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Turf Tactics: Planning for Cooler Weather
Warm weather soon will give way to cooler temperatures and eventually winter. Before that happens, grounds managers should take the opportunity provided by warm weather to inspect turf areas, assess the needs of these areas, and take action that will prepare turf for cold weather.
The process of winter preparation must include a discussion of grounds inspections, staffing, and scheduling strategies, all with the goal of ensuring that crews can carry out their winter-preparation tasks efficiently and cost-effectively.
Late summer or early fall is the best time for managers to assess turf areas and determine the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s turf management program.
First, determine the criteria for judging the health and appearance of the turf. Different areas of the site might require different criteria. For example, standards for front entry lawns are likely to differ from the standards set for loading dock areas, and managers will judge athletic fields differently than leisure lawns.
Many times, persons in areas of an organization other than the grounds crew — such as the athletic director, marketing director, or CEO — are setting appearance standards for turf areas. Ultimately, however, it is up to the grounds crew to determine the specific characteristics and how to accomplish the goals.
In setting up turf evaluations, it is best to set specific standards so that all evaluators are on the same page. Among the areas to consider:
- Color. Is the turf a healthy, uniform green color? The shade of green might be different depending on species and variety. Are there variations in color due to improper fertilization, uneven watering or other improper cultural practices?
- Density. Does the turf show worn spots due to heavy traffic, shade, mower scalping, insects or disease?
- Weeds. What is ratio of weeds to desirable grass? Do the weeds detract from the lawn’s appearance and health? Weeds might be broadleaf, such as dandelion or thistle, or they might be grassy, such as crabgrass, tall fescue or annual bluegrass in a Kentucky bluegrass or ryegrass lawn.
- Mowing. Has the lawn been mowed to the proper height to maintain optimal health? Has it been scalped, generally mowed too short or allowed to grow too tall? Is the mowing pattern attractive and efficient? Are mower blades balanced, or is the cut uneven? Are blades sharp, or has the grass been torn and tattered?
- Thatch. Is the thatch thickness detrimental to proper growth?
- Soil. Soil testing can help determine any needs for specific nutrients or amendments that might be needed to improve the growing conditions for turf. Improving the soil also can lead to significant positive changes in the turf health and appearance.
Soil testing is best done by a professional laboratory. The lab also might be able to provide recommendations for fertility programs and soil amendments that might change the turf chemistry or its physical properties.
Planning for Improvement
Following inspections and evaluations of turf areas, managers can start scheduling actions for improving turf. Fall is a great time to complete lawn renovations, including aeration, dethatching, overseeding, slit seeding, topdressing, fertilization and weed control.
If lawns need total renovation, workers can spray them with a non-selective herbicide to kill existing vegetation, then seed them so seeds can germinate and become established before the first killing frost. A good rule is to seed 45 days before the average date of the first frost. Fall seeding is usually more successful than spring seeding because the soil is warmer in fall, the evenings are cooler, and there is more moisture. Seeds will germinate more quickly. Also, many annual weeds, such as crabgrass, will die with the first frost, so seed will face less competition for nutrients, sunlight and moisture.
If some areas must be sodded, renovations can take place later in fall, as long as vegetation killer is still effective. Workers can lay sod until the ground freezes.
In warm climates, crews can overseed warm-season grasses with rye grass in fall to provide a lush, green look throughout the winter. In more temperate climates, fertilization every four to six weeks throughout fall and winter will keep it green and attractive. In northern climates, where the grasses go dormant, late-fall fertilization is important to winter survival and a quicker “green up” in spring.
Managers will need to schedule weed control for those times when the weeds are growing. If this step occurs too late in the winter and the plants are hardened, the control will be ineffective.
The timing of turf applications in fall must coordinate with leaf cleanup. Fertilization, weed control, lawn renovations and even aeration are impossible if the lawns are covered in leaves. Crews should complete these tasks before or after most of the leaves have fallen and are raked or blown away. Leaf drop typically is a three- to four-week event in many parts of the country. Often, mowing over leaves to chop them up before blowing or vacuuming can reduce the time required and increase the hauling capacity.
Another timing issue to consider relates to equipment use. If workers use mowing units as leaf vacuums or blowers, managers need to schedule mowing and leaf cleanup on separate days. This tactic seems obvious, but without forethought and coordination, two crews could end up needing the same equipment at the same time.
Finally, if turf areas need major improvements — such as around paved areas where traffic has worn the grass away — there will be time to develop and execute a game plan or at least determine the costs before setting budgets for next year.
Cooler weather might mean a slowdown in work load or at least a change in activities. For example, time normally spent on mowing might be exchanged for fall leaf and debris clean-up, aeration or topdressing.
Grounds care activities for fall and winter include:
- Leaf and debris cleanup. This is usually a three- to four-week event.
- Mowing. In some parts of the country, weekly mowing continues, while in other areas, mowing is reduced to every other week. In northern climates, mowing ceases with the onset of winter.
- Lawn renovations. Managers should schedule them in late summer or early fall. Crews should continue with proper mowing heights throughout the winter months.
- Core aeration. This task can take place anytime as long as the ground is not frozen.
- Overseeding. This is a great follow-up to core aeration.
- Topdressing. Topdressing lawn areas with up to 1⁄2 inch of topsoil can improve plant health and soil biology. It also can help to even up irregularities in the ground plane. Topdressing is also a great follow-up to aeration and overseeding.
- Fertilization and weed control. This task is essential in the fall and just before winter.
Other productive tasks for fall and winter months include dormant pruning, mulching, erecting seasonal light displays, cleaning and maintaining trucks and trailers, removing ice and snow, and installing landscape materials.
Following the spring rush and summer heat, fall is a good time to evaluate staff and staffing needs. Employees are well seasoned, and the demanding workload and its challenges are past but still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Managers should allow time for employees to set goals for personal and professional growth. The fall and winter months also offer excellent opportunities to attend industry trade shows and professional seminars. Consider opportunities offered by professional organizations for training and certifications.
Managers also should look for ways to improve worker productivity. A great way to do this is to get all employees involved in staffing and planning. List the tasks performed by the department, and determine who is the best at each, in terms of speed, safety and quality, and have this person explain in detail each step in doing the job.
Someone in the organization should document each step to find out what others do differently. Identify the roadblocks or difficulties that reduce efficiency, and discuss solutions to the problems.
Also, managers and crews need to determine if the process is efficient. Even the best person might not be as efficient as possible. Managers need to discuss if the process needs to be tweaked or completely overhauled, then challenge the team to find ways to improve, measure successes and celebrate even the smallest increment of positive change.
Finally, to remain cost-effective at this time of year, managers might need to reduce or eliminate overtime, let seasonal labor go, or find work for employees in other parts of the organization. Look for work other than grounds maintenance, such as equipment repair, painting, remodeling office space, carpentry, tree planting or other landscape installations, and garbage collection.
During slow times, workers can inspect turf-care equipment including mowers, spreaders, sprayers, aerators, seeders, and irrigation systems. If equipment requires repair or replacement, late fall and early winter months allow time for repairs or to research new equipment. Workers also can inspect trucks and trailers at this time of year to avoid downtime during busier months.
Finally, don’t forget to monitor the irrigation system during the fall and winter. Typically, irrigation needs decrease with cooler weather. Adjust controllers as needed to avoid unnecessary watering. In northern climates, crews should winterize irrigation systems to eliminate damage from freezing temperatures.