Jerad Minnick, sports turf manager for the Maryland Soccer Foundation, Boyds, MD, spent a few days last spring visiting some of his peers in Europe to see how they keep their pitches and other playing surfaces in good playing condition. Here we share his blogs from the trip.

European adventure: one intrepid turf manager’s report on bold practices

Jerad Minnick, sports turf manager for the Maryland Soccer Foundation, Boyds, MD, spend a few days last spring visiting some of his peers in Europe to see how they keep their pitches and other playing surfaces in good playing condition. He blogged daily on and here we share his impressions:

May 6

The main observation of Day 1 in London in GREEN! For weather that is in the 40’s and 50’s (F), the fact is all the grass (and flowering plants) are actively growing. Obviously I knew a trip to the UK would be filled with ryegrass, but observing it dramatically highlights rye’s ability to grow in cooler conditions than Kentucky bluegrass. The ryegrass, even in the common areas that is not even regularly maintained, is growing and green. Nearly every day of our “cool weather” during the month of April was warmer than even 1 day of the weather here in London. And just this past week did we begin to see sustained growth similar to what I am observing here.

So the debate renews in my mind on the pros and cons of using ryegrass in our Washington, DC climate. Following a gray leaf spot outbreak last August, I swore I would never use it again. But now after the cool, inconsistent spring here I am back to re-thinking that. One of the core times that we need to increase our play is in the cooler weather of Feb, March, Nov, and Dec and ryegrass is certainly an avenue to help.  

The questions created now revolve around rootzone in management of ryegrass. On a sand-based rootzone, the “moist” conditions that cause disease on ryegrass on our native soil fields are greatly reduced. And managing nitrogen and the use of basic chlorothalonil helps combat gray leaf spot. So, on a field that gets the most traffic from Feb- June and Sept- Dec. isn’t overseeding ryegrass into the bluegrass stand a good idea?  

Another question: is the disease pressure different on sand v. native soil? Is the amount of soil borne pathogens in a native soil higher than a sand, especially a new sand on a new field? It seems the population would be different. On the “control” field we have each year where no fungicides are used, the soil biological activity is staggering. How different are the pressures?  

May 8

Wow what a fantastic day with one of the UK’s finest gentleman, Mr. Simon Gumbrill. Starting at Wimbledon, progressing through horrendous London traffic to Emirates Stadium, off to the Arsenal Training Ground, and finishing with a pass through the Chunnel to Calais, France and Gent, Belgium for the night. Tomorrow we are off to the Netherlands near Eindhoven and the Koro by Imants factory for a demonstration day, then up to Amsterdam and Europort for the boat back to the eastern UK. Thank you to Simon, [and] to Mr. Richard Campey who I got the pleasure to see at Arsenal today, and thank you as well to Ms. Julia Campey. I could not have enjoyed the day more!

Many thanks to head groundsman Mr. Eddie Seaward for having me to Wimbledon today, as well as to Grant Cantin for taking time from his busy day to show us around. Preparing for the Championships and the Olympics, I can’t imagine the stress they are under.

Thanks to Mr. Paul Ashcroft for sticking around to say hello, even with our being delayed in traffic and his having prior commitments. What a class operation. No wonder he collected the award for Groundsman of the Year in the Premier League. Even with corporate events taking place, the pitch is tight and gorgeous green.

And thanks to Mr. Steve Braddock, Head Groundsman at the Arsenal Training Ground. In the middle of renovations, Steve was very generous with his time to show us around and discuss the different ideas and successes they have through the challenges of such a large scale training ground. Steve’s reputation of perfection is well deserved!

The most amazing part of the day was the sheer kindness and hospitality that these grounds crews showed me, an American [an outsider]. I could understand skepticism but there was absolutely none. What generous and genius individuals that make up these groups. I hope we in America are the same for all our colleagues, large and small, home and abroad. None of us can succeed without learning and respect. And respect and professionalism is what I saw exhibited the most today.

Off to bed in Belgium.

