Preparing Your Cool-Season Sports Fields for a Successful Spring Season

If your fall sports season is moving to spring, properly preparing your field in the fall will give your turfgrass the best chance to be ready for play in the spring. Developing and implementing a plan to combat extreme winter weather conditions will not only help your natural grass fields survive but will also jumpstart spring growth and result in overall healthier turfgrass throughout the year. By beginning your winter preparation at the end of the summer and continuing it throughout the fall, you will be on your way to managing an even better field next year. The success of your field is largely dependent on how your field overwinters. Here are some tips that will help you put your field to bed for the winter and successfully wake up in the spring.

Have a Plan

Be prepared. With fall sports limited or not permitted, take time to plan out your maintenance schedule, work on trouble spots, and prepare your field for the winter and spring ahead. This will be a good time to perform your most disruptive cultural practices, such as aerification. Fall is a great time to grow cool season grass so this might be an ideal opportunity to get more aggressive with your cultural practices – aerate a second direction or verticut. If you have the equipment and the time without the pressure of games being played, take advantage of those resources to improve your turfgrass density. Additionally, be sure to have all equipment, seed, and fertilizers on hand before they are needed. Your budget may have been impacted also. Take this time to evaluate your resources and use what you have access to in order to make your playing field safe and playable.

Get ready to battle Mother Nature. Snow and rain can create water-logged fields. Make sure all your tarps are in good condition and be ready to explain the consequences of playing on a saturated field to the coaches, administrators, parents, and players.

Survey your fields frequently. Pay attention to potential problem areas and immediately address any situations.

Fall Field Preparation

Fertilization

Develop your fertilization program based on soil test results.

Cool season grasses get a flush of growth in the fall. It is important to fertilize these grasses during this time to encourage healthy growth. With proper fertilization, your field has the best chance to go into the winter with a high amount of turfgrass cover.

Apply 0.5-1 lb. of nitrogen per 1000 ft2 in early September, mid-October, and when the grass has stopped growing but it is still green. This last application is referred to as a late-season fertilizer application and it will promote early spring green-up without excessive spring growth. You can combine the final fertilizer application with late fall hollow-tine aerification and seeding.

Do not apply excessive amounts of nitrogen within a few weeks before the first expected frost. Too much nitrogen at this time results in extreme plant succulence, which can lead to cold injury, and there is also a greater possibility of nutrient leaching.

While late season fertilizing has long been an industry standard, there is some recent research which narrows recommendations based on weather, environmental considerations, soil type, play and other factors. Contact your local turfgrass extension specialist for recommendations pertinent to your specific situation.

Overseeding

Overseed fields throughout the fall to help maintain cover. Seed that is applied during the winter 2020-2021 months is considered a “dormant” seed that will not germinate until soil conditions are favorable (>50 degrees F) in the spring. Mortality rate of dormant seed is typically 30-50%, so a higher seed rate would be recommended.

Focus your overseeding on the high wear areas, i.e. between the hashmarks on football fields and at the goal mouths on soccer fields. If you can maintain turfgrass in these areas, you will have fewer weeds in the spring and denser turfgrass growth that will stand up to excessive wear. Topdress after seeding if your budget allows.

Other Cultural Practices

Aerify, spike, or slice during the fall to relieve compaction, increase infiltration, and increase oxygen flow into the rootzone.

If you core aerify a native soil field, drag dry cores back into the field. On sand-based fields, remove the cores and topdress with a sand that properly matches the particle sizes of the rootzone.

Applying topdressing in conjunction with aerification will improve conditions in the spring. On native soil fields, consider topdressing with compost. Sand-based fields should be topdressed with sand that closely matches the particle size distribution of the rootzone.

Combine overseeding with aerification, spiking, slicing, or any other similar cultural practice.

Lower your mowing height to reduce your chances for snow mold outbreaks and damage.

Apply a fungicide to protect against pink and gray snow mold. Check with your local university for recommendations on which fungicides to use.

Use growth covers. Growth covers create a greenhouse-like effect that allows seed to germinate and turfgrass to grow during the winter. Consider using growth covers in your high wear areas after you have seeded them. Be sure to apply a snow mold fungicide and remember you’ll probably have to take the covers off periodically so you can mow.

Preemergent herbicides can be applied in late fall for spring weeds BUT it is important to not overseed if you apply a preemergent herbicide because the herbicide will prevent your seed from germinating. If you need to overseed, you can kill weeds in the spring with postemergent herbicides.

