The combination of poor weather and heavy pitch usage through January has taken its toll on many pitches up and down the country. Many are standing wet and remaining in a saturated state. February is usually one of the most difficult months of the year for maintaining grass pitches, particularly those that have no surface water drainage systems installed.
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.
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.
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.
Water Holding Capacity of Soils:
There are three important levels of soil moisture content that reflect the availability of water in the soil. These levels are commonly referred to as: saturation, field capacity and wilting point. When a soil is saturated, the soil pores are filled with water and nearly all of the air in the soil has been displaced by water. The water held in the soil between saturation and field capacity is gravitational water. Frequently, gravitational water will take a few days to drain through the soil profile and some can be absorbed by roots of plants. Field capacity is defined as the level of soil moisture left in the soil after drainage of the gravitational water. Water held between field capacity and the wilting point is available for plant use.
Grass plants can easily extract water from a soil when its moisture is at or near field capacity. As a soil begins to dry out, however, increasingly stronger forces hold the pore water until a point is reached when plants can no longer extract any water from the soil. This state of soil moisture is the "wilting point of a soil".
It is during saturation when the soil is at its wettest that surface damage is most vulnerable, the wet soil loses its binding strength resulting in the grass plant being easily sheared during play. The most susceptible soils are clay and heavy clay loam soils that do not drain freely or soil based pitches that do not have any primary/secondary drainage to aid surface water removal.
The speed of water infiltration through the soil profile will be totally dependant on the soil type and the amount and size of the pore spaces in the soil profile. However, the groundsman can aid these pore spaces by carrying out a programme of aeration (spiking) when soil conditions are right, providing he can get the appropriate machinery on the pitch without causing any damage or smearing to the playing surfaces.
Regular spiking and, if possible, the introduction of sand dressings will definitely improve soil water movement in the top 100mm of your pitches, thus improving surface playability during the winter months.
Temperatures will begin to rise in February which can often bring a flush of growth. Ensure you have your mowers ready to keep the grass maintained at the correct height of 25-75mm.
You should have also arranged, if you have not already done so, servicing of all your maintenance machinery ready for the new growing season. Similarly, any end of season renovation works, especially if contemplating using outside contractors for this work, should be booked early to avoid disappointment.
Brushing/sweeping the playing surface will also help keep the surface clean and free of debris. Using a brush or a SISIS quadraplay will restore levels and produce striping or banding aesthetics.
Keep and eye on fungal disease attack, and use approved fungicides to treat infected areas. Early morning dew on playing surfaces often promotes the chance of disease attack. Regular brushing off the dew will help prevent an attack of turf disease.
Repairs and replacing divots after matches is an important part of the maintenance programme to restore playing surfaces. The use of a hand fork to lift depressed turf and gentle pressing with the foot is the best way to return/replace divots. However, on larger areas the use of harrows will help return levels.
Inspect drainage outfalls, channels and ditches. Ensure that they are working. Damaged and blocked outfalls will cause surface water problems.
Sand bands can easily become capped by surface soil materials, thus reducing there draining potential. Topdressing with sand materials helps to keep the bands open and permeable. Use approved sports sands and topdressings. This dressing not only keeps the bands and drainage systems viable but restores surface levels.
Fertiliser treatment and turf tonics can be continued in accordance with your annual programme. If you haven't got a fertiliser programme, have your soil tested; try an independent soil analysis company for an impartial set of results.
Generally, no fertiliser applications are made during the winter months, as plant growth has slowed down. However, some groundstaff may apply a slow release acting fertiliser in late February which will kick in when the soil temperatures begin to rise. Also a dose of liquid iron may be applied to colour up and provide some strength to the grass plant.
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 dependent on cost, efficiency and the type of line you want.
Maintain sward height at 25mm-75mm. 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. The quality of cut can be affected if the grass is very wet.