How to maintain your natural turf sports field?

Feb 23|Natural TurfBy John Neylan

At SPORTENG, we’ve noted that the number of sports field constructions and renovations has increased quite dramatically over the past 6 years. The construction of new fields and the refurbishment of old fields is in response to:

  • The increasing demand for playing surfaces
  • Increasing number of users on individual fields

  • Expanding suburbs

  • Improved playing surface quality and safety

  • Developing the skills of all sports

While there’s a willingness to undertake the capital works, the challenge has been to maintain the playing surfaces at an appropriate standard to optimise the capital investment. The problem has often been that the level of maintenance isn’t in line with the capital investment or expectations, unfortunately resulting in costly projects that may not deliver the required outcome.

The following article on the maintenance of natural turf playing surfaces is based on the research of Neylan and Nickson (2019). Both have undertaken a research project to study Field of Play construction, maintenance and hours of use.

Why is a natural turf maintenance program important? 

Irrespective of how well a sports field is designed and constructed, an inadequate maintenance program will result in:

  • Turf deterioration and the development of bare areas
  • Poor surface playability
  • Increased risk of player injury
  • Increased costs of repair


high quality couch surface with a well timed maintenance programHigh quality couch surface with a well timed maintenance program

What are the objectives of a maintenance program?


The objectives of a natural turf maintenance program are relatively simple and can be summarised as follows:

  • To provide an even and resilient grass cover
  • To maintain adequate drainage and dry soils in winter
  • Have a high degree of water use efficiency
  • Maintain a sufficient level of fertility that allows the turf to cope with the wear
  • Keep the thatch (organic matter) under control
  • Adequate weed control


SE_M_ThatchAccumulationControlThatch accumulation must be monitored and kept under control


The maintenance program needs to reflect the:

  • Original capital investment
  • Soil type
  • Turf species
  • Hours of use
  • Required playing surface standards

Is there a standard natural turf maintenance program? 




The principles of turf maintenance are the same irrespective of how the Field of Play was constructed. These principles need to be applied to each sports field due to the differences in:

  • Rootzone soils
  • Drainage
  • Thatch accumulation
  • Grass type
  • Wear
  • Age of field

One size does not fit all and each Field of Play needs to be assessed according to the above elements and an appropriate maintenance program developed. This program needs to be regularly reviewed and adjusted to counteract the natural “deterioration” of sports turf surfaces such as:

  • Soil compaction
  • Thatch accumulation
  • Weeds and other pests
  • Reduced infiltration rate and drainage

What are the key elements of a natural turf maintenance program?

Irrespective of the type of construction, the maintenance must reflect the hours of use so as to minimise the level of damage and reduced playability. Most of the turf damage that occurs will be over the winter months when the:

  • Soils have an elevated moisture content
  • Turf growth is slow
  • Sports such as soccer, NRL and AFL are generally played in winter and by their nature are high traffic/wear sports

When considering the impact of the winter sports the key maintenance elements are:

  • Pre-winter fertilising to develop a strong and dense turf cover
  • Post-winter season renovation to restore the turf in the high traffic areas
  • Mid-winter aeration to keep the surface as dry as possible


The key maintenance elements are described in table 1.

Table 1: Key Natural Turf Maintenance Practices

Time of Year

Key Maintenance Program Elements






  • Strategic fertilising of high traffic areas (goal to goal line)
  • Attention to good irrigation practices
  • Summer weed control
  • Late summer lift cutting heights (where cricket permits) and fertilise so as to establish a good buffer of grass to better tolerate winter traffic





  • Deep tine aeration to relieve compaction
  • If overseeding provide a minimum of 4 weeks without traffic
  • Manage pre-season training
  • Apply a high phosphorus/high potassium fertiliser
  • Apply pre-emergent herbicide for weed control where there is no overseeding



  • Surface aeration to maintain adequate water infiltration





Spring/early summer

  • Irrigation system audit
  • Compaction relief
  • Fertilising (frequent and light applications) with a focus on the high wear areas
  • Weed control and removal of overseeded grasses
  • Mite control (multiple applications)
  • Immediate repair of high wear/worn out areas with solid turf
  • Hollow coring, scarifying and topdressing when the warm-season grasses are growing

How do we prepare our natural turf field for winter?

COVID-19 provided significant respite for many sportsfields during the winter of 2020 and possibly we have forgotten the effects that a wet and cold winter can have on poorly prepared sportsfields.

The winter months coincide with Rugby, Soccer and Australian Rules and each of these sports impose a high level of wear and turf damage at a time when grass growth is slow.

How can natural turf sportsfields be prepared for when growth is slow and soils are wet?

  • Reduce irrigation frequency as the weather gets cooler.
  • Promote a strong turf sward by fertilising late in the summer.
  • Lift the cutting height.
  • In the late summer, deep aeration is important for relieving compaction and providing for improved infiltration and drainage. Note: care needs to be taken with timing on high clay content soils and where there there is no subsoil drainage.
  • Control winter weeds such as Poa annua using pre-emergent herbicides.
  • Controlling use. This is almost the impossible dream, however, managing sportsfields in winter requires a great deal of coordination among administrators, coaches, and turf managers.

If you wish to know more about this subject, our Agronomy Specialist John Neylan shares best practices on winter management of natural turf sport field here.

How do we monitor our natural turf maintenance practices?

With any turf maintenance program, it’s important to assess the success or failure of the practices employed. There are several relatively simple measures that can be undertaken to determine:

  • Impact of the maintenance practices
  • Developing problems

In SPORTENG’s experience, the following measures are useful practices for monitoring maintenance practices:

  • Dig a hole and look at the profile conditions – e.g. compaction layers and root depth

SE_MK_LookAtProfileDigging a hole and looking at the profile conditions

  • Measuring thatch/organic matter depth
  • Measure soil moisture content to monitor irrigation practices
  • Use a soil penetrometer to measure soil compaction
  • Measure the infiltration rate
  • Use a drone with an NDVI camera to measure turf wear and turf health


Playing surface monitoring tools

  • Soil nutrient testing
  • Observation – the eyes don’t lie! Look for wear areas, weeds, insect pests, dry spots etc.

Tips and reminders for implementing a natural turf maintenance program

  • Every sports field will be different in its maintenance requirements
  • Develop a program based on needs and required surface quality
  • Review the success or failure of the program
  • Be strategic and not driven by the calendar
  • Monitor and assess turf quality

Developing an appropriate natural turf maintenance program is crucial in maintaining the value of the Field of Play asset. SPORTENG can provide a detailed agronomic evaluation of your sports fields and assist in developing an appropriate maintenance program.

Feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss more!


Reference: “Compare possible hours of use for different sports field construction types and maintenance inputs”. Sports Turf Association Victoria. Final Report. January 2019 


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