to be watchful for possible irrigation system freeze-ups. “We do get down into the single digits here, and I have crossed my fingers at night before,” he jokes, but says he’s never had any issues. In the past he had exposed backflow valves that he would put heat lamps on during severe temperature dips, but at the new stadium all valves, etc., are in the shop so that’s no longer a concern.
This year, for the first time, Trotter is using tarps on the skinned parts of the field. In mid-November he tilled and graded the base paths and home plate area, and then covered them in a tarp that’ll stay on until March.
“In past years, when I didn’t have access to skin tarps, I actually dug small trenches on the edge of the dirt to prevent wash-off into the lips; so there were literally little gullies for the water to collect,” he says. “Then, in March, I would till and regrade.”
Mostly, in the winter, Trotter says the goal is to “impact the field as little as possible.”
Allen Reed – Toyota Stadium, Dallas
The Major League Soccer season stretches a long time, with games beginning in earnest in March and the playoffs stretching into December. Toyota Stadium in Dallas is home to FC Dallas, so the pitch is used mainly for soccer, but it also hosts a number of high school football games that continue well into November. All this means that Allen Reed, director of stadium grounds, doesn’t have a lot of downtime, even during colder months.
Reed maintains two turfgrass fields at the complex. “We have Latitude 36 bermudagrass on our stadium pitch and Tifway 419 bermudagrass on our training pitch. Both fields get overseeded with a perennial ryegrass blend,” he explains. “Because we host multiple high school football games along with our MLS matches in the fall, the stadium pitch gets lightly overseeded weekly. This normally begins mid-September through the end of season in November. The training pitch gets overseeded around the first week of October and then again when training ends in November.”
The mowing height remains the same at 0.75 inches even during the winter. But in spring, Reed lowers varies the height between 0.5 and 0.75 inches to stress ryegrass and help to naturally aid the transition back to bermudagrass.
“Depending on temperatures and events our mowing frequency can be greatly reduced from six to seven days a week in the summer to one to two times a week during the winter months,” Reed adds. “We fertilize our ryegrass once it has germinated and started to grow using a granular starter along with spraying liquid potassium/phosphorous to help the plant stronger and root in to survive the winter.”
Typically, enough rain falls during the winter months that the irrigation system doesn’t need to be used. It can get cold in Dallas in the winter, but Reed says that, “With the help from grow blankets we can keep soil temperatures slightly warmer as well as protecting the plant from freezing temperatures.”
Once the football and soccer seasons wind down, Reed says, he and the ground team can “get caught up on all of our projects and well as some much needed rest and relaxation” between December and February. There is still work to do, though. “One big project we have is to go through every piece of our concert flooring (that covers the pitch during events) and fix any broken pieces,” says Reed. “There are 2,800 5-(foot-) by-7-foot pieces of flooring to go through …” Not that anyone is counting!
Jon DeWitt – Georgia Tech, Atlanta
In January 2014, a snow and ice storm hit Atlanta virtually shutting down the city and stranding thousands of drivers in their cars as the city’s highways looked more like parking lots. “I lived in my office for three days,” recalls Jon DeWitt, assistant director of facilities and turf at Georgia Tech. “It was crazy.”
Fortunately, the typical winter weather isn’t in Atlanta isn’t nearly this extreme. In fact, most of the fields at Georgia Tech end up being used nearly year-round. Most years, the football team has bowl practice through December, softball starts up at the end of January, and baseball starts up in early February. Then there are always off-season strength and conditioning workouts, etc. “Plus, the teams run some camps,” DeWitt adds.
Given its southern location, Georgia Tech is a popular destination for late winter/early spring baseball and softball tournaments, as teams from the north travel down for the chance to play out of the snow. “In February, it’s not too cold here, but it can be rainy,” DeWitt explains. At least once, though, he needed to clear snow from the softball field in order to host a tournament.
All of the turf fields at Georgia Tech are overseeded, with the exception of the field where track and field events are held. “It’s a wetter field and it’s hard to maintain and mow the ryegrass there; it would just be a lot of extra work for no real benefit,” says DeWitt.
