An even field with manicured grass is essential for a fast-paced sporting event, but the health and safety of the players is no game.
When a new law limited methods for managing turf on school athletic fields and landscapes, researchers responded with new options to keep youth at play on quality turf.
In 2010, the state of Connecticut banned the use of most lawn care pesticides at public and private schools serving eighth-grade students and younger. That left turf managers without some of their usual methods for protecting turf from invasive weeds, diseases and insects.
“Extension research at University of Connecticut provides a scientific base for turf managers to operate within the context of the law but still have healthy turf that makes it possible for students and schools to have safe outdoor playing facilities,” says Michael O’Neill, associate dean and associate director of UConn Extension. “Innovations keep coming from our research, and that’s where Extension really makes a difference.”
When school grounds managers contacted UConn Extension’s turf educator Vickie Wallace for help, she was ready and responded with science-backed answers. UConn Extension’s proven approaches to overseeding, weather station data use and genetic diversity of grass species are now widely adopted.
And UConn Extension continues to deliver. UConn researcher and professor Jason Henderson has a third patent pending on a machine that mechanically removes unwanted weeds as turf is mowed. He also leads the development of a turf fertilizer-calculating smartphone app, set to release in 2019.
“Our efforts here at UConn Extension help turf managers think outside the box and support new advancements and technology in turfgrass management,” Wallace says. “Turf managers were left in a quandary following the 2010 law. Budget and labor needs required to maintain safe playing fields changed, so rethinking the process and adapting to the challenge has been ongoing for many grounds managers. But those that are trying new techniques are seeing positive changes.”
Field-Applied Research Proves Practical
As the Town of Glastonbury‘s parks superintendent for more than 20 years, Greg Foran knows the challenges of caring for school athletic turf and landscapes before and after the 2010 pesticide ban.
“The challenges, in some cases, haven’t changed at all,” says Foran, who manages ban-impacted school landscapes and fields for youth lacrosse, soccer, football and field hockey. “You’re always trying to manage public areas and many areas that are overused, or sports seasons that are extended beyond the growing season.”
In response to the law, Foran’s turf team attended workshops and began to follow new advice from various stakeholders, including UConn Extension’s recommendation for aggressive overseeding. This includes frequent application of grass seed at high rates, even during high-traffic times. His team also applies seed with special traits, like a species with improved resistance to gray leaf spot or one that germinates at a lower temperature.
When grub issues surface, Foran’s team treats with live nematodes, microscopic worms that feed on specific grub species, or Btg (Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae), a bacterial-based microbial control. They follow treatment recommendations from entomologists at UConn and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to implement this integrated pest management (IPM) strategy.
“Safe fields are the fields with a dense turf cover, and the best turf cover is generated by using good cultural inputs,” Foran says. “We are huge proponents of IPM. It takes all the best aspects of organic and synthetic practices to make great turf.”
New Practices Come With New Turf Tolerances
Mowing height, modern aeration methods and UConn-recommended fertilizer practices help develop healthy turfgrass, too. Rotating play with the town’s one synthetic turf field also helps to balance priorities with natural field management.
In addition, Glastonbury school fields benefit from high-tech irrigation, which allows smartphone control. Use of data from a UConn Extension weather station that Wallace installed continues to evolve and aids in the town’s irrigation decisions.
As importantly, healthy turf depends on support from all stakeholders. Education has proven a key element to ensure coaches, parents and youth understand the need to close a field, such as in saturated conditions that exacerbate compaction and playing damage.
“The intensity of turf management will increase, not decrease,” Henderson says. “It’s going to take different strategies and thinking outside the box to be successful.”