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Texas' Mesquite Parks and Recreation Department maintains 24 baseball/ softball game fields, 24 soccer fields, 7 football fields, 35 baseball/softball practice fields, and 12 soccer practice fields. The approximate annual maintenance cost for these fields — including personnel, equipment, and supplies — is $451,369. Photo: Mesquite Parks and Recreation Department

By Travis E. Sales

Editor's note: Turfgrass maintenance programs vary by region, due to soil types and grass species. The Mesquite (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department's maintenance program is based on native clay soil fields with common Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon).

It generally costs much less to operate a well-maintained field than to start over each time a season begins. Knowing this, the Mesquite (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department invested years of field trials and product and equipment testing to devise a program that consistently produces an aesthetically pleasing field that's safe for all participants.

The following are best practices used by the department that can help you get your fields in shape — and keep them that way.

Soil testing. The first step in any good maintenance program is to test soil samples. Because soil types and nutrient levels can fluctuate from field to field, and even on different sections of one field, soil test results will give you a starting point for your program, including determining fertilization methods (see page 26), to ensure proper turf growth.

Samples should be taken from various locations throughout the field, and individual fields at each location should have their own samples. Run additional tests once or twice throughout the growing season to ensure that your fertilization program is producing the desired results.

Mesquite's parks and recreation department sends samples to the Soil and Crop Science Lab at Texas A&M University's College Station campus for testing. The laboratory, which is among the best soil testers in the nation, charges $75/sample. Samples can be mailed to the laboratory from anywhere in the United States.

Fertilization. Although an important component to any turfgrass program, fertilization can cause problems if applications are not properly calculated according to soil test results. For instance, too much fertilizer causes excessive growth, which increases mowing frequency, clipping production, and possibly scalping. It may also cause disease. Too little fertilizer creates a weak turf that won't hold up to play very well, with slow recovery time. Turf will also turn a light yellowish green from a lack of nitrogen.

Mesquite's program includes applying a 21-0-0 (21% nitrogen, 0% phosphorus, 0% potassium) fertilizer in June and July and a 20-5-10 formulation in April and October. The first and last application dates may vary due to weather patterns. Nitrogen is applied in a 50% sulfur-coated urea, slow-release formula. An additional application of fertilizer or iron may be applied before state- or national-level tournaments to deepen the color of turfgrass.

Mowing. The turfgrass type at your facility will dictate mowing frequencies and heights. For instance, of the most common types, hybrid Bermuda thrives in ¼- to 1-inch mowing heights, St. Augustine requires 2 to 3 inches, and common Bermuda between 1 and 2 inches. Because Mesquite's turfgrass is common Bermuda, the department's mowing height is 1.5 inches, which is also an ideal height for sports. Employees mow a minimum of two times per week — three when time permits — and alternate mowing patterns each mowing cycle to eliminate the development of grain.

Keeping blades sharp is critical, regardless of mowing equipment such as reels, flails, or rotary. Sharp blades cut the turfgrass, instead of tearing it. A jagged tear is harder to heal and invites disease and insects.

Water conservation. As an industry, we tend to apply more water than needed to produce healthy turf. As a general rule, apply 1 inch of water each week during the summer. Take into account any rainfall, and reduce irrigation accordingly.

Watering should be monitored daily — this includes the entire site, not just one area. Most sites have dramatic soil changes across a playing field that require different watering frequencies and amounts, so don't assume a 30-minute/ station schedule is necessary for all watering stations. Perform an irrigation audit to find inefficiencies in your system.

Mesquite currently has all athletic fields on Weathermatic's Valcon System, a central control system to monitor flow, control the watering from a central office, and receive daily run reports via computer. The system shuts water off if something is operating improperly and then sends a report to the office.

No two stations water on the same run-time at any of Mesquite's sports facilities. This is because of soil variations, sunlight variations, system performance, etc. The fields are watered twice a week with a deep watering cycle — longer run times to let the water penetrate deep into the soil versus short run times that only get the surface wet — and sometimes two cycles in one night to allow water to soak in between cycles to reduce runoff.

Aeration. This is the most important step in a maintenance program. Soil compaction results in a thin and weakened turf, which facilitates unhealthy growing conditions and increases chances of injuries.

Mesquite uses an Aerway-manufactured slicer with sports tines to aerate fields twice a month, 10 months out of the year. Employees can aerate and constituents can play the same night with little disruption to the playing surface. Staff members occasionally top dress with organic matter and/or sand to help decrease the amount of compaction between aeration cycles based upon type of play and usage.

Herbicides. If you properly maintain turfgrass through all of the steps above, you will find that you have minimal insect and weed issues.

Mesquite Parks & Rec staff uses an integrated pest management approach to all herbicide and insecticide use: Any spraying tasks generally consist of spot spraying with a backpack sprayer so the herbicide can be applied only where it is needed. Boom spraying or large broadcast spraying is only performed when applying pre-emergents to obtain complete coverage.

The key to a good turf maintenance program is an ongoing commitment to the program you establish. Continually educate and train staff so the program can be successfully accomplished.

The best sources of information are within your industry — through industry associations, networking with others, and asking questions. Also, take incremental steps when establishing a program to find out what is best for your individual circumstances.

— Sales (tsales@cityofmesquite.com) is manager of park services, municipal arborist, and golf course superintendent for Mesquite Parks and Recreation, Texas. This article originally appeared as a Web extra for the 2011 PUBLIC WORKS Manual.