Five weeks, four days, three hours - this was the time allowed from seeding the pitch to the starting whistle of the quarter final of the Rugby League Challenge Cup game against Wakefield Trinity. Not a great window to grow in the grass; made worse by the cool and often wet weather that the UK's North West regularly endures.
Dave Saltman reports on the trials, tribulations and successes during a turbulent few weeks
Wigan's DW Stadium is the venue and, given the historical issues with the pitch, an overhaul of the surface had been required. In February, the pitch had to be relaid after the surface emulsified during a televised rugby league game against Catalan Dragons that combined with a late evening monsoon. It was deemed necessary (for the sake of both the rugby and football teams) to strip off the top the following week and turf.
With both sports teams pushing hard for glory, the cost outlay appeared to be justified. As the spring drew to a close, the Latics secured their Championship place by winning League One and the Warriors continued to push hard for top spot in the Super League.
It's always a worry relaying a pitch in the winter, there isn't a great choice of quality turf available in February and there were concerns that a few more wet games could see the investment turned back into mud. In the end, the weather wasn't too bad and, with a vigorous programme of aeration implemented, rainfall was dealt with admirably.
I had been involved since January, at the stadium's request, to help the Head Groundsman, Ian Forshaw. The pitch was primarily suffering with a lack of grass cover and poor water infiltration, so the first tasks, amid the fairly rigid fixture list, were to explore the pitch with a series of tests and soil analysis.
I discussed the history of the pitch and the renovations with Ian, as well as the maintenance schedules. Along with one of my guys (Ian Somerville), we took soil analysis to test nutrient levels, pH, as well as to provide a breakdown of particles that made up the rootzone. We sent off separate samples to test for nematodes. We also tested the irrigation water, infiltration rates and the stadium checked the drains using CCTV cameras. During the returf of the stadium in February, we also excavated a couple of holes on the east wing and in the centre of the pitch to look at the full profile.
As the football season came to an end, we entered into discussions about taking on the pitch under contract, similar to what we were doing at Shrewsbury Town. It was through Shrewsbury that Wigan had initially made contact and asked me to consult for them.
We were also discussing the way forward, starting with the end of season renovations. Armed now with a myriad of information, it was decided to remove the newly laid turf, cultivate the profile and add material to help drainage and stability. The turf wasn't ideal for the future term, it was predominantly a fescue sward grown on a soil base, the soil consisting of 50% silt and clay. The pitch profile was holding water and the profiles dug showed layering of different materials that percolated at different speeds.
From the two profiles dug, we had ascertained that the pitch had been laid over a gravel carpet and layer of drainage sand. Above the sand were two distinct layers, one of rootzone and then a top 100mm of fibresand. We also carried out regular compaction testing and the ground certainly started to soften considerably with regular aeration using the Verti-drain and Procore.
The drain survey had shown two outfalls, on the east and west side of the pitch, with laterals running at 9m centres. Both outfalls had been partially or fully blocked with tree roots and/or litter and debris. These obstructions were subsequently removed. The distance between the drain laterals isn't ideal either but, as the undersoil heating pipes run above and perpendicular to the drain lines, installing extra drains would mean a major reconstruction of the stadium pitch.
The nutrition and pH results that came back were both reasonable, there was nothing untoward with the irrigation water either, but the pitch infiltration rates were poor and the nematode count was high; both of these needed to be addressed.
I calculated the quantities of existing fibresand and the rootzone below and worked out the tonnage of materials. From analysis results, I now had the particle size distribution (PSD) for both layers and was able to work out the combined tonnage as well as the new PSD if all mixed together. I looked at three different medium and medium coarse sand options, to combine with the existing rootzone, to decide on how much and what sand I required to bring the rootzone PSD up to a sufficiently comfortable level for drainage. This would also need some additional fibre to top up what would become a more diluted profile.
With the renovation work calculated and agreed with the stadium, the last few games were played out on the pitch, Wigan Athletic finishing their season with the League 1 title and the Wigan Warriors maintaining their league form in second place.
