Winter sports pitches – Keeping it Simple

We all want our pitches to look and perform to the highest standard possible. However good we get them, we are secretly never satisfied and want to get to the next level. In striving for this, do we sometimes forget to concentrate on the basics?

First and foremost, managing plant and soil health. If we do this right, then everything else, by default, should fall into place. It's easy to say that but we have many obstacles in our way in achieving this. I look at it as a jigsaw puzzle with all the components which need to be in place to get the result we desire.

Some things we need to consider; machinery, irrigation, fertilisers, staff, knowledge and arguably most importantly, time and money. You could be the most knowledgeable groundsman in the world but if you don't have the tools to do the job…

In the vast majority of sports pitch maintenance situations; some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing. We may well know what is missing but are not able to get that piece to fit into the jigsaw. So, focus on what we do have control over.

It sounds obvious, but when mowing, cut the leaf cleanly. By doing this, the wound on the tip of the blade has a smaller surface area for disease to enter, less damage for the plant to use valuable resources such as water and nutrients to repair itself. This also has an impact on presentation. There is nothing worse than looking across nicely striped turf to see a white hue across it undoing all your hard work.

Mow regularly, little and often, but not too low and removing no more than one third of the leaf at any one time. Removing too much can have a negative effect on the root system. Regular mowing will help to increase the density of the turf and help out-compete the weeds. Also, if broad leaved weeds are being cut regularly, this affects their growing point and will cause stress and help eliminate them without an application of a selective weed killer.

Moisture management both above ground and below has a big impact on turf health and subsequently turf quality. The biggest negative impact on a winter games pitch is likely to be a loss of grass coverage because a game has been played when surface conditions have been too wet.

There is a great pressure to get games on with little or no thought for games later on in the season. The groundsman will get stick if the game is called off but subsequently if the game goes ahead and the pitch suffers, the groundsman could get slated for the rest of the season that their pitch is awful!

Managing the moisture in the soil can be expensive in purchasing or hiring an aerator. If you are limited on the amount of aeration, then the timing has to be spot on to make the most of it. Too many times have I heard committees not making a budget available to verti-drain the pitch, but when games start to be called off, the go ahead is given when it is too late.

By aerating in the wrong conditions, when the ground is too wet, this will cause more damage by sealing the surface preventing moisture penetrating it. Being proactive with pitch maintenance is crucial.

Aerating at the right time will give roots space to grow in by opening up macro-pores in the soil and so to move water through too. Plants need to respire in aerated soil and by having the air in the soil creates good conditions for beneficial bacteria to breed increasing microbial activity to help break down thatch along with other benefits.

Managing the moisture above ground is financially inexpensive but takes a bit of dedication by dew brushing the turf every morning to help to dry it out. It is important that the sward is not left wet all day as these are ideal conditions for disease to break out and for the fungal spores to spread. If disease is spotted and it is possible to spray, then an application of iron will dry the plant out and help to prevent the outbreak spreading.

The quickest way of dew brushing is to drag a rope across the pitch, but this will require two of you. If you are on you own, then a drag brush will take about half an hour per pitch.

Fertilising the turf will help manage to replace the nutrients removed when mowing. Even if there is not a big budget, target when it needs it to gain the most success. This might be around the renovation period to re-establish a good sward and then for strengthening the plant going into winter, but spend wisely. I have found a slow release to be a good option when funds are low.

Building a good relationship with management and club committees could be the best thing that you could do for your pitch. It may get you the finances for buying a new machine or persuading them not to play a fixture when the pitch shouldn't be played on. Sometimes it can be difficult for the passion for your role managing the pitch can bubble over, especially in difficult times but being professional will help you be listened to when it's needed.

If getting your point across about getting things for your pitch, the new mower or introducing a fertilizer program is difficult, try writing a short report on why you need it and justifying your needs. It is sometimes easier to get the required information across this way. Talk to people. Talk to other groundsmen, talk to reps, talk to the players. There is a whole lot of experience and knowledge out there which will help you make informed decisions about managing your pitch. Learn from your mistakes but, if you can, learn from other peoples!

Hopefully it will help fill some gaps in that jigsaw puzzle.

Written by Ben Connell
Ipswich Football Club Head Groundsman

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