Growing Grass on a Cruise Ship


In the highly competitive world of cruise lines, each year brings new onboard amenities. The different cruise lines seek to draw passengers who will be intrigued and entertained by the chance to sail aboard a ship and take part in a first-of-a-kind activity at sea.

Whether it’s miniature golf or rock climbing, in-pool surfing on artificial waves, or taking pottery classes, these amenities reach far and wide to be different—and it can be an expensive commitment by the cruise line.

The latest? Real grass growing aboard the Celebrity Solstice, which sails out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The ship, and its .5-acre of grass in four sections, started sailing late in 2008, but planning started nearly two years before that.

To find a grass that could withstand the rigors of salty air and temperature extremes, Celebrity Cruise Lines worked with John Cisar, professor of environmental horticulture for the University of Florida. Dr. Cisar is conveniently based at the university’s Fort Lauderdale Research & Education Center.

Guests can play bocce ball, croquet, practice their putting or picnic with a basket of wine and cheese on The Lawn Club. Photo: Celebrity Cruises
Guests can play bocce ball, croquet, practice their putting or picnic with a basket of wine and cheese on The Lawn Club. Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Unique grass

John Cisar, professor of environmental horticulture
John Cisar, professor of environmental horticulture for the University of Florida, helped Celebrity Cruise Lines find a grass that could withstand the salty air and temperature extremes of a cruise ship. Photo: University of Florida/IFAS

“It’s a pretty unique use of a turfgrass system,” Dr. Cisar explains. Under his supervision, several grasses were initially tested in Miami starting in June 2008 to accommodate the various kinds of onboard activities and foot traffic: TifDwarf, TifEagle and TifWay 419 bermudagrasses, and a creeping bentgrass.

Starting in July 2008, three strains of bentgrass were put in testing sites in Papenburg, Germany, near where the Solstice was being constructed.

“They were both aesthetic and practical considerations that would allow for more activities, different looks [and] mowing height tolerances, for example,” Dr. Cisar says. “Yet, maintenance at sea isn’t a whole lot different from maintenance at home,” he notes. The grass has to be mowed, watered and provided healthy nutrition. The ship staff has “extensive professional turf maintenance experience,” he says.

There were four test sites, according to David Callahan, director of marine operations support for Celebrity and Azamara Cruises.

The grass had to withstand not only the varying temperatures and weather, but also the impact of hundreds of people each week taking a stroll or playing on the grass. “We were trying to find a grass … that would be conducive to both main itineraries for the Solstice, which are the Caribbean in the winter and the Med in the summer,” Callahan explains.

“The bermudagrass has a southern environment that accommodates temperature ranges that fall within both of those geographic areas,” he says. “But, one of the main drivers is the availability in south Florida and throughout the Med if we needed to do replacements.”

Meters to measure both moisture and salt were inserted into the sample sod. “The salt content really wasn’t that high, not in concentrations that would put adverse effects on the grass,” Callahan explains.

A second ship was scheduled to also offer live grass as an onboard amenity when it launched in 2009. “We [also] introduced a test site aboard the Celebrity Galaxy,” Callahan explains, which was in dry dock in the Grand Bahamas. The ship was outfitted with 110 square meters of test grass. In the spring, the ship had to cross the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (a route the Celebrity Solstice will take later this year). One consultant told Callahan that what the test grass went through aboard the Celebrity Galaxy “over a very short period of time, no grass in the galaxy should have survived.”

practice their putting
Guests can practice their putting while on the top deck of the Celebrity Solstice.
Photo: Celebrity Cruises

The Lawn Club

For cruisers aboard the Solstice, which can carry up to 2,800 passengers, the .5-acre (approximately 22,927 square feet) of live grass is set up in four small plots toward the stern. Passengers can practice putts, play a short round of croquet, or even engage in a modified game of bocce ball. Or, they can just take off their shoes and socks and wiggle their toes in the grass.

The live grass amenity is called The Lawn Club, and there’s a pro shop on board where passengers can buy items with the Lawn Club logo.

Photo: Celebrity Cruises
Photo: Celebrity Cruises

A rough crossing

Built in Germany, the Celebrity Solstice gave the onboard turf the ultimate test in the Atlantic crossing in November 2008. The ship experienced hurricane-strength winds and huge waves. “We did have a large accumulation of salt,” Callahan says. “After a rain event, it washes through. Our job is to make sure the salt rinses straight through to concentration levels that are conducive to the growth of the grass.

“The biggest challenge is how do you get a southern grass in Germany that will survive crossing in late October-November. The quick answer is that you can’t. You can’t find a southern grass that would make it — [it’s] too cold. It ended up, for starters, we used a creeping bentgrass, which was readily available in Germany.”

As a result of the tests in Germany, they installed a hearty Agrostis stolonifera L93, “a cool-season grass,” for the crossing.

“It made the crossing and survived quite well,” Callahan notes. The grass will stay on board until the Solstice begins its Mediterranean cruises in the summer, when a different grass will be applied. “When Agrostis is exposed to the 90s, [there’s] very little we can do other than cool it with a misting machine like in an amusement park.”

playing bocce ball
Guests enjoy playing bocce ball on The Lawn Club, the .5-acre of real grass on the top deck of Celebrity Cruise’s newest ship, Celebrity Solstice. Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Callahan and his staff are still testing for the right grasses. They’re still looking for the perfect grass that can withstand not only the temperatures and salt air, but also the wear and tear of passengers.

Frequent changes and transplants are part of the ongoing game plan. “We expect we can [make changes] as little or as much as we need to,” he says. “When we replace sod, that particular parcel of the Lawn Club will be off limits,” Callahan says, but he expects there will always be 80 percent of the live grass accessible to guests.

A touch of grass

Giving passengers a sense of home is one of the cruise line’s main motivations.

Callahan says the plan is to put live grass — a Lawn Club — on all forthcoming Solstice class ships. The square footage on board each vessel will vary, he says. “We’re learning what we can and cannot do.”

playing bocce ball
Photo: Celebrity Cruises

Although Callahan is land-based, he has a crew of three who tend to the grass each day, often with hand clippers trimming the edges, monitoring and mowing. Maintenance is done early in the morning before most passengers are up and around. Electric mowers are used both for noise and practicality.

“We’re still gauging the level of play,” he explains, “and the natural wear patterns with guests going from one point to the other.” There are removable railings to help manipulate the traffic.

Callahan and his experts have applied green roof techniques to the ship’s onboard grass.

“When people feel you can grow it on a ship, anything’s possible.”

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April 2009 and has been updated for accuracy.