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The way to effectively manage pesticide-free athletic fields

October 16, 2009  By  Mike Jiggens

THE next few years are apt to be rough for Ontario’s sports turf
managers, in the wake of a province-wide cosmetic pesticide ban
implemented in April, but those up to the challenge can still produce
acceptable playing surfaces, more than 250 members of the Sports Turf
Association were told in September.

“I think we can overcome those challenges over the next few years, but
it’s going to be rough,” said Dr. Eric Lyons, assistant professor of
turfgrass science at the University of Guelph, speaking at the STA’s
22nd annual field day at Brantford, Ont.’s Lions Park.

Like the lawn care industry, municipal sports turf managers have been stripped of the traditional pest control products they have been accustomed to using the past several years. Lyons surmised the majority of his audience were managing turf for the first time this year without such tools. A show of hands, however, indicated several people have been managing turf without traditional pest control products for a number of years already, whether their direction was municipally-imposed or voluntary. fieldweb

As sports turf managers move forward in a pesticide-free world, they are going to be carefully observed, “and they’re watching us with a lot of skepticism,” Lyons said.


Sports turf managers are going to have to do more with less, but new strategies can prove helpful, he added.

For example, establishing better lines of communication with sports field user groups can greatly assist both parties. Lyons likened the proposed form of communication to that which golf course superintendents have with club members, explaining to them that the simple act of fixing a ball mark on a putting green goes a long way toward maintaining the surface’s general health and playability.


“We deal with user groups who expect the fields to be perfect, but they don’t take care of them.”
Lyons suggested sports turf managers work with soccer, football and lacrosse coaches to urge them to conduct certain practice drills on areas of the fields which won’t contribute further wear to areas traditionally worn during game play.

Sports turf managers must also change the way in which they are perceived by the public.
“It’s time as sports turf managers to increase our profile and to increase our professionalism. If we’re going to be successful, people have to know who we are and people have to respect us.”
Sports turf managers tend to keep a low profile as if no one knows they’re around, Lyons said, but added that has to change. Communications must be stepped up, not only with field user groups, but with other departmental employees and even managers from other municipalities.

“We don’t see what someone else is doing and see why it’s working, and that’s something we have to get better at as a group if we’re going to survive this (the pesticide ban).”

Stepped-up communications also apply to the way in which fields are booked, he said, adding increased flexibility in field operations is required. Booking officers need to be informed if a particular field is experiencing excessive wear so that their hours of use can be reduced or eliminated altogether. Those responsible for booking fields may never see the condition of the playing surfaces and must rely upon the lines of communication between field operators and supervisors.

“I know supervisors who have 125 athletic fields under them,” Lyons said. “If their operators aren’t communicating with them, they’re lucky to see those fields once a year. You have to communicate up the line and they have to communicate down the line.”

Operators must communicate, and supervisors must listen, he added.

“If there’s no communication up and down the line, no one’s going to know and it might be too late.”

The lines of communication should also be open with those whose communities have been subject to a municipal pesticide ban for some time. Lyons said sports turf managers from those municipalities know what works and what doesn’t.

“Our goal today is to start to attack some of the hurdles we must overcome and start moving toward acceptable quality without the use of pesticides.”

Lyons admitted sports turf managers will experience a notable decline in field quality and playability without the use of traditional herbicides, and there will be a catch-up period before fields can be maintained at acceptable levels.

Alternative products which are biological in nature “don’t work the way traditional herbicides work. They don’t have 80 to 85 per cent efficacy.”

Unlike most of the previous municipal bans, which provided exemptions for pesticide use on newly-constructed fields or those undergoing renovations, the provincial ban permits no such exceptions. Fields that had been closed to public access could be sprayed if necessary prior to the provincial ban.

“That is no longer an option,” Lyons said. “The provincial ban is actually a lot more severe than a lot of the municipal bans were.”

Sports turf managers are also hampered by lean budgets. Lyons said when municipalities tighten their belts to keep tax increases to a minimum, parks budgets are often the first to be slashed, forcing sports turf managers to get by with less. The high cost of fertilizer means fewer and smaller applications each year.

Those responsible for slashing parks budgets seem to have the attitude that because they can grow grass in their back yards, then sports turf managers should be able to do likewise with athletic surfaces, Lyons said.

“It’s a classic example of, ‘I can grow grass. Why can’t you?’ Those who say that don’t have hundreds of kids playing on it 20 hours a week.”

Sports turf managers, however, tend to have a gift for “stick-to-it-iveness,” he said, and understand if they simply throw their arms up, they won’t be around for much longer.

Common sense and due diligence are key for maintaining acceptable-quality fields in an era of banned pesticide products. For example, those who build ice rinks atop sports fields during the winter months are going to realize abundant weed growth in the spring. Those who try to establish a field during an improper window of opportunity are likely to fail.

The climate in southern Ontario and most of Canada dictates the best time to establish a field is about mid-August.

“Make sure we do everything we can to get rid of existing weeds and get a good level grade so that there’s less washout of our seed, and that we get good soil-to-seed contact to get germination as quickly as possible, because the weed seed will germinate quickly.”

