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Section F - Pitch Maintenance

Any natural turf pitch requires maintenance to produce a surface of acceptable quality for the game played upon it. Rugby requires a profile that is adequately drained to allow play in all, but the most extreme, conditions.

The components of a management package for Rugby revolve around the basics of mowing and aeration. Sward growth characteristics will also be dependent upon these elements but also turfgrass nutrition and irrigation management especially, in the drier summer months when sward recovery is required. There are other aspects of maintenance for which the groundsman is responsible, including weed and pest control, overseeding, divoting, returfing and top dressing.

1) Mowing

The height of cut should be maintained at between 30-34mm over the summer, raising this slightly to between 34-36mm for the winter. In combination with the cutting height, proper consideration must be given to cutting frequency. The sward must be cut at least once each week during the growing season and two to three times each week for a higher quality surface. This is very important if clippings are not to be collected. The direction of mowing should be varied where possible to maintain an upright grass growth habit. The facility to collect clippings should also be examined, as this will confer a much better playing surface and sward health.

For the maintenance of pitches there are two types of mowers available, cylinder mowers and rotary mowers. A cylinder mower when well maintained will provide an excellent quality of cut and can also enable the pitch to be striped; however cylinder mowers do require a lot of maintenance. The ultimate finish is achieved with a walk-behind/sit-on pedestrian cylinder mower e.g. Dennis Premier 36” (100 cuts per metre). A set of self-propelled, hydraulically driven triple gangs, capable of achieving at least 25-35 cuts per linear metre may be considered as an alternative for speed.

A good professional rotary mower can provide very good results, not quite to the standard of a cylinder mower, but with considerably less maintenance. A professional rotary mower with a grass collection facility will also helps with the removal of debris after pitch usage.

Figure F1
Figure F2
Examples of rotary mowers

2) Aeration

The effects of play require constant attention to alleviate compaction. There are two basic forms of aeration equipment commonly employed on pitches. A conventional programme normally involves winter slitting or solid tining backed up by the occasional intensive treatment. On sand based pitches, the frequency of slitting is reduced or omitted altogether as compared with soil pitches and mainly confined to periods when a good grass cover is present. The effects of the aeration programme on pitch playability as well as performance need to be considered.

Figure F3: An example of a Verti-Drain machine

Each season, provision should be made to verti-drain the pitch to offset compaction. This would be dovetailed with an overall application of sand. Verti-Draining is an important mechanical aeration treatment and the number of operations required will depend very much on the intensity of usage and the profile of the pitch. It would not be unrealistic to expect the pitches to be Verti-Drained on three or even four occasions over a 12-month period.

On sand pitches, specialised hollow coring is needed from time to time to control and dilute accumulations of organic matter that can build up at the base of the sward and adversely affect surface water infiltration rates.

Other forms of aeration equipment, methods and strategies may be deployed from time to time depending upon site specific problems. Local advice should be sought on the most cost effective treatments that can, or should, be deployed.

3) Sand top dressing

Applications of sand top dressing will be required to perfect surface levels following play and as a mechanism by which a sandy profile can be maintained to maximize surface water infiltration rates. Sand is also used to help dilute organic matter as it accumulates at the sward base through the natural processes of grass growth.

Figure F4: Top dressing in progress

Sand could be applied at rates of 2-8Kg/m2 dependent upon grass growth rates and the requirements of the surface.

Good quality, approved medium grade sand should be chosen with the majority of its particles between 0.25 and 0.5mm in diameter.

It is acceptable to apply a dressing in the spring and again as part of a renovation programme or in the late summer period in preparation for winter. Under regular maintenance, budget for at least one or two applications each season, but more frequent lighter dressings may be needed for heavier soil profiles, or where a higher standard is demanded.

4) Scarification

Aggressive scarification is not an operation that is normally carried out but, on sand pitches, the buildup of organic debris can adversely affect the performance of the surface in wet weather. The need to scarify will be determined by the grass species composition of the pitch and rate of accumulation of organic material.

5) Turf nutrition

The quality of the turf will very much depend upon the skills of user and standards required. If clippings are removed, higher nutrient inputs will be required. A mature sward requires lower inputs than young seedling turf. The use of grow lights and undersoil heating will also affect the nutrient inputs as well as the overall management programme as the sward will be encouraged to grow at times of the year when it might well be dormant.

Figure F5
Figure F6
Examples of fertiliser spreader

Mini-crumb or mini-granular, compound fertilisers should be used to provide an even and uniform application and distribution of nutrients. Slow release nitrogen sources may also be advantageous on sandy constructions. Water-soluble fertilizers applied as liquid sprays allow the growth characteristics of the grass sward to be accurately controlled.

It is useful to review the nutrient status of the profile on an annual basis so that site specific recommendations can be made regarding turf nutrition. A local independent agronomist can assist with the formulation of such a programme.

During the early years of establishment, it may be necessary to split the annual fertilizer input in to 5-7 dressings, particularly if water-soluble fertilisers are used. This can then be reduced to 3-4 applications per annum as the sward and surface mature.

6) Weed and pest control

The incidence of turfgrass diseases, pests and weeds will vary from site to site and depend upon local climatic and environmental conditions.

Broad-leaved weeds should be controlled as necessary. A broad-spectrum herbicide should be applied when both the weeds and grass are actively growing, and in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.

Disease and pests have the potential to be destructive under the right conditions. Early intervention helps to reduce the risk and potential damage. Local knowledge is important in determining which diseases and pests have the potential to cause the most damage. Pest and disease management thresholds can be used to determine the optimum and most cost effective use of pesticides.

Compliance with all national and regional legislation is usually mandatory.

7) Oversowing

As part of the end of season renovations, it may be necessary to oversow the pitch, or localized sections, to promote recovery. Good quality cultivars should be selected for this purpose and the surface prepared to maximise seed germination and establishment prior to seeding. Grass seed should be selected on the basis of reviewing cultivar performance in the locality. In the UK, this information is available in Turfgrass Seed (available from STRI, published annually). Subsequent maintenance should also be directed to sustain seed establishment once germination occurs.

8) Post match renovations

Following matches, each pitch should be walked and divots replaced. This is achieved through a programme of hand forking to alleviate compaction and to knit scars together. Any thin or bare areas will require seeding with a mixture comprising quality seed and sandy compost.

Figure F7: Lady border fork
Figure F8: Turf doctor

Lady border forks are the tool of preference for most groundsmen for repairing divots after pitch usage. These can be purchased in most hardware stores. The forks should have four tines evenly spaced with a short handle.

Also a useful tool for repairing pitches is a large hole cutter or turf doctor. This can be used to remove larger divots to the sidelines and replacing with a fresh piece of turf from outside of the playing area.

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