Football pitch maintenance guide
This football pitch maintenance guide covers all of the key practices, including creating new pitches and closed season and midseason renovations.
The conundrum in writing a football pitch maintenance guide is in addressing the differences in budgets and resources from the parish pitch right up to the elite level. We have tried to cover all aspects of general grass pitch maintenance and best practice, letting groundsmen adopt as much as is practical for their situation.
Selecting football pitch grass seed
As a seed mix, we recommend using 100% Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne). The off-season window – during which football pitch repairs can be carried out – is often very short. Perennial ryegrass germinates well at the prevailing soil temperatures in late May/early June and establishes quickly, making it the ideal grass for football renovations in the UK.
There are other grass species that offer good wear tolerance, the main candidate being Smooth-stalked meadow grass (Poa pratensis). This species is very hardwearing but requires a higher soil temperature than Perennial ryegrass to germinate and establishes more slowly. Therefore, it is not effective for completing a football pitch renovation within the limited timeframe of 10-12 weeks.
However, Smooth-stalked meadow grass can be a useful option for football pitch repair when bought as turf and is sometimes mixed with Perennial ryegrass for this purpose. It is also sometimes used on new-build pitches where the time constraints of a renovation period do not apply.
The use of modern amenity grasses of high germination and purity is of paramount importance if rapid repair is to be achieved. Seeding should be carried out using a mixture of purpose-bred varieties of perennial ryegrasses which are highly rated in table S1 of the BSPB recommended list. A mixture such as A20 Premier Ryesport is recommended.
The choice of grass mixture is, however, only part of a seasonal football pitch maintenance schedule. The maintenance of good drainage and the relief of surface compaction are equally important.
Creating a new football pitch
Preparation and drainage
A good drainage system is of paramount importance if the pitch is to sustain high usage. Drainage specifications vary widely depending on the individual site conditions. But whatever the design, it should be capable of removing excess water either by natural rainfall or irrigation.
A typical system might have main drains, formed on a grid-type system at a depth of 450-900mm deep. This is to avoid damage from football pitch maintenance machinery. The distance between drains will vary from 2.5 m on heavy soils to 12.5 m on sand. A fall of 100-200 mm is considered ideal.
Open, well-textured topsoil will help to remove surface water. A mixture ratio of three parts sand to one part topsoil is ideal. Slit drains at 300-600 mm centres, back-filled with sand, to a depth to suit underlying soil layers will give rapid movement of surface water. Slit drains should run at right angles to the existing drainage system.
Benefits gained from the above are:
- Better playing conditions
- Improved traction, quality and durability of the turf
- Better aeration
- Quick drying of the soil improves soil temperatures
- Improved root development
- Better soil structure
- Early growth
Sowing football pitch grass seed
The first step is to ensure you are sowing the football pitch at an appropriate time of year when soil temperatures are conducive to rapid uniform germination. It cannot be overstated how important rapid uniform germination is.
A sward that is slow to establish due to either low temperatures or lack of moisture will never be as healthy as a sward that establishes quickly. Plants that struggle during establishment are more prone to disease and the propensity for weed competition is far greater.
If sowing Perennial ryegrass seed, the optimum soil temperature for rapid establishment is 10-20°c, with the warmer end of that scale seeing the most rapid germination. In most years, this makes late April to mid-June the perfect window for establishing a football pitch. If establishing later in the year for use the following spring/early summer, then sowing in mid-August to late September is the window to aim for.
Not all full-size football pitches are the same size. FIFA’s recommendation is 105 m long by 68 m wide and most pitches are approximately those dimensions, meaning a typical pitch is 7,150 m². At a recommended sowing rate of 50 g/m², for new sowing, you will require 360 kg of football grass seed.
When sowing the seed, it must be evenly sown and for this purpose, a specialist seeder should be used. The correct quantity of seed should be sown across the pitch in two or three directions.
There are many effective types of seed drill, including disc seeders that open a slit in the soil, drop the seed in and close the gap behind it and drills that create numerous holes or dimples, drop the seed into those and close those gaps. They can all work very well as they put the seed into the soil at the correct depth (approximately 10 -15 mm in the case of perennial ryegrass). Plus, they close and firm the soil behind them, thus ensuring good seed-to-soil contact, which is imperative to ensure uniform seed establishment.
When grass seed is sown at the correct depth and the soil is firmed around it in this way, then the two factors that are crucial for germination, moisture and warmth are held around the seed. Emerging seedlings also have a firm anchor point in the soil.
Grow-in (first 12-16 weeks)
Provided the grass is growing strongly, the first cut can take place when the plants are 50-60 mm in height, with the height being taken down to 35-40 mm after two or three cuts. 35-40 mm is a good height to maintain the pitch during the grow-in, with a view to cutting down to a playing height of 25-30 mm when the season starts.
