December is the darkest month of the year, with the grass only receiving a potential of around eight 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 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.
The real challenge during December is trying to keep as much grass cover on the playing surfaces as possible, and prevent pitches being used when they are saturated.
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.
Applications of tonics, such as seaweed based products, 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.
Start thinking now about your machinery service requirements and put them into a programme. Some forward planning, at this stage, of what service requirements are needed for which machine.
Key Tasks for December
Playing surfaces are more prone to damage in the winter months when ground conditions tend to remain in a wet state. Also, the onset of frosty weather can affect maintenance regimes.
Playing on frosted and flooded pitches will only cause damage to the playing surface. Allow for the frosts to clear and allow time for the saturated pitches to drain before use, or indeed using equipment on the pitch.
You will soon lose grass cover if you play on wet playing surfaces. Grass growth is slowing down due to the low soil and air temperatures. Grass struggles to grow when temperatures drop down below 5 Degrees C, and recovery after damage is limited.
Keep up your weekly routines of pre and post match maintenance - mowing, marking out, divot replacement and brushing. Presentation of the pitch is important. Use string lines to help keep straight lines and mowing bands.
Frosty mornings are likely to appear, if not already, but are a good time to catch up on some machinery maintenance whilst 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.
The important thing is to keep the air circulating around the grass plant, with a combination of regular brushing, dragmatting and spiking to a variety of depths.
Whilst soil and air temperatures remain above six degrees C, grass will continue to grow; take the opportunity to apply some autumn/winter fertilisers to stimulate some much needed growth.
Also, be mindful to keep an eye out for disease outbreaks, regular brushing the grass will remove dew and help keep the grass standing up.
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 and not lying on top of the grass plant smothering it.
Continue your pre match preparations: brushing, spiking, cutting, marking out; not forgetting your post and net inspections.
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. Try and aerate your pitches to improve soil porosity.
However, the weather can change very quickly, and we could soon find ourselves caught out with frosts and snow cover affecting the playing surfaces, both on natural grass and artificial installations.
Morning inspections are essential to ensure 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.
The real challenge during December is trying to keep as much grass cover on the playing surfaces as possible, and prevent pitches being used when they are saturated.
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.
Harrowing and light raking (with a grooming rake) when conditions are right will help to maintain surface levels.
Apply autumn/winter fertilisers, low in nitrogen, which will suppress the production of soft, sappy top growth susceptible to fungal diseases, and high in phosphate and potash to help grass maintain a healthy root structure and ensuring the overall health of the grass plant.
The choice of fertiliser will be largely based around your soil tests, but may be influenced by your choice of either a conventional type fertiliser or a slow release product that will release the nutrients over a period of time based on soil temperature and moisture.
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.
It is important to go into the winter months with a good sward cover.
Pitch set-ups: Keep casual play out of goalmouth 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.
Cutting: Continue cutting regularly at 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 in the wet. Also, ensure that any cutting equipment used is keenly set to cut without tearing.
The use of pedestrian rotary mowers to clean up, mow and help the grass stand up is becoming a popular maintenance regime being undertaken by groundstaff at many stadium pitch facilities.
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. This will also help to reinforce the presentation of the pitch.
Verticutting: Will help 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 built up compaction. Keep your spiking regime flexible, alternating between surface spiking, deep spiking and slitting.
Marking out: Take your time over this, as rushed lines will invariably wander. This creates a poor impression, lowering the overall standard and vision of an otherwise perfect surface. An accurate line makes such a difference. Always be prepared to run a string line out to aid you in this.
Divoting: Repairing divots / scars is an essential task that must be done after games / training sessions. Also a little addition of seed mixed with a little topsoil may still germinate, providing the conditions are right.
See Paul Bradshaw's match day preparations at Burnley FC , home match against West Ham:
Pitchcare have recently launched a new independent Soil Anaylsis 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.
Ideally, it is good practice to undertake at least an annual soil test to analyse the nutrient status of your soil. This will help ensure you only apply what is required and not waste money and time applying products you do not need.
The choice of materials and how well it works can be dependant on many factors, including soil type and the weather, with moisture and warmer air temperatures being the catalyst for growth.
Keep an eye out for any disease; continue the work of brushing to keep the air circulating around the base of the plant to reduce the incidence of disease.
Brushing during the right conditions has benefits, but I have seen some pitches where the grass has become smeared with mud through brushing or dragmatting whilst the grass is still damp and covered with worm casts.
Earthworms may be a problem, particularly with the recent heavy rains, so regular dragbrushing will be necessary. Brushing can be daily when conditions are right. Regular aeration to keep the surface open will aid drying. A drier surface may help towards reducing the effects of the earthworm activity near the surface.
Diseases have been widely reported, particularly red thread, leaf spot and fusarium. These outbreaks have been mainly due to the heavy dews and changing climatic air temperatures we have recently experienced.
The combination of early morning dews, warm and wet weather and diminishing daylight hours increases the risk of fungal disease outbreaks. The right conditions to trigger these disease attacks are weakened or susceptible plants, a disease-producing organism (pathogen usually fungi) and weather conditions which favour the formation of fruiting bodies and spores (moist, mild wet conditions).
