Most of us try for a reasonably green and weed-free lawn to set off borders and impress friends and family. Few have the sort of pressure Dave Balmer faces. He is responsible for the pitch at Kingsholm rugby stadium and his grass has been on view to millions watching the Rugby World Cup.
Autumn sees the start of the rugby season and for the 16,200-seat stadium that means a new playing surface. Each year the old pitch is removed and new grass sown ready for matches that this season include world cup group fixtures involving teams from as far away as Japan, Georgia and Tonga.
Preparations started in mid-June just before a plastic ground cover went down for concerts by Elton John and pop group Madness.
The whole pitch was sprayed with weedkiller so that when the plastic sheeting finally came up 12 days later the grass was dead underneath.
“We got a machine in to scarify and take all the vegetation off the top leaving us with the soil,” explains Dave, who started as the groundsman at Kingsholm 19 years ago and is now also stadium manager.
Re-seeding the 8,500 sq m is a huge undertaking requiring 24 bags of perennial rye grass seed, which is then top-dressed with 120 tons of a 70-30 mix of sand and soil.
Next comes 16 bags of pre-seed fertiliser to get the grass growing strongly.
“We were mowing within 12 days,” says Dave, proudly.
From then on the grass is cut every day, or every other, if the weather isn’t favourable, and the feeding regime is maintained.
“The slow release fertiliser gives us a base and then we top it up with ordinary fertiliser every six weeks,” says Dave, who is helped by his landscape contractor brother, Graeme.
The pitch is also regularly spiked to maintain a good air flow to the roots and kept watered, if the weather turns dry. In fact, rain isn’t helpful as it is easier to regulate the amount of water the grass gets using Kingsholm’s irrigation system.
Understandably, the pitch takes a pounding during matches and a team is on hand to replace divots at half-time and after the final whistle.
“The following day we all put back whatever gets missed.”
The grass is then rolled, spiked and mowed ready for the next match.
It has been a tight schedule during the world cup with four matches and two-hour practice sessions for each team before the games, in some cases leaving Dave around 24 hours to get everything perfect for the international players.
And when the final match at Gloucester is played on October 11 Gloucester’s home matches begin.
“We have a fortnight to get ourselves ready,” says Dave with a smile.
What to do
You may not be aiming for world class grass but even so autumn is the time to give your lawn some care and attention.
• If moss is a big problem, use a specialist moss killer, which should kill it within two weeks. This can then be raked out.
• Perennial weeds such as dandelions are best removed by hand using a daisy grubber – choose a day when the ground is damp to make the job easier.
• Dead grass, old clippings and other debris can form a layer on lawns, known as thatch, which stops air, water and fertiliser getting to the grass. Remove this thatch by scarifying, either with a spring-tined rake or, for large areas, with a powered tool that can be hired.
• Improve drainage and air at the roots by spiking the lawn. This can be done with a garden fork, pushing it well in and moving it backwards and forwards to create a small hole. On badly compacted ground or clay soil, use a hollow-tine fork, which removes a small plug of soil. Again, they can be hired, or bought at garden centres.
• Top dress the lawn to fill in aeration holes using a sandy dressing, available at garden centres. This will encourage strong roots.
• Finally, apply an autumn feed, which is high in potash and phosphates.