10 A busy year at St Paul's School

A busy year at St Paul's School

By Neil Dixon Head of Grounds & Gardens


St Paul's School is situated on the South side of the River Thames, adjacent to Hammersmith Bridge in South West London; it is a Private Boys School, with approximately 450 Coletines (Prep School) and 850 Pauline's (Main School), the School will be celebrating its 500th Birthday in 2009.

The School's campus consists of 45 Acres, which includes: 11 winter pitches (rugby before Christmas, football after), 5 cricket squares, (+ 2 outfield wickets) a 4 lane and 9 lane grass cricket net area, 3 grass tennis courts, 10 tarmac courts, 400 M grass running track, 100M Tartan track and discus, javelin and shot put areas, plus ornamental lawn areas and shrubberies + over 200 trees.

The school has been on its current site, since the mid 1960's, when it was converted from old Thames water reservoirs, the original site of the school was over the river in Hammersmith. The school is split into three areas, namely;

Big Side
Western Playing fields
The tank area

Some of the current Grounds are still on Thames water reservoir tanks, (Tank area) which offer interesting constraints in Grounds Management, we are not permitted to use fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides on this area. Some of them are on old reservoirs that have been filled in, (Big side) we have in the past, pulled out motorbike frames, full packs of paving slabs, and a host of other undesirable things.

st-pauls-1.jpg st-pauls-2.jpg
The School site before the reservoirs were land filled, this area is "Bigside" "Bigside Today"

There is currently a team of 7 Staff, 4 Groundsman and 3 Gardeners, plus myself, 3 of whom have been here for a combined time of 60 + years!!

Sport Activities

Sport is played at the school, every afternoon, except Monday, this means we cannot get onto the pitches after lunchtime, as they are all being used by the various age groups and teams, the only exception to this is the 1st team pitch, which only gets used for matches and 1st team practice on a Friday lunchtime.

Maintenance on the pitches varies from season to season, so I will try to give an insight into what is carried out at St Paul's over the various seasons.

July - September

Fine Turf: During the summer, normally all the squares would be scarified, top dressed and over seeded, however, this year, I have "Koro'ed" the 1st and 2nd team squares, the 2nd team square had slight saddled ends, so Koroing has removed these, and the 1st team square was in need of a "surface clean up". We are hosting a cricket festival next summer, so I felt it was important to get the work carried out this year, in readiness for this festival.

The other squares/ nets and courts have all been completed, and currently have a good grass cover, although we have been invaded by a host of weeds, these will be sprayed with a suitable herbicide. As soon as we get favourable weather conditions, and the new grass has established, we will start to solid tine.

Picture; 1st Team Cricket square after seeding, note how it will need a second seeding, it has just been solid tined

Outfield / Rugby Pitches: The main work during the summer, is watering, marking out and painting rugby posts, ready for September, and the start of term, all the pitches have to be ready by the 31st August ( although 1 pitch is needed for pre season from the 20th August), the only thing that we will do in the week before term starts is to erect the posts. August usually sees all the Groundstaff take there summer holidays, so we leave the "post erection" until after every one is back (like a lot of schools, I imagine, No annual leave is permitted during the cricket season).

Gardens: The gardens during the summer, are obviously looking there best, what with the summer bedding, (geraniums, petunias, impatiens), however, it is also quite an odd sensation, with the school being so quiet, there are so few people to enjoy the gardens while they re looking there best. During this time, the gardeners are busy watering the hanging baskets and tubs, and making sure the lawns are well maintained, during this time of year, they will also go to any school properties that are being vacated, and tidy the garden in readiness for the new tenant.

September - December

The boys are now back, and rugby is in full swing, so the brunt of our work is mowing / marking pitches, keeping an eye on the squares and courts, what with the warm, moist weather, grass cutting is the main operation carried out at this time of year. We still mow the pitches, but at a higher height of cut, ( about 2"), this I have found gives good "anchoring" qualities of the grass, whilst still having plenty of grass leaf to protect the surface, but without it becoming too long and untidy.

I will look this term, to give the pitches their 1st "Earthquaking", while the ground is still reasonably dry, once the conditions start to become a bit damper, I will then start the solid tining.


The pitches were given a feed in September, with a 6.9.6 + Iron autumn feed, we had good grass cover, but they were starting to yellow slightly with the herbicide application taking effect, this feed gave them a rapid green up. I will then feed in late October, with a controlled release fertiliser, (before the soil temperature cools down too much), this will ensure that there is nutrient available to the grass plant should the soil conditions become favourable.

Normally at this time of year, we host one of the International Rugby Union teams playing their tests against England, this year we are hosting Australia, so this is a fantastic opportunity for the Groundstaff to put there presentation skills to the test, and also for the boys at the school to watch international players up close (sometimes they will even do a bit of training with the 1st team).

Pictures ; Western Playing Fields, around the 1st Team Cricket Square

Fine turf: All the fine turf areas should have been completely renovated by the time term starts, if any have not been completed, these will be done ASAP, and any bare areas would be re- seeded. I will possibly look to fertilise if these areas look a little sickly, this decision will be made nearer the time. We sprayed for worms on the fine turf areas in early October.st-pauls-5.jpg

All fine turf areas will be solid tined on a "rolling basis", once we have spiked all of them, we will start again.
These areas will be mown as and when required, using a rotary mower, set to 15mm. I don't like to keep the grass too long on the squares, as it can become quite leggy and weak, I also think it is important to keep cutting the squares, to encourage the grass to tiller, and put out a good root system, in readiness for the next season.

