1 As I was going to St Paul’s...

NeilDixonOriginally sited by the world famous cathedral from whence it gets its name, St Paul's School moved four times before occupying its present site on the banks of the River Thames in 1968. It survived the Plague and the Great Fire of London and, in 1870, was one of only two day schools included by the Clarendon Commission as one of the 'nine great public schools' of England.

With a soil profile that is 100% landfill, Head of Grounds and Gardens, Neil Dixon, certainly has his work cut out to provide the quality playing surfaces required at such a prestigious establishment

Neil Dixon begins with a statement that will have many a groundsman shuddering. "The soil profile is 100% landfill," he confirms. "Back in the 1960s, the playing fields were originally filter beds for Thames Water, and they still have drinking water storage under three of our junior pitches - the 'tank' area. This prohibits the use of fertilisers and pesticides, has a restrictive weight limit and, with just about twelve inches of soil, makes grass development rather difficult."

"The senior pitches I would describe as silty clay; the top fourteen to sixteen inches are just about passable as decent topsoil but, below this, it is a real mixture of rubble, clay, and anything else that was used during the landfill stage."

StPaul\'s Aerial3Fortunately, Neil's wealth of experience means that he is just the right man for the job.

"I initially began working at Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course in my summer holidays," he explains. "When I left school, they offered me a full time job and I stayed there for seven years. But I had always wanted to work at a multi-sports club so, when a job at Brunel University's Osterley campus came up, I applied and was offered the post. Unfortunately, this didn't work out as I had hoped as most of the sport was played at the main Uxbridge campus so, after about eighteen months, a job at The Lensbury Club at Teddington was advertised, with a certain Mr Peter Craig as Grounds Manager."

"The good facilities and multi-sports at Lensbury was exactly what I was looking for but, at this time, the club was going through something of an evolution and, being 'last in', I wasn't quite sure where it would end. So, when the head groundsman's job became available for the Honourable Artillery Company, I applied, was invited for interview and, subsequently, was offered the post."

"I had an enjoyable five years at the HAC, but felt I had outgrown the role, and wanted a new challenge so, when St Paul's advertised for a Head of Grounds and Gardens, I applied and the rest, as they say, is history." That was ten years ago.

StPauls 1st team rugby October 2013"Presentation is the most vital aspect of the work we do here," states Neil. "We will regularly put out over twenty teams at the weekend, with eleven of these playing at home, so presentation ranks very highly. I want parents and visiting schools, as well as being entertained, to go away impressed with our facilities."

"I believe it is also an experience for the pupils to play on nicely presented pitches. They themselves are always very well presented in new kit etc., and it is only fitting that they should be given the best possible pitches. Simple things like continuity of colour for rugby pads, for example, and clean flags with the school crest on; they all add that extra visual side that complements the pitches. This is something that we are working towards across the whole site."

"Essentially, we are a business and we are competing against other schools in London; the whole site, not just the pitches, has to look good."

To that end, Neil has an experienced, if somewhat small, team to support him. His deputy is Steve Rolfe who has been at the school for twenty-nine years, as has Supervisor Gardens, Hans Spyker. Three groundsmen, Spencer Dunalvy (10 years), Marcin Szczupak (6), Chris Lyle (5) and gardener, Ralph McCaffrey (7) complete the team.

StPauls 1st team rugby October 2013To offer an independent viewpoint, Neil employs the services of Noel Mackenzie of Sports Turf Consulting as his primary agronomist. "We have three visits a year from Noel and I use him in much the same way accountants would use auditors," he explains. "He makes recommendations to my maintenance regimes that I may not have considered, or will sometimes throw in quite a radical suggestion based on the constraints of the school site."

"As an examples, we are now trialing a micro clover on the 'tank' that Noel has recommended, to see if we can get some organic nitrogen into the playing surfaces. Only time will tell if the cultivar mix we are using will work, but first indications would suggest that the pitch we overseeded has benefitted."