The last game was Warriors verses Hull FC, the game played Friday evening 13th May. With football over the previous weekend, we could now start work on the pitch and the ALS team descended on Saturday morning to start removing the 40mm turf layer completely from the pitch.
In the week leading up to the rugby league game, Ian Forshaw had seen in approximately 400 tonnes of drainage sand and 116 tonnes of concentrated fibre, which had been stockpiled carefully to avoid issues with any crowd management for the last match.
By Sunday morning, the Koro'd turf was stockpiled in the car park, with lorries arriving to remove it. With the turf off, we used an Earthquake through the profile to decompact and sprayed the pitch with eighty litres of Biomass Sugar to help combat the nematodes. The lads then cultivated the pitch and rough graded and consolidated, before spreading the sand and the fibre concentrate. Once all the new material had been spread, it was cultivated and ameliorated well with the existing profile down to a depth of about 200mm (8").
During this work, we also incorporated two slow release base feeds - 400kg of Lebanon Proscape 25-0-5 and 300kg of Turf Food Organic Myco 1. The lads used power harrows to work and mix the material well.
Once we were happy with this process, the work started to consolidate and bring the levels back in order. Ian kept the rootzone profile damp with the pop-up irrigation, when required, and the combined work of a 4m stone rake and box rake brought the surface back to final levels and firmness in readiness, by Tuesday lunchtime, for seeding to commence.
We used the Blec slot seeder to spread the 440kg of Limagrain MM60 across the pitch with three passes, rolled gently and then fertilised with 300kg of Maxwell Premier 9-7-7 pre-seed fertiliser. All work was completed by late-afternoon on 17th May.
Ian continued with daily watering when required, but there were some days with heavy showers that helped keep the profile damp enough for the seed anyway.
We covered the pitch with germination sheets on the 19th to help retain some warmth and moisture in the ground and left them down for the weekend.
On the 23rd May, the first shoots of new grass were poking through, more so on the east wing and north end. We took the covers off to check the progress, but decided to reinstate them the next day along the south end and the north end goalmouth where there was no grass germinating. Temperatures were still reasonably cool, and the wind was clearly having an impact coming, as it was, through the south-west corner of the stadium.
It was during this week that the management said that the Warriors had been drawn at home in the Challenge Cup Quarter final and was it a possibility to host the game at the stadium, rather than play at an alternative venue? The game would be played the weekend of the 25th/26th June. I suggested that we had a good chance of getting the pitch there or thereabouts by then and asked what the cut off needed to be to make a final decision; I was told two weeks before the game. So now the race was on to get the new seedlings motivated. At this time of year, despite the ongoing Premier League rugby fixtures, the Warriors have a glut of presumably pre-determined away games to allow for the pitch renovations.
The grass was now starting to come through in the poorer areas as well and I helped Ian with a liquid application of 10kg soluble SolControl 12-5-40, 10 litres of SeaAction seaweed and 5 litres of a new trial product Humimax that we're currently working on. This was sprayed on using a pedestrian Cub sprayer - a time consuming job. We pre-mixed 600 litres of water and products and then filled the sprayer around twenty-five times during the operation.
We continued to irrigate as necessary and, on Wednesday 1st June, applied another low dose of 10kg of Sol Control 12-5-40 and 20 litres of SeaAction seaweed.
On Friday 3rd, we decided to rotary mow the pitch, tipping the young shoots and rolling the surface. This was followed by another application of 10kg of Sol Control 12:5:40.
With the contract discussions going on in the background, Ian made the decision to try pastures new and, despite reassurances from the club and ourselves, sadly left the club. Ian's two assistants, Rob Woods and Tony Jump, continued to work alongside us, until they became employed by Maxwell Amenity. Rob has subsequently taken on the more senior role.
