In sod they trust: big rolls get the nod for big ticket projects
If it’s true that landscaping in the 1990s is about much more than aesthetics, then it’s no wonder “big roll” sod is being used with increasing frequency.
The big roll variety, which comes in dimensions usually ranging from two to four feet wide and from 25 to 100 feet long, can cost more to install than conventional square slabs or smaller rolls, but offers immediate results, requires less ongoing maintenance and effectively controls erosion.
“The concept was first introduced and played with probably 30 years ago and got nowhere, but within the last five or six years the big roll has taken off like a rocket,” says Douglas Fender, executive director of the Turfgrass Producers International, Rolling Meadows, Ill.
Big rolls are an alternative to square slabs (generally about four feet-by-four feet) and conventional rolled sod (often 18 inches wide and four or six feet long). Such smaller pieces leave more seams (made worse by shrinkage) where weeds can grow. They can also be more labor-intensive to install because more cutting is needed and are more susceptible to being dislodged or moved by people walking or running on them.
(A benefit of sod in general is that water runoff is not only less of a factor than with seed-established landscaping, but the water is generally much cleaner and more chemical-free, according to a water quality impact study conducted by Pennsylvania State University. The study, funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, noted that most chemicals applied to turf grass are trapped within the thatch and root zone areas of the plant and do not contaminate water supplies.)
Still, while big rolls can be cost-effective, their practicality depends largely on the size and type of project.
A landscaper’s decision to use big roll is comparable to a painter’s choice of a roller over a brush. If a job entails painting large sections of wall and ceiling with few fixtures, windows or door frames, a roller is ideal.
If, on the other hand, numerous nooks and crannies, windows and door frames exist, the brush would be the better choice.
In the same way, golf courses, athletic playing fields and highway right-of-way areas are more conducive to the large-scale applications of big roll. The quantity of sod installed at one time as well as the installation equipment used for big rolls necessitate large, open tracts that are relatively free of obstructions.
“You’re looking for relatively flat applications or gently undulating applications like fairways,” says Tim Nugent, a principal with Nugent & Associates, a Long Grove, Ill., company specializing in golf course design. Sprinklers or some type of irrigation system may be needed, too, if it is a large application.
Conversely, small patches of grass, steep embankments and parks with lots of trees, shrubs and playground equipment probably are not suitable, but would lend themselves to slabs or smaller rolls of sod.
Success stories Municipal golf courses are increasingly using big roll sod, and big rolls have also gained favor with groundskeepers at many stadiums, including HoHoKam Park, the Chicago Cubs’ spring training home owned and operated by the city of Mesa, Ariz., and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
The sod used in stadiums and on recreational playing fields is often produced in thick cuts that will not break apart with rugged use.
Consequently, big roll sod was put down following the “mud bowl” playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers that left Lambeau Field a mess. Less than a week later the Packers and Carolina Panthers played on a much-improved field.
The municipal golf course in Highland Park, Ill.; the Harris County Flood Control District near Houston; and Olympic Stadium in Atlanta (now Turner Field) have also successfully used big roll sod.
At Olympic Stadium, the field was damaged during opening ceremonies, and imminent track and field competition ruled out the protracted process of seeding, fertilizing and watering.
Big roll sod was the clear choice, in part because of the large surface area that needed to be covered, but also because its use would minimize the number of seams, which can cause problems for athletes, says Thomas Donnelly, vice president of the Southeast Region for Valley Crest, a Calabasas, Calif.-based landscaping company in charge of grounds maintenance at the stadium.
“Because the stadium was going to be back in service within 36 hours of the installation, it was absolutely critical that the sod not move,” says Donnelly. “When the TV coverage began, you couldn’t tell if the sod had been there for a year.”
Installation equipment Various types of equipment, including a self-propelled apparatus that resembles a lawnmower, can be used to install big roll sod. As the roll is laid out, a crew follows behind with rake-like tools used to push the sod into place. In addition, attachments can be rigged up to skid steers or tractors to lay the sod, and in some applications, a boom crane can be used.
Weather – specifically the threat of rain – is crucial. Temperature is not, as evidenced by the Lambeau field installation, performed in frigid January. Site accessibility is also important, since large projects dictate numerous trips from the delivery truck to the installation site.
Normally, landscapers planning to use big roll sod should call a producer long before the job begins to obtain a commitment for delivery of a certain amount of the sod, says Nugent. Once a firm timetable is established, the landscaper should call the producer just two or three weeks before delivery is needed to give an approximate date. Then, the day before delivery is needed, another call is made to confirm the exact time and location.
Once the sod is delivered, it must be laid down fairly quickly (generally within 36 to 48 hours) or it will dry out and become useless.
Heavy, sustained rain at the time of delivery is disastrous because it washes away carefully prepped soil, to which landscapers may have added fertilizer and a variety of nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium, lime and/or nitrogen.
Moreover, the weight of the equipment will dig muddy ruts into the ground, further worsening installation conditions. Landscapers need to be sure their work crews understand the unloading, fitting and trimming duties that are a part of big roll installation.
A rule of thumb, says Paul Huggett, a turf producer from Long Island Farm, Marshall, Wis., is that for every installing machine, three to five support people are needed to supply the sod, do the fitting and haul away empty tubes. Generally, the sod must be watered daily for at least a week for the roots to firmly take hold.
Getting the word out The upfront cost may dissuade municipalities from purchasing any type of sod. But, notes Fender, cost savings resulting from sod will be spread out over the months following installation.
