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Prepare sports fields for the harsh winter to prevent damage

The fall sports season is ending and it is time to prepare your sports field for winter weather conditions. Implement the following tips to reduce winter damage and set your athletic surface up for success in the spring.


Do hollow tine aerify on cool-season fields

Aeration is important to relieve compaction, increase water infiltration and increase oxygen flow to the root zone. Due to the amount of surface disruption caused by hollow tine aeration, wait until after the fall sports season. Even if turfgrass is dormant, aerify with hollow tines instead of waiting until spring when the field could be waterlogged from spring rains.

Do over seed and / or sod to repair bare or thin areas on the field

Be sure to seed large, worn out areas like the center of the football field. When the weather begins to get warmer, seeds will germinate and start to fill in bare areas and increase turfgrass density. You should sod smaller, worn out areas such as soccer, field hockey or lacrosse goalmouths. As soon as the weather warms, the sod will begin rooting.

Do apply top-dressing

Applying topdressing following hollow tine aerification will contribute to improved field conditions in the spring. On native soil fields, consider applying compost as topdressing material. On sand-based fields, top-dress with sand that matches the particle size distribution of the existing rootzone.

Do lower your mowing height

Lowering mowing height is typically discouraged due to the stress it causes turfgrass plants. However, going into the winter, lowering the mowing height (but still staying within the recommended tolerance range for the turfgrass species) can reduce the chances for snow mold outbreaks and damage.

Do consider growth covers

Growth covers create a greenhouse-like effect that allows seed to germinate and turfgrass to grow during the winter. Growth covers will be especially beneficial in high-wear areas that have just been seeded.


Do not apply excessive amounts of nitrogen late in the season

Cool-season fields experience a flush of growth in the early fall and will benefit from nitrogen applications in September and October. With the onset of colder temperatures, do not apply excessive amounts of quick-release nitrogen within a few weeks before the first expected frost. Applying too much quick-release nitrogen could result in extremely lush plants that are more susceptible to cold. On warm-season fields, plant growth slows with cooler fall temperatures. Nitrogen applications should be reduced, but not eliminated, with the final nitrogen application-taking place about 30 days before the first expected frost. Excessive nitrogen on Bermuda grass fields can lead to increased potential for leaching due to reduced plant growth and nitrogen uptake, and potential for winter damage.

Do not neglect baseball and softball infield areas

Even though baseball and softball fields are not used in the fall, preparing them for spring will put you ahead on your maintenance plans. Prepare the pitcher’s mound and home plate area and then cover each with a tarp. Use silt fence or 2 x 4 boards along the edges of the infield skin to prevent wind-blown infield dirt from forming a lip between the skinned area and the turfgrass.

Do not use aggressive cultural practices on Bermuda grass

Waiting until the fall can increase potential for winter damage. If the field is overseeded with cool-season grasses, avoid verticutting and / or slit seeding. Even though the Bermuda grass is going dormant, it still provides a good playing surface.

Do not spray the wrong herbicide on Bermuda grass fields

Pre-emergence herbicides can be applied to Bermuda grass fields in the late fall to control spring weeds. However, if the field is overseeded with cool-season grasses, spraying a pre-emergence herbicide will prevent seed germination. Non-selective herbicides can also be used to control winter weeds and remove overseeded grass in the spring. Bermuda grass must be completely dormant when spraying a non-selective herbicide.

Do not allow traffic if there is frost present

Frosted turfgrass means the water inside the leaves is frozen. When the water is frozen, traffic on the turfgrass causes the ice crystals in the cells to puncture through cell walls, killing the plant tissue. If the frost is heavy and the turfgrass experiences traffic, cell disruption may occur at the crown and kill the entire plant. Delay field uses until frost has melted, or consider covering the field with tarps when frost is predicted.

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Even though turfgrass is not actively growing during cold winter months, that doesn’t mean it will not benefit from practices which prepare it for harsh winter weather and the upcoming spring. Being smart about the type and timing of cultural practices will benefit athletic surfaces throughout the year. Winter field preparation helps you stay ahead on your maintenance plan as well as achieve a healthy, well-performing playing surface.

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Kristen AlthouseEducation Manager

Kristen Althouse is the Education Manager for the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). A Penn State graduate with a B.S. in Turfgrass Science and an M.Ed. in Agricultural and Extension Education, Kristen focuses on the educational needs of t...

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