What to do before winter for better fields next spring

We asked some STMA members, “What are the 3 most important things to do in the fall for your turf to better survive winter and be more ready to green up in spring?”

Ben Polimer

Fields and Grounds Coordinator, Town of Weston, MA

  1. Late season Nitrogen application. Applying about a pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet when the turf is still green but top growth has stopped. Here in New England that’s about first or second week in November. I tend to use the old fashioned 46-0-0 Urea. I don’t really have any issues with snow mold with the water-soluble urea nitrogen.
  2. Putting to bed your softball and baseball fields ready to play in the fall. We like to edge, add infield material and re-level all our fields in the fall. Get them as about “game ready” as possible. Then in the spring once they have thawed, they should be ready to play. Does this happen every year? NO! Winter comes early sometimes, and we can’t get to all our fields.
  3. The third is both core aeration and deep tine aeration. Before we winterize our irrigation systems, we core aerate, and also deep tine aerate. The deep tine is done on our high use fields. We use 2”x2” spacing with ¾” tines and go anywhere from 8”-10” deep. I like keeping the holes open all winter for good air and water movement. Water can go through the freeze/thaw cycle in the aeration holes.

Tim Van Loo, CSFM, Manager of Athletics Turf/Grounds, Iowa State

  1. Keep as much cover throughout the fall as possible. Constantly repair and seed wear areas.
  2. Keep traffic off once play is done. I usually stop mowing once we are done playing. If it gets a little shaggy, I figure that will help protect the crown of the plant.
  3. Stop worrying about it. Winter weather will do what it does; the grass has survived hundreds of years before we came along and tried to manipulate it. Typically it is just fine!

John Cogdill, assistant operations manager, Boulder Parks and Rec

  1. First and foremost provide adequate fertility for the varying soil types for your fields. We seem to struggle some with potassium levels on our sand-based fields and other micro nutrient levels. Our preference would be to fertilize early in both October and November with a slow release custom blend, at or about ½ to 1 lb. per K based on soil reports.
  2. Aerate, mow and cover; we try to aerate on our about every 4-6 weeks throughout the year on our native soil fields. We have had issues in the past several years with snow mold and do have several trees that can add leaf cover in the fall if not mowed down before winter. We keep mowing until turf growth slows to a minimum and the field clear of leaves, etc.
  3. Irrigation. Since we often have warm dry falls and early winters, keeping the soil moisture at optimum levels works well for us and ensures healthier turf in the spring.

Noel Brusius, CSFM, Waukegan (IL) Park District

  1. Be prepared and don’t wait until the last minute. In early fall start prepping for the hardening off process. Have all aeration, overseeding, and fertility (we use SRN + K @ .5/N/M) applications complete before soil temps get too low.
  2. Topdress to help protect the crown of the plant.
  3. Use antidesiccants, turf covers/blankets, pigments, and fungicides as necessary.
  4. Hope and pray.

Dan Blank, Turf Manager, TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha

  1. Aerate—in late September we’ll pull and sweep cores
  2. Feed—apply a granular fertilizer, something like a 29-0-3 at a rate of 1 lb. N/ft2. This gives the turf time to recover from aeration and one more shot in the shoot before shutting down for the season.
  3. Cover—somewhere around Thanksgiving, weather dictating, we’ll put out a topdressing right before we cover the turf with blankets for the winter. Winters here can be cold and windy but not always snowy. We use the sand and blankets to offer protection from wind and cold.

Keith Winter, head groundskeeper,
Fort Wayne TinCaps

In the cool-season grass spectrum of professional baseball, fall is the time to get your turf ready for the next season. The 7 months between the last pitch of the just completed schedule, and the first pitch of the upcoming season, sets the stage for how your field will withstand the rigors of the wear and tear of baseball. Effective sports turf management involves a systematic, timed approach in dealing with fall moisture, temperatures, and any scheduled events on the field.

First, we sod and seed as early as possible in September to provide optimum time for the strong establishment of new turf before winter sets in. This includes scheduled autumn doses of granular and foliar products all the way through Thanksgiving. As a proponent of plant growth regulators, we stay with our bi-weekly applications to promote extended root mass.

Secondly, our fall aeration and heavy topdressing is vastly important for winter root establishment. Cooler fall days and nights are exactly what turf is looking for as it prepares to “go to sleep” during the dormant winter months. The deeper the roots (below the frost line), the quicker the plant will come to life and re-establish its color in the spring.

Lastly, our snow mold foliar applications are timed in sequence with the first forecasted snow cover on the field. Too early and you lose effectiveness. Too late, and it may never happen if the snow stays on the field during the winter months.

I am a firm believer that how you put the field to bed in the fall has a monumental impact on how the field will come alive again in the spring, and then sustain itself through the next growing season.

Brett Tanner, CSFM, turf and irrigation supervisor, University of Michigan

  1. Eliminate competition (fall weed clean up/winter annual pre-emerge). Fall is a great time to gain a foothold on any weed infestation you might have. This will allow for the turf to recover, fill in, and germinate when over-seeded. Going into winter with a “clean slate” will also help with the efficiencies of a spring pre-emergent application.
  2. Overseeding. A good mechanical overseeding across the entire surface, with higher rates in areas of heavy wear will help to get thin spaces re-established before the winter. This will also allow for seed to germinate in early spring as well. It’s best to be proactive with overseeding throughout the year and especially in the fall to maintain a dense and healthy stand of turf.

In warmer climates overseeding is also beneficial to help protect warm season turf from winterkill, weed development, and general wear on dormant turf. Even light rates (6 lbs-9 lbs./M perennial rye) of overseeding will provide an inexpensive yet beneficial cover for the crowns of the plant.

  1. Balanced fertilizer applications. Instead of a blanket application of readily soluble nutrients, give your field what it needs based on soil/tissue tests and/or seasonal application records. Best results can be found by adjusting final nutrient applications to reflect where the field is at the time of application and where it will be when the product is done releasing the nutrients. In my experiences, fields have responded best to gradually hardening off in the winter, as opposed to a sudden flush of growth before going dormant.