Snow, freeze, thaw, snow, thaw, rain - and just when you think the sun is coming out, it snows again. This winter is likely to go down in groundsmanship history as one of the oddest in terms of weather conditions and one of the most difficult in terms of turf management - especially when you consider many areas were still suffering the effects of a wet summer.
Although there is a great deal of regional variation across the UK, many groundsmen and greenkeepers are looking after facilities where the soil isn't just a bit on the soggy side, it's absolutely saturated. Many will be kicking themselves for not having done more by way of preparing the turf and the ground for winter. But financially, times have been hard.
The problem now is one of knowing what to feed the grass and when. A week of rising temperatures and hazy sunshine could be enough to stir the grass into growth. But are we asking it to wake up and get active on a starvation diet? If we do apply fertiliser, is it just going to be carried away as the soil slowly drains?
I have heard of some contractors considering spring fertiliser applications in the first week of March. They believe the weather has to pick up soon and, in any case, when the season does get going the shortage of staff means they will be far too busy with other work. No doubt they will be busy applying disease controls to overcome the effects of a nitrogen rush that arrived when it was still cold and damp. The message is, while temperatures are so low, don't apply. When soil and temperatures do rise, be aware of the increased risk of leaching.
Scotts Professional technical manager Stuart Staples advises care with any nutritional application at the moment. "It's been a peculiar start to the year. The snow goes away, leaving a wet soil, and then there's more snow or heavy rain," he confirms. "The soil in many places is saturated and care is needed with any application if we are to avoid loss through the system via leaching or surface run-off - both being bad for the environment and the pocket."
With financial pressures on most golf course and grounds maintenance budgets, any fertiliser applied has to do its job. "Applying product at a time when it is likely to be washed out of the system is simply a waste of money and extremely bad practice," says Staples.
Cool conditions are predicted for a while longer - and, according to some forecasters, there is even a threat of more snow returning by the end of the month - so great care must be taken with any nitrogen applications.
"If nitrogen is applied, it is going to cause a lot of problems such as soft growth," Staples advises. "Soft growth is more susceptible to wear and tear damage and also disease attack, such as fusarium patch."
So what can be done? Angus Horticulture, based in Forfar, Angus in Scotland, manufactures and supplies granular, soluble powder and liquid fertilisers - conventional and organic - and recently introduced a micro granule formulation of its popular Turf Rise spring, summer and autumn fertiliser range.
Sales director Stephen Appleton suggests: "The ideal would be feeding little and often - as often as every week. But in reality, that isn't practical. You simply cannot get out and do it every week. Most groundsmen and greenkeepers will, therefore, look at making three or four applications a year and give supplementary feeds in between - when and where required."
A best seller at this time of year is Angus's Spring Rise SRN (12-5.5-8 +2.8MgO + 1.4Fe + 6CaO) with methylene urea and seaweed. While the phosphorus will set the plant off to a flying start, the SRN element means that the release of nitrogen is spread over 12 weeks.
Appleton warns turf managers to be alert to the possibilities of leaching and phosphate lock up. His tip right now is to look at the health of the soil and the soil fauna. "Soil fauna is very much related to the availability of nutrients," he says. "If the soil fauna is present and active, then the need for application is reduced and what is available will be utilised more efficiently."
Appleton recommends VermiCompost to encourage root development and help fight disease. This natural organic material is produced by earthworms and contains abundant beneficial micro organisms - the workhorses for healthy soils and root zones. He also suggests that it is worth thinking about using organic fertiliser because the organic element will encourage the fauna.
In terms of the type of nutrition, the use of readily available fertilisers like conventional agricultural types will have an associated high risk of leaching and surface run-off where soils remain wet and there is the threat of more rain. Such situations need careful monitoring. However, Staples believes liquids could be an option if the grass really does need feeding. "It's a possibility," he says.
"Liquid fertilisers could be applied at a very low rate, almost dealing with nutrition on a week-by-week basis so that you have control over what you are putting in."
Another option is to provide nutrients via slowor controlled-release fertilisers. "With these fertilisers any amount of extra water or moisture in the soil is not going to increase the release of those nutrients," says Staples.
"Release is more controlled by soil temperature, so when it is cold and the plant is not growing, the nutrients are not released. But when soil temperatures start to rise, the nutrients will be released at a pace at which the plant can take them up. With these fertilisers you will not lose nutrients out the system and you will not have problems of soft growth or encourage diseases, but at the same time they will release at a pace that allows the grass to grow as conditions become more favourable."
Staples recommends the slow-release Sierraform GT range of fertilisers, controlled-release products such as Sierrablen Plus and Greenmaster Liquid range, including Effect liquid iron with seaweed extract.
It is difficult to plan a nutritional programme with weather conditions as they are at the moment. Historical records relating to previous fertiliser applications are unlikely to be helpful this year. Turf managers should keep an eye on the short-, mediumand long-range weather forecasts, concentrate on helping the soil dry by using water management products to encourage water to move through the profile, take a soil analysis so existing nutrient levels are known and then be ready to apply feed when plant growth becomes evident.
Perhaps, with a lack of long periods of frost and snow over the previous decade, we have become accustomed to mild winters. This one has been different. A lesson for many will be to pay more attention to preparing grass and ground for winter. Perhaps the coming autumn will see a greater effort on aeration and other cultural practices to ensure that soil structure is at its best. At the same time we need to encourage deeper rooting and the production of hardy plants of optimal health before the bad weather catches us out again.
Agronomic Services has a solution for turf managers wanting to aerate surfaces as soon as possible after the heavy snowfall and standing water. The company recommends Pervade penetrant tank mixed with Oxy-Rush - an oxygen generator.
"Pervade will move water through the profile and pull the Oxy-Rush into the root zone, increasing the levels of oxygen," says Agronomic Services managing director David Snowden.
"Both products can then get to work, reducing black layer, algae and anaerobic conditions." The Pervade/Oxy-Rush combination can be sprayed directly onto waterlogged turf using a lightweight spray rig.
Viano Bio-Lime from DJ Turfcare is suitable as an autumn or spring fertiliser for combating low pH, sweetening the soil to make it less acidic and encouraging healthy strong grass growth, while at the same time discouraging moss. It contains magnesium to create a thick sward, which helps maintain it in peak condition through the winter months.
Viano Recovery, also from DJ Turfcare, is an organic fertiliser formulated to help turf overcome stressful conditions associated with drought, flood or overplay and scarification. It gives the grass a boost when used as an autumn or spring fertiliser and it contains Humifirst.
Blaukorn from Headland Amenity added to the company's existing Xtend and Multigreen ranges of outfield turf fertiliser offers a cost-effective conventional option (24-5-5 + 2MgO and micronutrients or 15-3-20 + 2MgO and micronutrients). The P is derived from phosphoric acid for quicker availability.
Sportsmaster WSF from Scotts Professional is a liquid fertiliser range replacing Sierrasol products. It consists of three water soluble products - High N, High P and High K and contains TMax for enhanced foliar and root nutrient uptake and to give turf consistent colour with no rapid tail-off, plus chelated trace elements. Use on tees, fairways, pitches and local authority and landscaped areas.
Sportsmaster Organic CRF from Scotts Professional is a blend of both organic fertiliser and Scotts' patented Poly-S controlled release fertilisers for use during the main growth periods on tees, fairways, pitches and local authority and landscaped areas.
TerraCottem Turf from Inturf is designed for golf and sports turf applications. It is a combination of more than 20 hydroabsorbent and nutritive components intended to improve soil quality and water retention.