St Lawrence College - Pride and quality

Peter Brittonin Schools & Colleges

Established in 1879, St Lawrence College sits on the edge of the Kent coastal town of Ramsgate. It is home to 650 day and boarding pupils from local, UK and international families and welcomes boarders from seven years of age. The establishment's Head of Grounds & Gardens is a man well known in golf circles; Master Greenkeeper Dan McGrath. In this question and answer session, he explains how and why he took the decision, in March 2016, to move over to groundsmanship with very satisfying results for all concerned.

Head of Grounds & Gardens Dan McGrath with the ever present Ellie

Pitchcare: How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position?

Dan McGrath: My background was initially golf course construction and maintenance after just missing out on the requirements to become a physio. A full time year studying Sports Turf Management in Colaiste Stiofain Naofa in my native Cork, Ireland gave me a year to get my head over the disappointment of not getting the physio requirements and that is when I fell in love with the turfcare industry, thanks mainly to the teachings of Martin Galvin.

From gaining my City & Guilds, I worked at Fota Island Golf Club in Cork under Steve Byrne and took in the experience of hosting an Irish Amateur Open when there.

Always looking to further my experience, I was extremely fortunate to gain a position on the grow-in team of The Old Head of Kinsale GC under Mark Collins. The experience of grow-ins cannot be better. No matter how many text books you read or pieces of paper you gain, construction and grow-in projects provide all the education one needs. A truly wonderful experience and a fantastic site.

Having now got the bug for golf course construction, I applied to join the grow-in team at Kings Hill Golf Club in Kent, under Duncan Kelso. With the initial plan to go there for twelve months and return home. That was back in 1996 and I am still here on these shores!

After working my way up to Head Greenkeeper and fitting in a year to travel with my now wife, I moved to manage a 36-hole complex in Surrey. From there, the opportunity to work back on the coast came up at North Foreland Golf Club in Kent and that is where I managed the clifftop chalkland course for eleven years.

Always looking to further my experience, I was extremely fortunate to gain a position on the grow-in team of The Old Head of Kinsale GC under Mark Collins. The experience of grow-ins cannot be better. No matter how many text books you read or pieces of paper you gain, construction and grow-in projects provide all the education one needs. A truly wonderful experience and a fantastic site

Following twenty-two years within the golf industry, the opportunity opened up here at St. Lawrence College. The opportunity to test myself further on a multi-use site was too good to turn down.

What training and education did you undertake?

City & Guilds II at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa, Cork, Ireland; NVQ III at Merrist Wood College, Surrey; Master Greenkeeper Qualification (53rd in the World), chainsaw qualifications, A1 Assessor, spraying PA1, 2 & 6, chainsaw and many BIGGA workshops and seminars. Conservation Greenkeeper of the Year along with Operation Pollinator Award.

Was there one person who inspired you?

Several, as mentioned above, within the industry - Martin Galvin, Steve Byrne, Mark Collins and Duncan Kelso. Their vast knowledge and willingness to share it helped me to get where I am today. The support of my family was, and remains, immensely important and a great motivating tool.

Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else - for example a bursar, facilities manager or committee?

The team structure at SLC is that the Grounds and Gardens team are within the Bursary Team as a whole and that is led by the Bursar and a Facilities Manager. All annual budgets are set out by the Bursar, with each individual line manager then putting in their bids for the coming financial year for due consideration.

What additional staff do you have (names, ages, length of service etc.)?

We are currently running a team of seven within Grounds & Gardens; Head of Grounds - myself (41 years and 2 years service); Senior Groundsman - Alan Crowhurst (33yrs and 2 months service after coming from Canterbury Christchurch University); Gardener - Joe Hoyle (52yrs and 30yrs); Groundsman - Owen Brooker (19yrs and 20 months); Groundsman - William Hayward, 24yrs and 4yrs); Apprentice - Kofi Tomlinson (19yrs and 7months) and finally Apprentice Ashley Young (18yrs and 7 months service).

