For most GAA clubs, the winter months are the toughest time for pitches and the groundstaff who look after them. The weather can affect the outcome of matches and, more importantly, have a direct impact on the playing surface in terms of grass cover, wear and performance.
From December through to March, the weather can be a deciding factor on both a team's results and the welfare of the pitch. We have already seen the affects of all the weather this year, especially after the heavy rainfall in January, with many parts of the country suffering flood damage.
Many games have been cancelled due to the fact that pitches have become saturated. Soils, when saturated, lose their strength and become slippery and grass cover can easily be lost. The physical properties of your soils will dictate how well your pitch can drain; sandy soils drain well whereas heavier clay soils tend to be slower draining and even hold water. The only way to overcome a heavier soil type is to have a primary drainage system installed, which often requires a secondary system to intensify its performance.
I have also seen many club pitches cope without any drainage, however this generally only happens if there is a decent maintenance regime in place, and has been down to the skill and effort of their groundsman, and the fact that the club have invested some money and time on maintenance at the right time of the year.
It is the work you do in the spring (renovations), and subsequent summer maintenance (regular mowing) and autumn (aeration) work, that prepares your pitch for the winter.
Brushing and Mowing
Continue the work of brushing to keep the air circulating around the base of the plant, particularly important for removing early morning dew and controlling disease. Pay particular attention also to the goalmouth areas and centre circles post match, to lift the grass back up out of muddy areas. This is also important in keeping surface levels.
Winter cutting heights will range from 25-40mm depending on the level of play and condition of the pitch; most stadium pitches are regularly cut at 27mm whilst council pitches are more likely to be cutting around 30mm plus.
A lot of stadium pitches are now being mown using pedestrian rotary roller mowers, with the aim to reduce weight on the pitch, clean up surface debris and help stand the grass plant upright.
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.
Continue spiking when the conditions are right. Keep your spiking regime flexible, alternating between surface spiking, deep spiking and slitting.
Hand fork goalmouth and centre circle areas, if difficult to get onto with machinery.
Try to keep the top 100mm free draining; this can be achieved by regular spiking with solid or slit tines to a depth of 150mm or more.
Pre and post match regimes
Pre-match:- inspection to see if the pitch is fit and safe for play, i.e. check for debris (glass, stones etc.), make sure the surface is firm and not saturated, correctly marked out and flagged, and that the posts are safe and secure.
Line Marking:- muddy and uneven surfaces are 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.
Pay attention to post match regimes, ensure you replace divots, undertake some dragmatting/brushing/harrowing to restore playing surfaces. The use of pedestrian or ride-on rotary mowers are now becoming a popular way to clean up playing surfaces.
Divoting is important work and should be completed after each match. Arm yourself with a border fork and a bucket of topdressing with a little seed mixed in. Not everyone can afford the necessary time to go divoting on the scale of some of the Premiership grounds, but even if you could afford just a couple of hours post match divoting, sorting out some of the worst, I can guarantee that you will notice the difference over time. If you cannot afford a full divoting programme, then you could equally tackle the worst and clean the rest off with a mower or pick up sweeper.
February is a good time to take soil samples and get them sent off for analysis, thus enabling you to get them back in time to start your new year's maintenance
Ideally, if you have not had one done before, you should have a full (PSD) Particle Size Distribution soil analysis done to tell you the actual make up of your soil profile.
Soil is made up of percentages of clay, silt and sand. The PSD Analysis will identify the ratio of these and confirm soil type, thus giving you a better understanding of what soil you are dealing with. Also, you can establish the amount of organic matter (OM) content as well as soil nutrient status and soil Ph. With this information, you will be able to identify the needs of your soil.
Pitchcare have recently launched a new independent Soil Anaylsis service that enables 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.
Fertilising:- generally, no fertiliser applications are made during the winter months, as plant growth has slowed down. However, a dose of liquid iron to colour up and provide some strength to the grass plant can be applied during the winter months. However, the mild weather conditions may have stimulated some growth, so you may have to consider putting on some fertiliser products to help sustain the plant's needs.
Weeds should not be too much of a problem if you carried out a sucessful selective weed programme last year.
Keep and eye open for fungal disease, and use approved fungicides to treat any infected areas. Early morning dew on playing surfaces often promotes the chance of a disease attack; regular brushing off the dew will help prevent this.
Leaf spot can be quite damaging, especially in stadium environments; keep the leaf blade relative dry by regular brushing, and apply an approved fungicide to prevent further outbreaks
Red thread is an extremely common turfgrass disease that can develop at any time of the year during cool, wet weather, but frequently appears most severely during late spring and autumn. It can develop on most turfgrasses, but ryegrasses, meadowgrasses and fescues appear to be more commonly affected. This disease is often referred to as an indicator of low fertility, and symptoms will often develop more severely if nitrogen or potassium is limited.
Usually a dose of fertiliser will help control and outbreak of Red thread, howerver, it it persists, many of the fungicides that are currently available for use on managed amenity turf have shown efficacy against this turf disease and, where necessary, can be used as part of an integrated programme to manage red thread. Always ensure that the disease is correctly identified prior to the application of any plant protection product.
Start thinking about your end of season renovations, and how you may be tackling the possibility of an extended season and the need to get onto the pitches to carry out the work. Start to build your strategy and get it down on paper. Look at what resources you will need - manpower, materials and machinery.
With reference to your machinery needs; if it's part of your inventory, drag it out, dust it off and fire it up to make sure it will work for you when you need it. If you don't have it in your inventory, but you know someone that has, a neighbouring club or school perhaps, particularly if you are on good terms with them; you may come to some arrangement to borrow it when they are not using it.
Alternatively, look at the option of hiring. There are a growing number of hire companies these days that are now specialising in the hire of sports ground equipment. With reference to your material needs, get them ordered now so that they are on hand when you need them.
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 Jeud@pitchcare.ie for information.
Inspect goalposts and sockets to check they are safe and secure.
Harrowing/raking:- when conditions allow. Helps to restore levels and keep surfaces open.
Inspect and remove debris from playing surface litter or any wind blown tree debris, litter, twigs and leaves.