Integrating Assessments into a Municipal/School Grounds Management Program
By Victoria Wallace and Alyssa Siegel-Miles
Assessment tools are important components of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan for sports fields and landscaped areas on municipal and school properties. Assessment tools can help guide sports field and grounds managers to achieve the goals of their management program.
Similar, proactive evaluation methods are commonly used by businesses, teachers and other education professionals, including standardized testing to determine the effectiveness of their practices/programs. Students may utilize them to help match their interests with potential career paths. Turfgrass professionals already use tools like soil tests, STMA’s Playing Conditions Index (PCI) Index, or similar university-developed assessments, such as those developed by University of Connecticut (UConn), Cornell, or Ohio State Extension programs to monitor and support maintenance practices. Data collected from these evaluations often provide answers to important questions (e.g., “Is the playing surface safe?” or, “Does the fertility program need to be adjusted?”). These answers may impact decisions about turfgrass health/field care or have financial/budgetary implications.
In 2010, Connecticut law banned the use of EPA-registered pesticides on the grounds of daycare facilities and schools of grades K-8, becoming one of the first states with a pesticide ban. Since 2010, several states have seen an increase in legislation introduced to restrict pesticide use at the state, county or municipal levels. This legislation compelled Connecticut school grounds managers (SGM) to think proactively and make fundamental changes to re-prioritize their management practices. Given the drastic changes in maintenance protocol, municipal SGM had no mechanism to evaluate sports field playing surface conditions or the quality of landscapes that often are also part of their management responsibilities.
In response to the pesticide ban, members of both the UConn Extension turfgrass faculty and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) partnered with representatives of several municipal associations to form the Connecticut School IPM Coalition. UConn Extension faculty, who served on the coalition, created the Athletic Field Assessment Tool and Landscape Assessment Tool, which generate quantitative data to evaluate the health of both natural turfgrass athletic fields and plants in school landscapes to help SGM identify necessary maintenance practices to sustain plant health.
The Connecticut pesticide ban negatively impacted playing surface quality of sports fields and the aesthetics of school landscapes throughout the state. Weed management has consistently ranked as the top pest management concern for school grounds managers since the ban was enacted (Bartholomew et al., 2015). Many schools and municipalities lack the budgetary means to support the additional labor and alternative (often more costly) products required to successfully implement a pesticide-free management program. The ban severely reduced control options for many turfgrass pests, and provided few alternatives to support conventional care of the school athletic fields and grounds. Few managers implemented some of the pesticide-free management options, due to lack of irrigation or cost/labor concerns, and many exerted minimal effort toward maintenance. As a result, some schools experienced catastrophic grub damage and subsequent field closures. Those schools were forced to seek alternative locations for athletic activities, often moving games to municipal fields that had improved playing surfaces – attributed, in part, to continued pesticide use. Budget limitations forced many SGM to prioritize the maintenance of athletic fields based on field usage and to limit maintenance on non-priority turfgrass areas.
UConn Extension faculty launched a multi-year evaluation project to assess the conditions of school grounds/athletic fields using two assessment tools. This approach helped document the impact of the pesticide ban on field/landscape management changes and subsequent quality. Twenty-five school districts in Connecticut agreed to participate in the assessment project, which was supported through a USDA NIFA Extension IPM grant. Over the course of three growing seasons (2015-2017), two project assistants traveled each year to the 25 school districts, from May through August, and met with the respective SGM to assess the health of the sports fields and landscapes. One assistant evaluated athletic fields and supported training for utilizing the athletic field assessment form, while the other evaluated the landscapes and supported training for utilizing the landscape assessment form. Data collected during the 3-year project were analyzed, organized and evaluated. Sports fields were qualitatively assessed for several parameters, including percent cover/turf density, smoothness, and surface rating (stones, depressions, weeds) to generate an overall turfgrass condition rating. Each parameter was assigned a numerical value to a given management practice or field condition. All parameters were combined (percent cover/turf density, smoothness, and surface rating [stones, depressions, weeds]) to generate an overall turfgrass condition rating. This produced a numerical rating that quantified overall field conditions and turfgrass quality of natural grass playing surfaces. The landscape assessment form quantified the health of landscape beds using numerical metrics for cultural practices, including fertilizer, irrigation, pest management practices and observable health of plants in the landscape.
