Pitches & turf: drainage & irrigation

Help is available for groundsmen fighting to cope with the worst of the British weather, says Sally Drury.

Imants SandCat: Designed to improve drainage and aeration on fine turf and greens - image: Campey Turf Care
Imants SandCat: Designed to improve drainage and aeration on fine turf and greens - image: Campey Turf Care

When did you last experienced good old-fashioned British rain? These days it always seems to come along in torrential cloudbursts and falls so fast that the natural infiltration of soils does not have a chance to soak it up, assuming the soil is not already waterlogged from the previous downpour. The result might be surface run-off or, more likely, puddles of rainwater lying around for ages.

With the air spaces filled with water, roots are unable to breathe. The soil’s biology also begins to fail. Now add traffic into the equation. It does not matter whether the traffic is feet, mowers or vehicles, soil can quickly compact and lose its structure. Plants become stressed, diseases seize the opportunity to strike, dead patches appear in swards and compaction worsens — it is a downward spiral and in sport it is one that often sees players injured or heading off to better clubs. So what is the answer?

Regular planned treatments

Unfortunately, no one solution will fix the problems on every site, but carrying out regular planned secondary drainage treatments is important. MJ Abbott contracts manager Nathan George explains: "It is vital that rainwater is able to percolate freely downwards from the surface so that it can be removed by underlying primary piped drainage systems without impedance.

"Last winter’s very wet weather highlighted many secondary drainage issues that we were able to alleviate using treatments ranging from sand and gravel banding to deep-tine aeration, scarification and sand top dressing, depending on the severity of the problem and the available budget."

He points out that main drain outfalls and ditches need to be included in any regular maintenance schedule to ensure that water is able to flow freely and consistently away from the surface and the subsoil. "Blocked or silted drains, ditches and culverts can quickly cause water to back up along drainage pipes, resulting in soft, wet surfaces that hamper normal play and can cost a great deal to put right," he says.

The success of sandbanding has now seen the Imants SandCat, supplied by Campey Turf Care, undergo scientific trials at the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) in Bingley. Designed to improve drainage and aeration on fine turf and greens, the machine works by slitting the surface and back-filling the slits with sand. In the trial it was used on a 200sq m plot in June 2014 and will see four more runs over the course of a two-year period, with changes in surface smoothness, harness, penetration and infiltration levels being recorded along with recovery times.

STRI trials manager Ian Anderson says: "Although the trials are far from complete, the initial results on water infiltration so far are very impressive. After only one pass of the machine we have recorded levels of drainage of 39mm per hour as opposed to only 18mm per hour on the untreated plot — a 116 per cent increase. Additionally, turf treated with the SandCat was consistently drier than the untreated turf when measured with a soil moisture probe."

Potential aeration solution

Aeration can provide a solution in some situations, such as at Radwinter Bowls Club in Essex. Recently the club faced difficulties with water ponding on the green during heavy rainfall and it would be several days before the green was fit to play again. Terrain Aeration was called in to look at the problem.

The company used its lightweight Scamper Terralift air injector, but with the subsoil proving hard and dry a JCB road breaker hammer had to be fitted to allow the probe to work to the full 1m depth. Treatment was followed by scarification, top dressing and overseeding. Now the only complaint is that bowlers only have time for one pint of beer before the surface is playable after rain.

Sometimes dramatic and costly action can be required. Four years ago, Bolton RUFC would not have been able to stage a game following torrential rain. The three Mortfield Pavilion pitches leased by the club from the local authority would have resembled a quagmire after a downpour.

The club knew that it would have to finance any improvements itself. At £140,000, this was no small matter.

Bolton RUFC is not the usual leafy suburb club. Instead it sits in the middle of one of the most deprived wards in north-west England. It has to work for its money and has an army of volunteers. Thirty-four coaches and 70 volunteers help 120 seniors and more than 240 juniors play every weekend. New recruits are sought through schools and parents are asked to help.

Local resident Resma Patel, with experience in accessing grant funding, put in the time to source the money needed for the work. With funding secured from several sources, including Sport England, consultancy Professional Sports Turf Design (PSD) was engaged to evaluate the necessary work. Sports turf construction and drainage contractor Duncan Ross was chosen by PSD to install drainage and renovate pitches.