An application of a balanced slow-release fertiliser such as GSR Tri-Phase will act as a base feed for the grow-in with extra applications of liquid or compound granular fertilisers being applied as and when necessary.
Closed season renovations and overseeding existing football pitches
Longer playing seasons and busier fixtures lists mean the renovation period is getting shorter, with a brief, eight-week closed season not uncommon. Therefore, immediately after the last game of the season, renovation work should start with scarification, then spiking or slitting to improve aeration, root development and drainage.
Hollows, damaged areas and goal mouths should be levelled with loam or sand. It may be necessary to topdress the entire pitch with sand, brushed into the surface to restore levels.
Football pitch overseeding should be carried out with a mixture of 100% perennial ryegrass at a recommended rate of 20-25 g m/². A seed drill should be used for this as the seed will be inserted into the soil exactly where it needs to be.
Everyone has their preferences here; dimple-type seed drills can be effective but are more dependent upon soil conditions being favourable. If it’s too dry, seeds may not be sown at the correct depth or ‘tucked’ into the soil adequately. In recent years, disc seeders have come to the fore because they tend to produce more consistent results.
Once new seedlings have established, a slow-release fertiliser with a high nitrogen content such as GSR Tri-Phase 18-3.5-8 should be applied.
If a pitch is in very poor condition and where the budget allows, an option is to ‘Koro off’ the surface of the pitch. This football ground maintenance practice is now widely used on elite-level pitches. Using a machine called a Koro Field top maker, the surface of the pitch is heavily scarified to remove up to 80% of the existing surface.
The pitch can then be aerated, topdressed and resown at a rate of 40-50g/m². This method is great for removing a build-up of thatch and undesirable weeds and grasses while refreshing the surface.
Although not practical on an annual basis on all but elite pitches, it is perhaps an option to re-invigorate a pitch every now and then. This should not be seen as a magic wand, though. Some surface issues like moss and broadleaved weed ingression can be caused by underlying issues such as poor drainage and these would need addressing to solve those issues in the long term.
Football pitch maintenance during the playing season
Keeping the surface clean
The first objective for any groundsman is to keep the pitch surface clean and debris-free. Regular light verti-cutting, scarifying or brushing to remove excess thatch and hoovering off any loose material will reduce plant competition (broad-leaved weeds) and give the grass sward better access to daylight and soil nutrients.
You should aim to do this as regularly as possible, ideally once a week in summer and fortnightly during the wetter autumn and winter months. If a purpose-built hoover is not available, then a mower positioned above the grass can act in the same way.
Keeping the surface dry
Maximum damage is caused to your winter pitch when it is sitting wet. Regular light scarification or verti-cutting allows moisture to get through the rootzone as there is minimal thatch to slow it on the surface.
Light scarification (often in the form of verticutting) can be carried out regularly to keep the surface clean. Deeper scarification is generally performed as part of the close-season renovation, the purpose of which is to remove thatch and unwanted vegetation. Scarification at this time should ideally be followed by aeration and topdressing.
Topdressing of the entire surface should be carried out annually and will follow heavy scarification and aeration as part of the season renovations. It will also be necessary to carry out light localised topdressing of problem areas throughout the season.
The topdressing used will depend upon your existing soil structure and what you are trying to achieve. On very sandy soil with inherent good structure, a topdressing compatible with the existing soil should be used. In this instance, you are essentially using the topdressing to address levels and replace nutrients lost during mowing through the season.
The second type of topdressing is sand-based, and this is probably the most common. Sand-based topdressing corrects the level of the pitch and, crucially, improves drainage. This is important on pitches with heavy soil and poor structure.
Professional advice should be sought when choosing a topdressing and it should be bought from a reputable source. Using a topdressing of the wrong structure can actually create problems rather than solve them. For example, a sand-based topdressing made up of fine rather than coarse-grained sand can exacerbate drainage issues.
Above all, it’s most important that the topdressing you use in football pitch maintenance is consistent every year. Once you know what to use, keep records so that the same topdressing is obtained each year.
You will hear that you can’t aerate too much. And this statement is largely true but with one crucial caveat, ‘you can’t aerate too much if conditions allow’. Punching holes in wet soil is not aerating the soil or aiding drainage, it is just punching holes in wet soil! You are achieving no benefit and possibly increasing compaction. Football pitch maintenance equipment needs to be used effectively.
Before aerating, it is important to understand what you are trying to achieve. Whether you are spiking or using a slitter, the purpose of aeration is to create fissures in the soil, both vertically and horizontally. These fissures create pores for water to filtrate through the soil, air to enter the soil for respiring roots and to feed microorganisms and accelerate the breakdown of organic matter.
