Overcoming weather obstacles, water protection issues and more

Steeped in history and perched amid the natural beauty of the Morris County New Jersey highlands is the growing community of Mount Olive Township. Jim Lynch, supervisor of parks, buildings and grounds for the Department of Public Works, says, “Mount Olive Township has a little over 1,920 acres of open space, with an additional 70 acres to be added in December of 2007. Our smallest parks are about an acre in size, with most ranging from 35 to 80 acres.

The snow is cleared away and the field is ready for play.
Inset: The Mount Olive High School football stadium in 2002 with the crew in action moving 10 inches of snow.

“Our maintenance building is a 160-year-old stone barn that was part of a farm complex now encompassed by the 267 acres of our largest site, Turkey Brook Park. The historic site has never been subdivided since it was acquired as a land grant from the King of England. The 5,000-square-foot Seward mansion is located near the front of the property. Mr. Seward was a first cousin to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Seward, who purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.”

Turkey Brook Park is 1,150 feet above sea level. A former irrigation lake at the rear of the property has been designated as a wetland under the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act. A 1-acre pond near the front of the site is a current irrigation source. The region’s glaciers formed Budd Lake, which spreads across part of the area. Hardwood forests range across the steep slopes.

Lynch says, “Only 80 acres of Turkey Brook Park have been developed. That space includes four soccer fields, three Little League baseball fields, one softball field, one football field, a children’s playground, two tennis courts, two outdoor basketball courts, two beach volleyball courts and a picnic gazebo.”

The annual carnival held at Turkey Brook Park each July draws over 15,000 people.

The Mount Olive area presents some unique challenges. There are the Highlands Preservation area and water protection issues, pesticide issues, endangered species to protect, and weed and sediment threats to the glacier lake. The school system has almost doubled in the last 15 years, bringing a corresponding influx of young athletes with diverse social and sports backgrounds to the parks. The township also is split into two sections, with the Flanders section almost 200 feet lower in elevation than the Budd Lake section. Thus, weather patterns vary greatly. Lynch says, “We’ve plowed snow off the roads in Budd Lake while Flanders only got rain, and it’s all in the same town.”

Though already working at a golf course, Lynch’s original career path was headed toward teaching history. A change in Rutgers’ education department offerings led him to switch to turf management. He earned an associate degree from a local community college, his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers and then added a two-year degree in the Rutgers Golf Course Turf Management Program. Looking toward the long-term best fit for his family, he left his assistant golf superintendent post in 2001 to head back home to Mount Olive and put his expertise to work in the parks.

The big picture

Lynch and his staff of seven full-time personnel are responsible for the maintenance of 15 buildings and all the park space, which includes the hardscape and landscape features, as well as the athletic fields. Lynch has categorized the six largest parks by their on-site facilities and use levels, prioritizing them for funding and maintenance as three major and three minor sites. His staff also maintains all the elementary school athletic fields and, as part of a move to more shared services within governmental agencies, will also be assuming the middle school and high school fields in 2008.

This aerial shot shows the sports fields of Turkey Brook Park under construction.

Lynch says, “We currently have nine soccer fields covering approximately 22.5 acres of fenced space; 13 Little League level baseball fields and two 90-foot baseball diamonds; two softball fields; two football/soccer fields; three new fields recently developed for lacrosse; four hard surface tennis courts; five beach volleyball courts; seven outdoor basketball courts; 7 miles of trails for hiking, biking and occasional cross-country use; three large playgrounds and numerous smaller ones; one municipal beach; two walking tracks that are plowed throughout the winter; and a dog park that opened in mid-October. The upper level school sites will add another six natural grass fields and one synthetic FieldTurf field system. The synthetic surface accommodates soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. Football practices and games use the natural grass fields.

“Our parks fields host school teams for soccer and baseball. User groups include many youth, instructional-recreation leagues for all the sports, travel leagues for the same sports and adult leagues for soccer, along with a local soccer club. Some of our funding is through the New Jersey Green Acres program, so we also host county leagues. We hold an annual carnival the last week of July at our Turkey Brook Park that draws over 15,000 people, with 8,000 on-site for the fireworks on one night of that event. And, if we have any space left, there are rental groups that want to use the fields.”

Athletic field basics

All but one of the sports fields consist of heavy clay native soil, similar to a push-up putting green, so both infiltration into the soil and percolation through it are typically slow. There is one sand-based soccer field, with an 85:15 sand to peat ratio. The soccer fields at this site are clustered in groups on terraced levels. Most of the adjacent fields are at an elevation of 1,120 feet. The sand-based field is on the top level at an elevation of 1,148 feet, so water from it drains down to the lower, slower-draining fields.

The first pitch of the Cal Ripken District Tournament on baseball field #1.

The Turkey Brook Park fields were constructed six years ago and were sodded with a blend of Kentucky bluegrasses. Since then, they’ve been overseeded with a mix of perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass varieties and with a blend consisting of only perennial ryegrass varieties. The majority of the fields at all the sites are now a mix of Kentucky bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses with some turf-type tall fescues added on some fields. Lynch says, “We pre-germinate our seed in 50-pound batches for spot overseeding to get it started faster because of our heavy field-use schedules.”