We have had a major restructure of the team, introducing the roles of apprentices and a designated gardener, which has given better structure within and all the team remain highly motivated leading to well-presented site.

What additional help do you get (part time, consultants, agronomists, contractors etc.)?

We like to keep most tasks in-house as the team have a wide variety of skills. During peak periods we do call upon some contractors for fencing work and we have a spraying contractor that applies any liquid feeds to the playing fields. This is purely because we currently do not have a boom mounted sprayer.

How would you describe the soil profile?

We work with deepest 4-6 inches of soil which lies directly on chalk and obviously high pH levels being alkaline. The soils have fantastic infiltration rates leading to excellent drainage capabilities.

Does it require any special maintenance techniques?

It naturally drains fantastically well during the winter months, however it burns up remarkably quickly in the summer, especially being in the driest part of the country and the drying sea breezes. Moisture management of the soil profile and leaf is paramount.

Applying sufficient amounts of K leading into these stressful periods helps, along with wetting agents on specific areas such as cricket wickets.

Winter playability is brilliant, however the negative effect of this is that we host a lot of fixtures and getting surfaces turned around quickly for the next term's usage can be challenging.

There isn't a single drainage pipe on site, as the chalk does the work for us, assisted by a balanced aeration programme. The only real assistance we have are the wicket covers that ensure that all the pre-match preparations are less at risk to overnight rainfall.

Do you have any additional equipment or systems at your disposal - for example, undersoil heating, drainage, covers?

There isn't a single drainage pipe on site, as the chalk does the work for us, assisted by a balanced aeration programme. The only real assistance we have are the wicket covers that ensure that all the pre-match preparations are less at risk to overnight rainfall.

Are your pitches used by the community or hired out to outside agencies?

We have several clubs that use the facilities throughout the School. The sand based astro turf is used by a local hockey club, and three football clubs use it for winter training; the water based hockey pitch is also used by the local hockey club. The netball courts are home to a local club, as is the "Back Field" which hosts the local archery club.

The current Principal and Bursar are keen to open the school up to the local community so all benefit.

Last year also saw the Kent Cricket Board use our grounds to host some Girls county matches; a first for the School.

What is the total acreage and how is this split up?

We currently sit on eighty acres of managed land, with the School also owning the adjoining farm land. We are currently in the middle of an extensive 'Sports Ground Development Plan' which will see all the sporting facilities move to the northern side of the railway line. This development has already commenced in my first year with the construction of the high-tech water based hockey pitch, followed by the in-house construction of the new Railway Cricket Ground which adds to the two other Senior School squares and one further square in the Junior School - totalling twenty-one wickets.

We have three senior grass rugby pitches, one junior grass rugby pitch, plus a sand based hockey pitch which becomes twelve tennis courts in the summer, a further nine hard standing tennis courts, nine netball courts and four astro cricket bays.

The rugby pitches become two cricket outfields in the summer and also two grass athletics tracks. The new development is looking at new rugby pitch construction and getting away from multi-use playing surfaces. Each sport will have its own designated playing surface, with a new sports pavilion being the last piece in the jigsaw.

Exciting times ahead and a major attraction for me when joining the team back in 2016 and seeing the site fulfil its full potential. To facilitate these works, sections of the farm will be taken back in stages.

Does the facility suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive snowfall/frosts etc.?

The main sports ground to the north lies on high ground and is exposed to the elements. This has both positive and negative effects.

Positive: very low occurrence of dew, reducing disease pressures. No shade aspects to deal with so perfect location for a water based pitch.

Negative: high evaporation rates, so rapid loss of plant moisture; the pupils don't like the cold. It will naturally influence the ball flight in winter be it hockey, cricket, rounders or rugby.

How do you cope with these?

Regular monitoring of the soil moisture levels and just general visual inspections, as well as feel and any obviously signs of footprinting signifying wilt of the plant. I am very much into the old-fashioned methods of using sight, smell and feel. The new "toys" on the market are great and have their place; however I do not over rely on them.

