Growing Bermudagrass in the North

By Kevin Mercer, CSFM, CGM, LICM

A nationally ranked liberal arts college, Denison University is located in the village of Granville, in the center of Ohio. Nestled in a picturesque corner of campus is the Barclay-Thomsen Field, a stadium-style complex with seating for 1,000 spectators, and lights for nighttime competitions. Named for legendary Denison Coach and Athletic Director Ted Barclay, and former Men’s Lacrosse Coach and Professor Tommy Thomsen, Barclay-Thomsen Field is the home of Denison’s football program, as well as its men’s and women’s soccer programs. The field is 120×80 yards and is a natural grass surface. It sees a lot of hard play. 

Soil evaluation of Barclay-Thomsen Field

We performed a nutrient and a mechanical soil test first to understand what types of soils we were working with. The test came back high in calcium and magnesium and low on sulfur, which results in a high pH around 8.2. The silt was 60 percent, the sand 20 percent, the clay was 10 percent and the organic matter was around 10 percent. We installed an engineered drainage system with sand base goals. 

Why bermuda?

Further analysis of the field yielded several insights. The field had a poor rooting structure. It was covered with more than 75 percent poa annua, and it was not properly “crowned” to enhance surface water runoff. After much research, we decided that bermudagrass (Latitude 36) would give superior playing ability and function for the soccer field, taking into account budget and staff. 

Fortunately, I have experience growing bermudagrass in the transition zone, and one of the most important things I learned was to allow for adequate timing for the grow-in period. The other is that when it comes to seeding or planting bermuda sprigs, the hotter the better.

After carefully researching local weather patterns, I discovered that average temperatures are between 80 and 90 degrees from the first week of June to the first week of July, before they slip back down in the mid 80s on average for the rest of the summer. Once we knew the weather pattern, I planned each three segments of the plant life growing cycle: infant stage, adolescence stage and mature stage. 

Risk and reward

We looked at the weather patterns in June, July and August, and found there were 25 days of lost sunshine from either cloudy- or rainy-day events in mid-Ohio. We needed at least six weeks for a grow-in to sprig the field. We did the math, and had a close window with only 2.5 weeks of contingency. We decided we had to have the sprigs in the ground on June 1, 2017.

Grow-in plan

We prepped the field and laser leveled it during the drainage system installation. We changed out all the irrigation I-40 heads to distribute water evenly and uniformly without any mechanical issues once the grow-in started. We tested and ran the systems though five cycles to ensure there were no stuck heads, solenoid issues, etc.  Once the irrigation testing was complete, we waited for the field to dry and added a starter fertilizer and 3-3-3 mycorrhizae fungi to promote growth of the stolons and rhizomes. It normally takes a year to establish healthy rhizomes underneath the soil, so this was like giving it a jump-start. We also applied some sulfur to adjust the pH, and added calcium to aid in unlocking the micronutrients.

Week one: 3-3-3. Myco-Replenish, SOLU-CAL and 11-52-0 starter fertilizer. 

Week two: 46-0-0 

Week three: Replenish; Apply 8-2-2 and rotary mow 1.25”

Week four: Apply Revolver herbicide with liquid fertilizer 12-0-0 12 percent N, 6 percent Fe and 2 percent Mn

Week five: Apply: 46-0-0 to fill in the dead spots from broadleaf and grassy weeds and start reel mowing three times a week.

Week six: Start reel mowing three times a week. 

Maintenance plans 

Growing bermudagrass in the Midwest is lot different than growing bermuda in Maryland’s transition zone – the transition zone is far more forgiving. We have started to notice during the past few years that in the month of August the field was looking superb compared to the previous months of May, June, and July. We were finding the ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) were slowing down the recovery of the bermuda in the months of June and July, but in August the grass responded great. We changed our maintenance program base to align with the UV index. We use the UV Index Now app. This app is nothing more than a program that lets you know when to apply sunscreen to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays, but when the index is high – around 8 to10 – it can also cause physical damage to leaf surfaces that inhibit the photosynthesis and transpiration processes. We had a lot of success using the following plan:

    UV index                                       Maintenance plan 

Low              0-2Verticut and over seed field with perennial ryegrass 
Moderate      3-5Mow, fertilize, aerate, top dress
High             6-7Mow, syringe lightly, spoon feed liquid fertilizer and apply Revolver herbicide
Very High    8-10Syringe lightly and mow frequently. Apply turf screen and spoon feed liquid fertilizer
Extreme       11 +Syringe lightly and mow frequently. Apply turf screen and spoon feed liquid fertilizer

This UV plan has worked well for us during the past few years. Just remember to account for cloudy days, and do not forget to apply approximately three to five pounds of potassium (K) in the growing months before the cold sets in. This will give your field a sufficient amount of carbohydrate reserved for the spring when you take off your winter blanket. 

Kevin Mercer, CSFM, CGM, LICM, is grounds and landscape manager at Denison University, Granville, Ohio.

Photos provided by Kevin Mercer, CSFM, CGM