Seeding should be done at the high end of what is recommended and fertility must be pushed, yet with sufficient care to avoid burn.

“So we must have more due diligence when we apply.”

Sports turf managers may need to turn to sod more frequently or perhaps for the first time if they have traditionally relied in the past upon seeding for establishment. One of the benefits of using sod in Ontario is that sod growers are not subject to the cosmetic pesticide ban and can produce a product which is sold weed-free.

Managers whose budgets won’t allow for sod may have to look at different turfgrass species selection which are more aggressive. Lyons said such species used to be dismissed because of the associated expense but, without herbicides, they may now be worth the cost. Such thinking might also mean adding some perennial ryegrass to a Kentucky bluegrass field to achieve faster germination.

“There is still a lot to learn.”

Long-term implications of the ban will include both positive and negative aspects, Lyons said. On the plus side, sports turf managers now have the ability to become better educated.

“We can use this as an opportunity to move forward professionally. We can increase our agronomic knowledge and become better turfgrass managers. We can increase our profile and our professionalism. We can become better communicators and create relationships with our user groups, and have them help us do our job.

“Ultimately, if we do all these things, it may lead to better or more reasonable legislation.”

On the down side, there may be fewer playing fields available, and access may be limited to those which are available. Lyons speculated that could mean children won’t be granted access to sports fields unless they pay for their use.

“It may make our jobs easier, but that’s not why we do this. We have these fields so that kids can play.”

He added restricting the use of fields won’t do anything to help today’s child obesity problem.
Fewer fields could also mean less demand for turfgrass managers as well as a decrease in urban green spaces. Fewer fields will translate into more “urban hot spots” because more area will be devoted to asphalt and artificial turf fields.

Lyons, who admitted that as a former football player he hated playing on “plastic” fields, said there are apt to be more synthetic turf surfaces in the years to come because maintaining natural fields will become more difficult.

One synthetic turf field can take the bookings of six natural fields, he added.

“Instead of having green space, we have strip malls. I think it’s important we succeed, and it's good for our cities if we do.”

For the sake of the next generation of children, it is imperative that sports fields managers do succeed, he said.

“We don’t know how to grow grass effectively without the use of pesticides. The new products out there don’t work like the old products.”

To get a pesticide label in Canada, manufacturers had to show the product worked the way they said it did. The standard used for a pesticide was either 80 per cent control or 85 per cent control.
“You had to control the weeds at 85 per cent of their former level to get labeled as a herbicide. The new products? Anything different from doing nothing gets you a label. You may get only five or 10 per cent control. The products don’t work as well as the traditional ones.”

Simply adding an overseeding practice will not solve a sports turf manager’s problems, Lyons said.
“What is the saviour? Diligent operators who pay attention to the details, day in and day out, and improving the small things in the operation and making sure mistakes don’t happen.”

Sports turf managers could once enjoy a safety net of sorts when a mistake was made. If fertilizer was misapplied in May, killing a goalmouth, the area could be overseeded, fertilized and sprayed for any weeds that might have appeared. Those types of mistakes can no longer be resolved quite as simply.

“Mistakes…we used to be able to recover from them. Diligence is more important than ever.”
Lyons urged his audience to pay greater attention to a number of agronomic practices which could make or break a field.


“Mowing frequently is the key to getting that turf density up (and choking out weeds).”
Lyons said more frequent mowing is more important than increasing a mower’s cutting height.
Mower operators must exercise more caution in making their turns.

“Are you turning on the field or off the field?”

Turning while off the field is more time-consuming, but it eliminates leaving ruts on the playing surface, especially when the turf is wet.

“Those ruts can let weeds into that compacted soil. We can’t recover from that the way we used to.”

Scalping will produce thin areas which will be prone to weed growth.


Irrigation should be done to the correct depth and be based on need, Lyons said.
He said he often sees many municipalities water too often, to the point where the turfgrass has developed shallow roots. Shortly afterward, the municipality will enact a watering ban which leads to the field either going dormant or dying.

Sprinkler heads must be inspected to ensure they are working properly. Lyons shared a photograph which depicted a sports field that had been irrigated with only three working heads. The turfgrass in the catchment area was thick and healthy while everyone else around it was either dormant or dying. It was a case, he said, of the lines of communication having broken down, as the field operator failed to inform his superiors of the problem.

Aerating and topdressing

Lyons wondered if some fields were realizing the proper degree of penetration during aeration.
“When we aerate, we sometimes don’t get down deep enough into the subsoil to mix the soil in with the topdressing, so we’re creating a layer of slime on the top of the field.”


Overseeding is no longer a practice confined to the fall season, Lyons said.

“Now, we’re overseeding to compete with weeds. That means we need to overseed anytime there is excessive wear. Overseeding frequently is important. Overseeding a lot is important.”

Most of Ontario experienced a wetter-than-normal month of July this year which would have been an ideal time to overseed, he said.

“Often” and “heavy” are the key words to consider when overseeding, Lyons said, but added sports turf managers must also realize more money will be needed for seed budgets.


Lyons said the objective of sports turf managers is to catch things before complete failure is realized because re-establishment isn’t as simple as it used to be.

“Although the goal is far away, it’s there and I believe we can get there.”

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