May 9

Wednesday was another tremendous day as we traveled from Belgium to Reusel, in the southern region of the Netherlands near Germany, for a demonstration day with Imants, which manufacturers unique and high quality turf care equipment, along with specialty agricultural equipment, and was founded in Reusel over 125 years ago.  

Hats off to Hans de Kort of Imants for assembling a wonderful demo day that was attended by nearly 50 groundsmen from the surrounding areas in the Netherlands. Thank you to Simon Gumbrill of Campey Turf Care and Hans for allowing me to attend.  

The demo/field day was unique by US standards, as the attendees got the see the machines in action doing an actual renovation on a youth soccer pitch in the park behind the factory. The demonstration illustrated the European “renovation” process which involves stripping a slight layer off the top of the pitch and re-growing the pitch from seed and rejuvenation from the crown of the existing grass plants. (MUCH more on this eye opening process to come.)  Machines demonstrated included the Koro by Imants Field Topmaker to strip the top layer off, the Koro by Imants Field Sweeper to clean up any spilled debris, the Imants Shockwave deep aerated the soil, the Speed Dresser topdressed sand, and the Koro by Imants Recycling Dresser mixed in the sand and refreshed the soil air space. I have so many thoughts and ideas from this; it is going to take me some time to wrap my head around the possibilities.

An additional highlight of the day outside of the machines was meeting Mr. Ko Rodenberg, the former Parks Superintendent for the City of Rotterdam and inventor of the Koro line of turf care equipment. I enjoyed the time talking with Mr. Rodenberg in which I learned so much, and I am indebted to him for being so generous with his time.  

The days end came entirely too fast as we had to head up to Rotterdam to Europort for the boat back to the UK across the North Sea. Sleeping on a cargo ship was an experience all in itself!  But we arrived safely back to the UK through Hull Port at 8am this morning, set for another full and fun day. 

May 10

Thursday marked a visit to see Mr. Alan Ferguson, the Head Groundsman of the English FA, tasked with getting St. George’s Park prepared for its opening this summer. The FA is in good hands, that is for sure. Not only are the pitches absolutely gorgeous, but Mr. Ferguson and his wonderful wife, Mrs. Carol Ferguson, have a vision for the park is grand and fantastic. I can not thank either of them enough for taking time to see us today to show us around and share some stories over tea. The conversation, the ideas, the attitude, the dedication; I hope to be able see the park again next year to see the dramatic change it will go through. The expanse of the park and the rolling hills reminded me a lot of home at SoccerPlex and so did all the rain! 

Have a look at the park:

Thank you again to the Fergusons for having us and to Simon for leading the “escaped” through London, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and now back to Manchester in the northern UK.  

We visit the champions tomorrow. [Who will it be] Man U or Man City!?  

May 11

Friday marked the final day of my expedition in the United Kingdom. COLD was the theme of the day. With temperatures not rising above 45 degrees F, a breeze, and some rain showers; what a challenge to grow grass! Kudos to ALL the groundsmen in northern Europe. I have heard that it’s cold in those areas and that is true!

The day started with a stop at historic Old Trafford. It is absolutely everything that is hyped.  What a gorgeous and classic stadium. Thank you to Tony Sinclair, Head Groundsman at Old Trafford, for showing me around and sharing some absolutely fantastic ideas and thoughts on the success of maintaining such a wonderful pitch in the cold, wet conditions of the Manchester region. Tony’s professionalism and fantastic attitude towards the challenges they face were extra motivating to me as we look at tackling the challenges daily faced with 22 pitches and all the events at SoccerPlex. The very best of luck to Mr. Sinclair and his tremendous staff with those upcoming challenges, including several matches for the Olympics.

Leaving Old Trafford, we headed over to Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City. With both teams tied for the Premier League title going into the final weekend, it was absolutely amazing the experience the intensity and anxiety and the anticipation in the air around both clubs. What a wonderful situation for Manchester as a city, no matter what side you are on. The world is talking about Manchester through Sunday!

The Head Groundsman for Etihad Stadium, Mr. Lee Jackson, took time to visit with us and show me around even with preparation ongoing for their final Premier League match on Sunday. Thank you to Mr. Jackson; I would like to think that I would do the same for a total stranger from out of the country if they came to visit me even during preparation for one of the biggest events of a lifetime. Mr. Jackson’s pitch is superb. I am amazed how successful it’s possible to be with growing grass through the dead of winter and into miserable weather conditions like they are experiencing in Manchester this spring.