A municipality that jumps at the low bid submitted by a seeding contractor may be unaware of the costs it will incur in the months to come. “The critical point is, who is going to be responsible for the quality?” says Fender.
With sod, many of the costs of management, maintenance, water, chemicals and fertilizers – along with therisk of failure – areincluded in the initial cost.
The alternatives – seeding, sprigging or hydroseeding (spraying a slurry of water and either grass seed or sprigs combined with a tackifier) – tend to hide these long-range costs from the buyer, says Fender. But if the newly planted grass is to flourish, these maintenance costs certainly will be incurred.
Turfgrass Producers International recently conducted a survey of landscape professionals, including park and golf course superintendents, landscape architects and contractors. The organization asked which major factors influenced the decision of whether to sod (with either big roll or the conventional type), seed or hydroseed. The top five factors, in order, were 1) the visual impact of the area to be planted; 2) size; 3) slope; 4) establishment time; and 5) availability of irrigation.
Landscapers said they preferred sod for smaller areas and seed for larger tracts. The survey concludes that this finding is reflective of an apparent lack of knowledge of big roll application techniques.
The researchers concluded, “Most of the industry apparently believes that large areas are problematical in sodding. This perception will severely limit the expansion of the sod industry for two reasons: more and more large-scale turf grass areas are being planned, and the large-scale turf grass projects represent tremendous monetary values.
“The industry needs further education concerning the new techniques of large-scale sodding, which is relatively fast and efficient. This is especially the case with the introduction of the big roll of turf sod.
Developing an adequate drainage system was only part of the challenge for designers of a new parking facility for military vehicles at the Camp Shelby (Miss.) military base since torrential and frequent spring rains threatened to cause serious erosion problems at the 6.5-acre construction site.
Architect Ferdinand Walker had to develop a system to protect a narrow strip of grass that receives runoff from the parking area. The pavement was carefully graded to slow runoff into the grass, and Enkamat 7010, a flexible geomatrix turf reinforcement matting by Akzo Nobel Geosynthetics, Enka, N.C., was installed to protect turf in the 300-foot-long, five-foot-wide strip from being eroded by the region’s heavy spring rains.
“We needed a material that would allow us to work within certain space restrictions,” Walker says. The lightweight reinforcement matting offered the flexibility needed and will aid in root growth, he adds.
Walker explains that the parking area was paved so that water would run off evenly over the entire surface and dissipate flow velocity, a method called “sheet flowing.” Since the runoff is distributed over a wide area and not channeled to one particular point, the threat of erosion is reduced. Nevertheless, heavy rains increase the volume of water emptying into the grass.
“We had to change our original surface drainage design because of underground sewer lines installed during World War II,” says Walker.
Despite the use of sheet flowing on the parking lot, the underground lines “caused us to change some slopes and directions and increased the water velocity,” says Walker. “So what you end up with is a lot of water being drained into a relatively small area.”
The Camp Shelby erosion control project began in August 1996 and was completed about four months later. Lt. Col. Ken Barden, who managed the project, says the reinforcement matting has performed well through unusually heavy rains during construction and in the early months of 1997.
Much like nature has done since the dawn of time and Native Americans did in past generations, the Kansas City Aviation Department used fire to influence grass growth at the Kansas City International Airport. In what they have proclaimed a successful operation, employees burned about 85 acres of the airport’s native prairie grass to enhance its appearance and health once it grewback.
The native grass program, which won an award from the National Roadside Vegetation Management Association, in-volves planting and cultivating native grasses, herbs and flowers to foster a natural environment and improve wildlife habitat. Benefits include lower maintenance costs and less need for fertilizers and herbicides.
As winds permitted, workers started the controlled burn along the airport’s inbound parkway. The burn posed a challenge for field maintenance personnel because the smoke had to be kept from obscuring the view of both pilots and motorists.
Workers needed to wait until the wind direction was cooperative so all of the work could be done during off-peak airport times. In addition, flight patterns needed to be altered so that aircraft were taking off away from the smoke.
Because the aviation department planned the controlled burn with the Federal Aviation Administration, air traffic controllers strategically used the airport’s three runways to keep aircraft from taking off and landing in the smoke.
Workers used leaf blowers to “corral” the fire and keep adjacent regular grass from igniting. In addition, water supplies were kept on hand in case the fire spread too far.
The entire operation took about five-and-a-half hours, according to Jerry Brown, field maintenance superintendent for the department. “It wouldn’t have taken as long, except that this was the first time we did it, and we were extremely cautious.”
The burning eliminates weeds and other extraneous vegetation so that when the grass grows back, it faces less competition for soil, water and sunshine.
“Fire has always been a factor in determining which plants grow in prairies and can control most woody plants and herbaceous weeds,” says Brown. “At the same time, it can stimulate desirable plants by reducing competition from cool-season grasses, which use large quantities of soil moisture and nutrients.”
Additionally, field personnel determined that conventional grass maintenance methods – mowing, baling the clippings and hauling off the bales – are likely to produce more pollutants than actual burning.
Smoke produced from grass fires consists mostly of water vapor, carbon, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and minute amounts of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. But because of the low levels of these pollutants, detrimental effects are negligible. Conversely, mowing, raking, baling and hauling the bales to storage produces pollutants from the internal combustion engines used.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Resource Conservation Service, Missouri Department of Conservation and the Kansas City Health Department also took part in the project.
The end result has been healthy new grass with fewer weeds. “It came back, and it’s better looking than it has ever been,” Brown says.