We have over 400 hundred trees on the site and have just introduced a tree management rotational plan. This has involved tagging all the trees with specie name, height, overall health grading and any works required. This is then mapped and the site broken into zones. It will take time to get on top of the plan, but we are now being proactive and making big strides

Are there any issues with shade and air flow?

We have over 400 hundred trees on the site and have just introduced a tree management rotational plan. This has involved tagging all the trees with specie name, height, overall health grading and any works required. This is then mapped and the site broken into zones. It will take time to get on top of the plan, but we are now being proactive and making big strides.

What are your cutting heights?

Rugby pitches and football pitches are mown at 30mm, whilst cricket outfields are at 18mm. Squares are at 10mm and the wicket of the day 5mm.

Do you have specific tasks for specific staff or is it an 'all hands to the pump' approach?

All staff are trained throughout all operations as this gives me more flexibility, keeps staff motivated and also covers any holidays or illness.

We do have a couple of guys who concentrate on the cricket more in the summer as this period is very intensive and continuity is vital.

Where does presentation rank?

My motto on the job board is always "Pride & Quality". Presentation is the one single major element in providing the best possible product for all to enjoy. You do not get a second chance at first impressions and the grounds are examined by all before they even reach the main building. A potential parent/customer has already fairly much made up their mind as to whether they wish to be a part of St. Lawrence in the period between entering the gates and getting to reception - in my opinion.

What end of season renovations do you undertake?

The cricket wickets are deeply scarified with our Graden in as many directions as deemed necessary after the season and climatic conditions experienced. They are then overseeeded and lightly dressed with Boughton Loam.

All natural turf playing swards are aerated to different depths and heave throughout the period of sufficient soil moisture. We solid tine and slit as much as we can in and around fixtures.

The artificial hockey pitches are both deep compacted by a contractor in August, ahead of the hockey season. This complements the fortnightly power brushing done by the team in-house.

Are renovations affected by budgets?

Absolutely; everything is affected by budgets/resources. One needs to plan well in advance and, should we need a specialised piece of kit, a case needs to be made to the Bursar - a tractor mounted aerator is very much on the wish list.

We put in budget bids in the March for the next financial year commencing September. There are a lot of people going for the same pot of money.

Are renovations affected by outside pressures - for example, concerts, corporate events, summer camps?

The calendar continues to get busier and busier since my time on site and we are, in many respects, a victim of our own success. Our pupils departing in the summer make way for a summer long influx of international pupils using all the facilities the School has to offer. Renovations are made very difficult as a result and very small windows exist - although the commercial lettings are revenue the School cannot turn down.

Several School functions see marquees and the like erected for days and weeks on end and these do cause turf damage that needs recovering for the next academic year. Sometimes frustrating, however a great challenge to get the area back in tip top condition and certainly ensures that you have the plant in the best possible condition before such stresses are put on the surface. They are great events to attend, with the grounds being showcased to their full.

How have changing weather patterns affected what you do?

The old days of writing out your maintenance programme twelve months in advance are well and truly gone. Anyone managing land and working with the environment needs to be very adaptable as Mother Nature continues to throw surprises our way at every occasion.

We know when and what we would ideally like to give the pitches, landscaping plants etc., but it isn't always right come the time. We have to prepare the plant as best we can prior to any stresses, whether they be cold, wind, heat or human placed upon the site as a whole. If the plant goes in to such periods in optimum condition, it will have far better recuperative potential to put up with anything thrown its way.

Do you take regular soil samples to ascertain what work is required?

On golf courses, I took samples regularly as the leaching potential was far higher on the sand based construction profiles. At the School, not as often to be honest, as I don't feel the need.

As we are in the middle of the sports ground development, I do take samples on any sites for new development, like rugby pitches etc. This is primarily due to the fact that some of the land that we a developing is part of a working farm that the School own and we are taking sections back to facilitate the development. Samples are taken to allow us to ensure the profile has what it needs to encourage establishment of new seedlings and, if not, what ameliorates need to be added, if any.