Manchester United’s Carrington Training Ground was the next stop. Mr. David Lindop was very generous with his time to welcome us and show me around as Head Groundsman Joe Pemberton was unavailable.  Missing my friend Joe was the only disappointment of the trip.  The training ground buildings are going through renovations and upgrades, as were many of the pitches. “Busy” is only half a strong enough word to describe how things are around the training ground. Thank you, David, for allowing me to spend some time with you and pick up many valuable lessons. Our conversations and seeing another piece of the renovation process was so helpful!

In route to the airport, our final stop in the Manchester area was at Salford City Stadium, a new rugby stadium. Mr. Danny Huffman, Head Groundsman, was in preparation for rugby events this weekend. With the stadium opening in the early winter, the pitch has been played on frequently during its few months. Mr. Huffman has succeeded to maintain a fantastic surface all the while establishing the young field even more. The pitch has Fibre Sand, so the opportunity to talk about the technology and get feedback surrounding the reinforcement was very, very helpful. Thank you for the time Danny it was extremely rewarding for me!

Friday evening lead to the departure of Manchester with a flight down to Madrid, Spain. WOW it is HOT! Unseasonably warm weather is blessing Madrid and our trip; what a change from Manchester!

Thanks to Mr. Simon Gumbrill of Campey Turf Care for the hospitality, the guidance, and the wonderful feedback and wide range of ideas and discussions over the [past few days] traveling through 5 countries and several hundred miles, I am sure there are points he wanted to pull the car over or hit the eject button with all of the questions I was asking. Thank you, Simon, Richard Campey and the entire staff of Campey Turf Care for the respect, the time, the ideas, and the support. Absolutely a class act of an organization!

May 13

Well what a change from Manchester to Madrid.  WOW it is almost HOT here!  But I am not one to ever complain about heat so bring it on. It is refreshing!

Arriving in Madrid Friday night, many Thanks to Mr. Paul Burgess for taking the time to make a trip to the airport and then to show me around on Saturday. With preparation taking place for tonight’s final La Liga match, after which Real will be presented with their 32nd league championship trophy, I know Mr. Burgess is very busy.  

Saturday Paul was gracious enough to show me around on the pitch at the Bernabeu. WOW what a stadium. And WOW what a fantastic pitch. Absolutely great stuff. Following, Mr. Burgess gave the tour of the Real Madrid Training Ground. With the number of fields and tremendous about of place that takes place on each pitch, it reminded me even more of home. The observations and conversation created a wide range of new ideas for me.  Thank you, Paul! 

Now tonight, the fixture between Real Madrid and Mallorca. What an experience it shall be!  Real is in the hotel here currently preparing for the match and what an atmosphere it is outside. So I can only imagine what it will be like at the Bernabeu tonight!

May 14

Returning to DC this afternoon, it’s like I never left. Inconsistent weather continues! Examining the pitches at SoccerPlex this evening, we are still fighting the same inconsistent growth on cool season and bermudagrass. It’s all good though we need the rain, and the sun looks to be coming by Wednesday.

Now that I am back home, the time for reflection and creating ideas begins. The key categories I have established to work through the many new topics and ideas currently are:

1) Professionalism. The professionalism exhibited by all the Groundsmen I met on the trip is amazing. They understand that extra traffic on a field is reality. So they spend their time working to negate it.

2) Confidence and aggressiveness. During the renovation process, most all fields are grown back from seed in 4 weeks time. If someone in the USA did that, we would think they had gone mad!  I respect the confidence to do the “right thing” in using seed to eliminate the layering and to save money.

3) Self Sufficient and Efficient. Doing renovations “in house” on a rotating basis to achieve the end goal to using larger size equipment. Most all operations I observed were all about “getting things done” in an impressive manner.

4) Open Minded to new technologies (Desso, Fibre Sand, Crumb rubber, Fescue and Bluegrass w/ rye, performance testing, etc) and being tried and implemented daily.

