Taking care of campus turf

Lee University is a 105-acre jewel tucked in the middle of a residential area in Cleveland, Tenn. It’s a private college with a full-time enrollment of approximately 4,000. Larry Berry joined the staff in March 2006 as director of physical plant. He is responsible for the general appearance and cleanliness of the buildings and grounds and oversees all the maintenance trades and building services. “One of the reasons I chose to come here was the very high standard the university already had for the first impression of our campus. The administration understands the importance of the campus appearance as a recruiting tool, and has given our department the resources to make some positive changes that further enhance that curb appeal,” Berry says.

The entire campus is prepped in early spring for optimum curb appeal for the early April campus visits and May graduation ceremonies.

Approximately 50 acres of campus is devoted to general turf and landscape areas, with an additional 10 acres of athletic fields. Buildings, walkways and parking lots fill the remaining space.

Staffing

Employees are organized by trade into departments that handle specific tasks such as electrical, carpentry, HVC, painting and special projects, custodial, grounds and landscaping. Berry communicates directly with the lead supervisor of each department. Part-time student employees augment the staff, generally working between 10 and 20 hours each during the school year, and close to full-time during the summer.

Early May graduation is showtime for the Lee University campus. The soccer fieldis the site of the early May graduation ceremonies. A stage and ramp and foldingchairs are set up on the playing field. Families and friends fill the bleachers andthe on-field seating.

“We have 57 full-time employees and 10 part-time, augmented with 15 to 30 students. Grounds has six full-time employees and one part-time. Landscaping has two full-time employees with the part-time student crew ranging from four to 10, depending on the time of year. One of the assistant baseball coaches works part-time within our grounds department and focuses on maintaining athletic fields,” Berry says.

The big picture

Lee University has outdoor NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) varsity teams in men’s and women’s soccer, softball and baseball. The full range of club sports just added rugby, and intramurals include nearly everything except lacrosse.

A synthetic baseball field, with green areas representing the turf and brown areas representing the skinned areas, was installed off campus, next to the natural grass baseball field. The college and middle school share this field. The soccer field serves as the practice and game field for men’s and women’s varsity soccera spring sport for both teams.
The women’s softball field has a natural grass outfield and skinned infield. It hosts both practice and games for the varsity team. All open space on campus is used for student activities. This general turf area is used for intramural sports and camp activities.

The soccer and softball fields are both on campus. Games and tournaments for the local high schools and the university’s soccer camps are also held on the field. Space is tight, even without a stadium structure. Berry says, “All of our general turf areas and athletic fields are a heavy clay native soil, except for this field. When it was constructed, they did some minor excavation, capped the heavy clay base with approximately 5 inches of sand, graded to create surface drainage and installed bermudagrass turf. It holds up well despite all the use. We did some minor renovations last year, regrading and extending the playing field into the former sideline area with the dimensions now 75 yards by 115 yards. We’re only 10 yards off the roadways along one side and both ends of the expanded field, and about 20 yards off on the other side.”

Olympic Field, the main baseball field, is off campus at one of the town’s middle schools. “Because we share the main diamond with the middle school, we had some challenges in scheduling practices. We added a full-size synthetic baseball infield, colored green for the turf areas and brown for the base path and skinned areas. To further reduce maintenance, we use a portable mound. The school also shares the synthetic field, using it for many PE activities, as well as baseball and softball,” Berry says.

Green space is an integral part of campus life. Berry says, “Any turf space is open for student activity, and we’re continuously striving to make those areas even more useable for them. Our administration understands [that] the interaction and relationships that develop through recreational activity from club sports, intramurals and spontaneous pickup games enhance the overall university experience.”

Alumni Park is an area of approximately 2 acres with trees, landscape beds, walkways, benches, a gazebo and nearly 1.5 acres of open turf. It’s a showplace site that also hosts weddings and concerts.

Graduation in early May is another showcase event. Berry says, “The ceremony takes place at our soccer field, with portable bleachers all around the perimeter and 5,000 chairs and a music production-type stage on the field.”

