Last year when I wrote up this diary page, I warned that February has in the past seen some glimpses of unseasonably warm weather, but not to be taken in, and that working in shorts sleeve shirts one day could soon have you reaching for a warm thick coat the next. Well, the forecast for the beginning of this month looks to be a return to the freezing cold weather that many of us experienced during the beginning of last month making this possibly the coldest winter for thirteen years.
There is an expectation that we will also be seeing some snow. The disruption that this places on stadiums, clubs and grounds will have implications later in the season as cancelled games place pressure on busy schedules that may even extend the season with knock on effects to end of season renovation programmes.
There has been a lot of discussion on the forum recently regarding the best ways of avoiding cancelled games through frozen surfaces and this has come down to what the available resources are and the cost as a limit to what can be done. Each system can bring with it its own set of problems.
Under soil heating which was more commonly specified at construction time are very expensive to install and also expensive to run. The financial implication of installing such a system can sometimes outweigh the possible loss of revenue or a fine through a cancelled game at top level.
A problem associated with this system is that it can dry out the soil if not managed properly. Some clubs in possession of lighting rigs to help them combat low light levels created in modern stadiums have found that warmth from them can help in warding off frost but, again, they are not cheap to run. Covering the pitch with a dome with large fans blowing warm air across the surface has also been used, and would not be as expensive as the previous solutions.
One of the last bastions in the groundsman's armoury will be the use of ground covers, flat sheets laid across the surface to protect the surface from frost. Some grounds have resorted to double layers because of the severity of the freezing temperatures experienced in January, and here in some circumstances the frost still managed to penetrate through and into the surface.
Some smaller clubs and grounds without large resources may just provide ground sheets to areas of the pitch that may be more vulnerable to frost. Of course the thing with these systems is that they need to be in place some time before a game. It takes a long time for soils to warm, and laying sheets for example on ground that is already frozen the night before will not bring about a thaw. However, you may be dealing with the cold weather this season, your efforts to save games will not have gone unnoticed.
Early This Month
As we enter into this month we are hit with some severe weather warnings with more freezing weather and snow forecast. Pitch presentation at this time of the year becomes very important. With cold, wet soils hampering the occasional growth of grass that helps with the grass infill, it is very important that essential work is carried out immediately when conditions allow. Well striped pitches with lines that are both bright and straight and goalposts that are both upright with nets that are tidy, will help to take the eye off some of some of these areas.
Later This Month
It would be fitting also to turn some thoughts later this month, if you haven't already, to how you will be tackling your end of season renovations. Some may feel that this is a bit early to be thinking such thoughts but May will soon creep up on you and catch you out. Those working in schools will be looking even earlier than this, for some will just have just the week including the Easter weekend to complete all their winter pitch renovations.
Give some thoughts to what equipment you will need to complete your plans. If it's part of your inventory, drag it out, dust it off and fire it up to make sure it will work for you when you need it. If you don't have it in your inventory but you know someone that has, a neighbouring groundsman perhaps, then now's the time to offer to take him down the pub for a few beers.
Alternatively, look at the option of hiring. There are a growing number of hire companies these days that are now specialising in the hire of sports ground equipment. Start thinking about what materials you will need on hand before the planned start date for your renovations. Make sure you get your soil tested to ensure that you are applying the right nutrients.
February is the month where everyone's thoughts are full of ways and means to ease their pitches through the rest of the season. Particularly in the north of the country where the temperatures struggle a bit more than in the south, where grass growth responds better to slightly warmer average temperatures.
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. Pay particular attention also to the goalmouth areas and centre circles post match to lift the grass back up out of muddy areas. This is also important in keeping surface levels.
Divoting: This is important work and should be completed after each match. Arm yourself with a border fork and a bucket of topdressing with a little seed mixed in. Not everyone can afford the necessary time to go divoting on the scale of some of the premiership grounds but even if you could afford just a couple of hours post match divoting sorting out some of the worst, I can guarantee that you will notice the difference over time. If you cannot afford a full divoting programme then you could equally tackle the worst and clean the rest off with a mower or pick up sweeper.
