Dutchman Tom Hooijenga began his career with the Parks Department of his native country, before working for the National Trust and English Heritage. Blair Ferguson chats with him to find out what drew him to work at one of the UK's premier educational facilities.
Modern life can be hectic and full of pressure, something those who work within the professional turf industry know all too well. Many feel this pressure from the teams they work for or members they maintain courses for but, at Trinity College, Cambridge, the valuable green space created by Head Gardener, Tom Hooijenga is seen as a refuge for busy minds.
The grand buildings and gardens that make up this impressive College have been in place since Henry VIII founded the establishment in 1546 by merging two existing colleges and seven hostels together. Now, these extensive grounds sit in the middle of a city that has grown around the Colleges of Cambridge, with many students and tourists passing by, on foot, bicycle or even by punt, on the river Cam that flows through the Backs.
But, for the 685 undergraduates, 384 graduates and more than 180 Fellows, Trinity is home, and the thirty-six acres of gardens are a crucial element of the College environment; a space for thinking, reflection, sporting activity and social occasions. The many uses of the grounds add to the pressure on Trinity's 12-strong gardens team. But, as Tom explains, they are more than up to the job.
It's clear, as Tom shows us around, that he is perfectly suited to a Cambridge College - and perhaps his career had all along been preparing him to look after the grounds in such a historical institution.
Tom said: "I was interested in horticulture from a young age and I picked up a lot at home from what my father was doing. He looked after a good sized garden at an old people's home, and he did a lot of the technical side as well."
"I used to join him after school and slowly got more and more interested. I felt I was either going to get into forestry or horticulture. When I left secondary school I decided on gardening."
The Great Court / The Nevile's Court lawn
"I went to horticultural college in Holland and gained an HND in Horticulture on the maintenance and construction of gardens. It was a good education because it was so broad. We did garden design and maintenance, and we learnt about a lot of plants."
Tom began his career with the Parks Department in Holland, working in two cities, Schagen and Alkmaar. It was during holidays to England that his interest in and love of English gardens blossomed.
"I was mad about English gardens, especially the traditional English cottage garden. I was reading about Lutyens, Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West - I went to Dutch bookshops and purposely bought books in English about those architects and gardeners."
During one of these trips, Tom got chatting to the owner of a private garden in Sussex and the seeds were sown for him to leave Holland. He became a gardener at the National Trust's Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, followed by fourteen years at Bodnant Garden in North Wales.
He then took up an unexpected opportunity to manage the 100-acre grounds of a chateau in Brittany for three and a half years.
England lured him back with a job at English Heritage where they would visit other gardens as part of professional best practice. Tom was particularly struck by a visit to Waddesdon Manor, which is managed by the Rothschild Foundation on behalf of the National Trust. "It made such an impact. It reminded me of the atmosphere of working on a private estate - there is a relatively small management structure. You have responsibilities and yet there is a freedom to it. You're all working for the same end."
So, when Tom saw the job of Head Gardener at Trinity, he was keen to return to working as he had done previously, on private estates.
"Coming to Trinity reminded me of how private estates are run. This is a prestigious educational institution with thirty-six acres of gardens. The decisions are made by Fellows who live and work here. As Head Gardener, I have a committee to report to, I attend a budget meeting annually and, once the budget is approved, my team of gardeners and I can get on with the work. It's a great way of working. Now we have a good team of committed and enthusiastic gardeners at various stages of their careers."
Tom arrived at Trinity at a good moment. The Senior Gardeners had had a say in what they needed and wanted from the Head Gardener. And the College was looking for fresh blood and new ideas, as well as significant management and leadership experience.
"Today, the team comprises me, the Deputy Head Gardener and three Senior Gardeners who each look after a particular area. Before I came, the team had looked after the grounds very well so there wasn't a backlog of maintenance."
Of course, Tom did make changes, but gradually. Then, various new and challenging projects came on stream.
New Court, the nineteenth century court of student accommodation and staff offices, underwent a major refurbishment which, when completed, left the external walls bare of any planting.
"It was a challenge, but we had a blank canvas and that was exciting. I didn't want to repeat past planting schemes, so we introduced a lot of new climbers and shrubs that would flower in different seasons."
"Underplanting in the narrow beds outside each room in New Court was also important. The plants needed to be fairly robust as parking is allowed. We created a new colour scheme too, which students and Fellows appreciated."
"Introducing new colours was important to me to liven it up for the students and Fellows and I think that is important because you could see the reaction from people once they saw it and saw what the potential was. Even if you did the bedding schemes with slightly different views, not just annual plants, but think what a half hardy or subtropical would do and plant some bananas or a castor oil plant. People see those changes and then you get the response of 'you've really turned that around, that's freshened it up' and that's because it got stale, because if you repeat it the same as it's always been it fades, and it becomes a safe bet that isn't exciting anymore."
Bedding scheme / Nursery
"The feel of the place is far more immediate now and I think, when you do bedding schemes and things like that, it keeps on changing and is different the following year. You could say that the feel of it changes because the way it looks and develops. We can be proud if we've made a difference."
Tom has introduced bench seating beneath the old horse chestnut tree in the circular plot of grass in the centre of New Court. These benches are accessed by granite setts; by next summer, wildflowers will bloom, providing a haven for wildlife - and a pleasant spot for students, staff and Fellows.
Tom has achieved significant improvements in the gardens at Trinity - new planting schemes and seating being just a few of his many changes.
"You could see from the reactions of students and Fellows that they appreciated these changes. In some beds we've mixed half hardy and tropical plants -such as Abyssinian bananas and castor oil plants - for summer planting schemes, and that's really got a positive response."
But it hasn't all been plain sailing. At a College whose history dates back 700 years, there can be tension between tradition and modernity. Only Fellows can walk on the grass in Great Court and Nevile's Court, and they can have strong views about horticultural matters.