The University also hosts conferences and runs a camp program. Berry says, “Camps begin right after graduation and run through the end of July. All of the varsity teams host sport camps, and we have many church camps that use our fields and green space for sports, concerts and other outdoor activities. We’ll have about 11,000 youth participants on campus each year for these programs. It raises some interesting challenges for our field and grounds management programs, but that’s minor in comparison to the exposure and recognition the university gains from campers’ great experience on our campus.”

Managing the turf

Berry has an educational background in marketing and management, as well as experience in the construction industry and 11 years at Olivet Nazarene University, where he reached the position of assistant physical plant director.

Because all open turf space is used for student activities, the campus’ general turf areas receive the same attention to detail as the athletic fields. Aeration is part of the early spring maintenance program. This expanse of turf in front of the humanities building is a frequent site for organized group sports.
The bermudagrass on the soccer, softball and baseball fields, and the dedicated intramural and club fields is aerated and overseeded with a blend of at least five perennial ryegrass cultivars. This view toward the gazebo in Alumni Park shows why it’s a gathering spot for campus activities, from picnics to concerts.

He’s determined that one of the biggest keys to success in grounds management is continuous evaluation, especially with turf. He says, “I look at the history of the space from construction through all the stages of use, analyzing the impact of past maintenance programs, irrigation and drainage issues, use timing and intensity, weather fluctuations and any anticipated changes. With ongoing evaluation, you know what the color, density and overall condition should be.

“Much of our turf care, except for mowing, had been outsourced, with the contractor following a preset program. Many of the turf areas on campus looked good, but with the level of use, they weren’t showcasing as well as we wanted them to. So, we brought all of the landscape and turf management in-house and established a strategic program with greater flexibility to adapt based on the evaluation process.”

The university is in the transition zone, with fluctuating weather conditions that make growing both warm and cool-season grasses a challenge. As Berry assessed the various turf areas on the campus, he found that most of the useable blocks of open space were getting about the same traffic as a football/soccer field. He says, “So, we started managing all the area like a multiuse sports field, fine-tuning each step to meet each area’s specific needs. We had that flexibility in part because all of our turf areas have inground irrigation systems, and in part because we have a local supplier that will custom-blend both fertilizer and turf seed to our specifications.”

Because so much turf work had been outsourced, university-owned maintenance equipment was minimal. New additions include a topdresser, a PTO-driven Plant Air aerator, rotary spreaders and a Prolawn sprayer. Berry says, “We’re now using a 60-inch John Deere, front-mount, triplex reel mower for the athletic fields, going with a .75 inch-height-of-cut for the bermudagrass and adjusting that up if needed for the overseeded perennial ryegrasses. We use both John Deere and Hustler rotary zero-turn riders ranging from 48 to 60 inches in cutting width. We have too many undulations in the general turf areas to get the quality cut we want with anything bigger than 60 inches. We mow at 2.75 to 3 inches with these units, keeping the same height of cut year-round. I’ve found this less stressful on the turf.”

Sports activity is nearly constant on the resodded field space in front of the Paul Dana Walker Arena.

Berry varies the fertilizer formulations according to soil test results, turf condition and use levels and the results he wants to achieve. During irrigation restrictions, and to avoid a flush of growth, he specified approximately 90 percent slow-release nitrogen. He’s used some 14-14-14, and then some 20-4-12 with Dimension for the areas that get preemergent treatment. He may use a different formula for other areas and may add iron or a micronutrient package for some of the turf.

He handles weed, insect and disease problems following a stringent IPM program, with control products used only as required and on the smallest possible area. Berry says, “Cultural practices are our main method of attack. Since we, like many other facilities with tight budgets, face limited resources, I believe we have an obligation to our facilities to make the best use of everything in the arsenal. Little things, such as spot aeration with small, solid tines and keeping mower blades sharp, can make a big difference in turf health and vigor.”

Tying it all together

Berry interacts directly with Athletic Director Larry Carpenter. Both understand the importance of a continual flow of information. Berry says, “I know the coaches need to concentrate on their teams during the season, so I do more networking with them during the off-season. I make sure they know they can come to me with questions or problems at any time. It’s our job to keep the fields in top playing condition, working around their needs.”

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