Safe, playable sports fields for a growing community

There’s some kind of outdoor ballgame in play whenever the ground isn’t covered with snow in Calvert County, Md. About 50 miles south and east of Washington, D.C., the county is in the middle of the transition zone, where weather conditions aren’t quite right for warm-season or cool-season turf. Bob Shumate, park maintenance coordinator for Calvert County Parks and Recreation, notes, “Within the turf industry, the transition zone is often described as the armpit of America when it comes to growing grass.”

Field prep on the softball fields begins as soon as the weather breaks in March, before the buds on the deciduous trees even show a touch of green.

Shumate says, “I’m primarily the middleman. Our department has a division chief for parks and recreation. Reporting directly to him are the recreation supervisor, who handles the community centers as well as the programs, and the parks supervisor, who is my direct boss. I’m the guy out interacting with the crews at the various facilities, serving as the liaison between the parks supervisor and the field personnel.”

When the bermudagrass fields were first installed, they were mowed with a tow-behind, gang-reel mower, as staff member Chuck Dalrymple is doing in this shot. In 2007, the county added two triplex reel mowers to take over this task.

Facilities and field use

The county has three major parks, each 100-plus acres, and four smaller satellite facilities, for a total of approximately 400 acres. There are minimal trees and shrubs within the parks and decorative flowerbeds only around entryway signage. Each site is primarily grass, and most of that grass that they’re playing on. Within those parks are 39 athletic fields, 22 with skinned areas for softball or baseball and 17 multipurpose soccer/football/lacrosse fields.

Shumate says, “We use the outfields of all the softball/baseball fields for soccer in the fall. We’re also responsible for 10 elementary and middle school sites. We have a mutual use agreement, scheduling park and recreation activities at the school fields. The mowing of the school sites is contracted, though our department handles the contractors. Our staff does all of the infield prep at least weekly, and we handle all of the management practices other than mowing. There are 22 fields at the school sites, 14 skinned for softball/baseball and eight multipurpose fields.”

The parks staff also maintains the playgrounds, picnic areas, and basketball and tennis courts, as well as handles all the trash removal. They maintain a 16-acre beach and a campground on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Equipment maintenance and repair are also handled in-house.

Then, there are the swimming pools. The Calvert County Parks department currently has four outdoor pools, a 200,000-gallon community pool at one site, and an aquatic park with a 300,000-gallon lap pool, a leisure pool and a kiddie pool. His major pool-related responsibility is the spring opening and fall closing, which coincides with the height of the field sport seasons. He says, “Once we have day-to-day operations set up, I basically oversee pool maintenance. We hope to break ground this spring on an indoor aquatic facility, and will probably add a swim team program when that is completed. At that point, I anticipate an aquatics manager will be hired to oversee all the pools.”

Bob Shumate is park maintenance coordinator for Calvert County (Maryland) Parks and Recreation. He’s currently serving as president of the Maryland Turfgrass Council.

Shumate is a certified pesticide applicator, a certified swimming pool operator and a certified playground safety inspector.

“We have nine full-time, year-round parks personnel on staff,” says Shumate. “We nearly triple that with hourly, seasonal employees from March to November. We couldn’t operate without them.

“Our full-time staff members and some of the seasonal grounds workers tackle the day-to-day mowing of the fields and general-use areas at the park sites and the majority of the field prep. Our staff handles all the infield work, dragging for practices and dragging and lining for every game, if the timing between games allows for it. They paint the football, soccer and lacrosse fields once or twice a week, as needed.

“We have designated facility coordinators on-site during the evenings and weekends. Their primary function is to oversee the sites and make sure the games are held where and when they’re scheduled. They also handle the dragging and lining on the weekends when games run one right after the other throughout the day and into the evening. All of our youth leagues and adult leagues have evening start times during the week.”

It’s a constant stream of activity, with scheduled play beginning the second weekend of March and running into early November. Field use can continue through Thanksgiving weekend some years.

The parks are open year-round. The individual fields are not fenced, and 13 of the 39 park fields are lighted. Shumate says, “As public facilities, if the park gates are open, the fields are open for pickup games and casual recreation if they’re not in use for scheduled activities. That isn’t often. Each season our recreation department is bombarded with requests to schedule field use—and we’re already full. Most of our park fields average 400 events a year in either practices or games. The lighted fields average more, with evening play running until 10 or 11 at night.”

Staff member Leonard Goddard uses a manure spreader to spread the Patriot Bermudagrass sprigs on the field following cultivation.

