Trent College - A Leaf History of Pine

Jake Barrowin Schools & Colleges

When Pete Flewitt, Head of Gardens and Grounds at Trent College, sends his team for their morning rounds, it's very often to blow or collect leaves. This is because he's the most recent in a 115-year line of groundsmen to work there since Trent gained one of the country's finest school-based arboretum.

One hundred and nineteen years ago, the school in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, welcomed Reverend G.J.S. 'Daddy' Warner into its fold as Master of School. Four years later, he encouraged the planting of a collection of trees, which has been built upon ever since.

It has been visited by eminent authors down the years, including Alan Mitchell, famed for his eponymous tree-aging rule: measuring the circumference of the tree and dividing by local growth rate gives a decent estimate of the tree's age.

The arboretum shows over 200 varieties of tree, and the collection of spinneys it houses include: one based on the famous Giant Sequoia; one filled with Austrian Pine; and one which very fittingly includes 'Salix Alba', the tree from which cricket bat willow is sourced.

Roughly thirty of the species in the arboretum are rare, many others are listed as 'infrequent', and the shapes and colours are broad.

Some of the most remarkable include: the very rare, Chinese Eucommia Ulmoides, the leaf sap of which is imported for root canal fillings; the Pinus Aristata, some examples of which live to nearly 2,500 years old; and Sorbus domestica, which is special because it is thought to be native to Wales.

It is a private collection owned by the school, but the former Head of Biology there, David Pinney, is also willing to give tours.

All of this is set within a school just approaching its 150th anniversary in 2018. The school's history is unlike that of many ancient public schools, being aimed not necessarily at the upper classes.

The school was apparently formed to be 'a boarding school for boys of the middle class; that is, for the sons of farmers and men of business, and of such professional men as are not able to meet the expenses of the great public schools'.

It was founded by the Sheriff of Nottingham - no, not that one - in an effort to lay an Evangelical Christian foothold in the region via the provision of educational grants. More were planned, but Trent was the only one completed.

And, of course, since then it has flourished into not only a successful school, but a local pilgrimage destination for tree lovers.

Pete Flewitt, 34, has been coping with the leafy fallout from those trees for a little over eight years, starting off as a non-managerial groundsman, and being bumped up to Head of Gardens and Grounds relatively recently, in September 2016.

On their trees, Pete said: "I love the trees. They're fantastic. The one problem I have with them comes in the autumn."

"When the leaves fall, the amount of clear-up that we have to undertake can be a bit of a hassle, especially when we've got a First XV fixture at 2.00pm, have cleared up and gone for lunch at 1.00pm and, when we head back out to the match, the pitch is covered in them again."

"But when you see them in the spring, when the leaves are blossoming, they're flowering, and the leaves are coming out, then I don't believe there are many places within a long distance that can look as beautiful as it does."

His gardening predecessor was planning on retirement at the time, but eventually decided to stay on part-time, which he continues still. The man before him in the grounds role was Eddie Broad, and the jobs were conglomerated when Pete accepted.

Pete's start came straight from school. When he was leaving school, he sent out a raft of letters as part of his careers lessons to local sports facilities, including Derby's Pride Park and Nottingham Forest's City Ground.

He found success with his letter to Trent Bridge cricket ground, which naturally delighted him. "I managed to get a two-year apprenticeship there", he told us, "and it doesn't get better than that. I was really lucky."

"I was there for ten years, from 1999 until 2009. I then spent two winters working at Nottingham Forest with Ewan Hunter, because they were busy and, contrastingly, it was our quietest period."

"My boss at Trent Bridge got a call, along the lines of 'we know you're quiet at the moment, could we borrow one of you?' They leased me basically; paid my wages for four months."

Pete said he doesn't have a strong family background in the sector, but does recall one notable, if momentary, push from his father: "My dad was the captain of the second or third XI at the local cricket club."

"The groundsman asked him if he wanted to do the wicket that week, and he did because it was during the school holidays."

"So, the three of us all got together sorting the cricket pitch out. It was something that I found very enjoyable, what with being outside during the holidays."

"I scored a fifty on the wicket I'd prepared with them. It was my first fifty, as they say: my 'maiden' fifty. This is when I was only about fourteen years old, so it must have been a good pitch."

Not long later, at sixteen, Pete undertook his Level 2 NVQ in Sports Turf Maintenance, which he followed whilst working at Trent with a Level 3 in Horticulture, alongside all the usual certificates.

The school site is over forty-four acres in total, but only around seventeen of this consists of usable areas of turf. This includes two artificial hockey surfaces, two concrete tennis areas with three courts each, six all-grass rugby union pitches, and three reduced-size rugby union pitches for rugby sevens and juniors.

On the same turf used in winter for the rugby union pitches, three cricket squares lie during the summer, and another smaller juniors' field. In Pete's words, "Every bit of grass is used year-round."

