Use This Time to Get Your Fields Ready for Play

By Mary Helen Sprecher

Everyone’s hoping for greener pastures in the months to come. For the moment, however, many states are in lockdown and schools are closed. The question, of course, becomes this: what’s happening with sports fields – or, rather, what should be happening with them? 

Most sports fields are sitting idle until teams return to practice and play on them. So what should you be doing to keep them in shape for when they are open for business?

Basic maintenance is the key. If maintenance crews in your state are considered essential employees, the shutdown shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle. 

In some states, under current regulations, contractors can do maintenance work (but not new construction), so, understandably, the scope of work that can be done in each individual case may vary greatly. However, all red lights must turn green at some point, and it is necessary to get facilities into the best possible shape for the time athletes can return. 

Whether you’re able to have a crew come in or whether you’re limited in the scope of work that can be performed, basic maintenance is possible.

No matter what type of field you have, take some time to check the condition of the field’s various amenities, such as lighting, irrigation and fencing. If something is broken or malfunctioning, put in a service call now. When fields open for play, it’s likely that vendors will be inundated with service requests and may not be able to get to you right away.

Synthetic fields might not need mowing or weeding but they still require touch-up work to keep them in good shape. Keep debris, including leaves, twigs and other matter to a minimum by using a lawn sweeper or leaf blower.

“It is still important to brush the field on occasion,” said Rick Barstow of The Motz Group in Cincinnati, Ohio. “This will provide the opportunity for uniform UV exposure to the turf fiber, and prevent any potential vegetative growth.”

Walk the field, slowly and carefully, looking at the surface at all times. You’re checking for irregularities – low spots, areas of wetness and other places where the turf does not look uniform. If you find those spots, document them “in writing, with pictures,” said John Schedler of Bakara Sports in Fort Worth, Texas. “Check infill levels and fiber conditions.”

“Infill depths can be monitored with an infill depth gauge,” said Barstow. “The proper infill depth is based upon the design of the system that is installed. Contact your turf manufacturer for these recommendations. Base deviations should be addressed by your turf installation contractor. Seam repairs should be documented and are typically addressed by the turf installation contractor. This is something that the owner can be trained on. It is important to use the proper turf recommended materials while conducting the repairs (glue and seaming tape).”

Irrigate the fields and let them drain. Does water collect in any one spot? If so, snap a picture and ask your contractor for recommendations on how to proceed. It may be a quick fix – or something that requires professional intervention.

And no matter how much time you have on your hands, don’t embark on any DIY repairs without consulting your paperwork.

“Check the warranty language in your contract for any work performed on your field outside of general maintenance (grooming, infill additions, debris),” said Barstow.

“The owner doesn’t want to risk violating any provisions within the warranty,” added Schedler. “And it’s also very important to follow the warranty requirements for maintenance and repair.”

If you’re considering using a disinfectant, algaecide or other chemical on any synthetic field, check with the turf manufacturer first since not all substances work for all field types.

Natural grass fields of any type will need mowing, irrigation and weed and pest control, as a rule. They should also be kept free of debris – both organic (leaves, pinecones, twigs, etc.) and inorganic (litter) – for the health of the turf and the safety of players when they return.

If the care of the field doesn’t usually fall to you, it still needs care.

“It would be impossible to simply walk away from a natural grass sports field for many weeks and expect that it can be brought back to game-ready condition over the course of a couple days or even a week,” said Sam Titchener, CFB, of Colony Landscape, San Jose, Calif. “As far as basic maintenance goes, it is imperative that the field be getting mowed at least once per week. If the turf stand goes too long without being mowed, it will grow long enough to where it can’t be mowed down to its regular playing height without being scalped.”

The problem won’t get better with time, he added; in fact, it will get worse. “In particular, hybrid bermudagrass fields are going to start getting a lot of vegetative top growth as the days get warmer,” said Titchener. “One of the characteristics that makes bermudagrass such a desirable turf species for sports fields is that it is dense at low cutting heights and has a tight-knit network of stolons, which allow great footing while playing sports. However, if allowed to grow vertically, bermudagrass will grow thinner, taller shoots, and will have a significantly less dense network down near the thatch and soil layer.

“Later on when we come and mow the field down to normal playing heights, we would find a surface that is no longer dense enough to be ideal for playing on. For this reason, it is important to be at least mowing once a week. Another option to consider is the application of a plant growth regulator (PGR). Turf managers have had a lot of success using products containing active ingredient trinexapac-ethyl. These products encourage horizontal growth of rhizomes and stolons, and limit vertical growth. This PGR will allow turf managers to mow less frequently while still maintaining a dense healthy turf stand. A licensed applicator must be used to purchase and apply plant growth regulators.”

And care doesn’t stop there, Titchener added. “It is also important to keep an eye on disease and pest pressure. Before mowing, the field should be inspected for any signs of disease or pests. If allowed to go unchecked, an entire field can be lost to diseases/pests, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. It may be worthwhile to maintain an existing pesticide program or introduce new fungicide and pesticide programs.”

The fact that a field owner, coach or athletic director has limited time is understandable – as long as some of that time is devoted to the field. One day per week can make a huge difference if you plan your time well, making it a priority to inspect the field for pests and other issues, and apply any treatments to encourage healthy growth, in addition to mowing. 

“For baseball and softball fields, it will be important to keep an eye on skinned areas such as the infield, warning tracks and pitching mounds,” said Titchener. “Clay areas such as mounds and batters boxes should be kept tarped to maintain the integrity and moisture of the clay. Infields and warning tracks should be kept weed free. For infields and warning tracks that have already been completely overgrown with weeds, I have had a lot of success using a sod cutter to cut weeds out of a large area of weeds in skinned areas.”

If it all sounds like too much work, Titchener has a cautionary scenario: “If fields are left unchecked for too long, they may no longer be easily salvageable, and turf managers must look at more involved processes to get fields playable by the time sports return to the facility.” (These may include ripping out the field and re-sodding it at a tremendous cost).

Mary Helen Sprecher wrote this article on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality construction of many sports facilities, including sports fields. To get up to speed on all the aspects of sports field care, ASBA publishes Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, an excellent resource with extensive (but user-friendly) information on design, construction, maintenance, repair, accessories, amenities and more. The book is available from the ASBA website and can be purchased in either hard copy or as a downloadable pdf.