To achieve this result, the soil should be just moist enough to allow the tine or blade to enter the soil but dry enough so that the action of doing so is creating that disturbance in the soil profile. The two most crucial times to try and aerate are once as part of your post-season renovation and then again before the start of prevailing wet weather, usually in October. Again, if it rains all October then don’t do it just because you think you should.
Image: Soil too wet for aeration
Football pitch grass cutting
When maintaining a football pitch, it should be kept at a height of 25-30 mm during the playing season. Mowing heights can be relaxed somewhat during the off-season, but the grass should not be allowed to exceed 60 mm.
The number of cuts you will need per year will depend on the weather in any year. Milder autumns in recent years have meant that mowing right into November is now routine. As a rule of thumb, plan for up to 30 cuts per year.
Regarding fertiliser, the main constraint is often budget and time. The recommended amounts of fertiliser for a football or rugby pitch per hectare per annum are listed below and the aim should be to provide these amounts if you can.
The plan to achieve this aim can vary depending on budget and manpower. At the elite level, fertiliser will often be applied little and often, and as it is deemed required. With community pitches, however, this is often not practical due to the aforementioned constraints.
In short, you should aim to do the best you can with the resources you have. Slow-release fertilisers are an excellent product for applying larger amounts of fertiliser in an economic and environmentally sustainable way in minimum applications.
If the budget only allows for one fertilisation, a slow-release product such as GSR Tri-Phase (18-3.5-8 plus TE) should be applied at the time of renovation around April/May time. This will encourage growth and recovery to existing grass coverage, act as a pre-seed fertiliser for any overseeding works and encourage growth through the close season until teams return in autumn.
If the budget allows for two feeds, August would be a great time to apply Novatec Premium (15-3-20 plus TE). This will slowly release nutrients throughout autumn.
If you have time and football pitch maintenance costs are less of a concern for applications, then the fertiliser plan can be expanded.
For greater detail on the nutrient requirements of your pitch, please contact your area sales representative who can tailor a bespoke fertiliser plan to suit the specific requirements of your pitch.
A build-up of broadleaved weeds on a surface is a problem. Weeds are not only an aesthetic issue, but they also affect the wear tolerance of the pitch which in turn affects the playability. Where a build-up of weeds is significant, use of a selective herbicide will be required to remove them. This needs to be done when the grass in the sward is growing strongly (ideally a fortnight after the most recent feed).
If you are not fully licensed to apply herbicides, then this operation should be carried out by a licensed contractor. Although it can be carried out at any time when the grass is growing strongly, it needs to be understood it’s unlikely the remaining grass will seamlessly fill the gaps left by the weeds.
Ultimately, it’s more likely a sparse sward will be repopulated by broad-leaved weeds or weed grasses. It is far better to plan a herbicide application ahead of your end of season renovation. A measure to control broadleaved weeds in early May can then be backed up with an overseed of the pitch as part of the renovation, meaning that bare areas are resown with the correct species of grass to strengthen the sward in the long term.
Perhaps most importantly, it needs to be recognised that often a build-up of weeds is symptomatic of other failings. Either fundamental issues with the soil structure leading to drainage and compaction issues, a lack of adequate management throughout the season or a combination of the two.
Prolonged periods of neglect when renovations or routine maintenance such as aeration and scarification are not carried out will result in most pitches regressing to weedy grassland areas, appropriate for use as parks but not as sports pitches.
On some surfaces, such as those on very sandy or, heavy clay soil, it will be harder to produce weed-free surfaces even when given an amount of care/ In these cases, the long-term solution would be an investment in the installation of a drainage system.
Football pitch repairs
You should aim to keep on top of problem areas and fix them as soon as they appear. For example, a divot can soon turn into a low area of the pitch which then requires more effort to restore the level. Divot scars should be topdressed as often as possible with a mix of sand and seed.
Localised low spots and areas of heavy wear such as goal mouths, touchlines and centre spots should be worked on constantly throughout the playing season, as should any wet areas. Localised aeration and topdressing are recommended. Where you are dealing with wet areas, a very sandy topdressing is recommended.
The mix of perennial ryegrass you overseeded the pitch with will be ideal for use in your divot mix between March and October. For the remainder of the year, you should consider using a ‘rescue mix’ containing some annual ryegrass.
Sports grass seed mixtures such as A999 contain an amenity annual ryegrass and tetraploid perennial ryegrass that germinate at lower temperatures than conventional diploid perennial ryegrasses. This gives you the best chance of achieving some establishment and grass cover in the colder months. These grasses will not persist in the long term, though, and these types of mixtures should not be used for establishing or overseeding a football pitch.
Post-match procedure: Football pitch care
After each match, perform an operation to clear debris and hoover the surfaces and then follow up with a thorough divot repair. The most important thing is to try and stand the grass back up and off the ground.
Where practical, a light feed with an appropriate liquid feed is advised. GL6 9.4.6 is the perfect post-match tonic while the pitch is growing.