Behind the Fuss for Real Grass Playing Fields
Whether attending a child’s scrimmage, the hottest college bowl game of the week or a professional playoff, the vibrant expanse of a football field offers more than a colorful canvas for the action. Often an afterthought for spectators, the choice of playing surface – natural vs. artificial – is a major decision for sports teams and field managers that goes far beyond aesthetics. According to Don Follett, director of fields and grounds for the Baltimore Ravens, the decision to transition M&T Bank Stadium back to natural grass at the start of the 2016 season was driven by the players. “A few of our key players asked that we entertain natural grass,” said Follett. “Ultimately, we decided that real football should be played on real grass.”
Why the fuss over real grass for sports fields? Venues choose one surface versus another for reasons that are highly specific to their situations. The following themes, however, consistently pop up:
When first introduced, artificial turf had less cushioning and more surface hardness than it does today, affecting the probability and severity of injuries. Today, the installation of artificial turf involves a mix of sand or crumb rubber infill, which absorbs impact energy and provides surface cushioning. Over time, however, as infill levels decrease from being packed down or migrating, more infill must be added to maintain the target depth range provided from the turf manufacturer. Additionally, based on some of the research, an athlete’s foot is more likely to snag in a synthetic system, which creates more force on the foot, ankle and knee when trying to turn or change directions. In comparison, natural grass can be more forgiving when players stop or turn quickly.
While injury rates are not statistically significant between one playing surface and another, given a choice, professional football players tend to favor natural grass fields over artificial turf. Their preferences have been associated with beliefs that there are more lower body injuries when playing on artificial turf. In a 2010 survey of NFL players, 69 percent preferred a natural surface. Perceptions about safety and wear on the body likely factored in, as players cited artificial turf as a contributor to injuries (82 percent), soreness and fatigue (89 percent), a shorter career (89 percent) and a reduced quality of life after football (64 percent). “In their [players’] minds, natural is better, safer,” continued Follett.
Health and comfort issues
Beyond injuries, natural and artificial turf have other health and safety impacts. Natural grass fields have regular growth, watering and mowing cycles, allowing for constant rejuvenation and decomposition of various compounds. The dense root and shoot systems characteristic of healthy turfgrass support a large population of soil micro-flora and -fauna. These organisms offer one of the most active biological systems for the degradation of trapped organic chemicals and pesticides. According to Tim Van Loo, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and a certified sports field manager, “the soil of natural turfgrass systems includes microbes that break down certain compounds, such as pesticides, potentially noxious organic chemicals and even bacteria from bodily fluids, such as blood and spit.” With synthetic fields, regular maintenance – sweeping, dragging, loosening and redistribution of infill, and cleaning – is necessary to keep them in top form.
Turfgrass has the added benefit of contributing to noise and glare reductions. Natural grass absorbs sound and can reduce noise levels by up to 10 decibels. Variation in the size, shape and angle of individual grass blades disperses sunlight to reduce glare and improve visibility in sunny conditions. Both qualities can benefit players and spectators alike in large and noisy stadiums.
Artificial fields are often cited for enabling more continuous play than their natural counterparts, which may need time to recover between heavy use. With a little pre-planning, turf managers can mitigate most of these challenges and protect the long-term playability of their natural turf fields. “The life of a natural field can be extended by rotating activities between fields, changing the daily location of practice on a field, or moving drills and practices around the field,” said Van Loo. Taking care to preserve the quality and coverage of natural turf can also reduce unpredictable ball roll and bounce that may occur with bare, patchy growth.
Likewise, modern drainage systems are mitigating much of the water concern previously associated with natural grass. When asked how the Ravens’ field manages heavy rains, Follett explained, “We put in a full sand-based drainage system that percolates at 13 inches an hour; it would take a remarkable amount of rain.”
In warmer regions, heat presents a different challenge. The University of Missouri Turfgrass Research Center conducted a study in 2010 comparing surface temperatures of different types of playing fields. The university found that synthetic fields dissipate radiant heat, with surface temperatures regularly exceeding that of natural grass fields by 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to ensure player safety, teams must schedule practice and game times to cooler periods of the day or run irrigation systems that cool fields with water.