Because cold weather lingers into spring, with still dormant grasses and blizzards both likely in early April, Lynch has promoted an April 15 open date for spring sports. The fall-winter sports season traditionally wraps up the weekend of November 17 with snow a strong possibility by that point as well.

The field maintenance program

Working with the climatic variations within the split elevations is key to managing the field maintenance program. Lynch says, “We have about a two week longer season at the lower elevation fields on the south side in Flanders, so we start our spring maintenance there and gradually work our way up the mountain. Our athletic fields were developed in what was previously open farmland. The combination of elevation and the winds gives us an almost Colorado-type climate on the fields, a strange kind of juxtaposition with the wetlands and the mountains. The only disease pressure we’ve experienced was a 4-foot-by-8-foot patch of Pythium in an area protected by a windscreen. We removed the windscreen and the Pythium disappeared.”

Irrigation systems are installed only at the municipal facility fields at Turkey Brook Park, the two multiuse football/soccer fields, the two 90-foot baseball fields, two Little League baseball fields, one softball field and for the landscaping at town hall. Maintenance practices on the nonirrigated fields must be more flexible to work around nature’s irrigation patterns.

Core aeration begins in April, using .75-inch hollow tines that side-eject. The cores are chopped and dragged in with a mat, and excess thatch is blown off the field surface. Overseeding and fertilization follow. Lynch says, “Generally, this process is repeated in September, but with only 1/10 of an inch of rain in six weeks, the irrigation pond was too low to attempt it this year. Then, the second week of October, it rained 4 inches in three days. We do solid-tine aerate and overseed again in mid-season, as field use permits, and spot aerify in high traffic areas as often as we can fit it in.”

The skinned infields of the softball and baseball fields are worked in April, with new infield mix added to half of the fields on an every-other-year rotation.

The most heavily used irrigated fields receive between 6 and 8 pounds of nitrogen per year, starting in April with applications timed at two to three-week intervals to spoon-feed the turf. All applications are granular. Lynch frequently uses a 24-0-9 formulation, but does vary the nutrients content to fit turf needs. Phosphorus is applied only as required, generally in a 14-14-14 formulation. Lynch uses wetting agents as the third component of the fertilization and water management program to maximize uptake.

Mowing frequency varies from twoto three times a week, based on theturf growth rate.A Toro greens moweris used on the baseball infields cuttingat 7/8 of an inch. Rotary mowers areused on the remaining turf with a 2 to2.25-inch height of cut. The goal is tomaintain a dense, consistent turf withthe striped appearance of a game-dayfield.

Turkey Brook Park football field in the 5-yard striped pattern for summer maintenance.

The IPM plan implementation isbased on funding and water availability.Control products are appliedonly when cultural practice adjustmentshave not produced acceptable results, and then only as spot treatmentsto the affected areas. Mowersare dedicated to either field areas ornon-field areas. Those dedicated tothe fields are washed after each use tominimize translocation of weedseeds.

Pulling it all together

Lynch says, “The sports associationshandle the striping and lining of fieldsfor practices and games, which is ahuge asset to our overall program. Ican’t stress enough how much weappreciate the cooperation and understandingof the presidents of theseassociations. They not only allow meto educate their coaches, but also workin partnership with us to preservefield quality. During our recentdrought stress they backed off onpractices or moved them to secondtierfield locations to help alleviate theimpact on our top-tier, irrigatedfields.”

Lynch is a strong proponent ofproactive communication, using email,text messaging, his desk and cellphones and direct personal contact tokeep the information flowing.He says,”There’s nothing better for our turfmanagement program than beingaccessible. I value the opportunity tomeet in person with our administration,council, our sports associationboards and our coaches.”

Going above and beyond is part ofthe program for Lynch and his staff.The Mount Olive High School footballteam had earned its way to thestate championship game in 2002.Ten inches of snow threatened cancellation,with the designated site,Rutgers University, unable to holdthe big game. After working on roadsnow removal all night, the crewsupported use of the Mount Olivestadium and moved in at daybreakto clear the field. Over 6,000 bravedthe cold and snow to show their support.Mount Olive won 14-13 for itsfirst title. That effort set the standardfor the community’s sports fieldprograms.

The biggest challenge is the sheermagnitude of the program, servingall the sports needs of the 26,000residents and finding the fundingand resources to do it. Lynch says,”Mount Olive has an incrediblecombination of public officials andadministrators and dedicated citizensthat are committed to workingtogether for the good of the community.It’s a true team effort. My staff[Ed Lata, foreman; Robert “Radar”Grignon; Frank Nelson, Graig Fargo;John Geiger; Steve Steinert; andGreg Widzemok] is excellent, thebest there could be. We have thegreatest job in the world. No matterhow hard or how long we’ve worked,when we see and hear those kidshaving fun in our parks, it’s allworthwhile.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty &Associates, a communications and marketresearch firm located in CouncilBluffs, Iowa.