Need to know: 10 questions to ask your turfgrass provider
By Jim Novak
The challenge for sports turf managers and other professionals responsible for maintaining sports field surfaces can be daunting. Providing a safe and well maintained sports field has its share of daily challenges including scheduling and overseeing numerous activities such as mowing, fertilization, irrigation, checking soil fertility, watching for pests, searching for diseases or weeds, etc. And these are but a few of a long list of things required to ensure a field’s playing surface is safe for the athletes. But before any of these standard maintenance chores come into play, of which there are many, there’s another critical component: the turfgrass that is going on the field. What 10 questions should a sports turf manager or groundskeeper ask of their turfgrass provider?
When we asked a sports field professional and a handful of turfgrass producers to list those 10 most important questions, we got a wide variety of responses. The fact that the responses varied wasn’t a surprise; what was surprising was just how diverse the questions were. It became obvious that coming up with a 10 “basic questions” was a challenging proposition, somewhat like limiting the ingredients of a good recipe.
One of those we asked was Julie Adamski, director of retail & professional development for Sod Solutions in Mount Pleasant, SC. Adamski suggested that sports turf managers need to think back to the basics; communication, mowing and fertility when talking to a turfgrass producer. She said that communication plays a huge role in the end product. “By communicating effectively, the turfgrass producer will know exactly what’s needed and the timeframe that’s required. They can talk about the height of cut of the grass. That way when the grass is installed it is uniform with existing turf, and doesn’t need to be trimmed to get the height down. The turfgrass producer can gradually take the cut down on the farm to meet the sports turf managers request. Having a conversation about fertility is also beneficial. This way both parties will be on the same page with what nutrients the grass is receiving prior to installation. The sports turf manager should also be aware of his/her timeline. They need to ask what type of soil the farm has, and whether thick or thin cut sod will be the answer,” said Adamski.
Jerad R. Minnick is a long-time sports field manager and founder of Growing Innovations, parent company to the new Natural Grass Advisory Group. NGAG is an independent education and support firm dedicated to high-use natural grass fields.
When presented with the challenge of suggesting what 10 questions he felt sports turf managers should ask he suggested that turfgrass variety should be on the list. “New varieties are coming into the market with amazing results. If you are using the same old grass and it is needing to be replaced time and time again, why not start trying a different variety?”
He also echoed the comments of Adamski regarding mowing height. “We see unlimited issues with sod coming in at a height above the field’s maintained height, leading to scalping and setbacks,” he said.
A third issue he deemed important had to do with thatch. “Historically, older sod with more thatch was thought to be better for fields. Our collected data now supports that younger grass with less thatch is much more durable. Asking about the amount of thatch might prove worthwhile,” he said.
Minnick also suggested that inquiring about the sod’s shear strength, (the stability of the turfgrass root system to provide athletes with footing and a more true and consistent playing surface) is important. “With a shear vane, a sports field manager can measure and record the sheer strength of the sod. Research at Penn State on sod is taking into consideration the shear strength in reference to nitrogen inputs,” he said.
He further suggested that weeds need to be addressed. “Time and time again, we see weed issues brought in with a sod layer. If there are weeds there when herbicides aren’t being used, the sports field manager will want to know because they will need to be more aggressive on a pre-emergent program. Just because the sod appears to be weed-free, we have to take into account the weed seed bed,” says Minnick.
“The soil type from which the sod was harvested is important too. Yes, I have soil low on my list and I would expect many people will have soil inquiries near the top, but our data and the results we’ve seen from our clients would suggest that any sod is going to have layering issues without aggressive aeration. Having a matching soil type, especially focusing on sand, does not help as much as we originally thought. Sandy soils with more fines end up having more stability issues than native soil sod on top of sand. No matter what, all soil types require aeration.”
Minnick concludes, “I honestly can’t immediately think of more than these six issues. With the standard of sod quality we are attempting to create, new turfgrass varieties, mowing height, thatch, shear strength and soil are our primary focus. Nitrogen inputs verse potassium and micronutrient inputs are questions, but if the growth is weak from excess nitrogen or needed micronutrients, we will see that in shear strength testing. Infiltration rate changes with aeration and soil type. Mowing height, thatch, weeds, shear strength and soil type are really the biggest problems we see over and over again! And then the lack of aeration after the sod is laid. That is the single biggest issue over all: after care.”
Joe Traficano, sales manager for West Coast Turf’s Arizona operation in Scottsdale, had a difficult time limiting his suggested questions to just ten. After some editing he proposed the following:
What is the current mowing height?
How many pounds per acre of ryegrass seed did you overseed the Bermuda with?
How much sand, silt, and clay content is in the growing medium?
Can you provide washed sod?
Can we contract grow and have our own nursery on the farm?
When was the last time you fertilized it and are you using any turf growth regulators?
What are doing you to control poa?
Can you apply a fungicide prior to installation?
Can I come out to see them harvest my grass?
What depth or thickness will the grass be?
Allen Carter, the farm manager for Tuckahoe Turf Farms in Hammonton, NJ provided these ten questions that he deemed important.
