The King’s School, Chester - Teamwork pays off

Jake Barrowin Schools & Colleges

On the Wrexham road out of the beautiful city of Chester lies The King's School. The school motto is "The King gave it, may God bless it". Jake Barrow met with their Facilities Supervisor (Grounds), Neil Smith (42) to discover why he feels 'blessed' to work at such a fine establishment, and his plans for the future.

Mark Jones, Head of Estates (left) with Facilities Supervisor (Grounds), Neil Smith

I wasn't expecting to be the head groundsman at The King's School, Chester, but was delighted to be promoted. I'm now Facilities Supervisor (Grounds).

That was about two years ago, and followed my twenty-one years as deputy head groundsman here since I left school, and the two years of travelling the world, which I did after that (following the England cricket team).

As fortune would have it, after travelling the world and spending some time in Dublin, I was able to return to the school as deputy head groundsman. They could see not only my work ethic and the like, but also the love I have for this school.

Now, I've got two kids to look after, so my days watching and playing cricket are a bit more restricted than they once were - but I got a couple of matches in this year.

[Neil has three team members. His manager, Mark Jones, Head of Estates, described Neil as a supervisor: "It's what I'm after from a head groundsman."

"He's very approachable and always offers advice. He also crosses over with the wider facilities team and is always there for back-up. His work is modern, he multi-tasks and is adaptable."]

L-r: Mark Jenkins, James Blaxall, Kyle Walker and Neil Smith

My grounds and facilities staff are on equal footing with me in terms of what they bring to our facilities, and I can't stress enough the great work of my assistants, James Blaxall and Mark Jenkins, and our apprentice, Kyle Walker.

Kyle recently won the Cheshire College (West and South) Apprenticeship Award in the Facilities category, so that was a positive for the department as well as Kyle himself.

The link with the facilities team Mark spoke about is a big part of our work. Each morning, after the team does a visual check to assess needs - like disease management or verti-draining - the next thing I do is talk to the staff who organise the sports fixtures and find out their schedules.

We probably verti-drain during the winter every four weeks per pitch. The Charterhouse Verti-drain and spiker are used pretty much on a constant cycle, because of the number of pitches (eleven) so, by the time we finish the last one, the first one needs doing again.

We verti-drain each of the cricket outfields about four times each during winter. Because the cricket outfields and football pitches overlap, we can do those areas at the same time of year.

The Verti-drain is brilliant at what it does, with a good finish. I like that it's reliable, and the Charterhouse is such a workhorse.

I always loved our old SISIS Megaslit for frequent aeration too, because it was so quick, and it can access a few unusual areas not suited for verti-draining, like when there are rocks underneath.

For the cricket squares, we like to get a contractor to ProCore once per season, which takes place sometime in October or November. For machines we only use once, there's no point in me having one in the shed.

We divot, mow and mark football pitches before each match. The same is true with cricket, except we clean, repair, roll and mark the wickets before play. We mow the outfields for every game as well.

What I found was that we used to over-fertilise. With this size of venue, you find yourself mowing, mowing, mowing, and it takes up too much of your time.

By the end of the day, you couldn't even tell we'd mown. And the worst part of it was, with all that marking we have to do, we'd be mowing the lines out too. We've now got the fertiliser to a manageable level, we're not mowing the lines out, and we've got less wasted time.

When I took over, my main headache was the presence of a lot of fairy rings. So, I stopped topdressing with pure sand. We haven't topdressed with sand for two years now.

Our contractor started using a recycling dresser and recycled all five of our main football pitches. It works amazingly. It brought up all the nice years of topdressing, and made a lovely seed bed. We collected any debris using our Wessex Collector and then it was seeded two ways and dragmatted two ways.

It's really combatted the fairy rings. I know there's no hard-and-fast rule with fairy rings, but people have said that if you mix the profile up a bit, they don't like that very much.

Contractors reseed our football pitches for us and we reseed the cricket squares ourselves, after the contractor scarifies them two ways. We then topdress with our own machine.

We now use Limagrain MM50 on our squares, which we purchase via ALS. It's all perennial ryegrass, so it resists those fairy rings well and stays green year-round, which you need at a school.

I use a pre-seed in spring. In summer, we use a polymer coated slow-release fertiliser, and again in the autumn, as I think a lot of people do now. It's a bit more expensive, but you get the conventional granular benefits for about four months too.

The pre-seed I apply at Easter pretty much carries me through the school's summer term. Then, the autumn/winter carries me through the next one.

It's a new way of doing it for us, and it works much better, because conventional fertiliser was just going 'poof' and there was the long grass again.

We're alright for levels of nutrients, and I wanted to let it settle down for a bit. We let it go back naturally for a while, and it's reduced both stress on the leaf and thatch.

There is now no thatch in our football pitches. The contractor's scarification got rid of that completely. We don't need to verti-cut or aggressively clean either anymore; we just clean up the wickets before games. We scarify the squares every year.

