I have been asked to write a monthly article explaining the English and European practices for sports maintenances, and renovations, so here goes!
I work for a company based near Manchester, England, that is responsible for the import and export from both the USA and Europe of machines and implements that aid the groundsmen in their task to produce perfect playing surfaces at their venues.
I have traveled to some of the best-known sporting venues and seen the fantastic results to sports fields (pitches) achieved through hard work and dedication, and also the frustration of overuse, underfunding or the wrath of Mother Nature.
At the STMA meeting in Daytona Beach, I had the privilege to meet with a great number of groundsmen from the USA and further afield (mostly in the bar) whose enthusiasm to provide the best playing field is generic throughout the fine turf industry.
Our methods of annual maintenance in the U.K. and parts of Europe are dramatically different to the USA, but you come to take for granted your own environment and standards until you meet and discuss with others and hear of their staff numbers, methods, climate, environment and budgets. However, the common denominator in all of the facilities is the health of the grass plant.
The playing surface will survive the rigors of the season if it is fit and healthy at the outset. Football (soccer) in Europe is a winter sport, with the first games being played in August and play lasting through until May. Winter game surfaces suffer, as the plant will, at some point, go in to a state of dormancy. Obvious problems will then occur that will leave a far less than desirable playing surface unless the surface and species are maintained and managed correctly.
With our season finishing in May, we have the opportunity to create a better playing surface for the next season; in years gone by, this was classed as “renovation time.” The biggest problem was that in May, even the worst pitches look good again, so pressure was put on the groundsmen to do minimal work and leave well enough alone. The more aggressive groundsmen would do several passes with a scarifier and try to collect the debris with limited success, and then overseed with their chosen variety of seed. The net result of this labor-intensive and costly renovation was probably a 98 percent Poa annua field that again will struggle to survive a season of winter sports. (Possibly a waste of time and money.)
Poa annua has to be eliminated from the playing surface to give the field any chance of surviving the period of dormancy that we normally get in late November through to early March. In Europe, to my knowledge, we do not have a chemical to remove only Poa annua from a surface, and our chemical usage of any sort is very restricted due to European legislation that has become more widespread and restrictive over the last 10 years, and I believe is now happening in some of the U.S. states.
Nature and technology need to be combined to assist a groundsman to keep his pride and sanity, enable his employer to use the venue in a more lucrative and cost-effective manner, and provide players with a consistent surface. A man responsible for over 180 pitches in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, went a long way to enable this to be achieved; this man is Ko Rodenburg.
Rodenburg was faced with the same winter pitch problem of Poa annua domination and vulnerability, but he invented a tool to remove this problem. He designed the machine that is now the Koro (named after him) Field TopMaker. In Europe, particularly England, we now use the Field TopMaker (FTM) not to renovate, but to prepare and create a pitch. We want a clean Poa annua-free surface with a 100 percent perennial rye sward or, in some cases, up to 20 percent Kentucky bluegrass. With these chosen varieties we have a surface that has a good chance of surviving the dormant period and is more tolerant of heavy play, cold weather, rain or snow, and has the ability to recover at lower temperatures.
We have also seen many advancements in pitch construction in the last 10 to 15 years, with near sand-based fields with efficient drainage, under-soil heating, surface stabilization using synthetic fibers mixed into the surface (Fibresand), and more recently Fibrelastic to aid both stability and with hard surfaces. Vertical stabilization (Desso) has become a successful and accepted surface at many of the Premier Football stadiums, and those that can afford it will have stabilization of some form at their training grounds, as they will be subject to a higher level of play.
Stadiums at the wealthier clubs have seen the introduction and growth in popularity of grow lights. They are used to create an artificial season, meaning it is possible to keep the grass growing and, more importantly, recovering in the winter months. So, for John Torres, “There is a light, and it never goes out!”
Even with all the advancements in construction and equipment, we are totally reliant on the groundsman. He needs a combination of skills and a level of education, desire, pride with confidence to experiment, not just follow the herd, and, of course, he needs financial backing.
In the U.K., we only re-turf (sod) if a pitch has failed or we have not had time to grow in from seed because of concerts or other uses. Preseason, we always clean away the organic matter, thatch, and grub out the Poa annua plant and root system, and down to the growing eye of the ryegrass plant, and this will regrow. We can then prepare the pitch for the next and most important season, the next couple of months we get very busy with the pitch preparation.
Simon Gumbrill is sales director at Campey Turf Care Systems, U.K.