Key Tasks for December
As ever, the caveat with the below advice is weather permitting. If you have waterlogging or frost, keep off the surfaces - you will do more harm than good.
Square: Inspect your ground regularly for disease, worm activity, and spray as required. Dragbrush your square to remove any surface moisture to discourage any disease, and sarrel roll to keep the surface open. Mow the outfield and square as required..
Mowing: The use of a rotary for mowing the square will be more beneficial as it will reduce the effect of surface compaction. Maintaining a consistent height of cut on both square and outfield is very important, as this helps to encourage sward density, the square should be maintained between 12-20mm with the outfield between 25-35mm. Remember the outfield too has a major effect on a game if unattended.
Outfields: Too many clubs tend to neglect their outfields, it is important to undertake some work on these areas as they play an important part of the game. They need to be firm, flat and free from weeds. The outfield should be treated through the winter the same as any other natural grass surface, Fertilising and mowing should not be neglected. Some cricket outfields are often maintained as winter sports pitches and the amount of work carried out may be determined by whether it is used for other sports (football/rugby).
Depending on ground conditions, some clubs may be able to complete drainage or reconstruction works during the winter months. Existing drainage systems can be overhauled and cleaned out, and additional drainage systems may be added.
Aeration treatments are of a fundamental importance. If not done so already, aerate your square and outfield. If your outfield is used for winter sport, link the work into your management programme. All soils are prone to compaction, but heavy clay soils which are inherently poor draining are particularly susceptible. To counteract existing compaction, aeration work should be seen as an ongoing process which must be carried out with modern, efficient equipment to achieve maximum benefits.
Deep penetration should be the objective to allow air in, facilitate water infiltration to lower levels and encourage deeper grass rooting. Without good gaseous exchange and movement of surplus water, excessively soft thatch riddled playing surfaces will be dominated by shallow rooted annual meadow grasses. For alleviating deep seated compaction, Verti-draining is invaluable and has become an integral part of a maintenance programme at many clubs. To maximize the benefits of Verti–draining, treatments must be carried out before ground conditions get too wet.
Verti-draining with solid tines are best suited for this work, as this will reduce deeper compacted layers and reduce the risk of panning; Slit tining is a preferred option as this opens up the surface and is much quicker. Hollow tine aeration has a key role in combating soil compaction within the top 75-100mm of the profile too, followed by a sandy top dressing mix will assist a more freely draining playing surface. In the main, you should be looking to aerate throughout the winter period on a monthly basis, weather and soil conditions permitting.
December brings with it some mixed blessings: the need to contemplate relatives, gifts and cards whilst controlling alcohol intake over Christmas and the New Year. Meanwhile, it can be seen as the low time within the growing calendar which can be a tricky time to navigate from a disease and weather perspective.
I don’t need to remind you how wet it has been, almost from the end of September, though it’s useful for us to think about the implications of all that water for both the plant and for the substrate it’s rooted in.
The need to take a breather
Much of the life that we are familiar with uses oxygen in a process called respiration, and that includes microorganisms within the soil. Conventionally a well-structured soil will contain roughly equal parts of water to air contained within the pore spaces. This provides an environment for organisms such as worms, fungi, algae, protozoa, bacteria and nematodes. Some of these are mobile but many have restricted ability to move meaning that the environment largely determines which suite of species can exist – if the soil structure is compacted or waterlogged for periods of time then anaerobic species, organisms that don’t require oxygen, will be the dominant form of life.
Bacteria vary in size from around 0.2 µm up to 10 µm making them a comparable size to clay and silt soil particles (< 0.2 µm and 2-50 µm respectively). They grow and live in thin water films around soil particles and near roots in an area called the rhizosphere. Bacteria’s small size enables them to grow and adapt more rapidly to changing environmental conditions than larger, more complex microorganisms like fungi which tend to prefer more acidic environments without soil disturbance.
Most microbes are generally inactive and may only have a short burst of soil activity. Since bacteria live in difficult conditions they reproduce quickly when optimal water, food, and environmental conditions occur. Populations of bacteria may easily double in 15-30 minutes. Soil oxygen levels often determine soil bacteria activity with most soil bacteria preferring well-oxygenated soils. Examples of aerobic bacteria include the Aerobacter genus which is widely distributed in the soil and actinomycetes bacteria genus Streptomyces which give soil its good “earthy” smell.
Anaerobic bacteria prefer an environment without oxygen. Many pathogenic bacteria prefer anaerobic soil conditions and are able to outcompete or kill off aerobic bacteria in the soil when conditions are suitable. Bacteria populations expand rapidly and the bacteria are more competitive when easily digestible simple sugars are readily available around in the rhizosphere. Root exudates, dead plant debris, simple sugars, and complex polysaccharides are abundant in this region.
So how can we maintain an aerobic soil when the weather conditions are so wet? The answer is that we can’t. As with many things in life the secret is preparation. We undertake renovations at the end of the summer because we have good growing conditions – soil temperatures in excess of 10 °C and consistent moisture, these renovations stimulate the grass plant to grow into the spaces that we’ve created. We’re engineering an environment, around the rhizosphere, that is suited to the aerobic species that we want. Despite this soils that have been waterlogged for long periods of time, because of this wet autumn, will need some additional support to kick-start the development of an aerobic suite of bacteria.
Do no harm
The first principles of first aid are that we do no harm, and that principle also applies to environmental management regimes. If we take machinery over waterlogged soils we are likely to create problems as we compact and damage the soil structure. Ideally whilst the drains are still running, we need to stay off the surface. When the drains stop running the soil is said to be at field capacity. Only when drains have stopped running, and you can start to hear the soil pores opening, should we think about putting any machinery over the surface – and even then we need to be cautious: spread the weight with turf tyres at low pressure.
Aeration should be our next priority, depending on the kit we have and the ability for us to make a mess of the surface we can consider a range of devices available: verti-draining, solid tining, air injection, earthquaking and slitting are all forms that use different mechanisms to reincorporate oxygen back into the rootzone. Different root zones drain at varying rates because of the distribution of the different sand, silt and clay particle sizes. They will determine how quickly the moisture can flow away or how intractable the soil is.
Once we’ve aerated, and if temperatures are sufficiently mild, we can then think about trying to build up the levels of beneficial organisms by supplying them with some readily available nutrients e.g. carbon sources such as SeaAction liquid seaweed or BioMass Sugar. The movement and development of microorganisms will help restructure a soil and maintain oxygen within the rootzone. This benefits the plant which can then obtain nutrients through the activity of bacteria, facilitating good plant health and recovery ability.
We will all have suffered some losses over what is turning into an exceptionally wet autumn for many green keepers and groundstaff. Hopefully a dry Christmas will help us get some much needed air into our surfaces and whilst we’re eating the occasional mince pie we can console ourselves that we’ll be turning that corner in the calendar this month and from the 21st we’ll be starting the steady journey towards what we all hope will be an inspirational new decade.
Inspecting and cleaning of machinery - December is an ideal time to send any machinery away for repairs or servicing. Keep a good supply of materials such as loam and seed at hand for repairs and maintenance.
Check H.O.C Ensure cutting cylinders are sharp and set to winter mowing.
Keep machinery in good order, clean after use and top up any oil/fuel levels.