0 To renovate or not to renovate… that is the question!

Every groundsman will testify that it cannot be emphasised enough the importance of carrying out end of season renovations on their football or rugby pitches. Every good groundsman will tell you that it's essential practice to renovate professional pitches every year once the season ends. This is vital to ensure that the club protects its investment and has a clean fresh surface to take into the often, gruelling new season ahead.

As most of us remember, the Premier League suspended matches in April 2020 and re-started in June with the 2019/20 campaign being completed by the end of July. Some clubs took the gamble with the 8-week window of 'opportunity' and carried out a full renovation which luckily paid off. Clubs that felt time was not on their side and only actioned minor renovations or decided to do nothing, had to complete their fixtures on an older pitch. It's worth noting here that, throughout lockdown, groundsmen still had to maintain their pitches by way of feeding and watering etc, which added to the problem of organic layer build up and contributed to the pressure of poor playability of the surface. Understandably, many pitches did not perform as they should have through the new season, showing signs of poor drainage, slippery surfaces and were cutting up quite badly. A very testing time for grounds teams up and down the country.

Grounds teams and clubs, big and small, up and down the country, have faced many challenges throughout Covid, but this particular issue and testing period has highlighted the importance of carrying out full end of season renovation programmes on professional sports pitches.

So typically (let's try to forget COVID for a moment), with only some 10-12 weeks available before the start of the next season, renovation of a pitch must commence and be completed in as short a time span as possible. This will give the rejuvenated pitch the best chance to establish and build up a reasonable level of resilience, as well as to achieve the desired performance standards.

At this stage we must remember we are only discussing end of season renovation. Every groundsman worth their salt will explain that ongoing, routine maintenance, such as light aeration, dressing, overseeding, fertilising, watering (the list goes on), is essential if you want to keep your pitch in the best possible condition and, to that end, there is no dispute. However, if you ask ten head groundsmen what their preferred renovation programme is, you will typically get ten different answers. This is largely due to their individual pitch construction, the level or standard of play, the intensity of wear during the season and lastly, of course, their budget! That said, groundsmen's renovation plans are formulated predominantly by their pitches construction and can be categorised into three main types:

  1. Hybrid pitches (synthetic stitching or carpet based)
  2. Fibresand based
  3. Natural soil-based pitches

Hybrid pitches

  • Partial Renovation

As the name implies, partial renovation is the partial removal of vegetation and is seen in the industry as a vital 'bare minimum' operation but very much a halfway house. Some clubs chose this 'safer option' during covid, substituting this as their main renovation for the rest of the season in the hope to take them through the 20/21 season! Some were successful in their gamble but some not so! Partial renovation involves scarifying to remove a small percentage of the vegetation and unwanted organic content. Depths of mechanical removal will vary depending on an organic content appraisal and the process is usually completed by topdressing to replace the removed material and restore levels, fertiliser and overseeding.

International pandemic aside, some club budgets are such that this is the only renovation a head groundsman can hope for, which puts incredible strain on the grounds team to keep the pitch playable during the long winter months.

  • Full renovation

Full renovation is the total removal of all vegetation and organic material and successful renovation of these hybrid pitches is based around effectively loosening and removing the existing 'natural' sward and built-up debris from the surface, with minimal disruption to the synthetic 'artificial leaf'.

The process begins with an initial pass over the pitch with machinery designed to dislodge and remove a high percentage of the existing sward from the surface with minimal disruption to the hybrid fibres. It then elevates the arisings into trailers for removal and disposal. Crucially, at this stage, it's vital that little or no material is allowed to settle back on the pitch. Alongside this ongoing process is raking, which serves to gently rake and loosen any stubborn material that may be left on the surface. Any excess material which has not been removed, particularly along the headlands, will be removed carefully and disposed.

An evaluation is then made at the end of this stage, but normally a second pass is necessary. Levels are then corrected and made good using a rake. This is an important part of the process as it helps to separate and stand the fibres up prior to topdressing, overseeding, fertilising and watering to complete the operation.

Fibresand pitches

  • Partial renovation

Fibre sand pitches are completely suited to all the modern-day renovation techniques. The basic annual renovation technique is to scarify in several directions to thin out the sward, top dress with a compatible/matching silica sand, fertilise and then complete the process with over-seeding and watering. This operation is remarkably similar to that of a totally natural sports pitch and one of the reasons why fibresand pitches have historically been extremely popular with clubs.

  • Full renovation

Koro to remove all surface vegetation, here again depths will vary depending on an organic content analysis, before a heavier top dressing and over-seeding application.

Natural soil-based pitches

  • Partial renovation

Natural pitch renovation allows for the more 'traditional' methods of renovation. The process usually starts with scarifying the surface in multiple directions to remove the organic content of the existing sward. There are various machines for achieving this, with the overall aim to produce a short, clean surface. Compaction is often a problem for soil-based pitches and, following scarification, it is usually prudent to aerate the entire area, concentrating on high wear areas such as goalmouths and the centre circle. With this completed, topdressing can be applied not only to produce a level surface but also to help ameliorate the existing soil if required. The selected topdressing will need to be carefully chosen if this soil improvement is necessary. Overseeding, fertilising and watering follows to complete the process.

  • Full renovation

Koro to remove all surface vegetation, depths will vary, before a heavier topdressing to replace removed material and restore original level. This is followed by overseeding and a general NPK fertiliser application. Great results have been reported by additional pre seed fertiliser applications which have helped in the establishment of surfaces.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of carrying out end of season renovations on your pitches. The purpose of renovations is to address compaction issues, increase air space in the soil profile which will encourage root growth, restore levels by topdressing and repopulate the sward with new grasses and encourage the new sward with some timely feeds.

The misconception that these sports surfaces are only used for short periods of time during the playing (and growing) season is a myth. All professional stadium and training ground pitches are expected to perform all year round, sometimes supporting both intense training sessions as well as matches, in all weather conditions and for parts of the year with poor or minimal light levels. I would strongly urge any club official (especially the ones holding the purse strings) to seriously consider the benefits of a robust end of season renovation programme.

For major works, it is advisable to employ the services of a competent contractor who has the relevant expertise, experience, knowledge and machinery to carry out such work, thus making the whole process quick and efficient.

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