An old bog becomes a recreational complex

PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE.

In the late 1990s, the city of South Portland, Maine, only had sports fields at its two middle schools and the high school. The high school stadium field was 45 years old. The community’s actively growing youth sports programs were putting way too much stress on the existing fields, and something had to be done.

The solution was an old bog that had been filled in for farmland in the early 1950s, and had recently been under lease for sod production for 12 years.

The 23 acres of the property that would be developed into athletic fields would be added to the existing 12 acres of school fields maintained by Rick Perruzzi, sports turf manager for the city’s parks and recreation department.

Mowing patterns into the fields takes a little more time, but the players and their fans appreciate the big-league look.

Push to the max

The Wainwright Recreation Complex is 150 acres of flat, open land with dark, highly organic, sandy loam soil. Just 3 miles from the Atlantic coast, the surrounding landscape is a mix of rocky coastland and marine clay.

Construction started in the spring of 2001, creating four softball fields, two baseball fields and six soccer fields. A $1 million construction budget covered the entire project from the site planning to the excavation of soil and installation of the skinned areas, installation of inground irrigation, installation of fencing and the initial seeding.

Perruzzi says, “The seed went down in late October of 2001. It resulted in about 10 percent coverage once all the growth came in during the spring of 2002. There was nothing we could accomplish at that point, so we focused on getting through the spring sports season at our school sites.

“By June, the complex fields were green, with weeds 3 to 4 feet high. We mowed them down. Then, we borrowed a slit seeder and put down 4,000 pounds of a 70 percent perennial ryegrass, 30 percent bluegrass seed mix, just nicking the surface and dropping the seed. We topdressed with compost and applied a starter fertilizer. Then we began the irrigation program with light, frequent applications at first, moving to deeper, less frequent applications as the seedlings took hold. By Labor Day weekend we were mowing a full stand of turf. The grass outcompeted 85 to 90 percent of the weeds.”

Rick Perruzzi works the pitcher’s mound.

One-sport fields

The 150-acre expanse enables Perruzzi and his staff to be creative in using the space beyond the 12 dedicated fields at the complex. Though the level of maintenance isn’t as high, the additional space can provide overflow practice areas that have uniform turf coverage and are maintained for safety and playability.

Perruzzi says, “The overflow space gives us the luxury of having dedicated fields for each sport at the complex. Our irrigated soccer fields are used for soccer 99.9 percent of the time. We use them one day, during the first week of June, for lacrosse. Each sport has its own plot, designed and set up specifically for that sport. All lacrosse practice takes place on the nonirrigated overflow space. We always keep two fields lined out for boys’ lacrosse practice and two for girls’ lacrosse practice, rotating the areas within the overflow space as needed to keep good turf coverage.”

This shows the attention to detail in the precise layout of the pattern on the baseball field.

Field use

Play begins as soon as the weather allows, usually in late March to early April, and continues until early November. The complex is open seven days a week; however, none of the fields are lighted, so all play takes place during daylight hours.

The Wainwright Recreation Complex has become the center of sports activity in the summer, with nearly 99 percent of the play taking place there. Perruzzi says, “Even the high school-level recreation programs are based here in the summer. It’s easier for us to keep up the maintenance level with everything at one site; and all of our equipment is here, so it cuts out the travel time.”

With one full-time assistant, and three seasonal staff members working from April to November, time management is a key part of the mix. They also maintain the fields at the school sites. The high school stadium field continues to serve as the practice and game site for varsity football, the game site for boys’ and girls’ soccer and lacrosse, and the showplace for the marching band. During the fall, it typically hosts 54 events on the field in a 45-day period.

Rick Perruzzi uses a hand-held hose to control the moisture level of the skinned materials as his staff members provide back-up support.

Proactive problem-solving

Perruzzi says, “I’d rather do 10 or 15 things for general maintenance that each take 5 to 10 minutes to complete and will keep a field in top shape, than spend six hours bringing it back into condition after letting it slip. I want to be proactive in problem-solving, looking for those headaches that too often come from overused areas and finding ways to prevent them.”

They do maintenance along the base path edges daily, using whatever combination of techniques necessary to prevent lip buildup. They don’t need to overseed the baseball and softball fields, but they do overseed the soccer fields and the overflow field space, as needed, with a mix of 50 percent bluegrass and 50 percent perennial ryegrass. They also put down straight perennial ryegrass in the goalmouths prior to field use for the players to work in with their cleats. “We try to stay ahead of the wear primarily by shifting field space, but the cost of seed is cheap compared to the labor hours needed to resod,” Peruzzi says.

Dragging the softball infields is part of the daily maintenance program.

“We also are able to cultivate our own sod using the area just outside the outfield fences where the irrigation system is going to hit the turf. We use a Ryan sod cutter to harvest it, making the cut as deep as it will go, about 3.5 to 4 inches, so we take most of the root mass. We’ll cut about a 2-foot section, which is so heavy it takes two men to move it. We’ll lay the sections flat to transport them to the site. Then, we dig out the damaged area and insert the sod so it fits tightly and is even with the surrounding turf. The sections don’t need anchoring in place, and if we’re not able to irrigate them right away because of play, they’ll hold up for several hours without signs of wilt or stress. We resodded some of the soccer goalmouths at the end of the season last year. We’ve also used the thick cut sod to repair a few areas on the baseball fields prior to tournament play.”

Perruzzi stockpiled all of the loam that was removed during construction and spread it into the areas where the sod was harvested, raked smooth, seeded with a 50-50 blue-rye mix, topdressed with compost, and applied a starter fertilizer.

Bullpens were installed on all the softball and baseball fields for all pitching practice. They put down sections of AstroTurf for the catcher, eliminating wear in those areas.

Rick Perruzzi uses a backpack blower on the turf edge as part of the daily vigilance against lip buildup.

Technology rules

Perruzzi says, “I believe in searching out new technology and new ways to improve the fields that will limit the amount of maintenance needed so we can spread ourselves out more evenly. We switched over to Stabilizer products on the baseball fields two years ago. We did the mound and home plate area first and liked the results. Then we dug out some of the existing skinned material from the baselines and replaced it with their infield mix. We don’t need to work as much on the moisture management, and it really cut down on the amount of handwork we need to do.”

Pest control follows an IPM program and, to date, there’s been no need for insect or disease control applications. Perruzzi has a master applicator’s license and does apply a preemergent weed control and handles the fertilization.

The program will be going completely green this year, using all organic fertilizer and control products. “Our program has always been managed with acute awareness of the possible environmental impact, so going green is a logical extension of that. There’s the regulatory aspect, too. We have to give the school system notice five business days in advance if we plan to use any chemicals on their fields. It’s hard to gauge the proper timing to build that in with fluctuating weather conditions. This step will keep us ahead of the curve,” he says.

The initial construction didn’t cover the amenities like scoreboards, lighting, permanent seating or enclosed dugouts. So, Perruzzi channels some time toward upgrades to the outside areas as well as the fields.

Perruzzi says, “With the support of our parks and recreation director, the recreation superintendent and the parks superintendent and the dedication of our staff, the complex has become a huge asset for the community.”

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