Written By: Tom Burns
National Sports Fields Specialist at Ewing Irrigation and Landscape Supply
With the arrival of the summer heat, we are all concerned with keeping moisture in our turf, but often may forget about the infield skin. Weather patterns have changed and most areas are either in drought or flood.
Either way, proper moisture management is critical for a safe, playable infield skin.
Proper moisture content
How much water do I apply to my infield. That’s the most frequent question I’m asked, but it’s difficult to answer due to many different variables including weather conditions, time of game, rate of absorption and depth of conditioner.
To find out the amount of water needed, start with a key test. If you have the correct moisture content, you should be able to insert a key one to two inches into the ground without using too much force and remove it cleanly. This simulates a player’s cleat. With a quality base soil and proper moisture and conditioner, a player’s cleats should go in and out of the surface without chipping out soil.
How to apply moisture
The most common way to apply moisture is by using a hose and nozzle, each at least one inch. Apply water until puddling occurs, and then move to a new area. Try to be as consistent as possible. You may need to repeat this process several times. This should be done several hours before game time. Knowing how much to apply is a learning process. Groundskeepers in professional leagues spend the majority of their time on game days hydrating the skin.
On recreational fields, groundskeepers have a different challenge due to multiple games starting early in the morning and lasting until evening. The process I described above is often not feasible. An alternate option is to incorporate a “skin zone” into an irrigation system.
The zone is comprised of several high-speed irrigation heads aimed at the skinned area and can be used at night when the win is generally calmer and evaporation is lower, allowing the water to soak into the soil. A sprinkler head, attached to a quick coupler key, is also an option. These can be used between games, if time allows, to replenish the moisture in the skin. Think outside the box!
Conditioners & Topdressing
Conditioners are not just for rain events. They provide a sliding surface and are good moisture management tool, serving as a mulch layer on a landscape bed to shade the base soil and hold moisture. Expanded shale topdressing, like ProSlide, absorb water at a slow rate and allow beneficial moisture to penetrate into the base soil.
Calcined clay conditioners absorb water quickly and tend to hold more water at the surface. Both are good choices and you may want to use them together. A good starting point is 2/3 ProSlide to 1/3 calcined clay. Every field is different; find out what works best for you.
How much conditioner/topdressing to apply
Start by applying around 1/8 to 1/4-inch of conditioner/topdressing. Too much and the ball will skid across the field; too little and the skin will lose moisture too quickly. Aim for a nice, consistent layer with no bare spots.
Another good tip is to avoid excessive nail dragging in the hot summer months. Only cut deep enough to remove cleat marks and loosen the soil to allow you to maintain the surface grade. Remember, when you cut the soil open, you’re allowing moisture to escape.
Working the skin properly is an art. It takes patience and dedication. One of the greatest things about our profession is that there’s not just one way to maintain a field. Don’t get caught up with what you think you can’t do; instead, focus on what you can do!