I'm sure that uppermost in the minds of most groundsmen will be getting this year well behind them, particularly with the weather proving extremely testing for the majority. It has been a very trying year for groundsmen up and down the country, with levels of rain, sleet and snow giving this winter a very grey feel, and no surprise that the grass on most pitches will be looking a little thin in places.
March will often herald a steady rise in ground temperatures leading to grass being stimulated into growth, albeit sporadic, though I expect that ground temperatures are likely be slower to recover due to soils this year remaining saturated.
This is without doubt going to cause some headaches for some groundsmen struggling already on low budgets and having to find extra money to increase the rate of their oversown grass seed. Another consequence of a very thin and patchy sward will be that it provides ideal sites for weed colonisation, leading to an increased need to apply a selective weed killer. For this reason it will be important to think about the possibility, after completing your renovation, that you may need to complement it with a further smaller seeding programme later in the year to strengthen any weak areas of the pitch.
Early this month
Pitch presentation remains important. 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 the thinner areas of grass.
Later this month
If you haven't yet thought of what equipment or materials you will need for your end of season renovations, then I think you need to give it some serious thought, starting now. Time is moving on and you really need to have everything to hand to maximise the available time you have for renovations. Give some consideration to how you will achieve your objectives i.e. what are your problem areas? How are you going to solve the problems and what methods are you going to use to carry out the tasks effectively (often dependant on what you can afford and what equipment you have available to carry out the work)? Work out timescales for each step of your renovation programme. Quite often there can be a lot of things to think about, so having a written plan is not a bad idea.
March is the month where warm spells can often be interrupted by a few cold frosty days but, with the average temperature rising a little, then some movement in the grass can be seen. This may require an increase in the need to cut the grass. In the south of the country it wouldn't go amiss to try a small sowing of seed to try and get some grass cover back. Make sure the seed is covered and worked into the surface. If you have one, a Quadraplay with the surface spiker and brush will work well. Do this only if you expect a period of warmer weather and, if you do expect a frost, then you may need to cover the seed if it has not yet emerged.
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.
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.
If the opportunity presents itself you may find yourself mowing early this month. 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 the process of photosynthesis.
If you are expecting to carry out your renovations earlier in April then you might want to think about reducing the height of your grass over the next few weeks. Not only will this ensure your emergent grass sowing will not have to compete for light amongst taller established grasses, it also means that you will not need to be on the grass with heavy machinery whilst it is trying to establish.
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.
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. Giving some thought and taking some time with a string line helps give a better impression of a groundsman's skills, particularly as this is one of the visible facets of what we do
Keep an eye out for disease and treat accordingly.
Look out for anthracnose. Though there are two types of anthracnose, the common type basal rot can appear any time in autumn through to early spring. Normally prevalent in swards high in poa annua, it is often associated with stress induced from compacted soils and areas of high wear, low fertility and possibly insect feeding.
Red thread, often recognized by the red needles or outgrowths and pink (fluffy) mycelium can be present at any time in turf but can become severe in instances of low fertility, warm wet conditions and a slow growing sward. Though not normally catastrophic to the turf, it will affect the visual appearance.
Planning your renovation programme
Raising/restoring surface levels and getting rid of those compacted areas in front of the goal is everyone's obvious objective, but don't forget the linesman's run-ups. Sometimes forgotten, but easily incorporated into your programme. And 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? Book what you need to hire 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.
Check your 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 that will have built up, 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 over sown 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 to be higher.
Spiking: to relieve compaction and getting air back into the soil is a key task. If you have a spiker that will allow some heave then this will become very useful, otherwise you may do well to hire one in or employ the services of a local sports ground contractor.
Over sowing: Get a good quality grass seed for your renovation. Fresh seed is important as old seed will not germinate as well as new. Look at the STRI list for 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, typically a 6:9:6, 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, 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 your 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.