We used the Hayter rotary mowers again on the Monday and, on the Tuesday, we got the two Allett Buffalo Cylinder mowers out and cut the pitch. Straight after cutting, we fertilised with 15 x 20kg of Maxwell Premier 20-10-10. I must admit that it's a rare occasion these days when a fertiliser as strong as this has to be used, but with potentially two and a half weeks to go before the first game, I needed the grass to start moving quickly. We cylinder mowed daily now.
On Friday 10th June, we applied 20kg of Sol Control with the pedestrian sprayer.
By the following Tuesday, as temperatures warmed and wet weather seemed to be the norm, I noticed some small patches of leaf spot on the surrounds of the pitch, so Wednesday 15th we applied a litre of Dedicate fungicide and then 40 litres of Biomass sugar in separate applications.
We had taken some more samples to test for nematodes, sending them to Dr Colin Fleming for analysis. The count for antagonistic worms was high and we needed to step up our applications of Biomass to improve our chances of catching the hatchlings at the right time.
We had been taking only a slightly increased amount of grass clippings off every day. The evident disease had slowed things up but, once the disease had been checked, the pitch exploded back into life and Rob and I took thirty boxes of grass off the pitch on the 16th. The grass was still a little thin, but we had grass coverage everywhere (an excellent take from the renovation seeding) and, if we could get it to fill in, we would get through the now imminent game. I had already spoken to the stadium management the previous Friday to say that I was comfortable to have the game.
We continued to mow daily and the grass was in full vigour. On Monday the 20th, we applied a half rate of seven bags of Turf Food Organic Amino 1 fertiliser after mowing. I had ordered in some thick cut turf to repair the areas around the pitch pop-ups, and this arrived. The constant use of the sprinklers meant that rootzone around these areas was being disturbed and, whilst the grass was slowly establishing, we needed some stability around each head.
Ian Somerville proved that he's pretty capable and managed to raise the low heads, by easing up the swing joints, without causing more damage than was necessary.
We cut the weak areas out around each head and cut and laid the fresh turf in neatly on Tuesday morning, before then cutting the pitch and applying 20 litres of Sea Action seaweed and 40kg of SolControl 13-0-39.
On the 22nd, a half rate straight release feed of 180 kg of Maxwell 12-0-6 went on after mowing as we moved onto a more standard nutritional programme, since the grass was responding well and the weather improving.
We had the pitch nicely banded out and had been cutting continuously at 30mm leading up the game. I had spoken to the Warriors coach who said he wasn't worried what the grass length was going to be, just delighted that they could play the game at the DW Stadium.
We had dusted down the rugby posts and retrieved marker pads etc. from storage rooms and had everything ready around the perimeter on the Friday. We found and uncovered the buried sockets and were ready for final preparations the next day.
It was the day of reckoning, and we started mowing in earnest first thing on Saturday 25th morning, but this was curtailed two thirds of the way across as a thunderstorm passed over Wigan. The pitch was holding water, particularly down the west wing, and we had to wait until lunchtime to finish off this job. We had string lines ready and, whilst two of the lads finished mowing, I started the marking out. This was completed by 2.30pm and we put the goals up and pads out. We then dug out and installed sockets for the corner flags.
Not only was the game being played five weeks, four days and three hours after seeding in May, it was also being televised live on BBC2 so, if the pitch dug up, we had nowhere to hide. We knew that we only had an inch or so of rootmass, but with the morning rain and further use of the irrigation in the afternoon (once paint lines had dried) we felt that it wouldn't get too badly damaged. The Warriors won the game and the pitch played pretty damn well. We were relieved and happy that we'd got this game out of the way and the pitch would get another two weeks of recovery and growth before the next fixture. After the game, the pitch was rotary mowed and divoted, before running a full water cycle around to settle the surface.
On the Monday, we carried out more intensive repairs and some light seeding was applied with rootzone over a few scars. The pitch was then cylinder mown. On Tuesday 28th, after mowing, we ran the ProCore over the surface for the first time since renovations. On the 30th, we applied 140kg of Maxwell Turf Food Organic Amino 1. The organic regime, combined with seaweed and Biomass was to help build up beneficial bacteria and microbes in the rootzone. On the Friday, we mowed and verti-drained the pitch using a little heave to help create air space for the roots to colonise.
