Natural turfgrass areas are used extensively for recreation and sports, as well as providing places where adults, kids and pets can spend time outside the home. Green spaces have been shown to provide a variety of health benefits related to improving well-being and reducing stress by lowering blood pressure, reducing muscle tension related to stress, improving attention and reducing feelings of fear and anger or aggression. Outdoor recreational activities provide children and adults leisure time in a positive and safe environment. Providing places for recreation is especially important with about 80 million people in the U.S. over the age of seven playing sports on turfgrasses.
Managers for natural grass surfaces are responsible for proper maintenance activities to ensure the health and safety of these recreational areas. Recently, Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) released a Route to Recovery Guide, as well as part two of the Route to Recovery Guide, that covers many topics that can help guide staff through field maintenance concerns. These guides cover many of the challenges that maintenance staff may encounter with fields that have not been maintained due to COVID-19 and how staff can navigate these challenges. Included in the Recovery Guide is this great infographic that shows best practices to keep in mind, and can help with determining priorities as our industry begins to face budget cuts due to the economic slowdown caused by the crisis. As park and recreation professionals begin to reopen many of the facilities they manage, what are the most important maintenance practices that will help fields recover for public use?
The time it takes for your athletic field to recover after COVID-19 will depend on several factors, but the two most pressing would be:
- Maintenance practices that were allowed or performed (if any) during the period of physical distancing
- The level of growth on the athletic field
Here are some of the most critical practices to use to get your field back in shape:
Returning a field to a reasonable height of cut will need to be one of the first tasks to accomplish in the road to recovery. A standard rule in the industry for moderately to intensively maintained turfgrass is to never remove more than 1/3 of the grass blade in a single mowing. Removing more than this results in physiological stress and possible heat or cold injury. If the athletic field was not mowed and excessive growth occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, the field should slowly be brought back down to the normal height of cut if there is adequate time. This may take several weeks or months depending on growth levels.
Turfgrass fertilization is one of the most important cultural practices needed to promote recovery and maintain a healthy, dense stand of turfgrass. When grass is actively growing is the ideal time to optimize the turfgrass response to a fertilizer application. Soil test results will tell you how much fertilizer to apply for nutrients other than nitrogen, and while many soil test reports will not contain soil nitrogen levels, they will provide a recommendation for how much nitrogen to apply and when to treat. As a rule of thumb, most state extension recommendations suggest readily available nitrogen (water-soluble) should be in the range of 0.7 to 1 lb. nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. per active growing month.
Turfgrass plants need an inch of moisture per week to sustain active growth. If irrigation is an option, the field may need more frequent irrigation during the recovery period. This will help reduce stress related to the turfgrass being brought back down to the proper height of cut as well as reduce heat and drought stress. Similarly, if some spots on the field need seed, you may need to supply water from irrigation in frequent small amounts while the seed germinates.
A playing surface covered in weeds can disrupt the appearance and safety of maintained turfgrass surfaces. In addition, they compete with desired turfgrasses for space, water, nutrients and light. If weed populations have exceeded the threshold set in your IPM plan, consider finding the best herbicide to control the weeds present at your facility. Make sure to read and follow the label for control of these weeds, especially if there are temperature restrictions on the label.
This may seem like an insurmountable effort in front of you, but once regular maintenance resumes, many of these practices will quickly fall into a routine. Communicate with end-users regularly about the importance to get the field maintenance under control before resuming use. Using a field prematurely will cause excessive wear and damage, resulting in an unsafe playing surface. Also, don’t forget to reach out to STMA members for advice on various questions that may pop up, as they are probably working through the same issues as you are.
James Bergdoll, CFSM, is the Director of Parks Maintenance, City of Chattanooga Public Works. Other contributors to this article are Adam Thomas, Ph.D., Iowa State University; Grady Miller, Ph.D., NC State University; Nick Christians, Ph.D., Iowa State University; and the Sports Turf Managers Association.