"General maintenance is tricky on the tank, due to the weight limit and lack of soil depth, so we tend to opt for smaller bits of kit," continues Neil. "Unfortunately, the playing areas receive the same amount of use as the senior pitches, so can become unplayable much quicker."

StPauls VertiDrain"On the senior pitches, we tend to opt for more traditional methods of maintenance. We verti-drain at least three times a year in September, December and February, if the weather conditions are right and, if we can, we will also carry out another pass at Easter. We complement this by using our Aero Quick solid spiker as often as possible, with the intention to keep the verti-drain holes connected to the surface."

"If ground conditions are good in February, we will also use our BLEC Groundbreaker through the more compacted areas, and then backfill with sand with the intention of keeping the slits open. This is something we began last year and initial results have been positive."

Soil samples are sent away for analysis on a periodic basis, but not every year, says Neil. "I personally think every three to five years is more than adequate. I am a firm believer in being able to identify a problem by looking at the grass plant. Nearly all turf related problems will have a visible symptom and you don't necessarily need a soil analysis to identify this."

StPauls Disc seeding outfield"Of course, if you are looking to alter pH, or the analysis has identified a specific issue, then yes, they are vital to help remedy the problem, but as a 'general' tool, I think they confuse rather than help. I will look closely at what is happening beneath the surface by taking cores, which help identify compaction, thatch levels, and root development."

Neil says that he also likes to 'pick the brains' of the sales reps who visit as well. "They know their products and are often better placed to advise on any day to day issues that may crop up."

"A lot of what we do is done on mutual trust, so finding a supplier (and rep) you can trust and rely on is paramount. It is one of the reasons I always make time to see reps if they call unexpectedly. Yes, it can be inconvenient, but you never know when you may need to ask them for an urgent delivery. If they feel they don't matter, then this will be replicated when we need something urgent."

The playing fields cover a total of forty-five acres which, fortunately for Neil and his small team, are all on one site. These are made up of eleven winter pitches, three cricket squares, ten tennis courts, cricket nets (artificial and grass), a 400 metre running track, plus field events such as long jump, discus and javelin.

StPauls 1 st team rugby Aug 2013"We also have three artificial cricket wickets, six sand filled tennis courts (installed in 2011), four tartan courts, and a brand new five-lane artificial cricket net system that was installed in the summer of 2013. In addition, we have a 110m tartan track and shot putt area which we are responsible for."

"Like a lot of schools, we play rugby in the autumn term, and football in the spring term, with cricket and athletics in the summer term, so renovations and changeovers have to be carefully planned," explains Neil.

Asked if the pitches are used by the community or hired out to outside agencies, Neil says that they are very lucky in this sense. "There's some outside hire during the summer to a local community group and a local cricket club, but our Old Boys have their own facility in Thames Ditton, so they have not need to use ours. The only time they do is for pre-season rugby training, when their's is still in use for cricket."

Neil believes that too many groundsmen see their facilities as 'hallowed turf' and become too protective of it. "In doing so, they actually forget that the grass is there to be used and played on and, as groundsmen, it is our job to facilitate this, not oppose it!" he states.

"We do host summer camps and community club events along with various parents group events and, if I wanted to be highly critical and pedantic, then, yes, they do affect the work we are aiming to do. But, in retrospect, they play a large part in the school's operation, so it is best to embrace these types of thing and work closely with those running the event so that everyone can be kept as happy as possible."

Neil believes that too many groundsmen see their facilities as 'hallowed turf' and become too protective of it. "In doing so, they actually forget that the grass is there to be used and played on and, as groundsmen, it is our job to facilitate this, not oppose it!" he states.

"The staff are allocated their specific areas, but are not limited to working in these. It does help the teaching staff to have a point of contact they can go to if they need help with something specific but, being a small team, all staff have to chip in as and when needed; obviously, sickness and holidays being the prime examples."

