Expected weather for this month:

Mild and wet with above-average temperatures forecast for December

Many areas of the country have been experiencing their first spells of bad weather, with ongoing heavy rain in some parts. 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.

Playing on saturated pitches will certainly result in surface damage. Saturated soils lose their stability and strength. Play from scrummages and line outs are the main causes of damage during wet weather periods. The severity of the damage will be dependant upon the soil type and the ability of the top 100mm of the surface to drain quickly.

To help keep the top 100mm free draining, a surface aeration programme is necessary. This can be achieved by regular spiking with solid/slit tines to a depth of 150mm or more when conditions allow. There are other specialist machines available that can help to improve surface drainage, for example the Blec Ground breaker, Imants Rotoknife and the Vertidrain range of machines.

However, it is important to remember soil and surface conditions have to be right for these operations to take place.You may end up causing more damage by trying to get machinery on it in wet conditions.

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, it is important to repair your pitches after play, spend time replacing divots and scars, and take the opportunity to brush / harrow or spike when conditions allow after games to help the surface recover.  

Key Tasks for December

Mowing:- maintain sward height at 30mm-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.

Generally, no fertiliser applications are made during the winter months, as plant growth has slowed down. However, some groundstaff may apply a dose of liquid iron to colour up and provide some strength to the grass plant during the winter months.

Pre match:- inspection to see if the pitch is fit and safe for play; check for debris (glass, stones etc), the surface is firm and not saturated or flooded, check it has been marked out correctly and flagged and the posts are safe,secure and fitted with protectors.

Post match:- remove flags and post protectors; ideally, spend some time repairing any divots, large scars and, if able, run a brush or harrow over the pitch to restore levels and stand the grass back up.

December is usually the time of the year when we start seeing a deterioration in our playing surfaces. Soil and air temperatures are declining, average daily temperatures are around 10 degrees C, a temperature that does not stimulate any real significant grass growth. Recovery after damage is going to be slow or non-existent.

It may be worth considering rotating pitches, many clubs have more than one pitch at their home facility. Often, the club may be able to give a pitch a rest from play, especially during inclement weather.

The presentation of the pitch is important. If it looks tidy and well presented, with bands and stripes, it often inspires the players to perform and, more importantly, gives them a safe, consistent surface.

Soil based pitches, generally the heavy clay and clay loam ones, will be susceptible to surface damage during wet weather, especially when the top 100mm becomes saturated.

Soils, when saturated, lose their stability and strength. Damage from scrummage and line out play are the main causes of damage on rugby pitches during wet weather periods. The severity of the damage will be dependent on the soil type and the ability of the top 100mm to drain quickly.

It is important to repair any damage to pitches after play, replace large divots. The use of a brush or harrow or, if you have one, a SISIS Quadraplay Unit will help restore the playing surface. The added benefit of the Quadraplay unit is that it can do four operations in one pass (brush, rake, spike and roll) leaving a well presented pitch.

Training areas:- try and rotate areas where the teams train, this will help reduce wear and loss of grass cover.

Check and ensure goal posts are safe and secure and that you have the appropriate post protector pads fitted for matches and training matches.

Line marking:- check with the sports governing body (RFU) for any amendments to the laws and markings of the pitch. 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. A selection of line marking paints and markers are available in the Pitchcare shop.

If the grass is maintained at a height above 50mm, it may be better to mow the lines with a pedestrian rotary mower. This helps define the lines and prepare the surface for marking.

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. Use string lines to help keep lines straight. Keeping your marking equipment in good order and clean will help you produce better quality lines; dirty and unkempt markers tend to malfunction, drip and leak.

The condition of the pitch may also affect the quality of your line marking. Muddy and uneven surfaces are often 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.

Aeration:- to help keep the top 100mm free draining, a programme of surface aeration is necessary. This is achieved by regular spiking with solid/slit tines to a depth of 150mm or more 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 aeration provides air space for the roots to expand into and the plant to breathe. Achieving an improved root system will stand you in good stead for the winter months.

