How should a sports field, particularly a municipal or school sports field that is in high demand, be managed early in the season so as to provide safe playing conditions now as well as through the rest of the season?

Early season use of sports fields in Northeast

How should a sports field, particularly a municipal or school sports field that is in high demand, be managed early in the season so as to provide safe playing conditions now as well as through the rest of the season?

The 2011-2012 winter season was unusual (seems as though we say that often in New England, but this past one really takes the cake) as there was barely any snow and temperatures were higher than average. The unusually early warm weather in March initiated green-up and spurred turfgrass growth, particularly in urban areas where the temperature tends to be higher than in more suburban or rural areas. However, the cooler, closer to average temperatures that have returned have slowed that growth surge down to a more seasonable rate.

Southern New England, as of the first week of April, is experiencing a current rainfall deficit in excess of 6.0 inches for calendar year 2012. Fields have been open and are dry.  According to the United States Geological Survey, most of southern NE is in severe to extreme hydrologic drought. Information on drought conditions can be found at the USGS Drought Watch website:

Early season use of a field when grasses are not actively growing or when grasses are not growing quickly enough to recover from wear can cause lasting damage. Such damage may require costly renovations, result in down time later in the spring or summer, or require the use of herbicides to combat weeds that will invade areas where grass cover has been lost.

Cool season grasses grow best when soil temperatures are in the 55 – 65 degree F range. Soil temperatures will vary, of course, by geography and topography and are also highly influenced by an urban “heat island” effect. Soils in Massachusetts, as of the first week of April, are showing variation from 40F to 58F, depending on location, as reported in UMass Extension’s Landscape Message.

While fields may be showing green and some growth, some fields in play are not replacing leaf and stem tissue at a rate that is rapid enough to maintain a dense playing surface. This replacement of tissue is critical for the turfgrass plant to recover, to grow new leaves and stems, and is crucial for recovery from traffic, maintenance of turf density and field safety. When the grass is not allowed the time to recover or when conditions are not good for recovery, the turf will thin, soil compaction will increase, weeds will invade and player safety will be compromised.

Shoot density has been shown to be a highly critical factor in sports field related injuries on high school and university playing fields. Dr. Scott Ebdon, University of Massachusetts, and Dr. Bill Dest, University of Connecticut, demonstrated and confirmed this in a recent study that showed a direct and highly significant relationship between higher turf density and fewer player injuries.

Strategies for managing fields in early spring should include not only excellent agronomic practices aimed at maximizing shoot density and rooting, but also the scheduling of events (practice, game play or other use) for an appropriate amount of time directly related to the growing conditions and ability of a specific field to handle the play demanded.

It is prudent to consider the playing conditions that will be expected as the season progresses. Heavy use of a dormant or slowly growing field can result in serious damage to the turf and to the soil. Rest and recovery time must be allowed for in the play/practice schedule, or the result will be an unsatisfactory field, a potentially unsafe field, and costly repairs and renovations later.

Policy for early season sports field use

A policy for field use may vary from community to community and from field to field, and is dependent on many factors including current field conditions (e.g. dormant, actively growing, degree of shoot density, amount of soil moisture) and intensity of activity by sport. If the intent is to have a fully productive and safe playing surface not only early but also later in the season, then precautions should be taken to ensure that the field is not overused or exposed to an excessive amount of traffic. Any damage that occurs must not be allowed to progress beyond that which can be repaired given the resources available to the turf manager.

Considerations for managing sports fields in the early spring:

Restrict use on frozen or partially thawed turf.
Avoid use of dormant (i.e. brown) turf or turf that is not actively growing.
Reduce or restrict use on excessively wet or excessively dry fields.
Minimize number of hours of use in relation to the growing condition of the turf.
Keep practices, especially drills, off areas that are high traffic during games (i.e. mid-field, goal areas) and preferably off game fields entirely.
Spread the wear out. Shift fields and move goal areas whenever possible. Rotate practice areas.
Traffic on lighted fields, where there is the likelihood of additional hours of play and practice, should not be increased over what the field will bear simply because lighting is available.
Require use of “gentler” footwear that is less likely to tear and divot. Suggest – or require – that sneakers be worn instead of cleats, as long as safe footing is not compromised.
Overseed to “seedbank” desirable turfgrasses where traffic, wear and use are expected to be high.
Aerate to reduce soil compaction and increase moisture release or infiltration, using solid tine or a slicer. Take care if there is a history or potential for annual grassy weed (e.g. crabgrass) infestation, so as not to aerate during peak germination times.
Provide adequate fertility to ensure measured growth, avoiding excessive shoot growth.
Irrigate, especially heavily used fields, if soil moisture is not adequate.

Excellent resources on spring management of sports fields can be found on the sports Turf Managers Association website, including links to many university publications. Go to, click on ‘Resources’ and then click on ‘Technical Information’.

In addition, STMA has developed the Playing Conditions Index (PCI) that can be used to get a snapshot assessment of playing conditions for a specific field. While the PCI was designed to be used at multiple times during the season, sports field managers may find it to be a useful tool in documenting field conditions in early spring. To access the document, go to, click on ‘Members Only’, and then click on ‘Playing Conditions Index’.

Because there are no hard and fast rules about field use and because conditions may vary from field to field, from season to season and throughout the season, the experience of a knowledgeable sports turf manager who has a game plan for turf management and a policy for event scheduling is invaluable in determining when and for how long a field should be used.

Submitted by: Mary Owen