By Mike Jiggens
In 2003, the City of Moncton, N.B. was nationally recognized by the Communities in Bloom program for having “the best sports turf” in Canada.
It is home to the renowned CN Sportsplex, a large recreational facility consisting of 10 baseball fields, six soccer fields, four indoor ice rinks and an air-supported dome used for golf, football, soccer and paintball.
The city also boasts the modern University of Moncton stadium whose field was used for two Canadian Football League regular season games in 2010 and 2011, and will serve as the venue again this fall for a third CFL contest.
All of Moncton’s sports fields are among the best in Canada, but getting them and keeping them in tiptop shape can be a challenge, especially when Old Man Winter throws a curve.
Gord Horsman, charged with the care of Moncton’s sports fields, spoke about the impact of winter stress at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposiusm in Guelph in February.
Highlighted were three separate occasions over the past 10 years in which winter hit hard, leaving significant damage to the city’s fields.
Horsman said the 2003 year ended on a high note, with all fields’ turf looking fine heading into the winter. By May, however, it was clear that the winter months had taken their toll on the fields. Ice cover was extensive enough on the soccer fields at CN Sportsplex to have caused stress cracks from its sheer weight. The baseball fields had also suffered severe ice damage.
The CN Sportsplex has 23 acres of sand-based bluegrass on site, with a 1.67 per cent slope on the soccer and ball fields. About 20 acres of turf was lost from the winter kill.
“There was over a foot of ice in some places,” Horsman said.
One storm alone produced three feet of snow, and then it rained in December of 2003. Another rainfall a couple of days later occurred, and then freezing set in until February.
“It was incredible.”
A program to resuscitate the fields was initiated that spring. Aggressive aeration began in early June of 2004. Fields were overseeded and topdressed by the middle of the month. The baseball fields underwent hollow core aeration and slit seeding in June.
Horsman noted the timing of irrigation was critical during the restoration process. By late June, the grow-in of the fields began to take effect, and the soccer fields had vastly improved by the middle of July. The ball fields had begun to adequately fill in by the third week of July, even as play continued that month on the surfaces.
Good root development was noted by late July.
Although the fields eventually recovered from the winter damage, the city was forced to close the soccer fields for the season to allow for their restoration. The baseball fields remained open for play due to the limited amount of play which typically takes place in the outfield.
“The soccer fields we absolutely had to close for the season,” Horsman said. “It grew some grey hairs on some people…even me.”
The field at the University of Moncton has been used for a number of high-profile events over the past few years. In addition to being a neutral site for a pair of regular season CFL games in 2010 and 2011 (and another scheduled for this year), it was the site of the 2010 IAAF World Track and Field Championships and an international soccer game last year between Canada’s and China’s women’s Olympic teams.
The winter of 2011-2012 saw several weeks of ice cover on the field which left its mark, not to mention additional damage deemed from extensive use. Abundant hours of play from the previous season had weakened the field as it went into winter.
Holes were bored on the field to assist with drainage following the ice melt and, by early May 2012, preparations were made for grow-in tarps to be installed.
Overseeding was done with 350 pounds of seed, 250 pounds of starter fertilizer, 32 tonnes of USGA sand, 10 cubic yards of peat moss and 25 bags of Milorganite fertilizer.
Grow tarps were placed atop the field once the surface preparation was completed, and life began to take shape under the covers with favourable temperatures.
The Canada-China soccer game was scheduled for May 30 with the field looking pristine a full 12 days in advance. The field was push mowed three times before game day.
About a month and a half prior to the scheduled game, however, the field’s condition looked bleak. A soccer official representing the pre-Olympic contest looked at the field with grave concern.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, my God, what are you going to do?’”
Horsman was optimistic that the warmer-than-normal spring of 2012 would help turn the field around in time for the game.
He said everything was “camera ready” within 32 days, “which was pretty incredible. I guess the soccer gods were with me.”
Canada, which won the bronze medal in women’s soccer a few months later at the London Games, won the exhibition contest 1-0 with a dramatic goal in the final minute of play.
A year later, more ice cover was realized at the University of Moncton field, but melting occurred within a day. Still, a week of bitterly cold wind played a role in the field’s desiccation.
“It looked like somebody had come out there with Roundup. It was terrible.”
Horsman said the biggest challenge in overcoming winter kill is to make a plan and stick with it. This includes aerating, topdressing, using the proper seed and sand types, implementing an effective fertilizer program, irrigating, and practising thatch and organic material control.
Factors to consider, he said, include drainage, the type of field, its sand/soil base, and slope and grade.
Mother Nature had presented another challenge to the City of Moncton in 2005 during the weekend of the Canadian under 14 soccer championships, when a barrage of eight inches of rain fell over a four-day period.
The rain began on the Friday of the tournament and didn’t let up until the following Monday afternoon.
“It was incredible,” Horsman said. “It just constantly rained.”
A representative from the Canadian Soccer Association questioned Horsman about the possibility of having to shut down the fields, but he assured her that their ability to drain at a rate of about 12 inches an hour would be no cause for concern.
“The sand base was very well done.”
Horsman said any reason to shut the fields down would be the CSA official’s call, but he added drainage would not be an issue.
No cancellations were required in spite of the abundant rainfall. The only damage to the fields realized was some minor wear and tear.
“That’s the beauty of bluegrass. If you’ve got a good stand of healthy bluegrass, it will take traffic.”
A pleasant surprise awaited Horsman and his staff at the end of the tournament. When medals were presented to the winning teams, he and his crew were called up to the podium and were presented gold medals of their own in appreciation for their efforts in keeping the fields playable.
“That was pretty cool. I didn’t expect that.”
Horsman applauded the efforts of his staff during the tournament, adding they have continued to be top-notch through the years.