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Take steps to protect turf on heavily-used sports fields

Managing a heavily-used athletic field can be a daunting task. While you may do your best to limit the number of events, the reality is, many times your field will host more activities than it can handle under normal maintenance practices. Intensive use can put turfgrass under a lot of stress. It is essential to optimize turfgrass health to reduce the amount of stress plants experience and provide the best possible field conditions.


Do mow at the proper height using sharp blades

Cool-season grasses should be mowed at 2 to 3 inches. Common bermudagrass should be mowed at 1.5 to 2 inches and hybrid bermudagrass should be mowed at 0.5 to 1 inch. Whether you are using a reel or rotary mower, mowing with sharp blades will result in a clean cut and a healthy plant. Dull mower blades stunt growth and tear leaf blades, weakening the turf and opening it up to pests.

Do test your soil

Soil testing provides important information about the soil that allows you to build an effective fertility program. Test the soil on a routine basis - every 1 year for highly maintained turfgrass areas and every 2-3 years for lower maintenance areas. Testing every 1-3 years allows managers to keep track of nutrients in the soil and ensure plants are receiving the nutrition needed.

Do apply ample nitrogen for growth and recovery at the proper time of year

Cool-season turfgrasses generally need 4-7 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 square feet each year. The best time to fertilize cool-season grasses is in the spring and fall. Higher maintenance areas may receive light nitrogen applications throughout the summer months. Warm-season turfgrasses should receive a minimum of 1 lb of nitrogen per 1000 square feet each month of the growing season. Warm-season grasses should be fertilized in the late spring, summer, and early fall.

Do regularly overseed your field in order to reduce thin and bare areas

Seed that is spread before use will be worked into the soil by athletes’ cleats. You will build up a “seed bank” that will continually replace ripped-out plants with new seedlings. The more seed you put down, the more turf cover you will have. Best results occur when at least 30 lbs of seed per 1000 square feet per year is applied. After each game, fill in divots with a mix of sand, organic fertilizer, and seed.

Do use several aeration methods

Aeration is key to proper turf maintenance, There are multiple methods including hollow tine aeration, solid tine aeration, deep tine aeration, verticutting, slicing, spiking and water injection. In the offseason, hollow tine aeration provides the most benefit to turfgrass plants and the rootzone by relieving compaction and allowing air, water, and nutrients to penetrate the soil. During the playing season, use an aeration method that causes limited surface disruption such as solid tine aeration, deep tine aeration, verticutting, slicing, spiking, or water injection. Solid tine aeration does not remove soil cores so compaction is unaffected, but using solid tines does increase oxygen levels and water infiltration. Deep tine aeration penetrates to depths of up to 16 inches and fractures the soil below the surface, increasing soil oxygen.


Do not remove more than 1/3 of the grass blade in a single mowing

Removing more than 1/3 of the leaf blade can result in poor plant health and growth. Mowing frequently, 2-3 times per week during the growing season, will keep plants within acceptable height ranges, improve turf density, and enhance overall field conditions.

Do not topdress with material that does not match the soil particle size of the current rootzone

If topdressing material does not match, problems such as layering can occur. Layering is a result of introducing different particle sizes into the rootzone and can impede root growth as well as water and nutrient availability. When used appropriately, topdressing can improve turfgrass recovery and wear tolerance, and reduce the rate of grass cover loss on high use fields.

Do not seed with the wrong species

Perennial ryegrass is the best choice for in-season overseeding because it germinates and matures quickly. Kentucky bluegrass should only be overseeded when there is sufficient time for the plants to mature (several seasons without field use). Under most circumstances, high-use fields should be seeded with perennial ryegrass.

Do not let compaction become a problem

Compaction increases surface hardness, reduces pore space, limits root growth, and slows water infiltration. Plants growing in compacted soils are characterized by thin, stunted shoot growth and thin, shallow root systems. Poor root growth decreases the plant’s ability to access and take up necessary nutrients and water. Aerifying several times per year will help combat compaction problems, making the field safer and healthier. Other methods to reduce compaction include shifting, rotating, or relocating fields, using lightweight, mobile goal posts that can be rotated to different areas of the field, and also designating fields as game fields or practice fields to reduce the amount of damage caused to game fields.

Do not treat high wear areas the same as the rest of the field

Areas that receive the most traffic on athletic fields include goal mouths and between the hashmarks. High wear areas need additional attention to keep them safe and in good playing condition. When overseeding, spread additional seed on high-wear areas to reduce bare spots. Aerate high traffic areas more frequently to relieve compaction. Plan fertilization and irrigation carefully to ensure it contributes to the growth and repair of the area.

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Managing a heavily-used field is not easy. However, by improving cultural practices such as mowing, fertilization, aerification, topdressing, and overseeding, you can overcome many of the challenges brought about by field over-use.

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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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