When choosing a surface, environmental impacts must also be considered. Fertilizer and pesticides are often associated with natural turf. However, organic options are proving successful and newer environmentally friendly fertilizer applications are now available. Additionally, the root and thatch layer in natural turf systems acts as a filter and removes pollutants before they enter surface or groundwater.
If water use is a concern, field managers can take conservation steps. Many recreational fields are overwatered, and devices such as rain sensors, soil moisture probes or evapotranspiration pans can help manage irrigation efficiency. Other water-saving options include using a drought-resistant species or encouraging deeper root development by allowing grass to grow taller.
With artificial turf, other environmental issues lurk below the surface. Crumb rubber infill comes from shredded tires that contain zinc and other metals. Some fear such elements could escape into the air or leach into water. Additionally, when artificial fields are replaced, the synthetic turf often ends up in landfills.
The final decision on natural grass or synthetic often comes down to immediate and long-term costs. According to the STMA, a natural field can cost from $0.60 to $5.00 per square foot, depending on soils and drainage installation, while construction of synthetic systems can run $4.50 to $10.25 per square foot. Annual natural turf maintenance costs vary based on the facility and climate regions, but annual expenditures average between $20,000 to $30,000 per field and are competitive with synthetic field maintenance and repairs. Based on Follett’s experience, while there were initial costs to transition M&T Bank Stadium back to natural turf, “there is not a significant difference in the ongoing maintenance of well-kept artificial turf and grass.”
Choosing between natural and artificial turf is not easy. It is a decision every field manager must weigh carefully, evaluating all factors including the perceptions of players and spectators to ensure long-term support for the field. “I recall one player coming up to me on the sidelines of a game,” said Follett. “He gave me a big bear hug and said, ‘Dude, you have extended my career.’ Statistically, there isn’t strong evidence in either direction, but perception is reality.”
Turf management is commonly equated to golf courses and parks, yet some of the most honored grass in our nation is found in areas not often discussed: cemeteries. As a place of refuge, cemeteries have been carpeted by carefully manicured turfgrass since the mid-1800s. Today, the tradition not only fosters a sense of serenity for visitors, but has created natural habitats for animals.
According to Dave Ittner, President and COO of Fairmount Memorial Association in Spokane, WA, which maintains 330 acres of developed cemetery, the key to a lush green lawn is to mow regularly, removing no more than 1/3 of the grass blade at a time; string trim the edges to create a polished look; and then clean up. Either blow or sweep trimmings to finalize the job. Combined with managing water use to ensure you’re not overwatering, these basic manicuring steps can quickly take your lawn from good to great.
With baseball season about to start swinging, we chatted with Todd Tribble, field superintendent at Oklahoma State University to get his advice for maintaining a playoff-perfect field.
Follow these five lawn care tips this spring and enjoy soft, green grass all season long:
You can check out more of the Turf Teamawesome tips for year-round maintenance and field care here: http://turf.okstate.edu/monthly-turf-tips
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With summer in full swing, it’s time to think about how to maintain a beautiful, healthy lawn while being mindful of water use. “When it gets hot, the most common mistake people make is to excessively water their lawn. However, your lawn only needs to be watered once or twice a week during the summer months,” said Bryan Ostlund, Grass Seed USA executive director. “When done correctly, cutting back on irrigation can actually strengthen your lawn.”
Follow these five lawn care tips and enjoy a bed of soft, green grass all summer long:
With some communities sending out watering guidelines for summer water conservation, it’s important to keep some very basic guidelines in mind when watering, such as watering once every other day or twice a week. Fewer, longer waterings encourage the roots to grow deeper making the lawn stronger and more drought-resistant. Over watering can lead to lawn damage due to over-saturation.
The absence of rainfall in the latter half of summer means that you will need to apply about 1 to 2 inches of water per week in order to maintain a healthy yard.
Always water your turf during the cooler hours of the day, either early morning or evening. Watering during the heat of the day does very little good as much of the water evaporates before reaching the roots.
Set your mower to cut less grass. You can reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation by keeping your grass slightly taller (2 to 3 inches) in the summer, so that the blades shade the roots and soil surface, keeping it cooler and protected.
Whatever watering routine you choose, stick with it. Grass does best with a consistent watering schedule, and starting and stopping a watering pattern can stunt your turf’s growth.
Summer means outdoor entertaining. Whether you’re hosting a wedding reception, a family reunion or a birthday party, you’ll want to make the backyard get-together memorable. Here are some quick DIY ideas to help you get ready for a fun, stress-free gathering.
