By Boyd R. Montgomery, CSE, CSFM, and Matt Anderson, CSE, CSFM
When it comes to taking care of fields, there are some situations that sports fields and grounds managers just can’t control, such as weather conditions. However, there are several things field managers can control, such as preparing for those harsh weather conditions that come with winter, and setting their fields up for success for the upcoming spring. Since the fall season signals for a change, field managers can use this time as a buffer to implement proper fall maintenance practices and utilize the right equipment, ensuring that the grass on the fields will have a healthier life in the spring.
When it comes to field management techniques during the fall, standard practices such as fertilization, overseeding, debris management and streamlining irrigation practices are key to the fields’ overall health and vitality before going dormant in the winter.
Fertilizing in the fall helps restock the field’s reservoirs of vital nutrients needed to survive the cold winter, which will help jumpstart the field’s health during the upcoming spring. When it comes to effective fertilization, there is a right way of doing things. Field managers should utilize fast-release fertilizers so their field can quickly take up the nutrients it needs before going dormant in winter. Although the grass needs to actively grow so it will take up the nutrients, the grass can’t be growing excessively to the point that field managers will not be able to stay on top of it during the colder months. Field managers can reach out to their local county extension office in advance for expertise and assistance in the process.
When the temperatures start to cool off, and the grass looks like it could use a boost, overseeding can lend a big hand in helping revive plant growth in areas that need it. Field managers can get the most out of their overseeding program by not just spreading the seeds, but by also prepping and caring for the field before overseeding. Field prep for overseeding relies on the combination of the following field care processes:
• Mow the grass — Cut slightly shorter than usual to give the seed enough sunlight. For this cut, it is best to bag clippings. This ensures the seeds have a clearer path to reach the soil. Stay as consistent as possible on the mowing heights and frequencies throughout the fall until the grass begins to go dormant. While the turfgrass will be slowing down as soil temperatures get closer to dormancy, field managers do not want to risk causing injury to their field by letting the grass get out of hand and then stunting it by cutting more than 1/3 of the grass.
When it comes to cutting the grass, investing in a quality mower is essential to the field’s longevity. Although several types of mowers are viable options for field maintenance in the fall, opting for an out-front rotary mower that does quick work while delivering an exceptional quality of cut would be highly beneficial.
If the rotary mower has an all-wheel-drive system, then field managers can rest assured knowing that they can power through various terrain with increased traction. Field managers can also add year-round versatility by opting for a mower that has an all-season cab option for colder temperatures.
• Remove thatch buildup — For the same reasons as bagging the clippings, it’s also a good idea to rake up thatch to make it easier for the seed to reach the soil. Dethatching can be done manually or by using a power rake.
• Aerate the soil — Aerating the field before overseeding is an essential step. One of the most important things field managers can do to manage compaction and maintain their fields’ health and playability is aerating in the fall on cool-season grass. Doing so loosens the soil, giving the seeds the best chance to take root in the soil.
Seed-to-soil contact is the most important factor in seeding success. Although several styles of aerification units are available, a tractor-mounted aerator is a highly efficient choice for aerating large areas. These units would have a larger aeration swath, which delivers maximum productivity.
• Address soil nutrition— Fall is a good time to have the soil tested for any nutrient deficiencies that may need to be addressed to get the most out of overseeding the turfgrass. Field managers can reach out to their local county extension office in advance for expertise and assistance in the process.
Nothing says fall like a big pile of leaves. Although appealing to look at, these colorful leaves make quite the mess. This is why implementing debris management into the fall maintenance routine is critical for sports field managers. There are several useful equipment options field managers can consider including in their fleet, such as:
• Debris blower – Investing in a versatile debris blower that makes it easy to clear debris, including grass clippings and leaves, is essential to utilize for fields.
• Sweeper/vacuum – If there are large areas with a lot of leaves and debris to clean up, a sweeper/vacuum is also another timesaving investment. A sweeper machine combines a powerful vacuum with precision pickup capabilities and an impressive capacity to get the job done.
Streamline irrigation practices
The fall season is an excellent opportunity to audit irrigation systems to ensure the systems are up to par in every way. After the irrigation system has been audited, the system should be winterized. Irrigation winterization procedures include ensuring that there is no damage to the electrical components, draining all of the water from the system, and removing water from anything connected to the source. Being proactive in the fall during the winterization process not only helps protect the integrity of the irrigation system once it is started up again, but also helps the team manage their workload more effectively, as many teams start to experience an increased workload and a sense of urgency to get the irrigation system up and running at the first sign of a warm-up.
Considerations for fall field maintenance this year
Field usage varies wildly this year over “normal” years, and fall sports are not a certainty in many areas. If field managers don’t have fall field activities, they can optimize timing and possibly be more aggressive in fall prep than they would in a typical year.
Imagine the last day of work this fall is opening day. The condition in which field managers put their fields to bed in fall is what they will be starting with in the spring. Therefore, field managers can use this time for aerification of their fields now to relieve compaction later. Additionally, mounds should be sloped and checked, infields edged, divots filled and seeded, and anything field managers can work ahead on now, they should. If field managers have the ability to tarp their fields or mounds, they should do so as well. However, it’s essential to remember that they need to manage the environment created under tarps as well.
