Austin Parks and Recreation helps Zilker Park grass recover after ACL

Eva Frederick

They came, they saw, they trampled — and at the end of two three-day weekends, the thousands of Austin City Limits festivalgoers left the grassy fields of Zilker Park a little worse for wear.

The compacted earth and broken grass mean hard work for the Austin Parks and Recreation department, but it’s nothing they can’t handle, according to Kelly Craighead, an agronomist who manages the maintenance of city land for Austin Parks and Recreation. Zilker Park closed after the festival and will remain closed for maintenance until late this week.

In the weeks following ACL, city workers go over the lawns of Zilker with an aerator, a machine that loosens compacted soil.

“We hook it to the back of the tractor, and it pokes holes and it shatters the soil as it goes down,” Craighead said. “It has a motion to it that causes the soil to shatter and it opens up pore space, which allows more water to flow and more oxygen to infiltrate.”

Once Austin Parks and Recreation workers finish aerating the turf, they move on to the next phase of the recovery.

“We will give it a big shot of some fertilizer and then water it, water it, water it to help it bounce back — that’s the immediate aftermath,” Craighead said.

Craighead said revitalizing the grass at Zilker after ACL is a multi-week project. 

“Typically you’re looking at about a three-week turnaround where it starts to green up again,” Craighead said.

Maintenance doesn’t stop in the weeks following ACL. Craighead said keeping the grass at Zilker green and lush is a year-round process.

“In springtime when things start to green up again and start to grow, that’s when we really push hard on our fertility program and everything that we do to try and bolster the turf out there,” Craighead said.

Prior to this year’s festival, the grass was in better condition than Parks and Recreation employees had ever seen it, according to Craighead.

Katie Daugherty Kokenes, a 30-year-old education non-profit worker from Alabama, was impressed with the condition of the park when she attended the second weekend of the festival.

“I have definitely seen grass get really, really messed up by festivals, but honestly it seemed fine,” Daugherty Kokenes said. “I was honestly surprised by how good it looked, even with all the people there walking all over it.”

Craighead said the park has seen much worse in past years of ACL, such as a muddy festival in 2009.

Alex Igleheart, a public affairs graduate student, attended the festival that year and said the rainy weather left the turf at Zilker torn up and muddy.  

“I spent the day barefoot, and people were definitely using the grass like one big slip ‘n slide,” Igleheart said.

C3 Presents, the company that organizes ACL, steps in to pay for the damage caused during severe cases such as the aftermath of the 2009 festival, according to Craighead. He said that in 2009, C3 paid for much of Zilker to be resodded.

In the future, Craighead said the Parks and Recreation department plans to implement more long-term preventative measures to help keep damage to the park at a minimum.

“There are options we have of maybe pulling up portions of the park every year — pulling up the sod and retilling the soil, loosening it up, leveling it up and putting the sod back down so we can sustain a level field,” Craighead said.  “We are just looking at some of those little more drastic, but sustainable, measures.”

Keeping the turf at Zilker healthy year-round is a labor-intensive process, and some years are better than others, but in the long run, Craighead said Zilker can sustain ACL indefinitely.

“As long as we put that kind of effort into it, we can keep going,” Craighead said. “It is workable, it just requires a little elbow grease and not slacking off on the job.”