Most cool season turfgrass diseases spread via water droplets. Plants also release excess nutrients via their stomatas (gutation) during night hours when there is no sun and rarely any wind to evaporate it. These exudates become mixed with the dew water and become the perfect food source for disease pathogens in their early stages of development.
The majority of diseases that are occurring now have responded to the unusually warm, autumn weather conditions. Boundary layers around the leaves have stayed very moist and humid. Relative humidity is important for spore germination and penetration of leaf tissues, and constant wet conditions will allow the development and transportation of active fungi spores.
Most fungi grow well between 10°C - 40°C and function best at a pH range of 4-7pH. The current lack of cooler weather and sharp frosts has not helped in reducing these active pathogens.
The first step in turfgrass disease management is identifying the true nature of the problem. Diseases are only one cause of turf loss, and disease control measures will do nothing to alleviate damage from other causes such as management, wear or plant stress. It is therefore essential to determine whether the problem is disease, and if so, which disease.
The three disease factors: susceptible grass / host, pathogen, and environment, provide the evidence for disease diagnosis. Symptoms are the expression of the susceptible grass to the disease and can take on a variety of forms.
Symptoms may appear on the leaves as small, circular, tan-coloured lesions surrounded by brown or purple borders (leaf spotting); as yellow, red, or tan blotches over most or all of the leaf blade (blighting); stunting; wilting; or as a brown or black rot on the crowns and roots. The appearance of these symptoms will also vary depending on the type of disease, the severity of the attack and the developing stage of the disease.
Early identification of the symptoms is essential for good disease management, however the best form of management is using preventive, cultural turf maintenance methods that reduce the ideal environmental factors that these diseases require for development, e.g. regular brushing/switching of the grass to remove excess moisture, regular aeration to allow gaseous exchange and water percolation.
Over the years, we’ve developed many methods of removing dew from playing surfaces, from dragging hose pipes over pitches to switch canes on bowling and golf greens. However, these laborious tasks have been superseded with the development of brushing attachments that can be fitted to both mowers and gators to speed up operations, though hand switching also gives you an opportunity to get close and personal and keep an eye on what’s happening.
Other cultural methods to help reduce disease pressure would be removal of thatch, which harbours pathogens, by verti-cutting and end of season renovations, as well as checking mower blades are sharp to provide a precise cut of the leaf blade and reduce the potential for disease.
Identification of these diseases can sometimes be difficult in the early stages of attack. It’s often only possible to recognise the type of disease when the fruiting bodies of the disease produce structures such as spores, mushrooms, or mycelium (small, thread-like filaments produced by fungi) that can be seen without the aid of a microscope. A good example of this is Red Thread (Laetisaria fuciformis) where the distinctive red filaments can be seen amongst the grass.
Site characteristics and turf management practices have a large influence on disease management. Factors such as air movement, drainage, soil conditions, and the amount of sun or shade, slope, fertilisation and aeration programmes are important in influencing the development of turf diseases.
It is important to remember that pathogenic fungi can survive and remain in a dormant state in plant debris and soil until favourable conditions arrive again to stimulate another disease outbreak.
The pathogens that cause these diseases are always lying dormant, waiting for the ideal conditions to become active. Once these spores are activated, and have found an appropriate host, they are able to grow and reproduce themselves, spreading new spores and infections to other areas of turf. This cycle continues whilst favourable conditions prevail.
Understanding and implementing works that can break up the disease cycle will help reduce the opportunities for disease development and outbreak.
When it comes to disease identification, there is as much emphasis on you, as the turf manager, to provide appropriate turf samples for analysis as there is for the lab to accurately identify the problem. In most cases, the best place to remove a turf sample for analysis is from the leading edge of the symptoms, where the affected or discoloured plants give way to healthy turf.
It is also important for the lab to be able to see what the general composition and condition of the sward is like and what the rootzone profile is like and, for those reasons, a 90mm diameter core sample, taken to a depth of approximately 60mm using a golf hole changer (or similar) makes for an ideal sample.
If possible, email photographs of the symptoms so that the lab can get an idea of how the problem is developing - a good picture can often tell so much more than a detailed written description.
There are a number of excellent laboratories that offer disease recognition, along with some good weather services that offer disease watch forecasts. One we recommend is Syngenta’s Greencast service.
Common diseases that can be active and cause concerns at this time of the year are: Red Thread, Fusarium and Dollar Spot. Click on the following link :- Disease Watch to see information about these diseases.
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 manufacturer'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.
Pitchcare is the only provider of LANTRA accredited training courses in the maintenance of Winter Sports Pitches. It is a one day course designed to provide a basic knowledge of rugby and football pitch maintenance. The course enables the Groundsman to grasp the basic needs of a winter sports surface throughout a 12 month period.
Delegates attending the Winter Sports Pitch Maintenance course and using the accompanying manual will be able to develop their own skills, working knowledge and expertise, by understanding the method of instruction and the maintenance principles it sets out.
Details of all forthcoming autumn courses can be found on our website Groundsman Training
Included in the Course Manual, there are working diaries showing the range of tasks needed to be accomplished each month. The Course Manual is available for purchase separately.
In addition, we are able to arrange courses to be delivered on site to groups of 6 – 10 people. Email Chris Johnson for information.