May 15

A reason for the timing of my trip to Europe was that the playing season was wrapping up and the renovation season for the pitches is beginning. I wanted (or better stated, NEEDED) to see the renovation process taking place to get a better understanding of how it works and all the positive pieces of the process. My perception from the pieces of the process I had heard and read about were that the UK groundsmen must just really like to make themselves extra work! Ha ha. Why would you want to cut out your fields every year and wait for them to grow back in from seed? Madness! Well I certainly saw 1st hand and it was nothing like I imagined. Instead of madness, I say now that it is genius! Quite a change huh? Let me try to explain the process and the goals.

Why renovate? To remove the poa annua plants and their seed bank (lack of chemical options for poa removal and control due to regulations). To remove the organic matter that has begun to build up during the growing season to completely avoid any layer that could cause a slick surface (core aeration and heavy topdressing can not be done frequently during the dead of winter during the season because the plant will not recover).  And to create a more hardy and durable stand of grass plants (Plants that re-generate are stronger and resilient)

How to renovate? 1-Remove the top 1/8 to 1/2″ of the pitch (termed “Fraze mowing”). 2-Proceed with a deep aeration (deep tine or Shock Wave). 3- Apply a layer of topdressing and/or run a Recycling Dresser to freshen up the soil base and create some loose material. 4-Drag a harrow across the surface to move around the loose material and fill in the low spots before the seeding takes place. 5-Seed, work in the seed and lightly topdress again. 6-Fertilize. 7-Grow. Four weeks later, the seed has germinated and is growing, and the hardy plants have regenerated and filled back in.

So then the question becomes does any of this process make sense in the United States. Your initial reaction is likely the same as mine-No! But then realize that no matter how good the poa controls supposedly are, that still don’t really work and that we could be facing the same bans on pesticides in the future that they do in the UK .Think about renovating a football field in the spring (that needs spring time renovation anyway)/ to Fraze Mow Bermudagrass in the south that is overseeded heavily and needs transitioning/ Renovate soccer fields that are used for spring and fall play/ Fraze mow the lips around the edge of baseball infield skins after the season. And we could sit and talk and come up with more and more where pieces of this process could fit in.

The boldest part, without a doubt, is to re-seed and not to sod. Adding the layer of soil in sod is obviously a challenge. And with a tool like the Recycling Dresser, that layer can be reduced much more quickly. But if and when a field has 6-8 week opening for a renovation, why not seed instead of sod? I am considering it; we are renovating our stadium field (because of poa) the last week of August. I can seed by the end of that week and have 6 full weeks before our next event. When I stop and think, of course it can be done but wow, that sure does take guts right! But to save $60k? Hmm

May 21

Professionalism is on my mind and ironically, multiple situations since my return have me glad it is the 1st topic. The traits I saw exhibited by all the groundsmen I met on the trip are amazing.  The “technical or ethical standards” of our profession are being created by these men. Placed under such impossible demands from weather and from traffic, they are setting the standards the rest of us are characterized by or conforming to. Pitch quality continues to rise, and less than perfect is absolutely unacceptable even if the weather or challenge could be used a plausible excuse for them.  

These professionals understand that extra traffic on a field is reality so they spend their time working to figure out how to produce the best turfgrass possible with a positive, “get it done” attitude. Negativity does not exist. The challenge is respected.

With the examples that I observed from the European experience, I continue to think about how I can help our operation at Maryland SoccerPlex set a stronger example of professionalism.  

May 24

Confidence and aggressiveness. It’s [often said] in American sports, “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” But is that really true? Defense is great until you meet a better offense.

I am thinking “offensively” after visiting with so many fantastic European groundsmen. There is such a confidence, assurance, and matter of fact approach to management. There is no fear. Or if there is, they certainly do not show it! To strip off a field and re-seed instead of sod seems like insanity to us; it’s common place for them. Here playing tennis on grass seems impossible; they do it all the time. Here roofs on grass stadiums are few and far between; there every stadium there has a roof. Here extra events on a field cause stress; they welcome it as an opportunity to try something new. They seem to always be on the offensive, working toward the next goal.