Water issues

All of the athletic fields are a sandy-loam native soil. Shumate says, “We used to be a rural county, but are becoming more suburban as our population grows. All of our water is well water, so we’re pulling from the groundwater resources. The wells supply not only water for irrigation, but also potable water for restroom facilities. Only five of the sports fields are irrigated. All others receive only what Mother Nature gives us. The irrigation systems were planned before I arrived and were installed shortly afterward. There are multiple regulations to meet in order to get a water appropriation. With that, and the expense of putting in the well, plus the expense of the irrigation system, I don’t see us doing a lot more irrigation in the future.

“Normally, we have adequate rainfall for turf growth, typically around 40 inches a year. We went through a severe drought this past summer. We had zero rainfall in June and July; one or two days of rain around August 20 for a total of 1.5 inches; and nothing from then until very late fall. We’re almost a foot short for the year. We had to close some new fields we had seeded in the fall of 2006 and kept [them] out of play for grow-in through the spring of 2007. With no water, they hadn’t developed enough root system to support play. We used them for about two weeks in the fall and had to pull them from the schedule and reseed.”

Field management program

Four of the five irrigated fields have Patriot bermudagrass. All the other fields are turf-type tall fescues. Initially, the bermuda fields were mowed with a used, tow-behind, gang-reel mower. Shumate added two triplex reel mowers for those fields in 2007. All other turf areas, including the fields, are cut with rotary mowers. Shumate says, “In normal years, we keep the bermuda at 1 inch, mowing three times a week during the summer active-growth period. We keep the fescues at 3 inches, mowing the general areas once a week, and the athletic fields twice a week to keep them in good playing condition. That’s longer than our soccer teams prefer, so they’re the prime benefactors of play on the bermuda. With the lack of rainfall this past year, there were some weeks we didn’t mow at all.”

Fertilizer use is closely regulated in Maryland. “We’re responsible stewards of the environment, following stringent IPM procedures. We adhere to the nutrient management regulations designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Soil testing is required. Our fertilizer programs are based on the test results in conjunction with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension recommendations for the type of grasses we’re growing. The recommendations are very restrictive, particularly regarding phosphorus. We fertilize the bermuda three times during the summer. On the tall fescue, we make one fertilizer application in the spring and one or two in the fall as required, if weather conditions allow us to squeeze them in. We do apply Roundup around fence lines, the parking lots and such to maintain a neat appearance. We use no other weed, insect or disease control products,” Shumate says.

Staff member Leonard Goddard runs the field cultivator in preparation for sprigging this native soil field with Patriot bermudagrass. Staff member Leonard Goddard installs replacement sod in the goalmouth area of one of the multiuse fields.

The biggest field management challenge is working in the necessary field maintenance procedures. Shumate says, “With soccer and football action on all available field space seven days a week in the fall, it’s hard to find any openings. For best results, we should be doing the cool-season grass overseeding around Labor Day or early September. We can’t do it until November, and sometimes not until late in the month, so working it in at all depends on the weather.”

Aerification is an ongoing part of the program, using core, solid-tine or vertidrain procedures. There’s no set schedule. “Whenever we get a chance to open up the compaction we take it. We may do a full field treatment, or just midfield and goal areas. We also try to do a full-field aerification in conjunction with overseeding in the fall. We use three-point mounted slit seeders for the bulk of the overseeding. We follow that with topdressing with one of a variety of compost products, with the selection dependent on cost and availability,” Shumate says.

Field use policies

There was no weather policy except for the infield skinned areas of the softball and baseball fields prior to Shumate’s arrival. He says, “They would play on the grass no matter what the rain and field wetness, and it caused extensive field damage. When I wanted to control field use, I was asked to write the policy. Now they call it Bob’s Squish Test. If there’s standing water, there is no play. If there’s no standing water, but the field ‘squishes’ when you walk on it and the water comes to the surface, there is no play.”

Initially, there was quite a bit of negative reaction, especially within the football program, where bad weather play was part of the mentality. However, the positive results soon garnered full cooperation.

Shumate has little direct communication with field user groups. Instead, he works with the recreation office that handles the event scheduling to develop the overall maintenance and field-prep scheduling for his staff. He says, “My main office is my truck. I do have a computer at one of the parks, but I’m primarily on-site, interacting with the staff. We have an assigned parks and recreation channel on the countywide radio system and use cell phones for one-on-one communication.”

Shumate says, “Communication and cooperation are key to a successful sports field program. We need to concentrate our efforts on giving our field users the best possible playing surfaces our resources will allow. Field users tend to respond to field quality, treating good fields as a resource worthy of respect.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.