The first-team pitch was completely restructured, a new drainage system and pitch laid, a partial refurbishment of the second pitch and secondary drainage installed on the third. Since then, the pitches have been relaid and properly drained, and not a single game has been cancelled due to bad weather, waterlogging or excessive dryness. There have been fewer injuries and greater enjoyment at all levels.

"It’s a big investment for any club," says managing director Duncan Ross. "But now the pitches are open for use all year round and the quality of play is helped, not hindered, by the turf." The pitches have passed all the inspections and meet the criteria to hold rugby fixtures.

Waterlogged pitches

Souters Sports also had a busy year tackling waterlogged pitches. At Charlton Athletic FC’s Valley ground, drains had collapsed, laterals were blocked and it was decided that the 1950s-built pitch had had its day.

In a period of just 12 weeks, the contractor stripped the pitch and removed the drainage and irrigation. The site was levelled and 18 new laterals, with a geo-texture layer, were fitted with the new pipes redirecting drainage to a manhole at the north end of the pitch. Following construction work, the pitch was seeded. Today, rain is something that head groundsman Nathan Chapman no longer fears.

"Last season a cup full of water would have flooded it," he recalls. "However, this season, when we have a downpour, everywhere around the club floods apart from the pitch. I am able to water it two days later so that shows just how fantastic the drainage now is. Water is my friend again."

Drainage is not without implications. Once a drainage system has been installed and is working, turf-maintenance practices, especially fertiliser programmes, may need to be reviewed. Thought might also be given to providing irrigation on those sites likely to dry out in the summer months. For a football club such as Bolton Wanderers, it is a must.

Last year the club finished a major upgrade of its irrigation systems at its iconic Macron Stadium and the club’s training academy. Grounds manager Richard Norton worked with Simon Rowe of Simon Rowe Irrigation to gradually update the irrigation system and sprinkler heads at both sites to be 100 per cent Toro Irrigation. The final stage of the process was completed with the installation of Toro DT55 and T7 sprinklers at the training academy.

Impressed with the overall performance of the main stadium irrigation, especially the new Toro TS90 centre sprinklers, Norton asked Rowe to recreate the same effect for the training academy, with work to coincide with annual maintenance. Sixteen DT55 electric valve-in-heads sprinklers were installed for the surrounds and eight T7 full-circle in-pitch heads with sod cups for the centres.

"I have noticed there is a particularly nice spread on both these sprinklers," says Norton. "The rest of the team rates them too, which is nice to hear."

The T7 Series sprinklers are designed to provide maximum watering efficiency and precision.

High-efficiency nozzles deliver both precise watering and a long throw. A single port design ensures water is evenly distributed across the spray pattern without putting too much near the head, which can otherwise wash away seed.

The DT55 units at the academy are Toro’s dual-trajectory sprinkler. They provide a 15° or 25° arc setting, with a simple turn of the main nozzle, and full- and part-circle watering. Norton uses two settings — half-circle or 180° on the touchline and quarter-circle or 90° in the corners.

New products: latest drainage and aeration systems

Newly introduced by Aqua-Terra, Passive Capillary Drainage (PCD — right) comprises a stainless steel mesh core that quickly removes large quantities of water using the dual gravity flow and capillary attraction method. The biggest advantage is that it is non-intrusive to greens and disruption to clubs is minimal.

A network is created under the surface to drain water underground and away in a single drain.

It is the only system that can be pulled into a green at narrow spacings to provide efficient drainage in chronically wet soils. No motors, pumps or energy are required.

AFT Trenchers has developed a new Rope Sandbander to install Aqua-Terra’s PCD. The re-engineered sandbander enables effective sports turf drainage to be performed quickly and effectively, with minimal disruption.

The purpose-built machine (right) has an oscillating plough blade with a hollow centre. The PCD is fed through this hollow section and is in effect "placed" in the bottom of the freshly
cut slit while sand is simultaneously deposited on top of the PCD throughout the slit depth. The oscillation of the blade is key to minimising surface heave.

Blade-grinder specialist Bernhard & Co has joined forces with SubAir to provide aeration, moisture removal and root zone temperature-control systems for UK natural sports surfaces.

Bernhard will look after the sales, maintenance and aftersales support in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. SubAir will continue to design and manufacture the systems. The two companies will work together to share the installation and system maintenance side of the business.

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