WRITTEN BY: PATRICK COAKLEY
The extended winter we are having here at the beginning of 2018 has re-emphasized to me the importance of proper preparation of our infield skins. This may seem like an obvious statement, but too many times I see examples of people thinking season to season instead of year to year. You don’t deal with spring conditions in the spring; you deal with it in the previous fall. The Sports Turf Manager needs to plan 1 ½ to 2 years out when organizing his/her maintenance practices. Don’t try to prep for the spring in February. Preparation for next year begins before this year ends.
During my time in Altoona, PA, the Eastern League schedule would start in the first few days of April. If we opened at home, just getting the field playable could give you night sweats, never mind sneaking in an early college game sometime in March. One year we hosted a Pitt vs. Penn State game in March. We had unusually warm weather the day of that game, but the previous few weeks were normal for that area (cold, cloudy). What nobody realized is that we didn’t step foot on that infield until the day of the game. And that is what saved us. I knew from past mistakes that if I tried to scratch it, roll it, or (God forbid) till it up, I would have ruined any chance of it drying while still staying firm. A couple years before that I tried to roll the infield thinking it would help firm it up. All I did was destroy it causing myself extra work I didn’t need. Luckily we opened on the road that year so I had some extra time.
These two examples highlight the most important tool you have in preparing your infield early in the year: patience.
One of the common things you hear said during these times is “Well, we have to do something.” My argument is, don’t “do something,” do the right thing. And sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.
Control what you can control. Go work on your bullpens, the mound, the plate, the things you can do in the cold. When it comes to your infield, if you can’t walk on it, you can’t work on it. When your infield is soft, tilling it will turn it to mud. Rolling it can cause ruts, or you get stuck. Does scratching it, even by hand, really help? You are probably putting many footprints on the field to be fixed later and usually you are trying to dry 3-4 inches below the surface. That time of year, especially the further north you go, you could be stuck in limbo of a partially thawed field. The top two inches could be dry but it is still like walking on a mattress because of the muddy conditions 4 inches down. So…leave it alone.
Once you get to a point where you can walk on it without leaving footprints, you can start thinking about getting more aggressive. If you can take a small utility vehicle, like the ABI Force, on it without the dirt pumping or making ruts you have some more options. Needle tines with a walk behind aerator work nicely to dry the lower few inches without ruining the stability of your dirt, like tilling would (Did I mention tilling is bad?). A pitch fork works if you have little money, but much energy is needed. Remember my previous example of the Pitt vs. Penn State game. I did nothing until gameday. Add my topdressing and drag. Then play ball. Anything you try, just ask yourself: what do I hope to actually accomplish? Doing something just to make it look like your trying is not a smart strategy. Go work on the warning track and give yourself the best chance to play.
So what can you do in the fall to help? I always did my laser grading in the late fall. In fact my goal was to be 100% game ready going into winter so that in the spring I just have to dry it (or wait for it to dry), add some topdressing, and play ball. You may need to edge in the spring, but if you edge one extra time when the grass stops growing that can last in an extended winter like this year. Once you are on grade, get your infield as tight as possible, roll it and leave it. Don’t even drag. Just roll it and walk away. This tends to seal it off for the winter. Make sure to remove your topdressing before grading. If you don’t, it may end up in your outfield, but it will mostly end up on your edges causing huge lips that will need to be fixed before play. In the north where you have more drastic freeze and thaw, you will still be soft on the top 1-2 inches. I used to call it the winter fluff layer. This even happens under the tarps on the mounds that I would try to get concrete tight before covering. If you are patient and wait, one roll of the skin and even the mounds to pack down that fluff, you will be good to go. Do not let spring fever and pressure to “do something” make you try this early. It is a fine line between having an easy time of it and creating a disaster.
Many times I see people trying to get their grading done in the spring. For me, it was too unpredictable. In my experience, I never saw frost heaves so big that it disrupted my laser grading from the fall. Wind can make things messy, but not to an extreme that it rendered a laser grading useless. Crossing my fingers and hoping the weather is good enough to get it done just made me nervous. Do it in the fall so once the snow goes away, you just have to let it firm up, not worry about adding material and grading then getting it firm. Too much can go wrong in that scenario for me.
What you do in the fall directly affects your success in the spring. We know it is true with turf, but the same goes for the dirt. Patience and communication are vital. Patience will keep you from doing anything silly like I did in my earlier example. Communication will let people (your boss) know that just because they don’t see you on the infield, doesn’t mean you are not doing anything. In this case, exercise the muscle that matters most, the one between your ears, and knock some other things off the to-do list. Control the things you can control and work with Mother Nature instead of trying to fight her. Because we know, nature always wins.