“for good grass, there is only one word. And certainly for equestrian grass arenas, it’s only one word: roots.”
We had the chance to walk around our grass arenas and talk to the man behind their growth, Michel Poncelet, owner of Green Consult, engineering and consulting specialised in grass sport fields.
You may know Michel for his work with five stars equestrian venues, from turning Tops International Arena’s sand arenas into high performance grass arenas, to his years long collaboration with the Brussels Stephex Masters, where the heavy rain of this summer did not seem to leave the slightest mark, and more recently, for his work in Paris, transforming the gardens of Versailles in the perfect setting for the Paris 2024 Eventing.
From choosing the right grass varieties to innovative irrigation systems, Green Consult has been Peelbergen go-to consultant in our journey to achieve a five star grass arena, where the Youth European Championship will be held next year.
Green Consult is first and primarily an agronomic study agency, we are based in Belgium, in Huy. We help our clients select the right products and develop projects, focusing mainly on grass-related projects such as golf courses and public gardens. We have worked on more than 100 golf courses and large projects such as Jardin du Louvre in Paris.
You work on a variety of different projects, how do you pick the grass for each one?
Around 10 years ago the law changed in Belgium to forbid the use of pesticide.
So we sort of were the pioneers in trying to find a good solution, a biological or organic one, to fight the diseases and other problems of the grass, and to improve its resistance too. So what we are doing is working on the species of the grass, you need to remember it’s a living material, which is very, very important.
That’s the key, so for example we are using different types of grass in the north of Europe than in the south.
So the grass that we have here is actually not the same grass that you can find in Spain, right?
No, it’s completely different! For example, in Spain, we consult one of the biggest shows of the world, the Sunshine tour. 2,500 horses jump on those grass arenas for 10 weeks straight. The grass we use then differs from what is suitable for winter shows. Each venue and event has its own unique requirements.
How do you start approaching a project? How did you start here in Peelbergen?
Every project starts with a climatological study and a complete soil study.
It happens more and more often that our projects are about growing grass on existing sand arenas. It’s crazy to think about, but it’s sterile soil. And we work on bringing life back in the soil, in artificial soil. We add components with bacteria and fungi. We give all of the natural components to the soil and maintain it to keep the grass living and strong enough for it to resist.
Here in Peelbergen it is very different, it is an existing natural soil. So after the analysis, chemical, physical and biological, we did the study. The study is made to know what kind of lava sand we should use to improve the structure of the soil, the resistance, and the mechanical resistance of the soil. We have to know when the shows are, how many shows are in the planning, how many riders you expect, if there are weeks of rest in between shows, basically all of the parameters, before we make a plan.
But it all starts with climatological study.
After that, we know how to tackle the issues: for example, here in Peelbergen we knew we needed to work on what we call granulometric composition. It means there were too many fine elements and when it rained, the risk of overflowing was higher. So we improved the structure of the soil, with some top dressing of specific sands of lava. At the same time, we did some spiking operations and we changed the grass composition with a mixture of special types of grass.
So we could say it’s Peelbergen’s own grass mixture actually. Does this mean every arena is kind of unique?
Yes, and we also love that we can constantly work and improve it by having our own test grass arenas at the office. We are riders and drivers so our grass arena is solicited enough;)
Next year we have one of the biggest appointments of 2024, the FEI Jumping European Championship, with the Young Riders jumping on grass. Will we see changes in the arena?
We started our work on this arena in October 2022, and it is an ongoing process. We will keep working on it this winter, after the last competition in September there is a very big operation of spiking, top dressing and overseeding.
I think it takes the know-how of an agronomic engineer to know when to do these operations, what products to use, when to analyse the soil to know exactly when you’re supposed to do what.
I’m in contact with the Greenkeeper weekly. Especially in the growing period, we check on everything, from irrigation to mowing.
What are the latest innovations you are working on?
Well, before, irrigation happened with sprinklers around the perimeter of the arenas. With this classic system, when it rains, the water often overflows, and you have to wait for the drainage to work. Now, there is a completely different system called ebb and flow. It works with a liner, like a swimming pool, a big swimming pool with two different kinds of sand at a depth of 30 centimetres, with pipes in the middle. This setup gives the water the possibility to go in and to go out. The water comes up with the capillarity of the sand, and it goes down with gravity. So, when it’s raining a lot, this kind of arena is quickly dry, a dream for both competitors and organisers.
To add grass on top of an ebb and flow sand arena is extremely difficult and seemed impossible at first. You see, the advantage of using the ebb and flow system on sand arenas is, beside quicker draining, that it keeps the ground permanently humid using 40% less water compared to a classic irrigation system, but this actually is an inconvenience with grass, because the water can kill some of the microorganism, including the good bacteria or fungi, that you need to let the grass grow.
And that’s the art, in fact, you have to know how to manage the irrigation and when to give some biological treatment at very specific moments.
The first test with ebb and flow system and grass was made in Montemedio, for the Sunshine Tour 10 years ago. This makes us the only ones with a decade long experience. The last one we worked on in Europe, was for the Brussels Stephex Masters, on four different arenas and around two hectares of grass.
Michel, one last question: what would you say is the secret to the perfect grass arena?
Besides the studies and the science, I would say that the grass we work with, it’s all naturally grown. That’s not the rolls of grass you see sometimes, it’s actually grown from seeds. A tailored made, unique mix of selected seeds, all of it. The growing process is natural, it’s nothing that was done somewhere and brought in. It’s all done on site.
Because for good grass, there is only one word. And certainly for the equestrian grass arenas, it’s only one word. It’s roots. You have to promote the roots’ growth all year round. With physical and biological operations, with good fertiliser, and at the beginning, you have to choose the good grass varieties. That’s very, very important. Finding the perfect fit for the climate, the region, for the weather, the show calendar, the types of shows. That’s what’s most important… And that’s of course our secret.
For more information on Green Consult and their projects, visit their website at https://www.greenconsult.be/