Artificial surfaces - what ongoing maintenance and refurbishment is carried out?

Fortnightly power brushing is carried out on both the sand and water-based pitches. An application of MMC Pro is applied to help prevent/manage any algae or moss on the surface.

Fortunately, we are very lucky to have the water-based pitch on high land and no plantings near the playing surface, hence eliminating any shade issues. The sand based pitch, however, is north facing with a mature tree line running along the southerly touchline. One corner of this pitch needs more management as a result of its aspect; however, the carpet is still in good condition coming up to twenty years in situ. Both pitches are incorporated into daily site inspections also.

Are you working on any special projects at the moment?

As mentioned, we are two years into a massive Sports Ground Development which is being driven by all within the School. The support and enthusiasm from the Principal, Bursar and everyone involved is infectious and is ensuring that, so far, all is going very well. The team have done an amazing job to date and, for that, I am very thankful to them.

On my arrival, the Olympic standard water-based hockey pitch was being finished - a truly fantastic surface and, with just hockey markings, it sets the standard going forward. This facility is used throughout the school year and also by a local hockey club; it is important for us that the School gets involved with the local community.

The installation of a bore hole and storage tank next to the pitch allows the School to be self-sufficient and environmentally friendly as this plays a major part in all our plans. The bore hole pumps water into the storage tank which then is irrigated onto the pitch through six water cannon sprinklers. The water drains through the carpet and, with the high infiltration rates of the chalk, ends back up in the water table from where the borehole will pump it again when next required.

The team then moved on to the construction of a brand new cricket outfield and seven wicket square. The first game was played on the pitch last month and it also marked the first ever girls school cricket match in the School's history. A great occasion to open the new facility and it was all very well received.

This will be a great addition to the development and we are already starting to get to know the new wicket. It will take time for it to completely bed down and show its full personality!

We are also near completion of a new multi-million pound Science, DT & Art Building which is due to open for the next academic year, before which a significant landscaping project will need to be carried out over the summer months. This will need to be in keeping with both the old and new and getting that balance right is vital.

The School are continuing to invest whilst also keeping the tradition and history of the site. These are very exciting times at St. Lawrence and one where the grounds department can leave their legacy on such a wonderful piece of land.

The next stage in the project will see the construction of two new full-sized rugby pitches and the works roll on from there ... transplanting some woodland to create a Forest School, building of a new facilities compound ... a busy period ahead!

The construction and maintenance of the sporting facilities is made easier by the fact that sport has played a huge part in my life. I do feel that it is vitally important to be able to understand the playability of surfaces from the players/customers side. Having played international hockey for Ireland, represented Munster in football and tennis, and played basically every other ball sport, makes me well placed to hopefully produce the best, safest and consistent surfaces for all to enjoy.

Do you source additional help or is the work done in-house?

The seeding and grow-in stages of all natural turf projects are done in-house by the team. It is the best way for the team to learn and take full ownership of the land they work so hard on.

Heavy plant is naturally required from time to time and we do get contractors in to do excavations and any soil/material movements.

Are you and your staff compliant with current legislation?

The School completely encourage all the staff to further their education and support them through the process. I currently have Kofi and Ashley working through their apprenticeships, Owen has completed his apprenticeship/spraying certificates and has now been taken on as a full-time groundsman, Will has horticultural qualification, Joe has a wealth of site experience and knowledge, Alan is Level II qualified/chainsaw, both ground and aerial/spraying and countless short course industry qualifications. All are First Aid qualified and the School holds numerous day courses on-site throughout the year with regular Health & Safety legalisation updates keeping everyone compliant. We are greatly aided by our H&S Compliance Officer who works on site and is an excellent communicator.

I have been a huge advocate of education from my early days, as you will have noted earlier. There is nothing more satisfying than putting a colleague through their school portfolio, as all parties benefit. I love seeing people fulfil their potential.

Education is key and, without a trained team, I wouldn't be able to present the site on a daily basis.

How are the apprentices working out?

