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. Many games can be 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 there is 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 winter.
Most soil-based pitches will, and can, often remain saturated for long periods of time during the winter. It is during these times that surface damage can occur. Often, there is a lot of pressure on facility managers to get matches on whatever the weather; no one likes postponed or cancelled games. Soil structures are easily damaged when wet. The decision to play a fixture should be down to the groundsman/manager who knows the facility and understands the consequences of playing one game too many, particularly now when grass growth is slow or dormant due to the low soil and air temperatures.
Training pitches are even more prone to damage, often having to accommodate many age groups and two or more training sessions per week. To reduce wear, rotate where the teams train. With the pitches remaining wet, it is often quite difficult to get machinery on to aid recovery; sometimes you can cause more damage by trying to do something.
Spend time divoting the pitch after matches, repairing any surface damage.
When ground conditions allow, try and get some air back into the soil profile; this will help improve gaseous exchanges and help water drain from the surface.
Key Tasks for February
Dragmatting, brushing and harrowing football pitches after matches are a good way of helping to restore the playing surface. Rotary mowing the pitch will also help clear up any surface debris and, if fitted with a roller, help with presentation of the pitch .
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.
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 whilst council pitches are more likely to be cutting around 30mm plus.
A lot of stadium 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.
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.
Generally, no high Nitrogen 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. However, mild weather conditions may stimulate some growth, so you may have to consider putting on some fertiliser products to help sustain the plant's needs.
Aeration:- as often as possible, when conditions allow. 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.
Frequency:- when conditions allow - hand or machine aeration to aid surface drainage, varying depths of penetration to prevent the development of a soil pan. As last month, if there is opportunity to aerate, then do it. Regular winter aeration provides air space for the roots to expand into and allow the plant to breathe.
There is a wide range of professional aerators for use on winter turf pitches available, such as walk-behind aerators, ride-on aerators, trailed aerators or tractor mounted aerators. The most popular, due to their speed and performance, tend to be the 300mm deep tine aerators such as the vertidrain/Weidenmann Terra spikers.
A monthly programme of aeration with this type of machine is also beneficial in keeping the pitch in good condition. Other types of aeration techniques to be considered are hollow coring and linear aeration (Imants Rotoknife) which can be used on a less regular basis.
Pre and post match operations
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 and secure.
Post match:- remove flags and post; ideally spend some time repairing any divots, large scars and, if you can, run a brush/harrow over the pitch to restore levels and stand the grass back up.
Harrowing/raking:- when conditions allow. Helps to restore levels and keep surfaces open.
Goalposts:- Inspect goalposts and sockets to check they are safe and secure.
Marking out:- frequency - as required. Playing pitch surfaces can often become muddy and very wet in February, which may sometimes affect the performance of wheel to wheel transfer line marking machines. To overcome this problem, other marking systems are available. Pressure jet and dry line markers are able to produce lines on uneven and muddy surfaces. Care should be taken when initially marking out new lines, ensuring that they are true, straight and measured correctly, using the 3,4,5 method to achieve accurate angles.
There are a number of machines available for marking out lines - wheel to wheel, spray jet, dry liners and aerosol markers. The choice will be dependant on cost, efficiency and the type of line you want. Ensure the machine is clean and ready for use. Always wash down the machine after use; if you are not likely to use the machine for a few days, it would be advisable to empty it, particularly with spray jet markers; keep connections clean, spray with WD 40 to help keep it protected.
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.
Keep and eye open for fungal disease, and use approved fungicides to treat any infected areas. Early morning dew on playing surfaces often promotes the chance of a disease attack; regular brushing off the dew will help prevent this.
Leaf spot can be quite damaging, especially in stadium environments; keep the leaf blade relatively dry by regular brushing, and apply an approved fungicide to prevent further outbreaks
Red thread is an extremely common turfgrass disease that can develop at any time of the year during cool, wet weather. It can develop on most turfgrasses, but ryegrasses, meadowgrasses and fescues appear to be more commonly affected. This disease is often referred to as an indicator of low fertility, and symptoms will often develop more severely if nitrogen or potassium is limited.
Usually a dose of fertiliser will help control and outbreak of Red thread, howerver, it it persists, many of the fungicides that are currently available for use on managed amenity turf have shown efficacy against this turf disease and, where necessary, can be used as part of an integrated programme to manage red thread. Always ensure that the disease is correctly identified prior to the application of any plant protection product.
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 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 who 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.
I hear far too often clubs stating they have no money for their end of season renovations; we need to change the mind set of clubs and encourage them to raise funds for pitch maintenance, the benefits of having decent pitches are many, better playing surfaces, increase skills, attract players and, in the long term, increase revenue. Most clubs have a healthy youth section which often use the pitch facilities; if everyone connected with the club paid £1 into the grounds pot once a week, clubs with 200 plus playing members would raise over £200 per week, £800 month, £10,400 a year. Investing some £5-10k per year would vastly improve your pitches.
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.
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.
Our next course is taking place at:
Derby RFC - Thursday 12th March - Haslams Lane, Darley Abbey, Derby DE22 1EB
More details are available on our Groundsman Training website
In addition, we are able to arrange courses to be delivered on site to groups of 6 – 10 people. Email Chris Johnson for information.
Check drainage ditches, keep clean and ensure they are working.
Inspect and check floodlighting/ training lights, change bulbs.
Inspect goalpostsand/ nets for damage or wear.