By Mike Jiggens
FIRST it was Toronto’s BMO Field. Then, the city’s Rogers Centre. Both
world-class sports facilities have tasted what it’s like to go from
artificial turf to natural grass in order to facilitate the highest
level of international soccer.
Unlike BMO Field, which has since permanently converted to a natural playing surface following a temporary conversion in 2009, the Rogers Centre has returned to the synthetic surfaces familiar to its two primary tenants, Major Leage Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
The summer of 2010, however, saw the former SkyDome covered in natural turfgrass sod for a pair of elite European exhibition soccer matches. Premier European clubs are adamant about not playing on artificial turf.
On July 16, Manchester United took on the Glasgow Celtic in the first of two “friendly” matches at the Rogers Centre. A few weeks later, on Aug. 3, Greece’s Panathinaikos faced Italy’s top team, Inter Milan.
In both instances, Cambridge, Ont.-based Greenhorizons Group of Farms Ltd. was charged with the task of converting the stadium’s playing surface into a natural covering to accommodate both games.
Peter Rauwerda, Greenhorizons/Hamilton Sod operations manager, said the installation of the sod on both occasions went generally smooth in spite of a few minor glitches. He and his crew of 19 installation workers and 11 tractor trailer drivers made one small change during the second installation that made the operation more productive. Placement of the sod rolls, once all 18 tractor trailers were unloaded, was conducted more systematically to ensure handling of the rolls was minimized.
“You don’t want to be handling the product too much,” Rauwerda said.
Sod used for both games was a thicker cut of Greenhorizons’ “3-D low mow” premium Kentucky bluegrass blend that was grown in Burford, Ont., site of the company’s specialty grasses. Each roll measured 35 feet in length but was half-width. The three Ds stand for “darker, denser, dwarfer.”
“These rolls at half-width weighed significantly more than a regular roll at full width,” Rauwerda said.
One of the glitches occurred as work began to roll up the turf, resulting in the axle of the company’s main machine breaking in half.
“We got the green light to drive on the field. It drove six inches. But we didn’t even flinch. Everything just went around it and kept on going.”
Installation of the sod atop the bare concrete floor of the Rogers Centre was begun lengthwise in the middle of the field and carried through by separate crews on either side of centre. One individual served in a cleanup capacity, trailing the seaming crews.
“They (seaming crews) would throw their waste in the centre, and he would come and clean it up.”
Because there was no undersurface between the sod and concrete floor, a thicker cut of sod was chosen to allow some cushion for the competing soccer players. The surface was still a little harder than that of a full natural field, but that was to be expected, Rauwerda said.
“When you have only a couple of inches, it is going to be a little bit hard, but it was very playable. The players were actually very pleased with the field. The Rogers Centre was very pleased, too.”
The sod used in both installations is regularly mowed at one inch in height and “is shaved down a hair for the game.”
Little water was required following installation, only enough to keep the field moist.
“You don’t want too much on,” Rauwerda said. “There’s a fine line there.”
The Rogers Centre’s retractable roof was manipulated sufficiently to ensure the newly-laid sod could benefit as much as possible from natural sunlight and air.
“We got them to open the roof in the afternoon and keep it open as long as possible. But, if it’s threatening rain, they close it.”
On both occasions, the roof was closed for a period of time in the evening. Prior to the second game, rain prolonged the roof’s opening until 7 p.m. from a preferred 4 p.m.
Laying the sod directly atop the bare concrete floor was actually an advantage, Rauwerda said. In a regular application, atop a soil surface, it would be extremely difficult to piece the seams snugly together.
“You would have had all these ankle-breaker gaps in between,” he said.
Rauwerda figured the most challenging aspect of the installation projects was the precise scheduling of everything, including the sod harvesting, arranging a time for the loads to be picked up, ensuring there were a sufficient number of rolls, and the logistics of transporting them to the Rogers Centre, all the while keeping the rolls fresh.
Greenhorizons was given virtually carte blanche for each of the conversion projects.
“They (Rogers Centre officials) said it many times: ‘It’s your field. You do what you need to do.’”
During the bidding process to secure the job, Greenhorizons conducted its own research and development to ensure everything was going to work. The company’s Compact Sod division has had previous experience laying sod atop a concrete floor, preparing arenas for dog shows for several years, “and that has gone very well,” Rauwerda said.
The big difference between preparing for a dog show and an international soccer match is that a regular cut of sod has traditionally been used for the former.
Painting of the lines was sub-contracted out by Greenhorizons. On the morning of the game, following the previous day’s sod installation, the field was groomed and mowed, lines were painted, and watering was touched up.
Unlike the first installation, removal of the sod following the second game was more of a race against the clock. The Blue Jays were returning home following a road trip, and Greenhorizons was left with only four hours to roll the sod up and load it back into the tractor trailers.
“That was a little bit of a deal,” Rauwerda said.
By comparison, it takes the Rogers Centre grounds crew about 12 hours to remove the Blue Jays’ artificial surface to prepare for other events.
Rauwerda said it was a trickier process to roll the sod up afterward with the loading taking place on the grass itself.
“We do that because otherwise the whole stadium would fill up with dust.”
Street sweepers were brought into the Rogers Centre afterwards under a separate contract to wet sweep the concrete floor of any remaining soil and residue.
The used sod was taken back to the harvest site, laid out and tilled under as “green manure.”
Rauwerda said he was impressed with the professionalism of his team.
“Our team was great, going with the punches and getting it done.”
Scott Hunt served as team leader, and human resources were pulled from each of Greenhorizons’ locations. Even though the second installation was done on the August civic holiday, there was no problem in assembling a team of enthusiastic employees who volunteered to work that day, Rauwerda said.
About 40,000 spectators attended the July game while the August contest attracted about 20,000 people.
The success of the Rogers Centre’s temporary conversion to natural grass has resulted in stadium officials considering other events that would require sod.