Very well. Some will choose to stay in the industry whilst, for others, it gives them eighteen months to mature and decide what they want to do, whilst still getting a piece of paper out of the process.

Are there any new pieces of kit that have significantly helped to improve your playing surfaces?

I am all about aeration, aeration and more aeration on natural turf pitches and ornamental lawns. For this, we use the tractor mounted slitter - that is very old - and our pedestrian Groundsman. The addition of a verti-drain or the like would be a massive asset to the site.

Like aeration, I am a big fan of brushing and the newly fitted brushes on the fairway cylinder mower have already proven to be superb. This is something that I have brought across from my golf management days and it hasn't disappointed on cricket outfields and rugby pitches.

Do you hire in any machinery (inc. operator if required) for specific tasks?

We have no mounted spraying within our fleet and therefore use a contractor spraying company to carry out the larger spraying jobs.

Recent sports ground developments have seen me hire in a dimple overseeder to continue to get the desired sward density, especially in the transition period from rugby to cricket and then onto athletics. I hire the overseeder in 3 times per annum for this purpose and to help to get the turf composition that is going to be able to withstand the demands of the site. Having one on site permanently would give us far greater flexibility working within some very narrow weather windows.

How do you undertake pest and weed control?

Contractor for application of herbicide on larger expanses. I generally like to deter before going down the route of chemical applications. We would look to hand weed young weeds as they emerge or spot spray with a knapsack rather than doing blanket treatments.

Does your facility suffer from specific disease outbreaks?

We are very fortunate when it comes to turf fungal attacks as the sea breezes and general aspect/elevation of the site means we experience very few dews and, therefore, less turf moisture on the leaf.

We have had some red thread on the longer heights of cut, i.e. outfields and rugby pitches, but we generally just monitor it and it grows out without any significant turf loss. I have yet to spray fungicide in my time on site and that is the way I would like to keep it.

Are rabbits, badgers, foxes, geese, chafer grubs, worms etc. a problem?

Our main pest really is the seagull and that is just them leaving their mess on the artificial surfaces and on wickets from time to time. They seem to love the water-based hockey pitch, especially during times of less usage and leave a hell of a mess. It is particularly bad when they have their young.

We put a banger strip in the farm land near the pitch and this certainly helped initially. We are just about to install a Hawk Bird kite which will have less impact from a noise perspective during games and for the general public.

How important do you consider the local flora and fauna?

The local environment plays a massive part in our day to day management of the site. We are in a coastal location, but are surrounded by residents on three sides. Therefore, the School needs to act as a nature corridor and a desirable area for wildlife to take refuge. Diversity is the key.

We have created many wildlife habitats and regularly take pupils from the Junior School on site walks to hold outdoor classes. They are great fun and a great way for their personalities to develop out of the classroom environment. It is also a very valuable way for us to promote the Grounds Department and our industry as a whole.

I certainly believe that the pupils do better in their studies if their surrounding environment within the School boundaries is diverse, tranquil, aesthetically pleasing and generally a place of refuge. Developing and enhancing these site characteristics makes our job one of the best in the world.

Not only do the pupils benefit, but all the employees, parents and visitors alike gain a greater self being and feel good factor.

Do you have an environmental policy in place?

Yes, I published an environmental plan within my first year on site. This is a very valuable tool and gets reviewed on an annual basis.

Do you work with local or national environment agencies?

Not currently, as I have extensive environmental knowledge through working with Bob Taylor, in particular, and working with Operation Pollinator/Syngenta during my golf management career. Bob passed on a wealth of experience and I was a corporate member of the Kent Wildlife Trust within previous employers. This corporate membership is something I wish to introduce to St. Lawrence in Autumn 2018.

Do you employ an environmental consultant?

No, both myself and Alan currently feel in control of the site's environmental management, but it is something that we would look at going forward, should we feel the need.

Following a very strong environmental background in golf course management, the environmental work through the site is of optimum importance and exceptionally rewarding.

