The weather last month was remarkable in terms of setting some new rainfall records in some parts of the country. Even south of the country, rain has placed a burden on groundsmen struggling to keep grounds playable. It is difficult to resist in such circumstances the temptation to head out to spike a pitch to get the water away but, in such cases, do make sure that the ground conditions will allow you to complete the work without it causing compaction or damage to the grass cover that you have.
December, next to January, is the darkest month of the year with the grass only receiving a potential of around 8 hours of light each day though, by the end of the month, the days will be starting to stretch out again (December 21st being the shortest day). This will surely place extra pressures on pitches that suffer from long shadows during the morning and early afternoon.
No surprise then that Premiership grounds with high stands struggle with parts of the pitch being in constant shade. With the introduction and use of light gantries this has improved matters in providing grass with the light it requires for growth and recovery. But, of course, lighting rigs are not within the purchasing power of all and, in these circumstances, some harder work may be required.
For instance, some taller hedges can be reduced in height (hard work initially, but will bring some long term benefits). Brushing during the right conditions has benefits, and not just for improving air circulation around the base of the grass plant or for improving the visual appearance by striping the pitch.
I have seen some pitches where the grass has become smeared with mud through brushing or drag matting while the grass is still damp and particularly in the presence of worm casts. Of course, the rain will wash it off the plant eventually, but it will rob the grass plant of valuable light. Much better to leave it until the right conditions are available to carry out the task. Do get onto your pitch as soon as possible after a match to divot and, just as importantly, to lift the grass that has been trodden into the soil back up into the light.
Frosty mornings are a good time to catch up on some machinery maintenance while you wait for the frost to work its way out of the grass. Check to ensure that the frost has fully lifted before venturing out with machinery to avoid stress and damage to the grass.
Last year saw a couple of new seed mixtures out in the market place containing annual ryegrass as well as perennial ryegrass, bred and mixed to have an edge in areas of low light, high wind chill and giving good winter colour. With germination of the mixtures quoted as being viable down to 5 degrees, it does bring the possibility of some mid season repairs as well as being a useful material addition to your divoting regime.
Early This Month
Sand applications can be a benefit to ensure pitch playability, but it is important to understand that in the absence of a good free draining soil and/or a good drainage system little or no benefit will be gained from just adding sand to a worn goalmouth or centre circle area and walking away. You may think of this a little like throwing a handfull of marbles into a bowl of porridge.
After spreading the sand, it is important that the area is hand forked or spiked and the sand worked down the holes. Don't buy any sand, and especially not builders sand, as this contains natural cements that bind it together, and can lead you to further problems down the road (consult your local specialist supplier for the correct sand for your ground). Rounded silica type sand is better than sharp sand, as sharp sand will interlock reducing the pore spaces for water to percolate through.
Applications of tonics can also be applied in accordance with your annual programme to help harden your turf against damage and the ingress of turf diseases.
Keep an eye out for disease and treat at the early signs
If worm activity is a problem then brushing the surface when dry will help to dissipate the casts, reducing the problem of smearing. In some circumstances the use of a casting worm suppressant may be required, in which case always follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding timing, PPE, dose and volume rates and, just as important, what adjuvants can be used in the mix. Keep to the recommendations. For the record, an adjuvant can be defined as a substance, other than water, which is not in itself a pesticide that enhances or is intended to enhance the effectiveness of the pesticide with which it is used.
Later This Month
Some areas may require some topdressing to restore surface levels, such as goalmouths. Use a fork and work it well into the ground and ensure that the topdressing is worked fully into the holes. When using sands, it is important that you use the correct sand suitable for the purpose. Ensure that the sand you are using has rounded particles that will not compact together. Sharp sand which, though cheap and readily available from any builders merchant, will compact together in time creating a barrier to water, making worse the problem that you are trying to solve.
Post match repairs
Divoting: This is an obvious, but continue this essential work and it will pay you dividends later in the season. At this part of the season a little addition of seed mixed with a little topsoil may still germinate providing the conditions are right. You may find it worthwhile trying the new seed mixtures that will germinate at lower temperatures.
Brush to bring the grass back upright. Cut with a box to clean surface debris.
Continue your pre match preparations: brushing, spiking, cutting, marking out, not forgetting your post and net inspections.
Check weekly - goals for loose bolts, and tighten as necessary.
Check nets - make sure the net is properly supported at the back of the goal and isn't sagging.
Check team dugouts are stable and anchored securely. Make sure that they are tidy and free from litter.
Keep casual play out of goal mouth areas. This can be easily achieved if you have a set of portable goals that can be moved around to different parts of your field or pitch. However, if you have socket goals then your task may be a little more difficult requiring erecting and dismantling rope and pins.
Cutting: Continue cutting regularly 25-37mm to ensure a good sward density. Grass growth may slow some towards the end of the month, which makes cutting at the correct time essential, to avoid thinning a sward that will be slow to recover by mowing in the wet and smearing worm casts etc. Also, ensure that any cutting equipment used is keenly set to cut without tearing.
Drag matting and brushing: Continue the work of brushing to keep the air circulating around the base of the plant, particularly important for removing early morning dew and controlling disease. This will also help to reinforce the presentation of the pitch.
Verticutting: Will help to ensure that the sward is kept clean of lateral growth that may be appearing and also help to ensure that good circulation of air around the base of the plant.
Spiking: Continue spiking when the conditions are right (this should only be carried out if the soil is suitably moist.) to augment your deep spiking carried out to alleviate build up of compaction. Keep your spiking regime flexible, alternating between surface spiking, deep spiking and slitting.
Marking out: Take your time when marking out, as rushed lines will invariably wander and will no doubt look messy. This creates a false impression, lowering the overall standard and vision of an otherwise perfect surface. An accurate line will make such a difference; you should always be prepared to run a string line out to aid you in this, particularly if you already have a crooked line.
Harrowing and light raking (with a grooming rake) when conditions are right will help to maintain surface levels.
If you haven't already turned some thought to your machinery service programme, start formulating a plan of what service requirements are needed for which machine, and a time when you will be sending your mowers out for sharpening etc., so they are not all sent out at once. Look at the overall condition and check for any extra requirements needed to keep it compliant with current health and safety legislation. Check also for things that may cause a problem in the future, such as fatigue fractures on handlebars or on grass box carriers etc.
Keep your machinery in tip top condition. Grease where you find a grease nipple, oil where you see a metallic moving part, check the oil, and check the water. If in doubt consult the owner's manual. Clean it when you've finished. All this may seem mundane, but will keep your mower going when you need it, and save you money in costly down time.
By Malcolm Gardner