StPauls AerialViewNeil is responsible for the running and capital budgets for the Grounds and Gardens Department. These are submitted almost nine months before they are due to start. "For example, I will submit the grounds department proposal in December 2013, for the financial year starting September 2014/15," he explains. "So, long term planning is required as we may be looking up to two years ahead. I personally find this is a very positive way of budgeting, as it enables budget holders to bid for the resources they require rather than historical budgeting, which can often be under resourced."

"Whilst capital items can be relatively easily scheduled into the budget bid system, any additional 'running budget' that may be required will need a special request, whilst staffing costs, such as overtime, need prior approval from my line manager."

"Currently, the school is undertaking some large building projects, so senior management has to ensure that costs are controlled. This system ensures that, if something is needed it can be budgeted for, ensuring that high standards across the whole school are maintained."

StPauls Asphalt laying new courts"I will work closely with my line manager, the Director of Sport, and various heads of sports departments to ensure I have met their needs as well as my own when submitting my budget requests," he confirms.

Ongoing staff training is important to Neil. He, himself, has completed City and Guilds in Greenkeeping and Sports Turf Management, holds NVQ 3 and 4, PA1, 2 and 6, and recently completed a Foundation Degree from Myerscough College whilst, during last year, the whole department undertook refresher training on chemical application. "It just brought everyone up to date on recent legislation, and proved a very good refresher for everyone," he says.

"Two staff members also undertook a tractor operation course at Merrist Wood in June last year. We also have all staff qualified to NVQ 2, PA1, 6, and my deputy is qualified in the use of chainsaws."

On a site in the heart of London, environmental issues remain a high priority. "We do not have an environmental policy in place as such, but do have a landscape management plan which is part of the overall site strategy. We are just in the process of installing loggeries around the site as part of this plan. We also have one of the longest river frontages in London, which is a perfect route for lots of animals," explains Neil.

StPaul\'s Aerial2"We are still finishing off our tow path renovation, which has been ongoing for about four years now. The total length of the path is close to 350m and is 2.5m wide. To date, approximately 400 tonnes of hardcore has been moved, levelled off and compacted to provide a firm, usable surface for both cyclists and pedestrians. Prior to this the path was wood chip, which became a bog when it got wet!"

"There's one area of recently reclaimed land that needs some work doing to it to bring it back to respectability; this is a project for our February half term."

"We have worked with several agencies during initial stages of planning applications, to ensure that all the relevant requirements were met; the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Port of London Authority being the most prominent, whilst we utilise a company called Bio-Diversity by Design, who help coordinate our environmental issues."

"Rainwater harvesting is part of the next phase of the building work. This has just started and we are now looking at options to best utilise this water on the sports pitches, and what sort of infrastructure we would need to facilitate this."

"The seasons are shifting without a doubt," claims Neil. "Spring is starting later, resulting in slower germination during the early part of our cricket season, which frustrates the Head of Cricket. Like most schools, we start our summer term immediately after the Easter holiday, regardless of when this may fall, so trying to time overseeding with good growing weather is not always that easy, and often leads to frustrated cricket coaches complaining of bumpy outfields!"

StPauls Square solid tined, prior to scarifying"We now do our outfield 'end of season' work once the school has finished for the summer, when we have warmer soil temperatures, there is water available, and the fields are not so intensively used, plus, of course, the seven or eight week break allows plenty of time for the new grass to establish. Mind you, this has a cost implication as we still overseed at Easter, but this is very much a hope and pray exercise as I cannot influence the process."

"Summers are very hit and miss and, with such a short but very intense cricket season - approximately fifty games in twelve weeks - so it is vital that we get a half decent summer."

Outside the day-to-day maintenance of the facilities, Neil and his team have been involved in a number of projects. "We recently had six new sand dressed tennis courts constructed (as part of the building project), so we now have a maintenance contract in place with a specialist company who visit us three times a year for decompaction work; we will simply keep the surface clear of leaves and brush the surface in between."

