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For PETER STONE, head groundsman at the Honorable Artillery Company headquarters in London, events that take place each June throw normal maintenance schedules into chaos. Here he recounts how he and his staff did battle with the problems posed last year, and outlines procedures which might ease the burden this summer.

Every groundsman knows that when winter ends, the spring renovation programme gets under way. All you need is access to good deep aeration equipment, a substantial tonnage of sand, suitable quantities of grass seed, wetting agents and fertilizers, and the result will be a good summer's growth creating a healthy sward by the start of the next playing season.

But at the Honourable Artillery Company, a military ground located near Moorgate at the heart of the City of London, the textbook has to be rewritten, owing to the number and diversity of events which are held during the year. Facilities at the HAC include pitches for soccer, rugby and hockey, plus a cricket square - it's claimed that the first recorded game of cricket was held there in 1725.

Besides a full programme of sporting events, annual activities which take place include the start of the Lord Mayor's procession, military parades, helicopter landings and processions of horses and carts. It all results in quite a pounding for the pitch. But none of this compares with the intensity of events during June alone, which has to be the "month from hell".

In June, the main sporting calendar ends and the HAC opens itself up to accommodate a host of corporate functions and hospitality events. It's the start of a groundsman's nightmare, rather like a wrestling bout. In the red corner we have a marquee erected, covering virtually all the rugby pitch and big enough to hold 2,000 people, complete with kitchens, cloakrooms and toilets. And in the blue corner for four weeks, we have a funfair which covers most of the remaining turfed area, complete with, at various times, bit-top circus tents, bandstands, cranes and large generators, all of which test the endurance of the turf - as well as my own sanity! Only the cricket square escapes the horrors of June! The HAC pitches are renovated between mid-April and the beginning of June, although with the pounding the ground faces in June you sometimes wonder if it is really worth while! However, since I became head groundsman here in September 1995, experience has shown that having the grounds in the best possible condition before the marquee arrives should minimize the turf damage. This view was endorsed by consultant Noel Mackenzie of the Sports Turf Research Institute.

Wet weather
However, the big problem that we had last June was the unprecedented prolonged wet weather. A service area runs along the back of the marquee (during the playing season it is actually the rugby touchline), and the ground has to withstand harsh treatment from heavy lorries, wash-down points for caterers, skips for rubbish, and pedestrian traffic in the form of HAC staff and outside party planners (responsible for furnishing and decorating the facilities for specific corporate and themed events). This area rapidly deteriorated into a bog: with the rain constantly falling, the turf became so badly churned up that in some places the water was holding a foot deep. We made a mental note to install some kind of trackway for the 1998 events.

Attempts to fork the damaged areas were not successful because the basic soil structure had gone completely. Thirty tonnes of sand were spread along the service road which helped the less soggy areas, but couldn't be expected to alleviate the parts that were completely submerged. As the rain continued, the need for the grounds staff to maintain nighttime vigils became important, to ensure that party planners arriving for work at 2 am did not try to drive down to the marquee entrances - otherwise they would have got stuck.

The marquee itself had sides which hung right down to grass level, and it was carpeted inside, allowing no air circulation to the rain-soaked turf beneath. Damp areas of carpet had to be removed occasionally, with the soil underneath being sanded before new carpet strips were put in place.

Dismantling the marquee started on Sunday, 30th June. The first cricket match was scheduled for 3rd July, giving us little more than three days to remove everything and clean the outfield ready for play. Not only was the rain still falling, but also the work hands had to drive in front of the marquee with their forklift trucks in order to remove the heavy stakes and pallet-loads of tentage. This caused even more wheel ruts. And once the flooring was removed, the entire grass cover had been destroyed due to lack of sunlight and air.

But although everywhere was a mess, with dead patches, glass, bottle tops and general litter, I personally felt some relief that I was back in control after the "month from hell". After consulting with Andy Cole of the STRI, it was decided that work to renovate the soccer and rugby pitches should begin immediately, in order to give the grasses the maximum time for establishment.

