The following sustainable landscaping best management practices are excerpted from SFMA’s National BMP guide, Best Management Practices for the Sports Field Manager: A Professional Guide for Sports Field Management. The full guide, as well as a customizable BMP template, is available at https://www.sportsfieldmanagement.org/knowledge_center/bmps/.
While care of sports fields is the highest priority for sports field managers, native areas may also be an important component of sports field managers’ responsibilities. Landscaped and natural areas provide additional recreational opportunities, such as areas and paths for walking, wildlife habitat, and natural buffers that help delineate field or property boundaries, while also moderating external noise. Maintaining these aesthetically pleasing areas for the safety of recreational users and as sustainably as possible is economically advantageous and supports biodiversity. Developing or expanding naturalized areas may also reduce dependence on water, chemical, and fuel inputs, while allowing more intensive maintenance to be reserved for areas dedicated to sports (Lyman et al., 2007; Gross and Eckenrode, 2012).
Facilities with additional acreage can provide an ideal opportunity for environmental stewardship and conservation. Vegetated areas with a greater diversity of plant species support wildlife by providing forage and habitat (Tallamy, 2009). Less intensively managed vegetation (e.g., tall grass and naturalized areas) directly correlates with a higher biodiversity for plants, animals and insects (Colding and Folke, 2009; Dobbs and Potter, 2013). Properties can contribute to plant and pollinator diversity by expanding natural habitat throughout the property, both in the native areas and in high-visibility areas, such as the property surrounding outbuildings and parking lots.
Benefits of sustainable areas
An ecosystem with a healthy variety of plants fosters a robust biodiversity of animal and insect species. Plants provide a primary food source and habitat, yield nutrients, improve soil health and produce oxygen. Properties can provide a critical link that connects wildlife corridors by increasing naturally vegetated habitat, including unmown grass and native wildflower meadow areas. Benefits of increasing the sustainability of native areas include:
Attracting beneficial wildlife, supporting pollinator habitat, enhancing biodiversity and creating aesthetic interest that provides year-round visual pleasure for sports enthusiasts using sports fields and users of recreational fields or trails.
Providing an option for native areas that requires fewer non-renewable inputs (fertilizer, water and gasoline) to maintain.
Protecting soils, natural vegetative cover, water resources and water quality.
Increasing plant biomass production than what is found in high maintenance areas (Wissman, 2016).
Sustainable Landscaping Concepts
According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, “sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social, and environmental benefits.”
As land becomes developed, the importance of sustainable landscapes providing these ecosystem services in open, managed tracts of land cannot be overstated. In addition, naturalized areas can offset the higher carbon demands for maintenance activities (such as mowing) as compared with more intensively managed sports fields.
When designing a sustainable landscape, plants should be selected for much more than simple aesthetic value. Native plants should be selected whenever possible as they are already adapted to the existing soil conditions, available water and the microclimate, reducing or eliminating additional inputs of irrigation, fertilizer and soil amendments. Native plants have also evolved in concert with native wildlife and pollinators, providing the foundation of local food webs that enable butterflies, birds and other wildlife to survive. Furthermore, most native herbivorous insects and pollinators are specialists that cannot survive on introduced or exotic plant species.
Sustainable landscape design approaches
Two distinct approaches to sustainable landscape design are as follows:
Traditional Design: Uses native plants as an alternative for introduced or exotic ornamental species in a formal garden, often including mulched landscape beds and lawn areas. Required maintenance is the same as any typical garden area, with possibly reduced irrigation if drought-tolerant plants are used. This type of design is best suited for high-visibility areas, such as around buildings and other areas that provide aesthetic focal points.
Naturalized Design: Uses maturing and evolving native plant communities, such as tall grass, meadow and forested areas. This style is a more viable and cost-effective option in the long term for large tracts of land. Required maintenance is consistent with meadows and periphery areas.
Facility managers seeking to conserve water and protect ecosystems on their properties can incorporate sustainable landscaping GI systems. Green infrastructure is effective, economical, and improves the safety and quality of life through the intentional use of the ecosystem services provided by plants in the managed landscape (EPA, 2017). Green infrastructure conserves, restores, or replicates the natural water cycle by reducing and treating stormwater runoff, thus turning a potential pollutant into an environmental and economic benefit. Green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, cisterns and permeable pavements are examples of GI landscaping.