Outfields: The pitches will be spiked, once the ground conditions are more favourable, this will include solid, slit and using our Ground Breaker, which we purchased in September 2004. Pitches are chain harrowed twice a week, to try to maintain levels. The pitches are cut using our tractor mounted rotary mower, this is a heavy machine with a front and rear roller and helps firm the surface, and provide good presentation.

Towards late October, I will look to fertilise with an autumn feed, this should give me a little bit of growth, but also help harden the grass against the onset of winter.

If the weather is mild, as it sometimes can be, I may overseed the pitches over the Christmas break, they effectively get 3 weeks rest, and so with some careful planning and a little bit of luck, we may have some new grass germination. I will also look to sand the worn areas of the pitches, and verti drain the 6 senior pitches.

Gardens: Now is the time when all the summer bedding is being stripped out, and the winter bedding being planted, along with the spring bulbs, wallflowers etc.
We will also look to feed the ornamental lawns this month, and long with the first leaves that are starting to fall, hedges that need trimming, it is a very busy time for the Gardens Department.

st-puals-6.jpg st-pauls-6.jpg
Some of the Ornamental areas we maintain

Christmas - Easter

Fine Turf: Cricket squares / nets and grass tennis courts are being rolled, by the time the boys break for Easter, we should be finished.
Squares and courts will be scarified, not too aggressively, as we don't want to scar the surface! Squares and courts will be fertilised before the Easter break, with a suitable feed. Wicket preparation will begin about 10 - 14 days before the boys come back, as they will need the squares immediately after Easter.
The tennis courts in an ideal world, will be in play after Easter, but as I have no way of controlling the weather, these are not normally brought into play until early May, the boys have to use the hard courts until the grass are in a suitable condition.

Outfield: We will be using a verti drain with hollow tines on all of the winter pitches, for aeration over Easter, I will also be applying somewhere in the region of 100 tonnes sand on the 6 senior pitches (the junior pitches are done every other year). By hollow tining and sanding, this will help ameliorate the sand into the current top soil, which is silty / clay mixture, this will assist with the drainage of the outfields.

Outfields will then be chain harrowed, spikes down, to produce a nice tilth for seeding. They will then be over seeded using our BLEC disc seeder, and then fertilised, with a suitable pre seeder before using a controlled release feed in the spring.

On top of this, we also have the following to get done.

  • Dismantle, and put away 11 sets of football Posts / Nets / Flags.

Mark out:-

  • 2 volleyball pitches.
  • 400 metre grass running track.
  • Discus, javelin, and shot put area.
  • 3 grass tennis courts.
  • Set up the hard tennis courts.
  • Erect and prepare a 4 lane and a 9 lane grass cricket practice area.
  • Erect a discus cage.

As you can see, this is quite an intense time for the Groundstaff, as I imagine it is for most schools at this time of year.
Once the cricket season is under way, our work load does not necessarily decrease, it just changes to prepping and repairing wickets and mowing.

Gardens: This is the time of year when all our summer bedding plants will arrive, in plug form, the Gardeners will then meticulously pot them all on, in our greenhouse, this year (2006) we are expecting to pot on somewhere in the region of 3000 plugs. Any areas of the gardens that need a good clean out will also occur now, as watering and pruning has slowed down, so it is a good time to regenerate any old / tired beds.

Easter - July

The School finished this year, on the 1st July, so it was only a twelve week summer term, which is very short compared to most cricket clubs, however the squares are used every day for practice/sports lessons, so accurate timing is needed when carrying out certain tasks. We also have 20 proper fixtures in the 12 week term, catering for up to 5 different age groups at once.

Fine Turf: During the term, the main scope of the work is wicket preparation. The boys have fixtures every Saturday, as well as during the week, so there is normally a couple of wickets "on the go". We will verti cut and rake our squares every 2/3 weeks, to prevent a build up of Organic matter/thatch, along with the usual mowing, marking out, watering, rolling etc.

The squares and courts will be fertilised in early June, to give a bit more growth, I am reluctant to use controlled release on fine turf areas, so I have to be prepared to feed during the season, again I will use a conventional release fertiliser, as it is more "controllable", with a bit of careful measuring. It is possible to use a granular feed on a cricket square, without interfering with play.

Outfields: During the cricket season, the only maintenance that is carried out on the outfields is the mowing and watering. The 1st Team outfield is cut 3 times a week, and the other outfields twice. We may water the outfields if they are starting to dry out, but as we do not have the capacity to water the whole outfield(s) in a short space of time, we normally have to rely on nature for this.

Gardens: The spring is the Gardens busiest time of the year, we are trying to kick start all the bedding plants/lawns as we have an awards ceremony in May "Apposition", which is a very important date in the school calendar. The unfortunate thing of it is, it occurs at the worst time for bedding displays, as it is after the spring bulbs ( tulips), but still too early for the summer bedding to have any impact, we normally buy in "forced" shrubs/bedding for the main areas of the school where the guests will be congregating. A few years ago, the Head Gardener did ask if the School could move its awards ceremony to accommodate the bedding, it didn't go down too well!!!

I hope I have given non school Groundsman an insight into what is carried out during a typical year at a School, and I am sure it sounds familiar to all the school Groundsman!

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