StPauls New cricket nets"Last summer, we relocated a rugby pitch by just a few metres, following the installation of a barrier fence around our 1st team rugby/football pitch, and we've recently completed the installation of an eleven lane cricket net area. In addition, the newly opened science building and the future work will need to be complemented by landscaping and play areas."

Interestingly, the new 'Founders Court' quad has lawns where, at the southern end with poor light and reduced air movement, outbreaks of fusarium have been seen, whilst the northern end, with good light and air movement has suffered from red thread; "both very good examples of disease being specific to environment," says Neil. "These lawns are currently under the control of the landscape contractor, but we take ownership this January - there's always something to do."

StPauls New sand filled court instalationNeil believes that televised sport is giving our industry a higher profile, which is helping to raise standards across the board. "I do think, with the exposure live sport has given us, it has raised the expectations of those who use our facilities and, if our surfaces are not pristine, they want to know why. This is where communication and education comes into it. I see a big part of my role here as helping the teaching staff to understand what and why we do things, and then they are in an informed position about why a particular pitch may be unplayable."

"A lot of our current sports staff have played professional cricket and rugby. Our High Master, for example, has represented England and the Barbarians at rugby, so it is not unreasonable for them to expect the surfaces to be of good standards."

"Organisations within the industry, such as Pitchcare, could certainly help our cause by giving talks at various conferences up and down the country to senior management level."

StPauls Completed courts"We need to highlight just how diverse our role is within an organisation to those who manage them. Whilst I am in no doubt that most do value the groundstaff, it is always nice to be recognised."

"Most grounds managers at organisations such as St Paul's will have responsibility for Health & Safety, budgets, capital expenditure, Coshh, staff management, and be responsible for several hundred thousand pounds worth of machinery. They will be expected to produce budgets, timesheets and reports, and all at the same time as ensuring the bins are empty, roads are swept and the surfaces are maintained to the highest standards."

Neil remains pragmatic about soil profiles, budgets, staffing levels and bin emptying, but states that it was always drummed into him that, to succeed in life you have to work hard. "Doing a job you enjoy helps of course," he concludes.

Renovation methods at St Paul's

Winter Pitches

- Height of cut is maintained at 40mm for rugby then reduced to 25mm for football.

- Aeration consists of verti-draining in September and October, then use of the Aero Quick at regular intervals throughout the term, we aim to aerate again at Easter, but is weather dependent.

- Weed control is carried out by contractors, and normally done in May and August, weather dependent.

- We won't necessarily treat for worms on the outfields unless the casts become a real problem, a) due to the cost, and b) they are beneficial to the soil harmony.

- Disease does not get treated, again due to cost, but also the intention is to keep the turf in the optimum health through good cultural practices, thereby reducing the chances of disease outbreak.

- The winter pitches are fed with Headland Xtend 15:2:20 in mid-late October, then again with Xtend 22:2:8 in late March and again in July (if the weather is conducive). If it is felt they need a perk up in the depths of winter we may apply a soluble Fe, but this is very much a decision made at the time.

- Scarifying of the winter pitches is something we are looking to include in the next year or two, the pitches do not have any excess thatch build up simply due to the extensive use they receive, but it would help reduce some of the larger crowns of rye grass that can appear.

- Topdressing of the pitches is something that has serious cost implications. Current prices of suitable topdressing at c£35 per tonne, plus the quantities involved - 11 pitches x 60 tonnes = 660 tonnes @ £35 per tonne = £23,100 + application!! - makes topdressing all but the worst areas prohibitive. This is something we may look to start budgeting towards in the next year or two, but there has to be a common sense approach.

The School is undertaking extensive building works at the moment. £77million has been set aside for the essential works, a brand new science block was opened in January 2013, a new drama theatre is due to open in 2014, and the general teaching building is due to be demolished once accurate phasing and planning works are finalised, so I need to be sensible and sensitive to other school requirements.

Cricket - Playing season

- Height of cut on the squares is maintained at 15mm.

- Squares are verticut every two weeks with our Greensking. This gets across the squares quickly, and reduces the amount of verticutting required during wicket preparation.