Sustainable landscaping is part of the required protocol when seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED provides facility owners and operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.
Sustainable high-visibility areas
Landscaping in high-visibility areas around buildings makes a lasting impression on players, sporting event attendees, and the community at large. Sustainable landscaping concepts can be incorporated into these landscaped areas to fulfill both the facility’s environmental commitment and its aesthetic goals in focal areas. Sound design includes the selection of site-appropriate plant cultivars that permit reduced maintenance to remain healthy and attractive. For turfgrass areas, the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, Alliance for Low Input Sustainable Turf and Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance can provide information on improved cultivars of turfgrasses that perform well with fewer inputs.
Whenever new construction or renovation occurs, landscaped areas should be amended to include more native plant material. Incorporating native plants supports a reduced maintenance program that requires less time and expense to maintain. Keys to establishing strong, healthy landscaping plantings are as follows:
Soil testing and modification (if needed).
Weed management during the establishment phase.
Supplemental irrigation to encourage plant establishment (if possible).
In landscaped areas, low-quality, highly disturbed soils promote the growth of weeds, including invasive weeds, that outcompete desired plants. Therefore, soil tests that provide data on nutrient levels and soil structure can provide the information needed to modify soils if warranted, prior to planting, greatly improving the success of these efforts. Weed management during the establishment phase is critical to allow the native plants the chance to establish themselves before competition from weeds decreases the quality and density of the native plantings. Lastly, during establishment, especially during drought, supplemental irrigation helps to promote plant growth. Once established, native plants are acclimated to local climate and conditions.
Sustainable naturalized areas
Sustainable naturalized areas can help managers meet their goals to improve both environmental protection and economic sustainability. While sports fields normally require sufficient irrigation for overall plant health and recovery from wear, other areas of the facility will not need to be as intensely maintained. Facilities that experience increased seasonal water limitations may consider design alterations of non-turfgrass areas to increase or reduce the amount of natural grass areas that require irrigation.
These non-turfgrass areas can also help to restore habitat and increase biodiversity. Conventional landscapes use less than 15 species in an average landscaped lot, while the average undisturbed forest or meadow can support 100 species in the same area. In addition, diverse, multi-storied plantings store more carbon than mown turfgrass areas (Selhort, 2012). Plantings can also be made specifically to support pollinator habitats.
While developing a plan to improve and expand wildlife habitat, existing native habitats should be protected, and existing natural amenities expanded or enhanced. Retain or restore existing native vegetation, where possible. Where appropriate, existing vegetation should be enhanced through the supplemental planting of native species around native areas and water sources. Wet areas and waterways (streams and ponds) should be planted with native wetland vegetation utilized by many wildlife species. Nuisance, invasive and exotic plants should be removed and replaced with native species adapted to the site.
Habitat for pollinators includes foraging habitat, nesting sites, and available water sources. Pollinator-friendly habitat contains a diversity of blooming plants of different colors and heights, with blossoms throughout the entire growing season. Native plants provide the most nutritious food source for native pollinators.
Increasing habitat to meet pollinator needs can be accomplished simply by adding to existing plantings or through more intensive efforts to establish a larger native area. Pollinator habitat includes grassy areas and landscaped areas. Areas renovated specifically with pollinator habitat as a priority includes native plants, wildflowers, and flowering trees and shrubs. To convert existing areas to a new native area, site preparation is key and may require more than one season of effort to reduce competition from invasive or other undesirable plants prior to planting. For more information on establishing a native area, university Extension specialists and published information, such as Making Room for Native Pollinators, can be consulted.
In addition to foraging habitat, pollinators require nesting sites. Providing nesting sites for native species can be accomplished by making simple alterations in landscaped or natural areas, such as:
Leaving exposed patches of bare soil in natural areas.
Leaving dead trees, stumps, and posts.
Planting hollow-stem grass species.
Providing stem bundles of hollow plant stems like bamboo.
