Unusual Turf Problems

Playing seasons are ever extending. Finding time to produce quality pitches can be tricky and playing catch up throughout the season is a common occurrence.

By now, the all-too-short renovation period has passed and many of you will be working on the first pitches of the season. From here on in, it’s a balancing act of week-to-week pitch preparation, moisture management and repairs whilst doing what you can to maintain or improve grass condition. Add the local Tiger Woods, who views the block as a perfect place to practice his chipping, and you begin to see why cricket management can be one of the most challenging turf jobs – all done with limited resources and changeable weather.

The biggest challenge to producing consistent pace and bounce starts well before any rolling occurs. Grass condition and moisture management are absolutely vital to the end result.

Establishing Grass Cover

Ripping up the surface to establish a seedbed is not an option once the cricket season is underway. Light over-sowing, however, can improve grass density without disrupting the surface or compromising the existing cover.

There have been many implements used successfully to punch holes for seed – from gib clouts through plywood attached to a broom handle, to spiked shoes and now, pedestrian dimple seeders are becoming more common. As with any surface work, moisture is critical. Too little and it’s like punching holes in concrete; too much and those carefully spaced gib clouts become sticky clay magnets.

After any heavier, mid-season renovations when grooving and topdressing is often required, coco matting can be used to provide a stable surface during games whilst protecting the surface underneath.

Maintaining Grass Condition

Once grass is established and nutritional needs are met, regular mowing is the best method to maintain grass condition. How often depends on your region’s growing conditions but remember to observe the 1/3 rule (only removing one third of the leaf area per mow). Peak growth times may necessitate daily mowing.

Old rye grass crowns following renovation.

Crowning on prepared wicket.

Verti-cutting should also be undertaken in 2-3 directions at least once a month to manage any stalky growth and large-forming plant crowns to keep grass texture consistent.  The blades should be set 2-3mm above the surface to prevent damage and clippings can be collected with a walk-behind mower. It’s a lot harder to put grass back in, so assess the block after each pass so as not to thin it out too much.

If grass condition gets away from you and there is enough time for recovery, cut the wicket down to 5mm to remove excess leaf material prior to verti-cutting. Once completed, apply nitrogen fertiliser to promote a more rapid recovery; repeat every 7-10 days if required.

If groomers are attached to the mower, engaging every second or third cut can reduce verti-cutting frequency by standing up any prostrate leaves and stems. Don’t get overly aggressive with groomers by trying to emulate verti-cutting. Depending on your setup, working height should be set at approximately ¾ of the cutting height i.e. if mowing height is 13mm, set groomers to 10mm.

Moisture Management

Next to grass condition, moisture management through the season and during preparation will have the biggest impact on how the pitch plays.

Moisture should be monitored – not only to ensure healthy grass growth but also to ensure even levels of compaction and to maintain base densities. This is especially important with shrinking, swelling clays that begin to self-mulch (lose compaction) when they dry out too much. Cricket block profiles often dry out and lose density over the Christmas break. Given the time constraints at lower grades, the re-wetting and required base rolling is never achieved, subsequently pitches usually perform better and last longer pre-Christmas. The Christmas break is a good opportunity to soak up the block and re-establish moisture levels at depth.

Apply additional moisture for pitch preparation as far out from the game as possible. Relying on overheads on a Saturday night is not ideal but, as long as the limitations of your irrigation system are known, it can be an effective tool (although more so for maintaining moisture to the rest of the block).

Ponding occurring from incorrect irrigation technique.

Uniform application of sumi soak hose.

Hand-watering offers the greatest control to individual pitches but soak hoses (such as the Sumi Soaker) have very good uniformity and work well at low pressures. They are also a very effective ‘set and forget’ method of delivering water at the required rate of blocks (as long as ponding does not occur), making them great for wetting up.

A pitch sampler and rubber mallet should never be far from the roller. Taking daily samples to track compaction progress and moisture levels will not only make your job easier, but is essential to maximising the potential of the pitch.

Applying a light amount of water to the match pitch during hot periods can cool turf and reduce losses through the week. As Saturday approaches, using scrims to cover the wicket might be preferable to adding water. Grass won’t sweat under a scrim and wet scrims can be even more effective on hotter days.

