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Selecting the Perfect Turf for Your Sports Surface

Bruce F. Shank | Landscape





To stand out in any field today you must have something unique or exceptional. That's especially true in sports and it carries over for the individual managing the sports turf surface. Any team's record begins with the quality of the field.

You have to challenge the agronomic traditions of turfgrass culture to be unique and exceptional in the turf world. If your primary playing season is not the best for turfgrasses adapted to your region, you will need a few tricks to overcome nature's weaknesses. Baseball in late winter or midsummer, or football and soccer in late autumn are not in synch with nature.

Sports turf managers in the transition zone learn quickly that the bag of turf seed on the shelf at the discount store is not the right choice for their important fields. What grows beautifully on the park district board chairman's front lawn won't survive three weeks of practice in August or one weekend of soccer in November. It takes more thought and more money to provide quality sports turf.

The savior of the new sports turf manager nationwide has been perennial ryegrass. Broadcast it onto fields weekly, keep nutrition up, schedule irrigation wisely, mow with sharp blades, and you might be surprised at the results. Perennial ryegrass should be in every sports turf manager's bag of tricks. Not all cultivars perform equally as far as heat and wear tolerance.

As always, check the performance of possible turfgrasses in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Trials (NTEP). There are 30 plus locations across the country growing advanced turfgrass cultivars to judge regional strengths and weaknesses. Call your local extension agent for more information.

At one time, perennial rye grasses were considered inferior to Kentucky bluegrasses in winter hardiness, mowing quality, and general color. That gap has narrowed with the contributions of turfgrass breeders around the country. Price differential between old and advanced cultivars is not great.

Don't give up on Kentucky bluegrass. It remains the predominant spreading cool-season turfgrass and it still sets the standard for attractive color and texture. You need the mat developed by blue grasses because rye grasses and tall fescues do not spread. This mat protects the crowns of both the permanent species and the temporary species. It also provides a safety cushion for athletes and gives the soil greater integrity and resistance to tearing by cleats or impact.

Kentucky bluegrasses take longer to establish than perennial ryegrasses. The two work well together when the bluegrass and the ryegrass are encouraged to rebuild at the appropriate times. Get traffic off main baseball fields in the fall and football fields in the spring to give the spreading turf a chance to rebuild its mat and density. You might be able to save a bad field with perennial ryegrasses in three or four weeks, but it will not have the cushion and integrity provided by the bluegrass' rhizomes. Use practice fields in the fall and summer to allow the Kentucky bluegrass to regenerate on main fields.

The other option is to resod each year with the permanent turf to restore a nice base for perennial ryegrass. Fields that must be used most of the year can't recover fully without either a rest or a new base of sod. No amount of fertilizer or water will change that.

The story is similar for bermuda grass and perennial rye grass. The primary difference is the bermuda excels in the summer and is ready for the fall football season.

However, when temperatures drop below the 60s, bermuda grass wants to go dormant. Again, enter perennial rye grass that germinates in 10 days and thrives into the 45 degree range.

When the football season is over, restrict use of the field to allow the bermuda to rebuild. You need the base it provides even with the ryegrass cover. Resod with the bermuda in late spring if necessary. You should also consider the improved common bermuda grasses. They are coarser than the leading vegetative bermuda grasses, but they can be reestablished by seed as temperatures begin to stay above the 80s.

Tall fescues are the back-up turf in the transition zone and in the warm-season zones in the winter. Unlike rye grasses, they need months to establish to protect their crowns and establish root and foliage density. Density is important since they are bunch-type grasses. Mowing is perhaps the most important factor, because texture is influenced by height of cut. Mow weekly if you don't want the stand to get stemmy and coarse. Dwarf versions of tall fescue are popular to overcome this tendency.

Kentucky blue grasses resembling tall fescues are now available to provide a more durable surface than one or the other. The catch is you must allow time for establishment. Playing on immature stands will not provide the potential durability. Patience can provide rewards.

Lawn care is much different than sports turf care. Unless you are talking about a golf course rough, cutting heights need to be well below two inches. The more competitive the level of sports, the shorter the height of cut, down to 3/4-inch in some stadiums. Mowing frequency should be at least twice a week to develop density and build a low, tight stand.

You can never stop mowing for weeks or months out of season. If you do, you will loose the edge you had. If you do raise heights to encourage deeper rooting, bring the height down a little each mowing to avoid scalping and plant stress.

Speed, bounce and traction are critical. The density and integrity of the turf and the smoothness of the surface make the difference. Properly timed verticutting and topdressing are an important part of maintaining field smoothness. You must do both to achieve turf vigor and assure field smoothness. You can?t solve all problems with a particular turfgrass cultivar.

Turfgrass breeders have spent their lives selecting and increasing production of superior sports turf varieties. Sod producers select the best of these for their fields. But, remember it probably takes two to do the job today as the playing season extends beyond the growing season.


 
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