Before my trip, I felt my management philosophy for turfgrass was aggressive and simple: the grass has 2 choices, grow or die. After visiting Europe though I realize it’s not that simple. Many decisions are from a “defensive” or conservative stand point. These decisions are still GOOD decisions. But they are made from a “what if” perspective with anxiety, uneasiness, hesitation, and even lack of confidence play into the decision-making process. The process is complex. It’s “Defensive.”

“Offensive” decision-making becomes less complex.  Mother Nature provides challenge, but the strong turf can overcome.  We sleep better at night with less stress!

May 27

Thank you to everyone who has been engaging me in thought-provoking discussion over each of the points of focus from my European trip. So many good ideas continue to flow and already they are making a difference in our maintenance program here at SoccerPlex.

The 3rd point to discuss is the manner in which several of the European sports field operations run so self-sufficiently and how they are highly efficient in all of their tasks. With training grounds similar to the size of the 22-field Maryland SoccerPlex, several of the operations that I observed are similar to ours. However, ultimately, their operations run very differently.

Many of the major maintenance and renovation techniques that take place in Europe are done in-house by field maintenance crews. Specialized contractors are still involved, but many operations have their own equipment to do the tasks on their own as well.

The European operations are more self-sufficient partially because they are so efficient as well though. Tractors in the 100 hp range are not uncommon. A 63-inch aerator (our biggest) is small by Euro standards. From a manpower stand point, they are able to get many more tasks completed with fewer people because fewer hours are spent in operation of equipment. The extra time equates into the ability to accomplish more tasks in-house. It seems so simple, but yet it seems so ingenious! Especially with the security of completing tasks such as aeration more quickly- 1 aeration cycle takes up to 2 week for our SoccerPlex crews to finish. Staggered staffing and overtime make up the time to finish each cycle because 2 weeks un-interrupted by weather or play does not exist. Increased efficiency reduces those challenges.

This discussion ultimately connects us back to my previous post on confidence and aggressiveness. Taking on such tasks such as renovation in-house is a large undertaking! As is the operation of larger equipment. But in the end, it establishes a maintenance program that is absolutely always on “offense”!

May 29

Having an open mind is important when it comes to evolution of a turfgrass maintenance program. The European market is full of technologies that stem from open minds that are always improving the quality of the pitches. The following ideas are things that I viewed:

Desso Grassmaster: A reinforcement system with synthetic fibers sewed into the sand profile of a natural grass field. A few fields in the US use the technology, but it has not caught on because the fibers make it impossible to sod into, so seeding is required for renovations.

Fiber sand: A reinforcement system with synthetic fibers mixed into the sand profile to reduce compaction potential and provide stability in sand. Our stadium pitch at SoccerPlex has fiber sand and we have fantastic results. Again, this is not a system that is common in the US.  But the potential for it is big. The success stories are endless with using the product and managing it correctly.

Crumb rubber on sand for cushion: Many facilities use crumb rubber topdressing to attempt to soften the goal mouths and goal keeping practice areas. I have considered crumb rubber for the same, but also to help to reduce compaction and to add heat to bermudagrass fields more quickly in the spring. Mixed results are being found with crumb rubber… so the jury is still out.

Fescue into ryegrass: Turf type tall fescue genetics have created a superior plant that is able to be used in a ryegrass and/or bluegrass stand. Some of the fescues that I observed are absolutely fantastic especially blended with ryes for more wear tolerance. With that, we used fescue to overseed our bermudagrass last fall/ this spring, and it is by far the most durable overseeding we have ever had.

Performance testing: During several visits, testing officials from the Sports Turf Research Institute were on site doing performance testing of the turfgrass stand. Infiltration rates, compaction/ hardness testing, ball speed, tinsel strength, root depths, etc, etc. I know of a few tests that we have done/can be done in the US, but I know of no one testing religiously to give an established baseline of conditions during the season. It is a perfect way, in conjunction with tissue and soil testing, to know how well changes in a maintenance program work!

