Maintenance practices in parks and recreation

By Joshua Bertrand

Sports turf managers in Parks and Recreation are some of the most knowledgeable, innovative and collaborative people I have met. In the sports turf industry, the basics of turfgrass maintenance (good design, fertility, irrigation and cultural practices) are well understood and practiced. But in parks and recreation two key aspects of the management program often are missing: good timing and having a plan.

The one key element missing from many maintenance processes in park and recreation is timing. The idea of timing isn’t new to sports; players train and prepare year round for the last 2 minutes of the 4th quarter, game 7, or the last mile. It’s what the “prime time” athletes work so hard for and as turf managers in Parks and Rec, our maintenance processes shouldn’t be any different. We need to be prepared for the prime time.

Timely fertilizer application, seeding, irrigation repairs and other cultural practices are what separate the good surfaces from the mediocre ones. Along the Front Range of Colorado our growing season lasts from approximately April 15 to October 15 or about 183 days. I define a growing season as the time when the plant is actively conducting photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. The growing season is the basis for the turf manager and field relationship, and it is important to know and respect the prime time for growing grass.

There are a couple time periods each year that the grass just seems to jump out of the ground. We may continue with our inputs, and the grass responds well almost completely naturally, making us all look good. The prime growing season is the natural cycle where the plant actively grows faster and stronger than it does any other time during the year. Along the Colorado Front Range this occurs usually from May 10 to June 25 (46 days) and August 25 to September 20 (26 days), hence the prime growing season along the Front Range is about 72 days, less than half of the traditional growing season.

Turf managers know during the growing season the inevitable will happen: a lateral zone breaks and a whole section of turf lacks proper irrigation; wet weather delays a fertilizer application a week or more; or the administration adds an extra 2 weeks of makeup games at the end of the season. As turf managers we have a good understanding of how long it takes for grass to respond. While it might take 4 days for the wilted plants to show drought stress from the lateral zone break, it will take an additional 14 days for the plant to reverse going into dormancy and bounce back. With a missed fertilizer application is another 2-week setback for grass health. Finally with the extra games during playing season, another 2-3 weeks of time are needed for the plant to recover to a desired growth state. These three events impact the time of the desired growing season—18 days represents approximately 10% of the 183-day growing season and reduce the active growing season by as much as 30%. If these same events occur during the precious 72 days of prime growing conditions, the best time to grow grass is reduced by more than 50%. Not being prepared during the prime growing season is the biggest contributor to mediocre fields.

When I worked for a local school district, we would cobble the fields together during the spring, focusing on preparing the fields for games, but do very little cultural practices. Colorado in the spring can be warm and forgiving, but more often than not spring is cold and cruel. The spring sports would end mid-May, at which point my supervisor would pull us off the athletic fields, go on 2 weeks’ vacation and generally neglect the grass. Why? His logic was fall sports would start in August, so he had the whole month of July to get the fields ready. So during the high 90 degree temperatures days in July we would aerate and overseed our cool season Kentucky bluegrass full of hope and prayers, but not much else. This logic was terribly flawed as it didn’t take into account the natural process of cool season grasses. We would have been much better off to have had a plan in place to capture the prime time of growing grass. It would have been beneficial to work on the fields in April and May, so the plants would be ready to actively grow and repair the damage from the preceding year.

For turf managers, preparing for the prime time is similar to athletes preparing for their big events. Long distance runners often plan each specific run for several months in advance of a big race. The keys to having a successful maintenance practices are similar to the runner: have a plan; apply it consistency; trust yourself, have confidence; and after it is over review the result and adjust accordingly next time. A good plan a runner would use includes the date the run will take place; the goal run time and even the route. As turf managers in park and rec, our planning process should be no different. We should know when our big events are and when the prime times are for growing grass.

Putting your plan in place

How do you put a plan in place? My visionary leadership professor recommended charting goals in some fashion; he had us use a timeline, a sort of a to-do list while forecasting milestones. It can be done any way you like. I have seen people make to-do lists, place motivational phrases on the bathroom mirror (or computer monitor) or keep personal diaries. As the turf manager at Infinity Park my maintenance plan ran from July 1 one year to July 1 the following year. For example, I lobbied for 2 weeks of no activities in May. I lobbied to administration, coaches, athletes, the marketing staff, and my family. Knowing the stadium would host the National Championship game the first weekend in June and knowing the prime time to grow grass in Colorado, I would accept non-stop games and practices in March and April (often quite damaging to the turf), knowing the prime time growth in May would make up the difference.

Coaches typically would ask me in August about my timing of certain cultural practices, and I would respond, “I’m not trying to get the field ready for the next game or this fall, I am getting the field ready for next June and the National Championships!” The plan worked each year for the 5 years I was turf manager. Yes, I had challenges, unforgiving weather, broken irrigation (recommendation: do not deep tine at a 10-inch depth when the irrigation laterals are installed at a 9-inch depth!) and extra/unforeseen uses on the field. However, during previous the fall, winter and then spring seasons, we fertilized, aerated, overseeded and performed all maintenance processes following a plan to get the field ready for the May prime growth time, and the field always looked and played great for the National Championship in June.

Applying the plan with consistency throughout the growing season is another challenge. The best tool to achieve consistency is to trust yourself and have confidence in your plan. Dealing with coaches, administration and sales people confidently and trusting the plan will increase your chances of being successful during the prime time.

For example, throughout the year, sales people will visit your fields. Some sales people will call; others will just drop in. Either way, sales people will present you a myriad of tools and products to make your field better. Like a strength and agility coach working with an athlete, the strength coach is there to make sure the athlete achieves their physical goals and can help the athlete recover from unforeseen events like sickness or injury faster. With good sales people and turf managers, it should be no different. However some sale people aren’t there to help you achieve your goals or recover from unforeseen events. They find the weakness in your plan or your field and exploit it. My biggest frustration is the consulting/insulting sales people telling you when things aren’t going right; “Field’s a bit sparse, don’t you think?”, or “Is the color where you want it for this time of year?” These are questions I was asked as a turf manager. After hearing that, you want to hear the solution and fall into the mindset that you have to do something, anything to fix the problem!

Often we don’t need the latest and greatest wetting agent or a calcium supplement, nor will getting a shiny new utility cart that carries 150 pounds more make that fundamental change needed to have a successful field. Often it leads to frustration, as the plan has suddenly changed, spending $$$ and putting great products on the field with mediocre results. In this fast-paced world of work, not planning the specific actions we need to take to be successful often leads to poor outcomes and setbacks. I have met many good sales people in this industry who understand their role and products and are a great resource to achieving goals. Find them and build that relationship. Confidently dealing with coaches, administration and sales people and trusting your plan will increase your chances of being successful during “prime time.”

The final process to have a successful maintenance program is when it is over, review and adjust your plan. If the plan ends with the prime growing season, you will most likely start on the next plan during the traditional growing season. It’s a great time to start a plan, if you have carefully implemented your previous plan, you will able to review it and make changes to it while your work is still fresh in your head. Why do players play on Sunday and watch film on Monday? Because the sooner they can review their recent performance and develop a plan for their next performance, the better. Often we wait until we are deep into the off-season to review our previous work. If you plan is based on the prime time of growing grass, then a plan review and implementing the new plan should occur right away.

By keeping to key aspects of using plant timing and having a plan which embraces this timing you will improve your maintenance, fertility, irrigation and cultural practices. Soon your fields will be sought after for “prime time” events!

Joshua Bertrand is director of public works for the City of Glendale, CO; previously he was manager of turf operations, which included Infinity Park, a municipally owned sports, entertainment and event venue.