With bare or thin areas, there will be quicker surface drying while less moisture will be drawn from the root-zone. The result on game day will be inconsistent pace and bounce due to differing rates of compaction and surface conditions. To reduce surface moisture losses, apply grass clippings and roll them into bare areas as soon as re-wetting has finished. It’s a good idea to keep a bucket of dry, brown clippings in the shed as they won’t stick to the roller like fresh ones and will better resemble grass colour on game day.

Compaction Rolling

Understanding how compaction is achieved and, more specifically, how your soil type responds to different moisture levels is crucial to benefiting from time spent on the roller.

There’s often not the time nor the equipment available to conduct proper pitch monitoring. Given enough experience, your eye-ometer and the feel of the clay can be used with a very high degree of accuracy, but only so much can be known from looking at the surface alone. Regular sampling before and after rolling is the best way to understand your clay’s characteristics.

Every block will be slightly different but for most soil types, best compaction is achieved when pore-space saturation is around 80% (not to be confused with moisture content). This is when the soil is most mouldable i.e. most compaction for the least amount of time spent rolling.

Cleavage planes occurring at similar depths throughout the block.

Clean surfaces indicating cleavage plan.

Rolling with too wet or too dry a profile can result in bow waves and potential shear planes and limit the amount of achievable compaction Regular sampling is required to gauge moisture levels.

Wear and Tear

Despite your best efforts, wear will invariable occur. Leaving extra length on the grass can help. Provided the grass is in good condition (i.e. can be rolled flat, has even cover, and leaf texture, no large crowns and is not stalky), it can be left longer on game day. Match-day mowing can still set low but given the grass is rolled flat, the extra length will protect the surface and recovery may improve too.

The extra length can also help even out a surface with thinner coverage. Longer grass can be more difficult to brown off, but sweeping it up with a stiff broom following a roll will help to dry it and bruise the leaf. Be careful not to leave so much grass that it becomes like a thin mattress, absorbing energy from the ball, reducing bounce, causing it to pop up or become tennis ball-like. Experimentation will find the balance and a sweep before a mow will remove any excess leaf.

Pitch marks will always be an issue but can be reduced by using interior-grade PVA glue. This is not to be used on any part of the wicket that comes into contact with a delivered bowl. Contact the author or your local agronomist for further information regarding the use of PVA.

When footmarks become craters, hammer the edges to smooth them out so they’re less likely to twist ankles.  If a repair is warranted between games, use a mixture of clay, water and cement to fill the hole. Remove all loose debris and dampen the hole before applying the mix. Keep it drier than ordinary concrete to ensure it goes off in time but add additional moisture if it becomes difficult to work with.

Hammer out edges and remove loose debris.

Dampen and consolidate clay mix into pitch mark.

Completed repair finished with grass clippings to better blend in.

Cement and clay mixes can be done as late as the day before a game but I suggest completing as early as possible following any wet up.

Plant-hardening products like potassium and iron can be applied to increase wear tolerance but managing surface moisture and a good grass cover are the best ways to minimise game-day wear (keep on the drier side). A quick pass of the roller on the pitches either side of the match strip the morning of, or day before, the game can firm up the surface and minimise damage. Providing the block is big enough, leaving some space between pitches will allow some flexibility at the start of preparation. This will allow you to shift the pitch position to avoid damaged areas on a good line.

What happens after hours is largely out of your control. Signage can deter errant golfers and roping off blocks will usually stop kids riding their bikes and pulling skids on a surface you’ve wet up earlier in the day.

Use of Fertiliser

Nitrogen is the most essential nutrient in the playing season but it is important to match inputs to growth and wear. Applying more than necessary will result in extra time mowing and verti-cutting.  Additional thatch is also produced, requiring more intensive renovations. Over-doing it will ultimately lower the playing performance of the block due to excess organic matter accumulation.

Excessive root build up from over use of fertiliser.

Apply sufficient nitrogen to maintain healthy grass condition.  Higher rates can be used to hasten recovery.

In Summary

Consistency is king – from grass cover and conditioning, to moisture levels during preparation, and throughout the season. Get these right and not only will your job become easier, but your pitches will have more consistent pace and bounce.

 

Written by Agronomists at New Zealand Sports Turf Institute