Creating bee blocks for solitary nesters such as mason and leafcutter bees.
Creating artificial boxes for bumble bees.
A clean, reliable source of water is another essential habitat consideration for pollinators. Pollinators can use natural and human-made water features such as running water, pools, ponds and small containers of water. Water sources should have a shallow or sloping side, so the pollinators can easily approach the water without drowning. In addition, irrigation management practices that preserve ground nesting pollinators include irrigating in the early morning before pollinators leave their nests to forage and avoiding flooding any areas.
Sports field facilities can make a positive and significant impact on wildlife diversity by creating new habitat corridors or expanding existing corridors. Corridors are areas of habitat physically connecting plant and animal populations that cannot maintain healthy, genetically diverse populations when highly fragmented due to human activities or structures (UC-Davis, 2008). To achieve the goal of creating or expanding corridors, habitat patches can be linked with continuous strips of natural vegetation both within the facility and linking to patches outside the facility boundaries. This increases the area available to native wildlife species.
Invasive species are non-native plants and animals that may negatively affect the environment, human health, and the economy. These species include noxious weeds, non-native insects (such as earthworms and other soil-dwelling pests that may be found in soils and potting media) and some non-native animals. University Extension specialists and publications can provide information on the species that may be found in the region and management steps that may be taken to control their spread.
Unwanted invasive species should be promptly managed to prevent their spread or, where practical, eradicated. Areas of large populations of any unwanted species that is invasive should be delineated and monitored to contain further expansion of these areas, including at new construction sites. Whenever possible, native plants should be used to revegetate disturbed areas. Intentionally planting or propagating certain invasive plants may be in violation of state, regional or local regulations or ordinances.
Meadows/tall grass areas
A meadow is an area of natural grasses and/or native wildflowers that, over time, becomes self-sustaining. Native meadow plants are resilient, are accustomed to the regional climate, and can survive adverse conditions. Meadow plants have adapted to the existing soil conditions, water availability, and microclimate challenges. For example, these plants have a deep-penetrating fibrous root system making them highly drought resistant. Meadows that are successfully incorporated into landscape management programs can reduce some facility maintenance expenses, such as labor for mowing and equipment wear and tear.
In an increasingly developed world, meadows provide valuable habitats for a variety of birds, pollinators, and other wildlife. In addition, community groups are often interested in partnering with facilities in different ways, such as to install, maintain and monitor nesting and roosting sites. For example, meadows provide appropriate habitat for many bird species, such as bluebirds and purple martins. Other ideas that have been implemented at some facilities with community support include the installation of beehives, bat boxes, etc.
Proper site selection, plant selection, site preparation, and maintenance are critical to designing, establishing, and sustaining a flourishing, beautiful meadow. Lists of recommended meadow plants for your region can be obtained from university Extension programs.
Most meadow plants prefer full sun. A substantial portion (about 40%) of a meadow should be comprised of grasses (Zimmerman, 2010), to reduce weed seed germination and establishment surrounding the desired perennial forbs. Time spent on site preparation that eliminates competing vegetation leads to fewer weeds in subsequent years. Soil surface disturbance during site preparation should be minimized whenever possible, to prevent unnecessary weed germination at the soil surface. Less disturbance to the site also maintains soil structure and integrity.
As part of the overall meadow establishment protocol, an effective maintenance plan should be developed before planting and should be implemented for the successful longevity of the meadow. The initial three years of meadow establishment require both patience and focused effort. During establishment, a nurse crop such as a quick-establishing, clump-forming grass can be used to reduce weed invasion, hold the seed or young plants in place, and protect the soil from erosion.
In the first growing season, perennial meadow plants grow slowly, with an average overall height of 2” to 6”, depending on the species. Annual weeds proliferate and grow quickly if given the opportunity. Therefore, regular mowing and spot treating can prevent weeds from growing too tall and outcompeting the desired perennials.
After the first year, maintenance of native areas typically requires annual mowing in late winter or early spring. Annual mowing encourages seed/soil contact of desired wildflowers and grasses, reduces growth of unwanted woody species, and helps to manage weed populations. This maintenance should be timed before the growing season begins.