How much should I water in the first few weeks?
How long should I wait to mow?
Do I need to lime/fertilize prior to installing?
How long can the sod sit on the pallet?
How long does it take for the sod to root?
When is the best time to water in the summer? (to avoid fungi)
How old/mature is the sod?
What should my fertilizer/water schedule be after sod is installed, when should I start?
What type of sod do you recommend for my field conditions?
Should I water the sod while it is on the pallet?
We were somewhat surprised at Carter’s question regarding watering sod on a pallet and asked him to comment. “It has happened, even though we tell them to install the sod ASAP, they have been known to leave it on a pallet. If the temperature is really hot, we have had inexperienced field support staff think it’s a good idea to soak the pallet with water. That may not be the best thing to do. The water will heat up and heat the rolled up grass even faster.”
David Millar, owner of Red Hen Turf Farm, Inc., New Carlisle, IN provides harvested turfgrass for landscaped areas, lawns, and athletic fields. Over the years they have served numerous high schools throughout the Midwest. Millar’s questions focus on those sports field managers who deal with problems and or issues related to high school stadiums and playing fields. His unique perspective brings to light issues and/or concerns that some sports field managers may have experienced earlier in their career or are facing now in their current position. Millar provided a Q & A of numerous questions he has addressed over the years.
Where and when, do you suggest I fertilize the sod I am putting on my soccer field?
“A study funded many years ago by the Sod Growers of Mid America showed maximum rooting of sod was achieved by placing the fertilizer under the sod before laying and lightly raking it into the soil.
A sewer line under my football field was repaired and the first game is in 3 months. Should I use a young sod or older sod that has a bit more thatch?
Use the youngest, fastest growing sod you can find! 3 months is plenty of time for sod to grow new roots, and young sod is growing so fast it will never know it was moved.
Which is the best time to re-sod my football field between the hash marks, fall or spring?
Fall is preferred, but not at the expense of removal, re-shaping and installing sod when the soil is too wet. A field in need of renovation surely is compacted, so don’t add to it by rushing the job when it is wet.
The school administrator is hot after me to re-sod some minor wear spots in the football field before the last 2 games of the season with 2 inch thick cut sod. What should I do?
Does he know how heavy the sod is and that it requires a specialized installation company? Does he know that only professional teams can afford the cost? But does he really know that the sod will not root into the field below and that it will have to be removed and replaced before the next season? Better he should buy you a new core aerifier than have thick cut sod installed.
I would like to buy sod for our new football field from a local supplier, but his big roll is only 24 inches wide. The architect insists I use 48-inch sod from a faraway company. First game is in 4 months. Does width matter?
Technically he is right, but practically, it does not matter. Corners and edges of sod are where there can be gaps and laps, but a good sod installer will make sure there are none. For many years, little rolls of sod have worked just as well, so buy local!
My school principal is pressuring me to approve the guy that fertilizes our sports fields to install our new combination football soccer field that is cheaper than the specialized sports field company I prefer. First game is in 4 weeks.
First, see if there are any openings in the witness protection program because you don’t want to be anywhere near this. Second, call your friends and invite them to see the disaster that will be happening. Good, experienced sports field installers make laying 100,000 plus square feet of sod in 2 days look simple, but it is not. These guys know how to deal with sod scheduling, labor needs, soil prep, irrigation and scheduling in order to make the inauguration of the new field a success. I am not saying the fertilizer guy can’t learn these things, but this is not the place to start.
My school is starting a stadium renovation process and I am worried that sod installation will be delayed. Any advice?
Get ugly and stay ugly. You know you will get blamed if the field is not playable, so tell them you must have 4 weeks to grow in the new sod. Paint a picture to your bosses of what the un-playable field will look like and make sure they see their picture beside it. Then, when delays begin, stay on them to use their power to bring on more people or invite other contractors to get the job done on time. Seldom do you find stadium architects or contractors that really get it that a field is not done because the sod has just been laid.
Given such varied responses we’ve reached the conclusion that turfgrass producers are much like economists, financial advisors, attorneys, and perhaps even sports turf managers, if you present a number of them with the same question you’re likely to get numerous points of view. Having said that, we compiled the following list of the Top Ten Questions (in no particular order) that we feel a sports turf manager should be asking their turfgrass supplier.
What is the current height of the grass being harvested?
What are the soil conditions where the turf is being harvested and is it compatible with my field?
What should I know about the fertility and nutrient requirements (prior to and after delivery)?
Are there any new turfgrass varieties that you would recommend?
What is the thatch depth?
How thick is the grass cut?
What is the anticipated delivery, installation and turnaround schedule and, more importantly, can you meet my time line?
How soon will the field be playable?
Are there any special care recommendations we should consider?
What irrigation schedule would you propose after installation?
A final thought: When talking to your turfgrass provider it’s not just the questions you ask, it’s also important that both parties do one other thing . . . LISTEN.
Jim Novak is the public relations manager for the Turfgrass Producers International, www.turfgrasssod.org.