Cutting: If required. You may find, along with a lot of grounds, that there has been little movement in grass growth compared to previous years. If you find the need to cut, keep your height of cut as near as possible to the high end of a winter cutting height. This will ensure the grass has the optimum leaf area for the production of carbon (the building blocks of plant growth) through photosynthesis.
Spiking: Continue spiking when the conditions are right. Keep your spiking regime flexible, alternating between surface spiking, deep spiking and slitting. Hand fork goalmouth and centre circle areas if difficult to get onto with machinery.
Goal nets and posts: Check these after each game. Make sure they are upright and the nets are tidy and tied in properly.
Marking Out: Keep you lines looking bright by over marking before each match and string them when you start to see them wander. A good, bright, straight line is like a frame for a beautiful painting.
Planning your Renovation Programme
Raising/restoring surface levels and getting rid of those compacted areas in front of the goal is everyone's obvious target, but don't forget the linesman's run-up. Sometimes forgotten, but easily incorporated into your programme while you're about it, the area beside the pitch that everyone stands to watch the game will need attention. Here are some things to hopefully stimulate your thinking:-
Equipment needs: Is your own equipment in good working order? If you need to hire equipment in, book it now to avoid disappointment later. If you can't afford to buy it, can't afford to hire it, check your neighbour, you may be able to come to some arrangement.
Material needs: Grass seed, fertilisers, selective weed killer, turf treatments and topdressing
Surface cleaning: However you achieve it, you will need to clean out the surface and get rid of the build up of dead organic matter, particularly on the wings of the pitch, and the remnants of old divots etc. A tractor drawn rake followed by a box mower is probably the most traditional method and most likely within the means of most clubs and schools.
You may also have use of a pick up flail mower, in which case you may find that scarifying tines can be fitted and the job will be completed in one operation. This method can be advantageous as the scarifying tines may leave a grooved surface, ideal for ensuring oversown grass seed is buried just beneath the soil surface and in contact with the soil.
An operation that is becoming popular to those that can afford it (mostly premiership clubs fall into this bracket), fraise mowing is extremely efficient at removing the top organic layer of the pitch, however, you will effectively be starting again with a newly sown surface, so your seeding rates will need be higher.
Spiking: Spiking to relieve compaction and getting air back into the soil is important. If you have a spiker that will allow some heave, such as a vertidrain or Weidenman etc., you may find this beneficial, otherwise you may do well to hire one in or employ the services of a local sports ground contractor.
Oversowing: Get a good quality grass seed for your renovation, and also fresh seed is important as old seed will not germinate as greatly or as well as new. Look at the STRI list for the list of recommended cultivars.
Topdressing: Get it ordered ready. Choose wisely for compatibility with your current root zone. If you employ the services of an agronomist then he will advise you of the best topdressing for your situation. If you cannot afford to topdress you may consider hollow coring, recycling them by breaking them up and drag matting them back into the surface.
Fertilising: A good pre-seeding fertiliser, low in nitrogen and high in phosphate and potash (P:K) to provide the young seedling with the essential nutrients that will be deficient in a soil washed through by winter rains.
Turf treatments: Some turf treatments work well for some, and there are a number of them to choose from such as organic based micronutrients, seaweed treatments, clay flocculants, amino acids and plant growth regulators such as Primo Maxx. It can sometimes be difficult to assess the benefits of such treatments, but most managers will notice if it has been effective or not. If you are unsure then ask you supplier for a trial amount and test it for yourself. I'm sure they would be pleased to accommodate you.
Equipment cleaning/painting and Storage: Make sure that goal posts are cleaned and painted before putting them away. The peace of mind this generates is worth it. There's nothing worse than rushing at the beginning of a season to get this job done when you have a thousand and one other things to do before your first game. Check for replacement nets and spare parts; order them in so they are on hand when needed.