It was more about the profile than the nutrients. I wanted to get that profile a bit less sandy again, and that's something we're going to continue to help with another recycling topdressing next year.

It's clay underneath, but that's a good 18 inches down, so the 100mm roots and the nutrients in the soil are never touched by that. It doesn't need tackling. Sand was more the problem than the clay.

That's another major benefit to the recycling topdresser: it opens up the ground to create pathways for the roots and it seems to have resulted in greater root depth here.

We found we'd be losing the goalmouths after Christmas due to under-compaction. The grass would take upon re-seeding, but the roots just wouldn't quite hold together.

If I do go back to traditional topdressing, I think I'll opt for a mix instead of pure sand, and I'd use less as well. We were laying sixty tonnes across five pitches, for twenty years.

The infiltration rates are now decent for a clay-based surface too - that's partly due to the sand, but also it's because we have had a few of the pitches re-drained.

We only had one football match called off during the really heavy 2017-18 winter. We're very proud of the fact that it was just the one.

A lot of matches were called off in the area. Say we have seven matches each Saturday, four at home and three away, we'd often host all seven on our pitches because they couldn't use the away pitch.

It's the same with cricket. We will always try to get a match on. As far as we're concerned, it's what we're here for; to allow the students to use the facilities.

We also try to make it so that all pitches get the same amount of attention, regardless of age or skill level, because they all turn up and pay their fees, so they all deserve to use the best surfaces.

The next step would be to link the drainage up and get it into the surrounding areas. Where the spectators stand can get muddier than the pitches do.

There aren't bodies of water we can use for the run-off, but we're looking into tapping into the flow of the land generally. There are some natural ditches at the outsides, and we might go for a borehole, if we can, to help with irrigation.

We water the squares a lot too. The downside of the good drainage is that they dry out a lot. We have two taps by the squares. We send hoses and sprinklers out onto all key areas.

A football pitch probably takes about a week to water. I could only concentrate on the first team one and training grids this summer, but thankfully we had quite a bit of rain recently which swooped in and rescued us.

We don't use wetting agents widely, all across the cricket pitches for example, but we do spot-treat the fairy rings with them, because that's more crucial here than the moisture management.

We've been taking photos of those fairy rings from before the wetting agent use, in conjunction with Heritage Maxx and the use of the recycler, and those three things together have changed the situation.

It was bare ground between them, which led to rabbits because they like to dig through the bare ground. I really think lessening the sand has been the big factor. It was a bit like a links course, which rabbits and fairy rings love.

Our only other pests are birds feeding on leatherjackets. We're aware that there might be use in nematode introduction, but we have so much acreage that all materials like that have to be considered carefully.

Our biggest outlay since I started in the role has been the Toro Groundmaster rotary fairway mower. The finish on our previous mower wasn't that good.

People say you want a boring machine. That's what I look for in our machinery, and you get that from the Toro. It's used year-round. They just feel well-built, like the door-close in a luxury car.

We have demos brought in. The Groundmaster has rollers on the back, so we can do the two jobs in combination. We also combine the cuts of the rotary and cylinder mowers, to stand the grass up nicely, then finish them off in the other direction.

We didn't always contract for our major maintenance works, but it's been one of the best decisions we've ever taken. Their machinery is top-quality, and they have one of everything.

If I had any further wishes for what we could get from our renovations and major work, we might consider using a Koro on the cricket squares, maybe on a 10-year cycle, and possibly start an annual rotation of using one on one football pitch at a time - but, we'd need extra time between terms.

We did once Koro off our first team football pitch, and afterwards we laid pure ryegrass down without any of the poa involved and very little coming through. I must admit, it did look really good.

The flip side of that was the extra feed it needed. It needed more than the other pitches, and we needed two types as well. Everything you do has a knock-on effect. The finish was amazing, though.

Mark and I have discussed converting our grass cricket nets to artificial, because we can't get the nets in the same condition due to the heavy use.

Another is the wish to get our whole site as well drained as the football pitches. Mark says it would be a really good idea to link those up with the irrigation system too, so we can store water that's drained away during heavy periods and save it for when the ground gets dry again.

That, as Mark points out, is more environmentally friendly. When I started doing this, we used to put all of our grass clippings over in the corner of the field.

Now, a company collect and removes. I'd like to have some bays round by our shed, maybe, with one for grass cuttings, one for leaves, one for chippings and one for sand.

With the machinery as well, if we keep fully up-to-date with our kit, we won't need as much and that will be more energy-efficient - not to mention that there are plenty of good energy-efficient units out there, and lots of electrical kit.

I've looked at the battery-powered machinery. Thankfully, we're not tied down to any company, but the Stihl stuff looked good.

Those aspects would help with fuel costs of course, but it's important, when working on a school, that the machinery isn't too loud as well.

Lastly, that just ties into what we're trying to achieve on the environmental side. We've done a lot to help the surface, and now reducing the impact of the kit is one more big thing we can achieve.