Results of the 3-year project validated turfgrass research conducted at UConn and other land grant universities, and supported recommendations by UConn turfgrass faculty in Best Management Practices for Pesticide-Free, Cool-Season Athletic Fields (Henderson et al., 2014) for the consistent use of several important cultural practices on natural sports fields maintained pesticide-free. Important cultural management practices, such as irrigation, fertilization, cultivation and overseeding were shown to be critical practices to maintain safe, uniform playing surfaces. For example, in an athletic field managed pesticide-free, turfgrass quality improves with increased applications of fertilizer and additional cultivation and overseeding events (Figures 1, 2, and 3). Irrigated K-8 sports fields had improved turfgrass establishment and improved overall turfgrass quality, while non-irrigated fields experienced a greater loss of vegetative cover and increased playing surface hardness. Assessments also enabled us to document the prevalent weed populations in each field. White clover and annual bluegrass predominated in irrigated fields, while non-irrigated fields exhibited extensive populations of prostrate knotweed, crabgrass and goosegrass.
For landscape areas, the data generated by the assessment tool helped grounds managers assess the health of plants in the landscape setting, identify potential human health and safety concerns, and improve the function or visual appearance of the school property. Attractive, uncluttered landscaping on school properties reduces stress and improves the quality of life for school faculty, staff and students (Dyment and Bell, 2007). Grounds managers that successfully adapted to pesticide-free management programs often elected to reduce the size and scope of large landscaped areas, which are very labor intensive to maintain. Some schools increased the size of turfgrass areas, often establishing turfgrass right up to the school foundation. This enables mowing as a less labor-intensive maintenance practice, compared to hand weeding landscape beds. While plants identified to be invasive were often commonly used as primary focal point plants (e.g., Japanese barberry, burning bush, privet), many grounds managers were beginning to include native plants in pollinator gardens and in general landscape areas. It was noted, however, that removal of invasive plants was done as a means to reduce tedious, labor-intensive maintenance tasks, rather than just the desire to replace invasive plants with native plants. When possible, in newly configured landscape areas, SGM often began to select plants with a wider range of flowering times, to expand visual aesthetic interest in spring and fall, coinciding with the time school is in session, rather than the summer off-season. This not only extends the forage season for pollinators, it also provides students with greater educational opportunities to learn about pollinator health.
Consistent use of assessment forms as record-keeping tools supports IPM protocol for any school or municipality that requires an annually updated IPM plan. Data collected from assessments may be used to help develop or amend the IPM plan to support best management practices, set action thresholds, and monitor for pests. Assessment forms can document remediation protocol or help determine needed preventive measures to support turfgrass and general plant health care.
Assessment tools can help SGMs achieve several important objectives:
1. Skillfully articulate the maintenance required to sustain safe playing surfaces.
2. Gather data to effectively communicate with constituents (such as the value of grounds managers in maintaining safe playing surfaces and the priority of field safety). Extension faculty can help craft talking points to support communication with the public about the protocol required for maintenance of natural turfgrass sports fields and school landscapes.
3. Provide data that can help SGMs advocate for increased finances to support sports field maintenance or to document practices impacted by legislative regulations, although the message may change depending on who is the intended receiver of the message (e.g., athletic director, finance director, community members).
4. In states or municipalities where pesticides are not (yet) prohibited, assessments can provide documented, comprehensive baseline data. In the event that maintenance changes are required in the future, grounds managers can better assess the effect of those changes by comparing assessments with historical baseline data.
Grounds and sports field managers face many challenges to providing safe playing fields and weed-free attractive landscapes that enhance the community’s quality of life. Tools like assessments, which can form the basis of communication to administrators and the public, are invaluable for enabling grounds managers’ efforts to be accurately conveyed.
Victoria Wallace serves as the state extension educator of sustainable landscapes for the University of Connecticut. With focus a on sustainable turf and landscape practices, she works closely with municipal and school grounds managers who require pesticide-free management programs to maintain their athletic fields and grounds. Wallace currently serves as chair of STMA’s BMP Task Force and co-chair of the STMA Environment Committee.
Alyssa Siegel-Miles is a research technician for UConn Extension’s Sustainable Landscape Program. She served as the assessment specialist for the landscape assessment component of this IPM project.