There are other specialist machines that can help with improving surface drainage, for example the Blec Groundbreaker and the versatile vertidrain machines that are now available. In recent years, we have seen the introduction of linear aerators, machines that cut a slot through the soil profile, usually at 200mm centres.

Regular autumn aeration provides air space for the roots to expand into and the plant to breathe. Achieving an improved root system will stand you in good stead for the coming winter months..

Brushing/sweeping:- to remove dew and remove surface debris. Using a brush or a SISIS Quadraplay will restore levels and produce striping or banding aesthetics.

Drainage:- inspect drainage outfalls, channels and ditches. Ensure that they are working.

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

Floodlights:- an annual inspection should be carried out on your floodlights by an independent qualified electrician who can inspect the wiring and ensure the lights are safe for use. Bulbs need replacing on a regular basis, bulbs tend to lose there efficiency over time, resulting in lower illumination outputs. Check the lux values of your lighting system. Sports governing bodies stipulate a lux value depending on the level of play.

In recent years, we have seen the development of portable (generated) floodlighting rigs that can be hired or bought, which enable you to move lighting rigs around your ground to help prevent overuse of playing surfaces. 

Pitchcare have recently launched a new independent Soil Testing Service that enable 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, however, can be dependant on many factors, including soil type and the weather, with moisture and warmer air temperatures being the catalyst for growth.

Disease:- keep an eye on fungal disease attack, and use approved fungicides to treat infected areas. Early morning dew on playing surfaces often increases the chance of disease attack. Regular brushing off the dew will help prevent an attack of turf disease.

Diseases can still be prevalent in December due to the cool, wet ground conditions, and particularly with heavy dews on the playing surfaces. It is important that groundstaff remove these dews to prevent disease attack. Many stadium clubs are experiencing outbreaks of leaf spot and red thread. A dose of approved chemical fungicide will help control and prevent the spread of these diseases.

Red thread is often seen during the summer/autumn months but may persist into the winter if conditions remain mild, temperature range (15-24°C).

Identification of the disease is relative easy with the turf grass having, irregular tan coloured shaped patches of damaged or necrotic grass varying in size 20-350mm with a pink/red colour cast caused by the fine red filaments/needles (10mm long) of the mycelium of the pathogen. Severe attacks will damage/kill grass.

Red fescues: slender and strong creeping red fescues (Festuca spp.), Perennial Ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) are the main susceptible species affected by red thread other grasses which can be affected are bentgrasses (Agrostis spp.) and (Poa sp.) The above grasses are used in most sport turf situations including Golf, Bowls, Cricket, and winter game pitches.

Fungus spores can remain viable for up to 2 years, survive temperature as low -20°C or high 32°C, This fungus is capable of growth at pH 3.5 -7.5 this means that the disease can occur on almost any amenity turf rootzone.

Red Thread spores (sclerotia) and (arthroconidia) are spread by wind, water, and by traffic and it is during these periods of mild cool wet weather with temperatures 0-25°C and heavy dews that an outbreak of disease takes place. Attacks appear during summer/autumn months but can persist into winter if weather remains mild. These spores germinate into mycelia, infecting new plant tissue then reproduce to form fruiting bodies red threads (sclerotia).

Turf grass is susceptible to disease attack when damaged or under stress from low fertility, slow growth (insufficient Nitrogen), drought and compaction. Keeping the sward healthy and using resistant turf grass species will reduce the incidence and severity of disease attacks. Apply a balanced fertiliser programme with emphasis on nitrogen input. Ensuring not to over fertilise in autumn as this may lead to other pathogens attacking the sward.

Maintaining an open sward, by aeration and scarification which will in turn reduce thatch. Maintain mowing machinery, removing morning dew by brushing are all good cultural practices in keeping Red Thread at bay. And as a last resort an application of an approved fungicide can be used on Red Thread. Approved manufacture products available for application are contact and systemic pesticides with the following active ingredients Iprodione, Thiophanate-methyl, Thiabendazole andCarbendazim.

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, 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.

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.

Inspect and remove debris from playing surface litter or any wind blown tree debris, litter, twigs and leaves.

Inspect and clean machinery after use; service and repair damaged machinery.

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