In the last two years, we have erected over fifty birds boxes, two owl boxes and countless wildlife habitats from log piles, drilled crossed sections, bug hotels and green waste and cardboard composting.

A small wildflower area has been implemented within the polytunnel compound and the Junior School pupils love this area. We are now looking to expand this with an area that lies between the rugby and cricket grounds. This is a project for this year and one that will see us sow a chalkland mix with wild carrot, ox-eye daisy and the like.

The School is a very valuable nature corridor and these wildflower areas will only help increase the butterfly populations and help increase the numbers of the spectacular chalkhill blue butterfly which we witnessed last year in the polytunnel compound. The results will be for all to enjoy and I have already experienced this with years of working with Operation Pollinator.

The construction of the new facilities compound will incorporate rainwater harvesting and a recycle machinery washdown area.

What would you consider to be the state of our industry?

The industry is in a stronger position now than many years ago, but we just need to continue to attract young people. Not only attracting them in, but then keeping them focused and motivated to want to stay within the turf/horticultural industry.

Are we undervalued?

No, I don't think so. If you portray yourself in a professional manner, I strongly believe that others will treat you as such. I do think people misunderstand what our role as groundsmen/land managers fully entails. However, it is up to us to educate them and I believe we are getting there slowly but surely. It will not happen overnight, however strides have been taken in recent years.

Turf industry associations are starting to knock down some walls and all turf employees should be encouraged to join their organisation. The bigger the membership body, the bigger a voice we all can have, not to mind the greater networking opportunities that present themselves.

How would you raise our profile?

Within our workplace, simple but very effective things like newsletters and blogs can really help. Social media is a great tool and needs to be utilised to optimise our industry profile image.

Turf industry associations are starting to knock down some walls and all turf employees should be encouraged to join their organisation. The bigger the membership body, the bigger a voice we all can have, not to mind the greater networking opportunities that present themselves.

Do you and your staff attend industry shows, seminars, demo days, road shows?

This year was the first year in some fifteen years that I was unable to attend Harrogate, but will endeavour to return next January. These type of industry gatherings continue to grow and grow, with endless educational avenues to explore for all levels of employees.

Many of my closest friends in the industry have been made through these gatherings, along with meeting up with many from overseas, including my homeland of Ireland.

The current team at St. Lawrence haven't been exposed to many educational seminars in the past, but this is going to change going forward. We work within the education sector and we need to not only educate our kids, but also our staff.

I am a huge believer in education and I was very fortunate during my developing years to have the support of great line managers like Stephen Byrne and Duncan Kelso. It has driven me to get the full potential out of all my staff ever since going into management.

Visit the website here

What's in the shed?

John Deere Gators x 3
John Deere Tractor
Ford Tractor
John Deere Fairway Mower
Trimax Snake Rotary
John Deere Front Rotary
Numerous Pedestrian Rotary Mowers
Pedestrian Cylinder mowers used primarily for cricket
Chainsaw - hand held and pole saw
Slitter attachment
Pedestrian Power Brush for artificial surfaces
Auto-Roller cricket roller
New Holland compact tractor with sarrel roller
Pedestrian Groundsman aerator

"Historically, we have bought pieces over three or five years on HP.

We use the manufacturer's local dealer who we trust to have the best backup service.

We are not loyal to one manufacturer. Each one has their own strengths in different areas of machinery and it is all site specific. What I had on one site doesn't necessarily work on another. The most important thing is operator comfort, safety, suppliers' back-up service, cost effectiveness and longevity, whilst giving the desired finish - I don't ask for much!

What would my wish list include? A tractor mounted solid tine aerator, cylinder fairway mower, front loader with back hoe digger. A Toro 648 aerator to improve the productivity of the aeration process in all areas. It is a fantastic machine with great manoeuvrability.

For service and repairs, I use GADS Machinery, who are a local company and consist of two of my previous mechanics I employed in previous workplaces. They are both outstanding, with excellent back-up service and an exceptional expertise in the field of mechanics and especially turf mechanics."