Communication will be key to field managers’ internal and external stakeholders. It’s crucial to discuss the possibilities and realistic expectations with stakeholders due to the limited window with the “new” spring sports season. It’s also essential to understand that internal and external stakeholders may not fully grasp the impact of the changes in the activities on the fields and the lack of staff. It’s up to the field managers to effectively communicate with stakeholders all of the possibilities and jointly agree on priorities and responsibilities.
At the end of the fall season, specific maintenance and storage practices are beneficial to implement to ensure that field managers will have their equipment fleets ready to roll and set for success next spring. Equipment preventive maintenance/service should be a key focus during the winter months. Some equipment maintenance practices to implement include:
• Changing fluids
• Replacing worn hydraulic hoses
• Replacing mowing blades
• Checking air filters and cleaning
• Grinding/sharpening reels or replacing them
• Cleaning and rebuilding painter pumps
When it comes to storage, if the equipment is not stored in a controlled environment and will be exposed to colder temperatures, then it’s crucial to make sure to use a fuel stabilizer to ensure clean and reliable engine performance and protection. Field managers can also use engine heating blankets to help avoid freezing in cold climates.
Winter is also a good time to ensure that record keeping and data are up to date with all equipment asset tracking. Field managers can review the data and build reports that they can utilize to help with replacements. They can also track their repair and maintenance time and replacement part costs.
By implementing these fall maintenance practices, field managers can ensure that their fields and equipment are in tip-top shape in the spring, which will help mitigate many unnecessary spring equipment and field downtime.
Boyd R. Montgomery, CSE, CSFM, is regional business manager, Toro, and Matt Anderson, CSE, CSFM, is district sales manager, Toro.
For additional insight into fall prep for spring success, SportsField Management asked sports field managers for insight into their approach to autumn.
Before we put our cool-season turfgrass to bed, we will raise the mowing height and only mow as needed in the months of October and November when temperatures cool down. We will aerate all of our sports fields in October with one nitrogen application and one potassium application to build up the carbohydrates for quick green green-up in early spring. Before we put our warm-season turfgrass to bed, we apply three to five applications of potassium in late summer, and will stop applying nitrogen in mid September. We will overseed perennial ryegrass heavy in the months of October and November, which gives us a thick stand of ryegrass in early spring when the bermudagrass is dormant. We raised our mowing height from .75″ to 2″ to avoid cutting the bermudagrass if any scrimmage or varsity games need to play on the field in the spring.
– Kevin Mercer CSFM, CGM, grounds and landscape manager at Denison University, Granville, Ohio.
Salesianum School in Wilmington Delaware is a private school for young men in grades 9-12 with a successful athletic program. We manage 7.5 acres of improved turf-type tall fescue/Kentucky bluegrass/poa annua on silt loam soil. There are two multi-purpose fields that are used primarily as practice fields for football and soccer in the fall and baseball and lacrosse in the spring. The fields are also used during the school day for physical education and there are sports camps in the summer. With two portable water reels, we do our best to irrigate, but traffic and field use schedules sometimes present challenges. Fortunately, we have an adequate budget that allows us to provide good cultural practices year round. We mow often – up to three times/week if needed. Fertilization based on soil test results occurs in late August, late September and mid November. We control weeds in mid to late August if needed or if weather permits. In late August, we core aerate and overseed the entire area. Throughout September and October we spot aerate and seed the thin/wear areas. Fall sports preseason usually begins in mid August so by mid October, the fields are showing wear and tear. This is the result of many athletes and not enough space to spread out. Many areas are worn down to bare soil. At this point, we are forced to wait until the season is over to repair, renovate and re-grass. Depending how successful the teams are in the postseason, we sometimes find ourselves re-sodding in December. Last December, we seeded and used turf blankets to cover the middle of the football field. I was impressed and very pleased with the results in the spring. Most normal spring pre-seasons begin the first of March, so it is important to repair the practice football fields and soccer pitches, because in the spring they become lacrosse pitches and baseball fields. Both of our multi-purpose fields have baseball diamonds, so it is critical to give each sport the safest, most playable conditions we can so that they can begin their season.
– Don Savard, CSFM, CGM, athletic facilties and grounds manager, Salesianum School
We do a very proactive aeration program to all our fields starting the second week in August. We concentrate on all our irrigated sites first, then move off to the non-irrigated areas. Using the information from our soil tests, we then we will do our late summer fertilization. A heavy overseeding/slice seeding to all the worn areas from the past spring and summer sports (no worn areas this year due to COVID issues). We slice seed all our dedicated sports fields. We will do another fertilization application first week in October. We broadcast seed and slice seed in middle of November on our football fields and soccer goalmouth hoping to cleat in seed for the early spring start to baseball. We will do our cutouts, grading and filling in of all the baseball/softball fields in October/November before the frost to get them ready for spring sports.
– Chris McGinty, superintendent of parks maintenance and cemeteries, City of Framingham, Mass.