Machinery is applied for and decided upon in September. Last year, this included a Toro fairway mower, plus hand mowers, strimmers and hedge cutters. Pete said he usually gets machinery when it's requested, as he tends to only ask when he has a valid case.

Including Pete, across both grounds and gardens, there are seven maintenance staff at the college. He thinks that the melding of the two teams has had an effect on productivity.

"Anyone from either department is now willing to swap over if they're needed on something else. That's why I think it works well now with us just being the one team."

"When we had our gardeners on a separate team to the grounds staff, no one ever integrated, whereas now, if a groundsman doesn't have too much to do, they will help any gardeners struggling for time."

Chris Watts is the Deputy Head of Grounds. He is the same age as Pete, but has been with Trent for a commendable thirteen years.

Pete Sherwin and Dave Buckley are the gardeners, Robert Wandsworth manages the smaller grassed areas, Chris Stephenson cuts the larger ones, Jacob Leadbetter usually maintains the sports pitches, and Chris is an all-rounder with Pete. They also have a seasonal helper, Craig Pigeon.

The team use contractors for spraying and verti-draining annually. Also, this year, the First XI cricket square had a Koro run at each end to keep it energetic and free from poa, in response to complaints from bowlers that their run-ups weren't resulting in enough of a pay-off.

In last year's October half-term break, they did some good, old-fashioned Earthquaking across the whole site, to stave off compaction, ensure growth and retain even footing. Pete plans to have the site Earthquaked again this year.

A contractor who is also the greenkeeper of a local golf course, John Fearn, does much of this work. The school like to use him where possible, because he sent his children to the school as pupils, so the relationship is mutually beneficial.

The site is mixed in terms of its soil profile. It lies on two levels. At the top is a roughly 50/50 mix of sand and clay, whilst the clay takes over much more heavily down at the lower end.

For this reason, the First XV rugby union side plays up at the top on the quick-draining surface that is least likely to be damaged by the hard wear.

The River Trent is some distance from the lower field, but a canal which is connected to it like a tributary lies not too far away, and was itself based on a clay burrow.

This all means that the lower field rests immediately next to a flood plain. If the river, and therefore canal, rise too high, the water floods onto an adjacent public park, and the water then travels from there onto the lower field - also the First XI cricket surface.

This is rare enough that no new drainage is required. Pete told us that the foot-wide clay pipes and yard-deep sand channels that have been there for decades still do their job.

Last year, it flooded once in the summer as many readers from the East Midlands won't be surprised to hear, and the team pumped the water from the surface before brushing the remainder.

Trent's facilities are let frequently to other organisations, and this is a good source of income, pride and status for the school.

Recently, cricket clubs Nottinghamshire CCC Second XI and Derbyshire CCC, and rugby union sides Leicester Football Club/Tigers, Nottingham RFC, and the Welsh Exiles have all used the fields there as either training or playing surfaces.

The reasons for this are simple once considered, as Pete said: "We're very central, being within close proximity to the M1 and not too far from the M6, smack bang in the middle of the Midlands."

"It's commutable, for a special event, from Birmingham, the North West, Yorkshire, even Wales and the South. We've got a swimming pool on-site, a fully equipped gym, dining facilities, boarding houses, a summer school… we push the outside lets for income and it's not difficult to do."

The two artificial hockey pitches, the smaller of which is overlooked by the second floor of the groundstaff's building, is ageing and the school are looking to replace it as soon as possible, although they haven't yet decided who will fulfil the contract.

The main pitches are cut with the Toro fairway mower, which happens every day during the cricket season. Because all of the pitches are used daily there, this has to be done in the morning, so most mornings someone is on the Toro right up until lunchtime.

The First XV rugby union pitch will be cut with a Dennis G860. According to Pete, this is because it "gives a much better finish to the cut".
In the winter term, they cut to 45mm, which changes to 14mm outfield and 12mm squares during the cricket season.

They mount their tractors with a Sisis slitter for aeration, and use that often throughout the winter. Major aeration is John Fearn's responsibility, and will be either the Earthquake or Verti-drain, depending upon the level of compaction at the time.

Cricket squares are renovated for scarifying each year by an external agency, and, unlike some organisations, they also clean up the larger rugby pitches, leaving the small ones as they get more boot coverage by area.

They seed the majority of the turf with a Sisis Vari-seeder in April and when needed, although this isn't regular, and dress with sand only rarely, because the quality of the soil serves its purpose. The squares are seeded to schedule in August too, and topped with Surrey Loam's GOSTD 125.

Red Thread has posed an issue to parts of the site in the past, but they have been through a programme of the application of 20:20:30 mix to the surface with a six-month release fertiliser, and this has been effective in keeping the fungus at bay, whilst also avoiding excess growth.

Another of the products they've been spraying up until now is carbendazim, and like most of us, Pete doesn't know what will happen after this has to stop. "I guess we'll just have to get used to having dead worms all over cricket surfaces," he shrugged.