Let us grow grass, not replace it!

By Keith Winter

It is often said that we live in a disposable, “throwaway” society. If we don’t like something or aren’t satisfied with the way it looks or works, we simply throw it away!

As sport turf managers, few of us have the luxury of this kind of mentality. The cost investment and longevity of our playing surfaces are of the utmost importance. Our owners (whether public or private), management teams, and facility operators are entrusting us to keep a natural grass playing surface healthy and safe for long periods of time.

Field replacement, except at the highest levels of professional sports, is usually not an annual occurrence, as some turf fields are expected to last a decade or longer. When you combine the seasonal wear and tear with aging fields, a comprehensive, aggressive, proactive, year round approach is the best solution. In other words, LET’S GROW GRASS, NOT REPLACE IT!

Many might respond that this is easier said than done. There is little doubt that budgetary restrictions, event overuse, weather, and laziness can be hard barriers to overcome. The first three on that list may be beyond your control. The fourth is not! Let’s put the hard work in and see what the results look like.

First of all, make sure you are soil testing your field at least annually. The results from year to year tell you a lot. The anions, exchangeable cations, base saturation percentages, and trace elements dictate where your field currently stands and what it needs to improve as an active, healthy growth environment. Nitrogen is important, but it IS NOT the key to turf life. You can impact your macros (phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium) and micros (boron, iron, manganese, copper, zinc) through a comprehensive fertility program that will impact root and overall plant health.

Additionally, if you haven’t ventured into the world of biostimulants and micro-nutrition, you may be missing the boat and cheating your turf. Diverse soil biology, including high levels of indigenous beneficial bacteria and fungi are exactly what your soil needs, especially with sand-based fields. We annually introduce into our 4-year-old, sand-based field as much endo mycorrhizae and ecto mycorrhizae as are applicable, and our roots are deep and thriving. The healthier the roots, the quicker a field recovers and thrives whether you are looking for quick spring color (baseball) or active fall growth (football/soccer).

If I had one wish for all sports turf managers and their fertility programs, I would wish for you to use plant growth regulators (PGRs) in season and out of season. The improvement in our wear tolerance, color, turf density and blade durability after just one complete season of PGRs was significant. An added bonus is that PGRs have dramatically reduced or eliminated the annual bluegrass (poa annua) that many of us fight each season. Biweekly foliar applications of Trinexapac-ethyl and Paclobutrazol throughout the growing season also reduced our grass clippings and mowing frequency. The plant energy was not being wasted on what you mow off and throw away, but on promoting healthier, deeper roots even during the heat of summer. Again, healthy roots = healthy turf.

As described above, what comes from the bag or bottle is important to growing grass, but there is no substitute for regular, diligent cultural practices. When in doubt, aerate, aerate, aerate! Between home stands or when you have a few days with no field activity, aerate. Oxygen exchange not only promotes healthy roots, but it stimulates the sand-based soil biosphere to do things Mother Nature intended in native soil. Pulling cores, harvesting, and topdressing should always be the top priority. However, in the world of professional baseball, we usually don’t have the window to accomplish this more than twice a season. Solid, bayonet tines have become our best friend. After every home stand we open up our heavy wear areas to let them breathe, and punch holes in the entire field a couple more times a season.

With a 100% Kentucky bluegrass field, I have cut back on in-season overseeding and choose to concentrate new seed growth and repair for the fall. Slow bluegrass germination, followed by heavy use on infant plants, and high soil temperatures from summer’s heat, made in-season seeding a “chase your tail” experience. Our five-cultivar seed blend is costly, so I decided to get the most bang for the buck and put seed in the ground when it had the highest germination probability. Conversely, thanks to PGRs and healthy roots, the rhizomes and stolons in our turf grow enough lateral shoots and adventitious roots to fill and repair wear areas when our field gets 3-5 days or more of rest and recovery. Low soil temperatures in the spring challenge the bluegrass, but deep roots can offset some of that early season beat down.

For those of us who grow cool-season grass and host spring games or events, I highly encourage monitoring soil temperature and Growing Degree Days (GDDs) for applications of fertilizer, macro/micro and bio-nutrients, and PGRs. If you let the calendar dictate your fertility program, Mother Nature will often fool you. Knowing the time that the plant is ready to spring to life can optimize granular and foliar applications, whether that is earlier or later in the spring.

Even as experienced professionals, we can easily overlook some of the simple things that cumulatively enhance turf health. I believe sports turf managers have become carried away with repetitive mowing patterns at the expense of turf health. Rolling the plant the same direction for weeks at a time is an unhealthy cultural practice. Diminished sunlight on the plant canopy inhibits photosynthesis. You want healthy turf? Then rotate your mowing patterns, make sure your reels and bed knives make great contact, and have the guts to lower your height of cut. It is documented that players in all sports like a faster surface, and grass that stands up instead of lying over, will “stand up” to the rigors and demands of play with quicker recovery.

The in-season demands on sports turf managers can compromise your work ethic, attitude, and physical and mental state of mind. No matter your age or level of facility where you work, there is a time when you have to grind away and get the job done, and also a time to walk away and re-charge the battery. Balancing the two, personally and as a supervisor of full-time and seasonal staff, is a challenge that is only made easier through experience and incorporating innovative management practices that work for your staff. My motto as a sports turf manager is that “hard work can be a substitute for knowledge, but rarely is knowledge a substitute for hard work.”

Lastly, as we look forward to spring, make the commitment that in 2017, you will work harder than ever to give your turf the best opportunity to succeed. Do the research, negotiating, and purchasing necessary to have all the tools in hand to have a strong fertility program. Plan out your 2017 program applications and cultural practices, taking into account your scheduled game dates, events, and off dates, maintaining the mindset of flexibility and practicality based on the weather. If you put these pieces together, you will be able to “grow grass, not replace it,” and isn’t that what being a sports turf manager is all about?

Keith Winter is head groundskeeper for the Fort Wayne Tincaps.