From a playability standpoint, softball and baseball are the most important fields to overseed. But from an aesthetic standpoint, the football field is critical, as it is an important showpiece for visiting recruits. “More and more throughout the Southeast, schools are wanting the football field to look like it does on a Sept. 1 game day year-round,” he states.
That means the ryegrass needs to be maintained longer than he might prefer, so that the field is green through the big spring football game before the bermudagrass begins to green up. If he does use chemicals earlier to get rid of the ryegrass, DeWitt uses blankets on the field to help jump-start the green-up of the bermuda.
In late fall, once the ryegrass is out and established, mowing frequency drops from the every day schedule in the summer to about three times per week. “We pretty much keep our height of cut the same year-round,” says DeWitt. “What we do, though, is once we have a good frost in December we’ll drop our height down a little bit and mow off that duffy fluff of bermuda that turns gold, and then raise out height back up so that the ryegrass can stand up above it. That’s a technique that seems to work really well for us.” Trimmit growth regulator is also used, which slows the growth down a bit, makes the turf denser, and helps with Poa suppression, he reports.
The fields are fertilized throughout the winter when the weather allows. “When it’s above 55 degrees and the forecast is for a pocket of good weather and we feel that we can get some benefit from it, we’ll put out a spray app,” says DeWitt. His favorite tool during this time of year is IBDU-based fertilizers. “They’ve gotten hard to get, but they release in the cold spectrum better than most,” he explains. “We try to get that on the ground and then it’s there in the profile when the weather kicks in enough for the plant to be active.”
DeWitt runs his irrigation system only as needed rather than on a schedule during the winter because it is rarely needed.
Rusty Walker – Grapevine, Texas
As athletic field foreman with the city of Grapevine, Rusty Walker has some 40 fields (baseball, softball, soccer and football) to maintain with a staff of six. So, regardless of the season, things are pretty busy. In fact, he says that if there’s a slow time of the year when he’s able to get projects done and get caught up, it’s during the extreme heat of summer rather than during winter.
The Grapevine fields are bermudagrass, and the only ones that are overseeded are soccer and softball. “I don’t overseed the baseball fields because they’re usually done playing by the end of December, and at that point we’re about 80 percent dormant,” Walker explains. “They start playing again in early February, and by then we’re about 50 percent greened-up; the bermuda isn’t growing a lot then, but it is greening up.” Obviously that’s different than the approach that would be taken at the collegiate or professional level, he acknowledges, but it works well for the city’s ballfields.
“With soccer, there’s obviously a whole lot more feet on the grass, and that’s why I do overseed those fields,” says Walker. “They play through November and start up again in early February, so I put the ryegrass down to give that bermudagrass a little cover and protection.” He typically overseeds in late October; most of the time the ryegrass goes out naturally on its own. “I would do it chemically, but we have a big soccer tournament here in May and sometimes bermudagrass isn’t green by then,” he adds.
Once the fields are in ryegrass, he raises from his typical 0.75-inch mowing height up to 1 inch for the winter. “I like to let my dormant baseball fields grow a little before it goes dormant, too, so there’s a little extra canopy up there,” Walker explains.
He usually waits about two weeks after overseeding before he fertilizes. “That’s a little different than what a lot of people do. But my reasoning is that if I fertilize when I overseed, then I’m watering and watering and watering to get that overseed to germinate—but there’s no roots yet. So, in my opinion, all I would be doing is feeding the bermudagrass … and that’s not really what I want to do.”
Irrigation isn’t needed often in the winter, though Walker says he likes to run the system if there’s a real cold snap in the forecast. “I’ll try to get some moisture down in the soil so that the bermudagrass, or even the ryegrass, doesn’t desiccate,” he explains.
There is occasional snow and, more so, ice in Grapevine. “Absolutely, we can get very cold in the wintertime,” says Walker. The frozen precipitation will slow the ryegrass growth.
“Typically in the winter I’m mowing just once a week; if it gets really, really cold I might only mow once every two weeks,” he states. But rarely does it ever damage the fields. Generally, if snow falls the fields are just left alone with the recognition that it won’t last too long on the ground.
“If I’m having to clear snow,” Walker explains, “then it’s too cold to play!”