My neighbour's little boy, George, is six years old. He is a very fit child and, even at his young age, seems to understand the necessary balance between outdoor, physical activity and the Xbox. In fact, there is nothing he likes more than kicking a football about.
He is learning the game at school but each weekend I find him on the local playing field, passing the ball to his dad, playing "keepie upie" and then having a strike at the goal. Sometimes his mum joins in and he says he cannot wait for his baby brother to be old enough to play for the family team. He, and others like him, should be encouraged.
But how much longer will he want to play on the "rec". There is still an enormous bare patch where the circus set up last summer and the wheel ruts from the fairground vehicles remain, making the surface uneven. Parts are muddy when it rains, while the growth of docks and dandelions is at a level likely to trip our young player, interfere with the ball and lower the experience of his game.
If it sounds like your pitch, you are not alone. Up and down the country, playing fields and winter sports pitches in particular are in a similar situation or worse. While grass needs water, the wet weather last year did it no favours. Many pitches on heavy and clay soils struggled to maintain cover as grass roots sat in ground that held far too much moisture. Coupled to that, the dismal summer meant little heat and low light levels. Then winter struck with freezing temperatures and deep snow. Budget cuts mean little or no weed control has been done. It has not been a good 12 months for grass — it must be feeling sick and in need of some help.
"It's not in the grass's job description to sit in water for most of the year and then have its head plunged into the dark with repeated coverings of snow," says Campey Turfcare Systems sales director Simon Gumbrill. "The sand-based pitches are okay because the surface has stayed reasonably dry — although they have had the problem of the fertiliser leaching with heavy rainfall, so from that point of view they had an expensive year last year."
Of course, many of the lower league clubs, community facilities and local authority pitches cannot afford sand-based constructions. Indeed, many are expected to survive without even the basics of drainage. For most of them, the situation is now desperate. Some are in danger of being lost as pitches altogether.
"The key to such pitches is aeration," says Gumbrill. Just a little can help — even aerating the goal mouths with a garden fork. Equipment like the Shockwave will help pull water from low spots. Deep-tining machinery, such as the Vert-Drain and Wiedenmann's Terra Spike, can be used to improve infiltration rates and get the water away quicker. Where it cannot be afforded outright, managers can consider hiring equipment, taking advantage of finance packages, calling in a contractor or even sharing kit with other nearby facilities.
Campey Turfcare Systems managing director Richard Campey reminds us of the minimum needed to sort out pitches after winter. "It's all about aeration and relieving compaction, then bringing it back to level and overseeding — that's the bare minimum," he says. "To improve pitches, you need to do further operations. But all that happens to a lot of pitches is the grass is cut."
He is concerned that a lot of money might be wasted through bad practice — like marking out on a Monday with greatly diluted compound. By Saturday, the lines are almost non-existent. He also worries about the future of facilities, having seen standards fall. "Yes, there are cutbacks, but there is a limit. Do they want pitches? Or is the community park pitch going to be replaced by sports club-type facilities? Then you have to ask who will fund it?"
There are lessons to be learned. For instance, those pitches where renovation work was carried out last spring, even at a basic level, bore grass that was better able to withstand the winter and are now in a much better condition. A good pitch not only means a better experience for the user, it also means an income for the owner or manager.
Where improvements can be afforded, we can learn a lot from those maintaining professional facilities. Arsenal FC training ground head groundsman Steve Braddock has a lifetime experience of pitch maintenance and is a master at renovating pitches after winter and preparing them for the next onslaught of play — although this year he admits conditions have been challenging.Difficult winter
"The cold winter has been difficult and with the rainfall washing out fertiliser, the grass hasn't had a chance for proper nutrition," he says. It has also meant rescheduling work. "Normally we would start renovation work in the last week of February, when traditionally we get a couple of weeks of drier weather in order to strip off the grass," he explains.
"The plan this year is to strip off three pitches and go back and seed them slightly later than normal to allow the ground to warm up and help the seed to germinate. With an early renovation, the seed tends to take a long time to establish and then you can have another cold snap in April, putting you back even further."
The surface is striped off using a Koro Topmaker and then the BLEC sand-banding machine is used to create grooves and shake sand into them to aid drainage. Each year, the Koro Topdrain will be used on one pitch to provide one-pass surface drainage.
After brushing, a smooth surface is created as the Shockwave linear decompactor is worked in two different directions. Once that is completed, 60-80 tonnes of sand are spread, the ground spiked and the sand brushed into the holes. Seeding, when conditions are right, is carried out with three types of machine — disc, dimple and agitator — and then the ground is spiked again. Braddock always works with the ground and the weather.
"If the forecast is for heavy rain during the germination period, we would leave the holes open so the rain goes straight through. If no rain is forecast, we would finish with a dimple-type seeder to create a level surface again," he says.
Helping to ease greens back into play
This spring is proving particularly difficult for greenkeepers. The winter weather has left many greens scarred by disease, areas worn through play in less than ideal conditions and generally weak turf has struggled through a soggy year only to be blasted by freezing winds and heavy snow. Then there is the high incidence of Poa. At this time of year it is thin, gives a patchwork quilt effect and can result in a bumpy surface. So what can be done to help golf greens, bowling greens and other fine-turf areas?
"The first thing to remember when considering spring maintenance is that soil and air temperatures will likely be low, sunlight likewise will not be intense and the plant, at this time of year, will be more inclined to want to bolt to seed than to tiller," says Advanced Turf Technology managing director, and experienced greenkeeper, John Coleman.
"This equates to a turf that is not best placed to withstand heavy remedial maintenance as recovery will be limited. It is always worth remembering that any remedial maintenance should be undertaken when growing conditions are favourable to help with sward recovery and thickening."
Coleman suggests that until soil temperatures rise, the modus operandi should be less about spring maintenance and more akin to disguising the inherent issues of disparate growth. "Some maintenance procedures are useful, such as shallow tining or spiking to alleviate surface sealing and help with gas diffusion, but anything more aggressive may not be sensible," he adds.
"Triplex units should be avoided to reduce stress on plants, but low-surface-area-contact procedures, such as hollow coring and punch tining, can be employed — but be particularly careful that dry, windy conditions are not forecast."
The urge to reduce cutting heights to smooth the green surface should be resisted until growth rates start to pick up. Where bumpy greens are becoming a nuisance, Coleman says it is better to roll. "Vibratory rollers are a good, safe option that can be used with shallow tining to prevent surface sealing," he advises.
He points out the advantage of the new walk-behind ATT INFiNiSystem is that cassettes for Sarel rolling, spiking and vibration are available for this relatively lightweight unit, as well as cutting heads for when mowing is appropriate.
There may also be a temptation to apply fertiliser too early in order to push greens on. Coleman adds: "If fertiliser is to be applied in not-perfect conditions, then it is probably best to opt for anitrate nitrogen-based fertiliser for a good low-temperature response. It doesn't matter how well the fertiliser has been formulated, however — if the temperature is too low then you will get a poor response."
Elsewhere, the training ground has Desso pitches, and another is currently under construction. But whichever pitch you look at or walk on, you know it is perfect for football. Six-year-old George would be delighted.