The first task was to spread the sand which had been put down along the service road. Much time was spent using a level bar, tilth rakes and harrows so as to disperse the sand and reinstate levels. The rakes were used again to remove as much of the dead vegetation from the pitches as possible. It was rather ironic that very shortly after the marquee came down, the rain stopped and the weather became hot and dry.

Clean surface
After the debris had been removed and a clean surface created, some 20 tonnes of Rufford 50/50 rootzone mix was spread along the service road. This provided nutrients and gave extra stability to the soil, particularly as some areas of the ground still had a large proportion of sand remaining on them.

The ground was actually drying quickly now, and it had to be watered constantly (we fortunately had a new irrigation system installed in 1996.) To get the maximum effect from the watering, we used an application of the Primer 604 wetting agent from Supaturf. The results were very good, especially as the soil texture at the HAC is silty and tends to smear on the surface.

Once the tilth raking and soil movement on both pitches had been completed, it was time for the heavy plant. Malcolm Cleverley of CH Grounds Maintenance (who carried out renovation work in 1996) was brought in to Verti-Drain the ground, reaching a maximum depth of 150 mm (6 in). Over the marquee area it was evident that a good tilth was being created, without too much disruption of the surface levels. This was even more important along the service road, since stability and the recreation of a good soil structure was of the utmost importance for successful grass establishment.

Once the Verti-Draining was complete, the entire area was tilth-raked to create a good seedbed, and an application of a 9:7:7 fertilizer was applied as a pre-seeding treatment.

It was decided to use a mixture of perennial rye-grasses which would give quick establishment and the ability to recover from wear. The mixture chosen comprised: 40% Master, 30% Danilo and 30% Cartel. This was obtained through Driving Force Leisure, who arranged for this special mix to be made up. Eight 25 kg bags of seed were applied using a Charter house overseeder, with three passes being made at slight angles to each other. A further bag was dispersed through a pedestrian spreader with its hopper wide open, so as to fill in between the lines of the seeder.

Seeded areas were again tilth-raked and harrowed to cover the grass seed and to give a final level. The pitches were then covered with as much Tildenet germination netting as possible, and grass shoots emerged within five days. Nets were moved very three to five days to prevent disease. It was not possible to water constantly, since one-third of the rugby pitch was situated in the cricket outfield, and there were a number of remaining summer events taking place in certain areas.

Four weeks after seeding, an application of 20:10:10 fertilizer was made. This gave the young seedlings a boost, and they soon started to thicken up. Soon regular mowing started with gang mowers three or four times a week, at a height of 25 mm (1 in). This wasn't totally satisfactory for cricket, but a compromise had to be found in order to give the young ryegrasses a chance.

After six weeks the grasses were looking healthy - so much so that the rugby and football teams wanted to start pre-season training, but I managed to talk them out of it for the sake of the pitches. By the ninth week, the posts went up, and the pitches were box-mowed into seat stripes and marked out. Apart from a few small areas, it was hard to believe that the marquee had ever been there.

Among the conclusions we have drawn from our "month of hell" is the necessity of installing trackways to prevent the destruction of the surface and the soil structure, and to preserve grass cover and levels. The marquee tenting would be better raised off the ground up at least 100 mm (4 in) to allow air circulation: sunlight wouldn't reach the turf, but those areas that were raised off the ground last year - such as under fridges and generators - showed better grass recovery.

If wash-down points have to be situated on the turf, then these position should similarly be raised to prevent grease and oils from pots and pans falling on to the surface and leaving a residue which would prevent good seed germination.

Regular irrigation was also important, even at the start of the new season. Some parts had remained very dry, and the areas which had been treated with a lot of sand needed special attention: as they had dried out, the surface lost stability and a lot of movement occurred. Subsequent Verti-Draining during the season will help the roots and improve soil structure.

There are no easy solutions to problems such as we at the HAC are faced with: like all sports clubs and associations, there is a constant need to increase revenue. But if we can learn a little each year, then hopefully it will be possible to minimize the damage and avoid the horrors of the "month from hell".

Courtesy of Parks, Golf Courses & Sports Grounds, February 1998, Vol. 63, No. 5, page14-16.

Turf Line News October/November 1998

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