For most football clubs, the winter months are the toughest time for pitches and the groundstaff who look after them; the weather can affect the outcome of matches and, more importantly, have a direct impact on the playing surface in terms of grass cover, wear and performance.

From December through to March, the weather can be a deciding factor on both a team's results and the welfare of the pitch. We have already seen the affects of all the rain this year, with many parts of the country suffering flood damage.

Many games have been cancelled due to the fact that pitches have become saturated. Soils, when saturated, lose their strength and become slippery and grass cover can easily be lost. The physical properties of your soils will dictate how well your pitch can drain; sandy soils drain well whereas heavier clay soils tend to be slower draining and even hold water. The only way to overcome a heavier soil type is to have a primary drainage system installed, which often requires a secondary system to intensify its performance.

I have also seen many club pitches cope without any drainage, however this generally only happens if they have a decent maintenance regime in place, and has been down to the skill and effort of their groundsman, and the fact that the club have invested some money and time on maintenance at the right time of the year.

It is the work you do in the spring (renovations), and subsequent summer maintenance (regular mowing) and autumn (aeration) work, that prepares your pitch for the oncoming winter.

Even in the depth of the winter, most soil based pitches will perform well. It is simply a case of managing your pitches properly, and working with the weather.

The most challenging time for any club groundsman, or club volunteer, is during the months of December, January and February when the elements are usually at their worst.

Drainage is key. Clubs who are blessed with free draining soils (sandy soils) or have a primary and secondary drainage system have a better chance of coping with the weather. Aeration should be part of the regular maintenance programme.

Soil conditions should now be more favourable for deeper aeration work, as moist conditions allow easier penetration of tines without causing damage to soil structure or too much disturbance to the surface profile. The weather conditions at this time of year can change very quickly, and we could soon find ourselves dealing with frosts and snow cover affecting the playing surfaces, both on natural grass and any artificial installations.

Morning inspections are essential to check the pitch is fit for play. Assessing the condition of the pitch should be carried out by an experienced grounds person who has an understanding of the damage that can occur when playing on an unfit surface, with regard to player safety and pitch protection.

Training areas usually get a lot of concentrated wear, especially floodlit areas. If you can, try and spread the wear by rotating the use of these areas of the pitch, allowing some recovery. Also, try and ensure you control where the teams warm up; many clubs now undertake at least a thirty minute warm up, involving fast feet drills and team runs; try and get them to do these off pitch or get them to move about the pitch to prevent excessive wear in one area.

Nobody wants to cancel a match; however, playing a match in the wrong conditions will prove costly, in terms of turning the pitch into a mud bath and losing grass cover. Once grass cover is lost, it will not recover until spring.

Start thinking about your end of season renovations, and how you may be tackling the possibility of an extended season and the need to get onto the pitches to carry out the work. Start to build your strategy and get it down on paper. Look at what resources you will need - manpower, materials and what machinery.

With reference to your machinery needs; 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 club or school perhaps, particularly if you are on good terms with them; you may come to some arrangement to borrow it when they are not using it. 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. With reference to your material needs, get them ordered now so that they are on hand when you need them.

Key Tasks for February
Dragmatting, brushing and mowing
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Dragmatting 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.

Mowing:- Winter cutting heights will range from 25-40mm depending on the level of play and condition of the pitch, most stadium pitches are regularly cut at 27mm while council pitches are more likely to be cutting around 30mm plus.

A lot of stadium club pitches are now being mown using pedestrian rotary roller mowers, with the aim to reduce weight on the pitch, clean up surface debris and help stand the grass plant upright.

The top height will cushion heavy falls on hard ground. Ensure your mowing blades are kept sharp and well adjusted. Cutting grass in very wet conditions can often be detrimental to the playing surface. The mowers may smear and damage the surface, especially when turning.

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Fertilising and Soil Tests
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Fertilising:- generally, no fertiliser applications are made during the winter months, as plant growth has slowed down. However, a dose of liquid iron to colour up and provide some strength to the grass plant can be applied during the winter months.

February is a good time to take soil samples and get them sent off for analysis, thus enabling you to get them back in time to start your new year's maintenance

Ideally, if you have not had one done before, you should have a full (PSD) Particle Size Distribution soil analysis done to tell you the actual make up of your soil profile.

Soil is made up of percentages of clay, silt and sand. The PSD Analysis will identify the ratio of these and confirm soil type, thus giving you a better understanding of what soil you are dealing with. Also, you can establish the amount of organic matter (OM) content as well as soil nutrient status and soil Ph. With this information, you will be able to identify the needs of your soil.

Pitchcare have recently launched a new independent Soil Anaylsis service that enables you to get specific results for the soils you manage,Soil analysis is a means to discover what levels of nutrients are available to plants. There is an optimum for each plant nutrient and, when coupled with other properties such as soil structure and particle sizes, determine how vigorous your plants are. Different nutrients undertake different tasks within the plant.

Click on the following link :- Soil Testing

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Aeration
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Aeration (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.

Try to keep the top 100mm free draining; this can be achieved by regular spiking with solid or slit tines to a depth of 150mm or more.

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Pre and post match maintenance regimes
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Pre-match:- inspection to see if the pitch is fit and safe for play, i.e. check for debris (glass, stones etc.), make sure the surface is firm and not saturated, correctly marked out and flagged, and that the posts are safe, secure and fitted with protectors.

Line Marking:- Muddy and uneven surfaces are more difficult to mark. Trying to mark a muddy pitch with a transfer wheel line marker often results in a poor line, as there is little grass surface for the wheel to transfer material onto. You may need to change to another method of line marking, either spray jet or dry powder.

Pay attention to post match regimes, ensure you replace divots, undertake some dragmatting/brushing/harrowing to restore playing surfaces. The use of pedestrian / ride on rotary mowers are now becoming a popular way to clean up playing surfaces.

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.

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Renovations
Aerating

Surface cleaning: However you achieve it, you will need to clean out the surface and get rid of the 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 on 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.

To relieve compaction and get air back into the soil is important. If you have a spiker that will allow some heave, such as a vertidrain or Weidenmann 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.

Over sowing: 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 recommended cultivars.

Topdressing: Get it ordered and ready. Choose wisely for compatibility with your current rootzone. 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 dragmatting them back into the surface.

Raising/restoring surface levels and getting rid of those compacted areas in front of the goal is obvious to everyone, but don't forget the linesman's run-up. Sometimes forgotten, but easily incorporated into your programme and, whilst you're about it, the area beside the pitch that everyone stands to watch the game will need attention.

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.

Some turf treatments work well for some situations, 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.

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Other Tasks for the Month
  • Goalposts:- Inspect goalposts and sockets to check they are safe and secure.

  • Harrowing/raking:- when conditions allow. Helps to restore levels and keep surfaces open.

  • Litter/debris:- Inspect and remove debris from playing surface litter or any wind blown tree debris, litter, twigs and leaves.

  • Machinery (repairs and maintenance):- inspect and clean machinery after use; service and repair damaged machinery.

  • Training :-- start getting ready for your end of season renovations. Consider getting yourself or one of your team on one of our Lantra Awards accredited 1-day Winter Sports Turf Maintenance Training Course. More details www.groundsmantraining.co.uk