Establishing seeded bermudagrass fields without irrigation

By Michael A. Skelton

The constant, number one challenge faced by managers of youth sports complexes is maintaining a sufficient number of fields for the tremendous number of both games and practices played every season. A general rule of thumb is for every scheduled game event there are at least two practice events; for 200 scheduled youth soccer games, there are almost 400 practice events for a total of 600 events. The demand for fields is unrelenting. In an environment of fiscal restraint the possibility of purchasing more park space and constructing new fields is not realistic for most of us.

One very simple and inexpensive answer is to maximize the space available by capturing, for instance, small common ground areas for practice fields. At the Culpeper County (VA) Sports Complex there were several fairly level, un-irrigated common ground areas roughly .75 acres in size. Unfortunately, they were full of weeds and clumpy cool season turf. So the question became how to transform these small, weedy areas into quality practice fields at relatively low cost? The surprising answer is yes, by way of dormant seeding and manipulating Mother Nature.

Growth blankets

The key to our success in establishing bermudagrass fields without irrigation while manipulating Mother Nature is to use growth blankets in conjunction with dormant seeding. Under normal circumstances the time to plant bermudagrass seed is when the soil temperature reaches 68 degrees. In central Virginia this normally means seeding in late May to early June. However, summers are hot and dry and the chance of establishment success without irrigation is quite small. Dormant seeding of bermudagrass without growth blankets has also been shown to work in research at the University of Arkansas. We felt this strategy could fit our needs as well, but we wanted even more assurance of success. So what to do? After a lot of research and brainstorming, our solution was to use growth blankets to ensure appropriate temperatures and moisture.

Step one: Use the fall and wintertime to prep the area. In late October/early November spray out the vegetation with glyphosate and 2-4D (two applications) and then mow the area as low as the mower will go. Next is soil preparation: in areas that are relatively level use a tow-behind aerator and aerate in multiple directions. It’s not a plowed field but close; the objective is to establish good seed to soil contact. In situations where grade is in need of adjustment then a full plow grind and grade may be required. This is also a good time to get your soil sample and adjust your pH, phosphorus, and potassium needs as recommended. Hold off on any nitrogen fertilization for now, waiting instead the grow-in phase next spring.

Step Two (based on frost dates): Five to 6 weeks before the last average frost date for your area, plant the bermudagrass seed. Riviera bermudagrass, one of the top seeded varieties, is planted at a seed rate of 1.0–1.5 lbs. per thousand square feet (.5-.75 lbs. pure live seed). It is critical then to apply quinclorac at a rate of 1lb per acre right over the top of the seed. This is a must to control crabgrass and some broadleaf weeds that will also be enhanced by the growth blanket. If possible, follow the quinclorac treatment with ¼ inch of compost, applied directly over the seed. This will further hold moisture, heat and stimulate young seedlings. Finally, install the blankets.

Step Three: Over the next few weeks monitor the area. Check after high winds for blanket security. Take a peek under the blankets to see what is happening; this is fun when you see that first bermuda seed germination. Also look for weeds and disease, and the formation of algae mats during high moisture times. If you see algae starting to appear, get air under the blanket using a backpack blower (it works). There will be weeds that are not controlled by quinclorac that grow faster and taller than the bermudagrass. If this happens you will have to temporarily remove the blankets, mow the weeds, and then reinstall the blankets back after mowing.

Step Four: Remove the blankets 2 weeks after the last anticipated frost date. For Culpeper County, this is the first week in May. It’s important to wait until after the last frost date because the seedlings are very young and vulnerable to frost damage.

Step Five (grow-in phase): Frequent mowing is critical because it stimulates lateral bermudagrass growth. Immediately began mowing twice a week at 1 inch height of cut. This is also when you should start your nutrient management program according to soil sample testing applying fertilizer as needed. Survey the area to identify weeds and implement an integrated pest management program. In Culpeper the biggest weed issues have always been crabgrass, goosegrass, nutsedge and a few broadleaf weeds in that order. A good rule of thumb is to wait 3-4 days to allow turf to harden off after the blanket removal before you make any pesticide applications. For yellow nutsedge and broadleaf weeds, we have successfully used trifloxysulfron as a postemergent herbicide with desirable safety on young bermudagrass. For crabgrass, you can do a split application of quinclorac at 1/3 rate (1/3 lb. per acre) 10-14 days apart. There is currently no product for postemergent goosegrass control on bermudagrass so, unfortunately, you are going to have to walk the area and remove them by hand. The good news is next spring you can start a preemergent program that will take care of both crabgrass and goosegrass.

Step Six: Finalize when fields are ready for use. 2014 was one of driest summers in Culpeper County; activity on the fields could have begun by mid-July but was held until first week in August. This allowed time for stolon and rhizome development and enough growth to protect the turf crowns from user damage. The fields were ready for the both fall youth football and soccer practices.

If funding is truly limited the following process will work but with one difference, you will only achieve about 75% bermudagrass coverage the first year. Soil preparation is that you make one application of glyphosate in the late fall to early winter then mow the area at the mower’s lowest setting. Five to 6 weeks before the last frost date, seed right into the low mowed area with a seeder that has some soil disruption and install blankets. Then follow the above instructions starting at step three. With no application of quinclorac anticipate that weeds will be a big issue. Blankets will have to be pulled back to mow the weeds. Elevation of the blankets will be a sure sign of weed growth. Next year with preemergent use 100% bermudagrass coverage will be achieved.

Important test information

A test was run to evaluate the best overall process for the dormant seeding strategy. For all situations a seed bed prepared with a Harley Rake and a blanket was used.

  1. Control: Seed, cover with blanket
    1. Weeds: heavy pressure of crabgrass, broadleaf (90% controlled by end of season)
    2. Bermuda: 90% coverage by end of season, low to medium density
    3. Ready: 1 August
  2. Compost: Seed, cover with ¼ inch compost, cover with blanket
    1. Weeds: crabgrass on steroids, broadleaf (90% controlled by end of season)
    2. Bermudagrass: 90% coverage by end of season, medium density
    3. Ready: 1 August
  3. Apply quinclorac: Seed, spray quinclorac over the top, cover with blanket
    1. Weeds: very low, 100% control by end of season
    2. Bermudagrass: 100% coverage by end of season, high density
    3. Ready: 1 August
  4. Apply quinclorac and compost: seed, spray quinclorac over the top, cover ¼ inch compost, cover with blanket
    1. Weeds: very low, 100% control by end of season
    2. Bermudagrass: very high density
    3. Ready: 1 July

Recommendation: All will work so in the end it comes down to your budget. Use of both compost and quinclorac is the best option but if you have to choose one over the other choose quinclorac.

For the past 5 years we have established a bermudagrass practice field every. All were seeded in March without irrigation and then in full use by our soccer or football teams in August. Our plan this year is to convert a 1.2 acre, little-used field space in a remote park into a bermudagrass soccer/football practice field. We all know the phrase “If you build it they will come.”

Converting areas to bermudagrass without irrigation has been extremely successful in many ways. As soon as the signs for new fields are seen by the users they will want their name on the list for its use. The goal of diverting practices from the game fields has been achieved; this past year there were 337 practice events on these four practice fields.

Michael A. Skelton is parks superintendent for Culpeper County, VA and president of the Virginia Sports Turf Managers Association Virginia Chapter.