Groundskeeping at Adelaide Oval is a strategic art, with an incredible amount going on behind the scenes to achieve a perfect and purposeful oval year-round.
Head Curator Damian Hough not only manages the oval itself, but the entire premises, including Adelaide Oval No 2, the Moreton Bay fig trees and the characteristic vines in the SACA Members’ Area.
“I’m pretty blessed to have such an important role,” Hough said.
“I’m biased but I think we’ve got the best grounds in the country. The knowledge that we’ve got in the team and just the passion that we have … we’ll bend over backwards to make sure we are successful.
“We have a responsibility to present the ground each week as best we can, under the circumstances we’re given.”
Winter (June – August)
According to Hough, the main problem during winter is wear due to football and excess rain. The focus is on keeping the ground dry and consistent, to avoid bog and prevent the surface becoming soft and slippery for the players, and for the spectacle.
Turf replacement is often needed due to wear, especially in high traffic areas such as the centre circle and goal squares. If the quality declines to a certain level, the grass is removed and replaced. The turf is then reinforced, so it is ready to play on the following day.
To keep turf healthy, liquid fertiliser is applied to improve density, soil structure and to encourage growth. A penetrant is also used, and the ground is aerated to dry the surface out as much as possible.
It is important to facilitate grass growth in winter as much as possible, as density can decline. The length of the grass should be kept long to protect the leaf, with grass blade length measured to the millimetre.
“It’s a gradual process,” Hough said.
“By round one (of AFL), the grass will be up to 25mm, then maintained at 28mm for the rest of the season. In July it might get to 32mm when it’s wet most of the time and the ground’s not drying. The plant isn’t growing naturally so needs a little more help to get through those heavy periods.
“From early August when the days start getting longer and the temperature shifts, the ground staff start to bring the length back down. By the time you get to the SANFL Grand Final, grass length is back down to 25mm.”
Once fixtures are finalised, pitch rotation is planned based on the calendar of events.
Spring (September – Nov)
In spring, grass thrives due to ideal weather conditions – the aim is to get the ground back into cricket-mode as quickly as possible.
Again, the length of grass blade is precise, and the height is brought down gradually. Within a couple of weeks it is cut to 18 to 20mm, and then further reduced to 13 to 15mm.
“We want to get the surface flat and smooth and open up the profile,” Hough said.
“We use growth regulators to try and assist with improving the density. All of this (aside from cutting, which is gradual) happens within a week of the (SANFL) grand final and then we let the turf rest and recover.”
Before cricket begins in late October this year, Metallica is scheduled to play a concert on Adelaide Oval. The turf will be replaced once the stage is removed - a similar process to replacing the centre circle during football season, but instead of replacing 200 square metres, it takes three to four days to replace 3000 square metres.
The pitches will also be brought in at this point, while the outfield is managed to create a quality ground for the first cricket match of the season.
With a U2 concert in late November so close to the Test match, the middle pitch will be removed shortly before the concert to keep it from being compromised from all the concert traffic.
Summer (December – February)
Summer is the ‘on’ season for Adelaide Oval Grounds staff. While the ground needs managing throughout the year, the summer months are far more labour-intensive to maintain optimal blade height, turf health and moisture.
“Grass can struggle during the intense heat,” Hough said.
“We use fertilisers where necessary and a wetting agent to retain moisture. Optimal blade height for cricket is 12mm. Ahead of the season it’s aerated, over-sowed with seed to repopulate the weak areas and given a good sand-dressing which is really important to get it nice and smooth.”
Over the duration of the summer, sand-dressing must occur often, however the cricket fixtures dictate how often.
“Over the last four to five years, it’s been less sand but more often – it really depends on when the next event is, otherwise it starts to look a bit beachy out there.”
Autumn (March – May)
Immediately after cricket season, pitches are ‘planted-up’ to repair damaged areas and renovation occurs with top-dressing. After that they are ‘put to bed’ in Adelaide Oval No. 2 for the winter. Like the players, the pitches are given some time off.
The growth of the pitches, constructed of pure couch, naturally slows down. They are left uncovered to benefit from the rain that flushes out salts and bad elements.
The only other maintenance required is weeding the winter grass and fertilising when required.
Of course, methods are reviewed at the end of the season.
“You sort of sit down and dissect the year and make sure if there’s anything we want to trial next year to tweak and try to improve on from this year,” Hough said.
SACA Village Green
Adelaide Oval No 2 is perhaps best known as the site of the SACA Members’ Village Green, however from the ground curators’ perspective, it is first and foremost a high-performance training area. Maintaining and toughening the grass in this area is important for the sake of training.
“After the Test, the damage from the Village Green traffic is a bit like wear and tear from a concert, only worse,” Hough said.
“We just need to harden the plant up as much as we can, subject to training and weather, so it’s in a good position post-Test match to recover as quickly as possible.”
Moreton Bay fig trees
Many of the Moreton Bay fig trees at Adelaide Oval are more than 100 years old. Being well-established does not translate to low maintenance however.
“They are a massive amount of work,” Hough said.
“Every tree takes up a lot of time. I don’t spend as much time on the trees as I do on the oval but it’s not far from it. The Moreton Bay Fig trees are a really important, historical part of Adelaide Oval.”
Hough works with an arborist who assesses the more significant trees every 12 months, including soil tests, annual mulching, continuous nutrient application and composing to achieve a healthy profile.
Weekly assessments occur on trees that come back from analysis with abnormalities, and plans are made to restore them.
Western stands ivy
The iconic ivy at Adelaide Oval also requires maintenance, however according to Hough, it mainly takes care of itself. Work involves irrigation audits and managing water in summer.
Ivy is pruned in winter, and then fertilised and mulched. At times, caterpillars need to be managed, which is all part of the maintenance routine.
“Four of the vines have been there for, it must be 60 years or more,” Hough said.
“We understand how important they are.”
In safe hands such as Hough’s, it’s no wonder the grounds at Adelaide Oval are considered to be world-class.