- Pitch preparation consists of 10-14 days, depending on ground conditions, and involves light scarification using our Dennis FT scarifier. Height of cut is gradually reduced to 5mm, and the pitch is power brushed as needed. I have found the power brush just helps clean the surface of any moss or algae that may be present, especially considering the wet winters we have been experiencing

- Squares are fertilised with Evolution micro 14:4:8 from Headland in the spring, and then with a 6:9:6 type winter feed (if they need it) during the playing season. I have found this is enough to give the grass that little boost when needed, without the risk of lush growth in the summer. I am conscious that, because our season is so short (12 weeks), the quantities of fertiliser we apply are probably too low. This is something we need to look at in terms of timing of feeds and their respective NPK ratios, to coincide with the turf requirements.

- Watering and covering of pitches is done as and when required. We are fortunate to have two sets of roll on covers, and a few flat sheets, not only to keep the pitches dry, but also to slow down the drying of them, particularly in hot weather.

StPauls Topdressing the squareEnd of Season Renovations

- The squares are shaved down using our Amazone Groundkeeper. For the first time this year, to look at ways of speeding up the scarification process, we have fitted scarifier wings to this machine to be able to use it as a scarifier. Whilst we have a Graden, the time it takes to not only scarify, but then clean-up is restrictive, with 3 squares and a 11 lane net area to do. If, next year, the surfaces are not as they should, then we will be looking at a tractor mounted Graden, and use the Amazone to clean up.

- Squares are watered, then solid tined.

- Squares then watered again until the surface can take our Blec dimple seeder. We then overseeded each square with between 1.5-2 x 20Kg bags of Barenbrug Bar Extreme; if we need to add more to fill in any low density areas, then we will do this.

- Ends are levelled off using weasels and a lute, and seed added to these areas.

- The whole square is then topdressed via our Pro Pass Spin topdresser and dragmatted into the surface. We have always used GOSTD 125 from Surrey Loams Ltd as the consistency and quality of the product is second to none.

- We then start irrigating to encourage rapid germination, any additional seeding or re-levelling work will take place as and when needed.

Close Season

General maintenance consists of:

- Solid spiking every 3 weeks

- Mowing at 15mm with a rotary mower until the second leaf stage, then we look to use our Jacobsen 26" mower, this is very light (in comparison to a Ransomes 24") and it helps settle down the surface and also conditions the grass to being mown with a cylinder mower. I am not a big fan of rotary mowers on squares, a) due to the indentation the wheels can leave, and b) the blade has to be razor sharp to ensure a clean cut.

- We will apply a 6:9:6 or equivalent and supplement this with some amino.

- We will spray fungicides if absolutely necessary, but we rarely have the need to. Air movement is good, and we aim to keep the squares mown that tad lower to reduce moisture build up at the base of the plant. We would need a severe outbreak of disease at a critical time to consider spraying.

StPauls VertiDrainWhat's in the shed?

New Holland TN75D
John Deere 4320
John Deere 4410
John Deere e gator
Jacobsen TR3
Ransomes 217 out front rotary
Iseki SXG
Allett Shaver x 2
Jacobsen pedestrian Greensking x 2
Dennis FT510 x 2
Allett Tournament
Lloyds Paladin
Jacobsen Greensking IV
Ransomes Mastiff
Ransomes Marquis
Kersten Sweeper
Sam 5 Composter ( SEKO)
Wiedenmann Terra Spike HD
Amazone Groundskeeper
Trimax Lazer blade
Lloyds trailed gangs
Ransomes trailed gangs
Blec Disc Seeded
Blec Dimple Seeder
BLEC Groundbreaker
Pro Pass topdresser
Greentech Double Quick
Honda rotary mowers
Assorted strimmers and blowers
Techneat Sprayer

All items are purchased outright, either from local dealers or direct as required.
Mini diggers are hired in for installing rugby and football posts.
Servicing is undertaken by an independent engineer.

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