These, and many other open minded ideas, were common place in discussions and maintenance programs around Europe. Other technologies like SubAir, glycol heating, and most importantly, grow lights, make growing turfgrass in challenging conditions more successful. Combine those ideas with the aggressive nature of the complete renovation each year. It would see that here in the US we are lagging behind on creating new create, open minded ideas. With that, do we have things to learn from our European counterparts?  I say YES.  

Thatch management

The past 10 days have seen an up and down weather pattern in the Mid-Atlantic. A few cool, crisp days followed with hot, dry then hot, humid days. Dry conditions have prevailed until today, allowing some aggressive cultivation to take place in conjunction with the wrap up of soccer league season and in preparation for summer club lacrosse season.  

On cool season pitches, aeration pass number 6 took place with deep tine aeration at 8″ w/ an aggressive 15 degree kick, followed with pass number 7 w/ 3/4″ coring tines on 2×2 spacing. With the combination, deep compaction relief took place along with air venting and thatch reduction in the top organic layer, both much needed following the heavy traffic of May and entering the summer stress period. All aeration techniques will continue, just not as aggressively though into the heat.

Bermudagrass received an aggressive core aeration as well. With it picking up growth and starting into camp season next week, this is the last break during the week bermudagrass will see until the last week of August. Deep tine aeration will follow suit next week in the evenings following camps.

In reference to thatch reduction from core aeration, following the 1st sweeping of cores from the field we brushed the fields with a heavy brush to stand the grass plants back upright and fluff up any remaining cores. Around Europe, brushing was common so I wanted to add it to our program immediately. I assumed that the main benefit would be standing up the grass for better health and mowing. Well I was right on that part, but the biggest immediate difference was the remaining thatch on the very top of the field that was fluffed up. It was staggering! Piles of thatch were everywhere. Certainly we expect to bring up some, but had no idea that it would be the amount it was. Especially in a lighter growing period under growth regulation, following heavy traffic, and when we have mowed very little as we raise the height up a 1/4″ to 1 1/4″  If that amount comes up during light growth, I can only imagine the amount that will arise during aggressive growth.  

As mentioned, brushing was a common practice around pitches in Europe, as it is in golf course management. But in sports field management, it’s not something that takes place a lot. After the observations of our 1st experience it will become a weekly practice followed with mowing with baskets for collection. I immediately am looking into tine harrows for additional fluffing and am sharpening the verticut blades as well. We think our program is aggressive enough but yet again we are wrong!  

Following “Cultivated Thoughts on Thatch Management” and the results of core verifying our cool season turfgrass fields the week before a stretch of 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), I have spent more time examining the merits of core aeration. Certainly we as professional managers know the importance of core aeration. But with time constraints and all the other aeration options available to use today, coring is a bit less used. After the past few weeks, I am convinced that it is time to buck that trend and get back to the basics of core aeration.

Why do we core aerate? No it’s not just to create overtime for ourselves and our work crews! Removing the column of soil from the profile makes a direct, open avenue for gas exchange in the soil. Water is able to infiltrate the profile easier, as well as the removal of thatch/ organic material/ soil that could be undesirable. Certainly solid tines open columns similarly, but they do so at the expense of compacting the soil around the column. Do not misunderstand me ANY type of aeration/venting that can be done at ANY time is essential to turfgrass survival, especially in high traffic field situations. But pulling cores is the most beneficial of all for gas exchange, thatch removal, and water infiltration into the top of the profile (deep tine aeration is a separate subject for deep water infiltration).

Basic teaching advocates core aeration 2 times a year. I have spent most of my career buying into that thinking, especially because of the intensity of the process. By now I am realizing that the benefits from core aeration are sometimes lost in the mess that is created from the aeration process. By the time the clean up process ends, we find ourselves swearing that we will never do it again. Last week alone we dulled a set of reels following clean up, then bent 2 reels from debris dropped during the coring and sweeping process. If I walked into the office this morning and declared we are core aerating again this week, there would be mutiny!

But outside on the fields the results are evident from the flush of fresh air into the rootzone and proper water infiltration. Green, strong, healthy turf looks like it was 50 degrees last night even though we spent the week in extreme heat.