County begins blanketing overused playing fields

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

February 03, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

Now I lay thee down to sleep, tiny grass seeds spread to keep. With a blanket oh so warm, to save them all from winter's harm.

SO, OK, "WARM" and "harm" don't rhyme as well aurally as they do visually. What's more important here is that we've another grassy plot you might find interesting.

It's a tale involving grass seed, a smidgen of the Redskins and TV, and, mainly, how two county youth sports groups are trying to help themselves by helping a county government agency try yet again for better turf this spring.

Visit Cedar Lane Park's main soccer/field hockey/lacrosse fields, and you'll see a light-color tarpaulin extending from one soccer goal, 100 yards straight down to the far soccer goal. Seen from above, the tarp - marketed by a Canadian firm as an Evergreen Turf Blanket - covers roughly the center third of the field, the part that gets the most abuse from cleats in all those sports.

Shortly, you'll be seeing another blanket installed at one of Rockburn Branch's two overused multipurpose fields - that same place the Department of Recreation and Parks wanted (still wants to, in fact) to install synthetic turf.

"It's an effort - we're trying," said Mike Milani, a sports coordinator for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, referring to the heavily used fields with their mostly dirt midsections.

But, Milani said, this trial wouldn't have happened without help - dollars - from the Howard County Lacrosse Program and the Columbia Bulldogs, a youth football group.

"We wanted to try them out, but we didn't have the money," Milani said. "But I'll tell you, if we had more, we'd try them, too." Centennial Park fields, for example, are just as devastated, although they're now sodded in hope of better turf this spring.

"We just want to help," said Ellicott City's Kevin Campbell, president of the lacrosse program, one of the largest youth sports programs here and a heavy user of both school-system and rec-and-parks fields. "A year ago, we couldn't have done this, but we saved some money, and this is a good use for it. They asked for the assistance.

"The real issue is that there aren't enough fields for all these groups to play on and let turf rest. We're as bad as everyone else, of course, but our girls and boys programs keep growing - and so does the adult game."

Added Rick Valentine, who heads the 180-player Bulldogs, a fall fixture at Cedar Lane Park: "We're trying to do whatever we can to help the county in this financially stressed time. They've been very good to us over the years."

Valentine pointed out that his club won't start playing until late summer, so "the guys in spring will benefit more from this than we will, I guess. ... But the lighted fields get so much play. We thought it's the right thing to do."

The lightweight blankets cost about $1,500 apiece, and their distributor says they'll last six or seven years. They're not solid fabric; rather, they're woven polyethylene straps, a spokesman said, porous enough to allow some sunlight and rain through while retaining heat to nurture the grass.

The manufacturer claims the product protects against frost, promotes seed germination and helps grass green up earlier in the spring. And it works, which brings up that Redskins-TV angle.

The first large-scale application of the Turf Blanket, said Larry Moreland, of Covermaster Inc., was at Washington's RFK Stadium about 15 years ago. That surface was Bermuda grass, which turns brown in cold weather - bad for TV. So stadium management and the Redskins agreed to try the blanket approach to extend, in effect, the growing season, Moreland said, and the rest is history.

The same product is now used at the Ravens' stadium and in Landover, at FedEx Field, to name two facilities you might know. Another satisfied client, Moreland said, is the Arlington County (Va.) rec-and-parks department, which has "bought a number of them" in recent years for exactly the same problem Howard County has.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail tolowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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