We put our fortnightly trickle feed of 160kg Maxwell 12-0-6 down after mowing on Monday 4th July and, through the week, continued to cylinder mow at 30mm in readiness for the Wakefield Trinity tie on the Friday night.
The pitch played very well and you could see that the grass was starting to mature and root growth was improving daily. After the first game, we had tried to remove the posts, but they were stuck fast and, as Wakefield was the next game, we decided to leave them there and get them out afterwards.
Would they come out, would they heck! and we spent a good part of Monday 11th with scaffolding, hydraulic jacks as well as the local Metro Rod guys and their jet washers getting them free. Brute force and persistence paid off and, with the pitch changing over to football, it was another mini relief to see them out of the ground.
Not content with the pre-season friendly against Liverpool on Sunday 17th, the club agreed to play another friendly against Manchester United on the 16th. So we had a double header of football and the lads worked hard to get the pitch repaired and presented ready for these two games. We had reduced the height of cut through the week to 25mm.
The two games went well and the surface was standing up to this early season onslaught. After each game, the pitch was divoted and rotary mown and then watered.
On Monday 18th July, we cut the pitch, aerated with the Procore and applied 360kg of slow release Lebanon Proscape 25-0-5, as it was around three months after the last application.
On the 19th, we applied another litre of Dedicate and 40 litres of Biomass Sugar, the fungicide more as a preventative as I'd heard a few reports elsewhere of leaf spot and couldn't afford to see the pitch go backwards now.
On the 22nd, we hosted Warriors v St Helens, an explosive local derby game that took no prisoners. A few scuffs and scrapes, but nothing serious, and another game crossed off the list.
Mowing continued Monday to Friday using the cylinder mowers and, on the 25th July, we applied 180kg of Maxwell Premier 12-0-6. Two days later, we verti-drained the pitch again. We were joined at the beginning of August by Adam Lawrence, who completed the full time team of three at the stadium.
On the 2nd, we applied 60kg of water soluble SolControl 13-0-39, along with 2.5 litres of Primo Maxx, since we now felt comfortable with the coverage and health of the grass and needed to try and force the roots down. The combination of rain and the regular use of irrigation, due to the fixture list, was certainly having a lazy effect on the grass, not having to go searching far for moisture.
On the 3rd and 8th of August, we verti-drained the pitch, but hosted Warriors v Wakefield in the Super 8s in between. On the 9th, we ProCored the surface. With the Primo still in action, we tried to create as much airspace as possible to aid drainage and root growth.
The Latics then played their first Championship game of the season on Saturday the 13th August against Blackburn, winning comfortably, and we received good feedback from the coaching staff. After repairs and a mow on the Monday, we sprayed with 40 litres of Biomass Sugar and 20 litres of SeaAction seaweed, before again opening up the pitch at close centres with the vertidrain. On the 16th, Birmingham City came to town and played out a 1-1 draw with the Latics.
On the 17th, we applied 170kg of Maxwell Premier 14-2-7 (only because we were out of stock of the 12-0-6) and, on the 19th, did final match preparations on the pitch for another evening visit of St Helens.
On the Monday, we verti-drained the pitch and Pro-cored it on the Tuesday. On the Friday, the pitch was sprayed with another 40 litres of Biomass Sugar and 20 litres of SeaAction seaweed. Our last game in August was Latics versus QPR on Saturday 27th, root mass had increased to a depth of around 75mm (3"), although there were plenty of longer roots finding their way down spike holes.
During the next couple of months, the programme will continue to be about aeration and, with such a heavy schedule of games, it's been important to maintain the health and vigour of the plant at an optimum. We had hosted ten games before the end of August, so were looking forward to the rugby league close season at the end of September to be able to give the pitch a bit of well-deserved rest.
The event schedule at the DW stadium is certainly proving to be an exciting challenge and I hope to write another chapter in a later edition.
The products referred to in this article are all available from the Pitchcare Shop