A healthy green lawn is an inviting setting for outdoor activities. If your lawn isn’t quite up to snuff, a little last-minute maintenance can help. Following are some tips from Grass Seed USA, a coalition of American grass seed farmers and academics:
Creating the ambiance
Beyond the table arrangements (linens, tableware, flowers) you’ll want to think about creating a comfortable ambiance for your guests. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Your get-together likely already has some built-in activities (eating, for one!), but depending on the type of event, you may want to have a few additional distractions planned, especially if there are kids at the party. Try a few of these:
One of the great advantages of entertaining outdoors is that it’s usually easier and less stressful than trying to fit a large group into your home. So keep things simple and don’t worry if you don’t have time for elaborate preparations, your backyard will naturally do most of the decorating and ambiance creation for you, and you’ll have plenty of options for outdoor activities for kids of all ages.
Spring and Baseball in America
One of the most uniquely American springtime events is the return of the national pastime, baseball. Each spring, big league clubs trek to Florida or Arizona for Spring Training, youngsters register for little league and fans optimistically await the start of a new season, knowing that their team, for at least Opening Day, is in first place.
The image of a vibrant, green baseball field is a welcome reminder that the weather is improving and summer is just around the corner – but this iconic image does not manifest itself without effort. Across the country, well before seasons shift and temperatures rise, city park landscapers, schoolyard staff and major league grounds crews alike prep the green fields we know and love. Recently, We Seed America spoke with Jeff Wright, head groundskeeper for the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies, to learn what goes into creating and maintaining the iconic symbol that is the baseball diamond.
Becoming a Major League Groundskeeper
Jeff Wright is no stranger to baseball fields, having been with the Phillies organization since 1986. Back then, he worked part time as a “day of game” groundskeeper with ambitions to one day join the team as a graphic design artist. As time passed, Wright’s prowess maintaining the field and love for working outdoors helped him become something more of a grounds keeping artist, and he has worked full time on the Phillies’ grounds crew since 1990.
Beyond the basics of keeping the grass green and making sure the infield dirt is just right, there is a lot Jeff and his team must do to ensure the field it in tip top condition for game day. For example, certain varieties of grass may make the baseball roll too slow or too fast, and special decorations may be in order for postseason or World Series play. Maintaining a Major League playing field is a year long endeavor, and the challenge of keeping the field at Citizens Bank Park “the best there is in baseball” is something Jeff’s team strives for.
Major League Lawn Care
Getting a field into form for Opening Day begins with winterization steps taken just after the previous season ends, and does not look dissimilar from what is often recommended for homeowners’ lawns. According to Jeff, field winterization “might be somewhat a challenge in Philadelphia with the colder climate, but we overseed in the fall, put down our fertilizers and hope for the best.” Jeff noted there had been a few instances where particularly harsh conditions necessitated the use of winter blankets, but usually overseeding does the trick.
After winter comes Spring Training. Efforts to ready the Phillies’ facility in Clearwater, Florida begin in earnest in January and last throughout February. The impressive baseball complex includes 4 fields and over 20 pitching mounds, and requires a true group effort to maintain Major League standards.
Once the regular baseball season begins, ongoing maintenance becomes important, and this goes far beyond ensuring the grass is vibrantly green. Performance optimization is a chief concern, and feedback on the turf comes from players and coaches alike. Previously, Riviera Bermudagrass was used at Citizens Bank Park, but after hearing from players that this variety made the surface too quick, the grounds crew switched over to Kentucky bluegrass, which can be grown at a higher height than Bermudagrass and helps the game be played a little slower. Facing these sorts of challenges is something Jeff enjoys, and he is always looking for ways the turf can be optimized for performance.
Winning It All
Maintaining a major league-caliber playing surface is key to sustaining a high level of baseball prowess, which is why Jeff selected the Phillies’ 2008 World Series championship as his favorite moment as an MLB groundskeeper. According to Jeff, when the final out was made to clinch the victory, the scene on the field was “total euphoria” as players, coaches and the grounds crew all celebrated the accomplishment as one. After all, winning a championship in professional sports takes dedication at all levels, which is why Jeff and his crew were rewarded with their very own World Series championship rings, a fitting reward for countless hours of hard work and dedication.