Well, what a year for many of the country's club groundsmen who have had to face one of the wettest summers on record. It rained so much that many parts of the country experienced widespread floods and pitches became unfit for play.
To what extent it affected these groundsmen in terms of their pitches was dictated by a number of factors:-
- How much rain they had to contend with
- What type of pitch they have in terms of underlying soil type (sandy, clay or loam)
- Whether they had any primary secondary drainage installed
- What equipment and resources they had to hand to help alleviate the problem
Firstly, we need to understand what problems are facing groundsmen when pitches become flooded and remain saturated for long periods of time.
Once a pitch becomes saturated, that is to say all the pore (air) spaces in the soil profile remain filled with water, then we are in a situation of the pitch being in a poor state and will be prone to damage.
It is important to understand what soil type you have on your pitch, as the ability of the pitch to drain freely and how long it takes for floodwater or surface water to disperse from your pitch will be dictated by the type of soil you have.
All grass swards are grown on soil/sand profiles that provide the appropriate environment structure for plant growth. This growing medium, commonly known as soil, is made up of proportions of soil solids (mineral and organic material) and soil pores (water and air).
Maintaining the correct balance of these components is critical for sustaining healthy plant growth. The spaces between the particles of solid material are just as important to the nature of soil as are the solids. It is in these pore spaces that air and water circulate, and help provide the plant with the necessary nutrients it requires to respire and grow.
These pore spaces can vary in size and are generally classified into two sizes - macro pores (larger than 0.08mm) and micro pores (less than 0.08mm). Macro pores generally allow movement of air and the drainage of water, and are large enough to accommodate plant roots and micro-organisms found in the soil. The ability to retain a good balance of macro pores in soil structure is essential for maintaining grass plant health. It is when these macro pores are either reduced in size by compaction or filled with water (saturated) that we see deterioration in pitch playability and resistance to wear.
However, the main contributing factor that reduces and damages pore spaces in soil is compaction, caused by compression forces, normally associated with play and use of machinery, particularly during wet weather periods.
Over time, these compression forces reduce the pore spaces so that air, water and nutrient flow through the soil profile is restricted, and leads to many problems associated with compaction.
There are two distinct types of problems on winter games surfaces, one is compaction by treading (30-60mm depth) and the other by smearing and kneading (30mm depth) when playing in the rain and on bare soil surfaces.
The heavier the soil the longer it will take for the pitch to dry out; sandy soils are more free draining than heavy loam or clay soils and, therefore, will dry out more quickly.
Having an effective pitch drainage scheme will help. Most modern pitches tend to have primary and secondary drainage systems installed. These systems aid the removal of surface water quickly and tend to keep the pitches playable in periods of wet weather.
However, the effectiveness of any drainage system can be compromised over time when the drain runs become capped; it is important to retain a link between the drains and the playing surface. This will be achieved by regular aeration work and the application of topdressing.
Ideally, clubs should be putting on at least 40-60 tonnes of sand per pitch each year. This not only keeps the playing surface free draining, but also helps to restore levels.
Playing on saturated pitches will bring disastrous results. It is often better to postpone a fixture rather than ruin the playing surface for the rest of the season. 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 upon the soil type and the ability of the top 100mm to drain quickly.
It is important that, once the game has finished, remedial work is carried out to repair divots and stand the grass back up. Care should be taken not to further damage the pitch by trying to get machinery on when it is wet and saturated.
A rubber rake can be used to help stand the grass back up in localised wet muddy areas; if left buried, the grass will soon die. Once this has been completed, the use of harrows/brushes can be used to stand up the sward. This is often followed by rolling back the surface using a mower or, better still, a SISIS Quadraplay unit or similar type of equipment.
Undertaking a regular aeration programme will go a long way to ensuring your pitch is able to cope during wet conditions.
When do we aerate?
Aeration should be carried out on a regular basis when weather and soil conditions allow. You may contribute to surface deterioration if you aerate during bad weather when the surface is saturated and likely to smear; timing is the key to successful aeration.
There is a wide range of professional aerators for use on winter turf pitches, available as walk-behind, ride-on, trailed or tractor mounted.
Depending on the condition of the soil you should be aerating on a monthly basis, trying to aerate to a depth between 100-200mm.
Once a year you should aim to aerate to a greater depth (200-300mm) using a larger, more powerful aerator. This will help dramatically, especially if you can topdress the pitch immediately afterwards with sand, enabling this material to go down into the aeration holes.
One of the most popular pitch management tools is the Sisis Quadraplay. The Sisis Combination Implement Frames make up a single pass maintenance system which incorporates a mounted frame. The mounted frame accepts a variety of different implements for use on both turf and hard porous surfaces.
Implements such as grooming rakes, spikers, slitters, rollers and brushes can be added to the frame making this an exceptionally versatile piece of equipment. It can be used for fine and outfield turf to perform a range of tasks so effectively that you can aerate, brush, spring tine and roll in one pass.
Using these frames before and after matches helps keep the pitch in good condition and, above all, the spiker ensures the pitch is regularly aerated.
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.
Unfortunately, I see far too many club pitches that become unplayable or prone to damage, mainly due to the lack of basic maintenance being carried out. Regular aeration, particularly on training pitches, will help enormously; there is nothing worse than having to play or train on a wet, soggy pitch.