Make sure that turfgrass is hydrated going into the winter. Dessication can kill turfgrass just as much over winter as it can in the summer.

Consider using a plant growth regulator in the fall (just 1 or 2 applications). Research has shown much quicker spring green-up the following spring if the turfgrass has been treated with a PGR like trinexapac-ethyl.

Improving Spring Survival

Mowing

Mowing properly can make a big difference in the look and performance of your field. It is important to keep up with your mowing schedule, especially in the spring when the turfgrass is growing quickly.

Begin mowing as soon as the turfgrass begins to grow.

Be sure to use sharp blades so you get a clean cut.

Do not remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade per mowing.

Mow frequently. You will improve the density of your turfgrass with more frequent mowings and you will not leave unsightly clumps of grass behind. You may need to mow three times per week during the spring flush of growth.

Delay mowing on waterlogged fields to prevent ruts.

Fertilization

When temperatures are consistently in the 50’s, cool season grasses begin to grow and require fertilizer for healthy growth and development. Springtime fertilization can help your field recover from fall damage as well as prepare the turfgrass for the upcoming season.

Follow the recommendations in your soil test report to provide your turfgrass with the required amounts of nutrients. By applying only the amounts the plants need, you are not only being environmentally responsible, but you are also saving money.

Apply 1.5 to 2 lbs. of nitrogen per 1000 ft2 during spring. It is best to split the amount into two applications – one in early spring and one in late spring.

Combine your fertilizer applications with your cultivation practices (i.e. aerification).

Cultivation Practices

Spring is an important time to perform cultivation practices that relieve soil compaction, increase water infiltration, remove thatch, and increase soil oxygen flow.

Aggressively aerify your field with hollow tines. Removing plugs of soil with hollow tines is the most effective way to reduce surface compaction. The soil should not be too wet (the sides of the holes will glaze over) or too dry (the tines will not penetrate the soil).

Consider using a deep-tine aerator, which has long tines that penetrate deeper into the soil. This relieves compaction by shattering the soil. The soil should be dry so it shatters easily.

Using a spiker, slicer, or hydroject will help improve soil conditions but should only be used in the spring when surface disruption must be kept to a minimum. These are not acceptable substitutes for hollow tine aerification and/or deep-tine aerification.

Applying 1/4 inch of quality compost prior to aerification will improve your soil. After the compost has been applied and aerified, drag the field to help incorporate compost into the soil. Do not use compost on sand-based fields.

If compost is not used, following aerification, topdress the field with a layer of sand, seed with Kentucky bluegrass and/or perennial ryegrass, and fertilize according to soil test recommendations.

If your soil requires lime to correct your pH (based on your soil test), apply the recommended amount after cultivation and drag the field to allow the lime to work into the soil.

Weed Control

Not only is your turfgrass waking up and growing when the warm temperatures hit, so are the weeds. In addition to preparing for the usual crabgrass and goosegrass outbreaks, knotweed can be a problem on highly compacted fields.

There are several preemergence & postemergence herbicides that can be used at the time of seeding, (ex: mesotrione) that will not adversely affect grass seed germination. Many herbicides however, do have an adverse effect on seed germination, so make sure you are using the right one.

If knotweed is a major problem early in the spring, you can apply a broadleaf herbicide after it germinates and then seed after waiting the required period of time (see herbicide label for seeding instructions).

Other Practices

If you used growth covers over the winter, remove them after 4 or 5 consecutive days of warm temperatures, but don’t put them away. Be prepared to put the covers back on if you get an early spring cold snap.

Consider rotating or sliding your fields to spread out the wear. Sometimes sliding a field over just 10 yards can make a big difference.

Seed or sod areas that did not survive the winter. Fill in low areas with sand or soil to prevent puddles from forming and seed or sod them. If you fix the problems now, you won’t be battling them all year long.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties surrounding the fall and spring sports season. Make it easier on yourself by getting a head start on field preparations and developing your maintenance plan before spring weather breaks so you are ready to go as soon as the turfgrass greens-up. Fall and spring maintenance practices such as mowing, fertilization, cultivation practices, and weed control lay the foundation for season-long success.

Article written by Tom Serensits with contributions by Sun Roesslein, CSFM and Pamela Sherratt