Winter management of natural turf sports fields

Mar 25|Natural TurfBy John Neylan

The winter months coincide with the major football codes of Rugby, Rugby League, Soccer and Australian Rules. Each of these sports impose a high level of wear and turf damage at a time when grass growth is slow. Pre-winter preparation is a critical maintenance activity to ensure that a high level of surface playability and minimal turf damage is achieved.

High traffic combined with wet soils on poorly drained fields can cause a dramatic deterioration in the quality of the turf surface.

What are the demands on natural turf fields over winter? 

Anecdotally the popularity of the football codes is such that most municipal sports fields are used most days of the week for a combination of training and matches. The available data for soccer and AFL football confirm the increasing pressures on the winter use of sports fields.

In the "Football Federation Victoria State Football Facilities Strategy to 2026"[1], it has been identified that the demand is exceeding the supply of pitches in most LGAs particularly in the Melbourne metropolitan area. If the game continues to grow as projected, 420 additional pitches will be desirable by 2026.

In NSW, football (soccer) is a growing sport and there is an increasing demand for playing surfaces that are fit for purpose[2]. It has been identified that integral to the sport’s growth is the need to provide quality and sustainable facilities that will meet the needs of football. Football NSW note that poor drainage and wet weather affect the quality of natural turf pitches and will generally cause the grounds to be closed rather than risk widespread damage that cannot be easily repaired.

AFL football utilises nearly 3000 ovals nationally as record numbers of players are attracted to the game, especially women and girls. In Victoria alone, women and girls numbers increased by 41% in 2016[3]. In Victoria it has been identified that there are insufficient grounds available for the sports confirmed and sustained growth.

While these statistics are only a snapshot of some of the winter sports, it does highlight the likely pressures on grounds and the need for good winter management programs.

What damage is caused to natural turf over the winter months?

As soils become wet, there are several things that occur:

  • There is a redistribution of the silt and clay particles.
  • The silt and clay particles clog the large pores spaces.
  • Reduced water infiltration aeration porosity of the rootzone.
  • Soils become saturated and muddy.
  • The turf becomes coated with soil and partially buried which can quickly result in irreparable turf damage.
  • Increased wear and loss of turf cover.
  • Unstable playing surface that impacts the skills of the game.
  • Increased cost of ground repairs in the spring.
  • Increased weeds.
  • Greater opportunity for player injury to occur.

Damaged natural turf Field of Play during the winter season

Damaged natural turf Field of Play during the winter season

What are the objectives of a winter maintenance program?

The objectives of a natural turf winter maintenance program are to:

  • Maintain adequate drainage and dry soils in winter.
  • Produce a reasonably dry surface.
  • Provide an even and resilient grass cover.
  • Minimise the damage from wear

The maintenance program needs to reflect the:

  • Soil type
  • Turf species
  • Hours of use
  • Required playing surface standards

How do we prepare our natural turf field for winter? 

  • Reduce irrigation frequency as the weather gets cooler in the early autumn.
  • Promote a strong turf sward by fertilising late in the summer. The strength, density and health of the turf sward will go a long way to ensuring the surface gets through the rigours of winter.
  • A fertiliser application high in phosphorus and potassium and moderate in nitrogen in early autumn will provide improved root, stolon and rhizome strength before warm season grasses go into dormancy.
  • Lift the cutting height before the growth slows down.
  • Overseeding warm season grasses. Overseeding is often recommended for high level fields where there is a need for good presentation of the surface. Overseeding requires at least a 3 - 4 week establishment period after seeding and must be removed in the spring to allow the warm season grass to regenerate.
  • In the late summer, deep aeration is important for relieving compaction and providing for improved infiltration and drainage.
  • Regular aeration throughout the winter will also assist in minimising the rate of turf damage. When there is a dry spell of weather and machinery can be used without damaging the surface – punch some holes! Note: care needs to be taken with timing on high clay content soils and where there is no subsoil drainage.
  • Control winter weeds such as Poa annua using pre-emergent herbicides.
  • Controlling use. This is almost the impossible dream, however, managing sports fields in winter requires a great deal of coordination among administrators, coaches, and turf managers.

Managing municipal sports fields for winter play is a challenge due to the high use and often limited budgets. However, preventative programs that set up the field for the rigours of winter will pay for themselves with better and safer surfaces and less repair in the spring.

Tips and reminders for implementing a winter natural turf maintenance program: 

  • Every sports field will be different in its maintenance requirements
  • Develop a program based on needs and required surface quality
  • Review the success or failure of the program
  • Be strategic and not driven by the calendar
  • Monitor and assess turf quality

Developing an appropriate natural turf winter maintenance program is crucial in maintaining the value of the sports field asset and the playability of the surface. SPORTENG can provide a detailed agronomic evaluation of your sports fields and assist in developing an appropriate maintenance program. Contact us now for more information!

We also invite you to consult our detailed blog post explaining natural turf Field of Play maintenance throughout the year.


[1] Football Federation Victoria State Football Facilities Strategy to 2026 
[2] NSW Football Infrastructure Strategy 2020 - 2030
[3] “Growing the Heartland – Football Facilities Development Strategy” 2017 – 2022. AFL Victoria


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