With the proliferation of approved bond referendums fueling the charge, many public school districts are renovating tired ball fields or building new ones. Most often, this work is part of a large-scale project that includes adding new classrooms, art centers and auditoriums, updating HVAC systems, improving existing structures, etc. After reviewing countless vague or ill-written grassing specs penned by architects, engineering firms and other specifiers, I feel it’s time to offer some guidance. I don’t claim to be a “big picture” expert on writing specifications related to the construction of new ball fields, but over many years, I’ve seen multiple missteps in the process that should be addressed.

Most times, architects and engineering firms focus most of their attention on the “brick and mortar” pieces of the project. They’ll be the first to acknowledge this. They have professional resources that help keep their specs updated and current when it comes to building materials, electronics, security systems, lighting and other major components.

When it comes to understanding the fundamentals of building a new ball field, my experience has been that specifiers focus more on master planning and less on details associated with actually grassing the field. Specifics that detail proper turfgrass selection, establishment and grow-in protocol don’t appear very often. Most specifiers rely on sources that oftentimes are not offering detailed, thorough specifications that are, well, specific!

This isn’t meant to be a rap on the folks providing the info used to write the specs, rather to point out the need to provide agronomically sound and updated info to these specifiers. Making sure turf varieties best suited for natural sports turf use and ensuring rapid establishment to fit the school district’s aggressive timetable usually gets overlooked.

Many architects will partner with engineering firms that have a basic understanding of how a natural sports turf differs from general campus grounds or a home lawn. Yet, like the architects, many engineering firms aren’t up-to-date on seed genetics and grow-in practices. “Master” planners may have a limited understanding of how to grow grass.

Architects, engineers, other specifiers

  • Enlist the services of a local third party, or at the very least, a responsible source who will help you navigate through field preparation, turfgrass species/variety selection and grow-in procedures keeping the client’s best interests in mind.
  • Major turf seed companies are excellent resources and willing to help you select seed cultivars that are suited for use on ball fields. Who is better equipped to provide this info than the plant breeder who developed the varieties or the scientist who has spent months and years evaluating them? If your seed specs are more than 10 years old, you’re potentially using old genetics that fall short in terms of performance, color, density, speed of recovery and/or pest resistance. And not all varieties within a species are alike. Don’t make the mistake of selecting varieties that are not intended for use on high-traffic, intensely used surfaces. You don’t know what you don’t know!
  • Consider using the A-LIST (www.a-listturf.org) to select turf seed varieties that fit your BMP’s. The Alliance for Low-Input Sustainable Turf is a consortium of five major turf seed companies and eight major universities with turfgrass breeding or evaluation programs that work collaboratively to support the professional turf industry. Using the A-LIST will help keep your seed specifications genetically current, agronomically sound and environmentally responsible.
  • Resist the temptation to fall back on suspect grassing references you have used in the past. For example, state Departments of Transportation are not good resources, unless you’re seeding roadways, native areas or simply looking for ground cover and erosion control.
  • Be mindful of specifying species/varieties and recommended seeding rates in the “spirit” of reducing project costs. Most often, the cost of grass seed and grow-in fertilizer are a mere fraction of the project’s total cost. Don’t be pennywise and pound-foolish.
  • Re fertilizer, don’t overlook this important specification component. All too often, the type and analysis of a “starter” or “grow-in” fertilizer is discounted. Many architects and other specifiers are ill equipped to make proper grow-in fertility recommendations. They may insert language like “fertilizer and application rates recommended by the seed supplier” into the written specs. You may be making a big mistake by assuming the seed supplier knows anything about fertilizers and growing grass.

Clients

  • Do your homework. Don’t assume the architect, engineering firm or third-party contributor know anything about the fine points of turfgrass selection, establishment and long-term ball field maintenance! Talk to other sport turf managers in your area who have recently undergone a similar project. Learn from their mistakes. Ask them to share a couple of successes and to share what things they would have done differently.   Avoid pitfalls by learning from your peers.
  • Be involved from the very beginning of the design stage. Ask questions, use professional resources such as the STMA and local chapters, local academicians, trusted suppliers and peers to provide information so you know what questions to ask and what red flags to look for during the design, specification and construction stages. Rely on fellow professionals who have experienced the work that you’re about to. They can prep you on project details that are so often overlooked or missed.
  • Once the project has begun, make every effort to monitor progress regularly. Be involved. Make your own daily inspections, keep asking questions, and make sure the job is done according to the specifications you and the architect have so carefully written. This is your most important job from the day rough drawn plans are sketched to the day you paint the first lines.
  • Have discussions about the project completion date and when the fields are expected to be ready for play. It is not uncommon for new field establishment to be rushed and opened for play before the turf is “playable.” Premature use of fields can cause irreparable damage in less than a month of use. It is one of the biggest reasons new ball fields fail.
  • Remember, you are the person left with the responsibility to maintain these new fields to the high standard you and your administration have established. Improper spec-writing, construction, grow-in and unrealistic project completion dates will create ongoing issues for you long after the architect, engineer, general contractor and seeding/grow-in contractor are gone.

Joe Churchill is a 40-year veteran of the professional turf industry. He serves turf professionals in the sports turf, golf and lawn care markets for Reinders, Inc., a major commercial turf distributor in the Midwest marketing Toro equipment, irrigation, seed, growth products and landscape supplies.

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