One matter they do agree on is the importance of Trinity's lawns.
The grass areas make up ten acres of the 36-acre grounds and they feature heavily in Tom's plans for long-term improvement. The various lawns serve numerous purposes at different times of the year. The Fellows' Bowling Green, which lies hidden behind a high wall, has been in use since being laid out in 1647, whilst the two large areas either side of The Avenue - the North and South Paddocks - are host to marquees and music stages for the annual May Ball. A large marquee is also erected on the grass in Nevile's Court for the event.
The pristine lawns of The Great Court
So there are lots of challenges for Trinity's lawns, but Tom has a long-term plan in place, with new seed mixtures, inputs and better turf maintenance.
"The lawns are the key area where I want to make a significant impact. in 2018, we distributed 30 tonnes of topdressing - that's something we want to do regularly to make the lawns healthier. We're also talking to suppliers and getting a new grass seed mixture. It's quite a challenge but, if we pull it off, we'll have a stronger sward in the years to come. In the next four years I expect to see some results."
To help with turf maintenance, the College has invested in a Baroness aerator and a verti-cutter to go behind the compact tractors, and a Redexim overseeder.
"We have gone from heavy pedestrian machinery that only one or two people could use to more nimble machines on the cylinder mower side and found they are a lot nicer to operate. I've invested in Locke cylinder mowers that are American built and have a floating head, and it's changed our cutting as more people are happy to step behind it because it's so easy to operate."
"A lot of it is looking at machines that are used on sports turf and thinking how they can be implemented on fine turf and we recently did that with an aeration machine. I might use an eight-blade cylinder and they might use a 12-blade cylinder, but the machine is still doing the same thing and the outcome is the same."
Using machinery to make improvements has been a trend throughout Tom's career and keeping up to date with the latest technology is important to him.
"It's vital to keep up to date by visiting exhibitions and talking to people," says Tom. "Reading publications is crucial too because there are always new ideas; that's also why going to demo days to see machinery is important because it gets you thinking differently."
Trinity offers some unique challenges for modern machinery. The access to the main College is the historic Avenue, through a gateway. The Fellows' Garden and modern student accommodation is across busy Queen's Road. Equally, modern equipment can be in keeping with the College environment.
"We've invested in a lot of battery-operated kit for when we're in sensitive areas like the Courts and that's been a step forward in technology that's helped us. So, it's hedge cutting and leaf blowing that we can do with less noise and it makes them less tiresome to work with," Tom explains.
"One of the best machines we acquired recently was an Avant 635 multi-tool. It saved us an enormous amount of time when we had to distribute 90 tonnes of soil in New Court after the refurbishment. If we didn't have that machine, then it would have been backbreaking - it's a good example of making what we do more efficient. You could say 'I need another five gardeners on site', but if you haven't got that then you can invest in the right type of machinery and it makes all the difference."
Investing in the future is a common thread. Tom has created wildflower meadows to encourage butterflies and enabled beehives beside the plant nursery -just two examples of his environmental focus. There are bigger projects in the pipeline too.
The searing heat of summer 2018 has passed and Trinity's lawns have recovered, but the existing irrigation methods are being reviewed as Tom thinks increased temperatures might become common.
"We need to start planning for that situation again because I'd hate to see the lawns go brown every summer. So we're in the early stages of considering a rainwater harvesting system."
"During the summer that's just gone, it became obvious we needed some form of irrigation after seeing the lawns die back as they did and a lot of the grass areas turning brown. What makes Great Court what it is are the lawns. They are what people see, so it's crucial that you've got green grass in that space and, with climate change, it could well be that this hot summer wasn't a fluke, we might get more summers like it."
"I thought we needed to start planning for that situation because I'd hate to see it go brown every single year in July until September because it doesn't look right to me. To prevent it, we need to make water available for when we need it and that's where the idea for irrigation has come from."
Intimate seating areas are worth the effort / Scarifying the Fellows' Bowling Green
"I've done some research and raised it with the Garden Committee and they want to see the idea developed further, so now I need to look at the priorities for irrigation, which are Great Court and Nevile's Court. We are only allowed to dig so many centimetres deep and archaeologists may be required. If we could work with some flat tanks, that might be simpler."
Grass quality is different across the site because it's not all treated as fine turf. For example, the Fellows' Garden is cut with a ride-on rotary with a slightly higher cut. The finer turf in the Courts is cut with pedestrian cylinder mowers. So, for some areas we wouldn't look at irrigation."
Always innovating, a project that should come to fruition in 2019 is a new flower bed that represents the diversity of the College. "We're planting the bulbs now and, in spring, it will be visible from the river, so the public should be able to see it. It's quite an exciting project, but we're keeping the details under wraps for now."
Tom's enthusiasm and pride for Trinity's grounds can be seen in the immaculate presentation of the striped lawns and smart borders, shrubs and hedges, which together create a very special environment. His passion for the gardens hints at even better things to come for a College that has been home to the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and six British Prime Ministers. And, like each of them in their time at Trinity, Tom is still learning.
"Horticulture is my passion and it doesn't stop; you are always learning," he said. "It's constantly changing - with new plants, ways of doing things, and new machinery. It isn't just doing the many different tasks needed in grounds like these, it's about creating something unique."
What's in the shed?
Shibaura compact tractors 24 and 33 hp
Ransomes HR300 rotary/ ride on mower
John Deere X350R ride-on mower
John Deere X155R ride-on mower
Avant 635 telescopic loader plus buckets, grab and pallet forks
CMC S15 MEWP - 15m height reach
Agria Taifun plus haymaking kit: disc mower, power-rake, CAEB mini baler
Grillo G85 rotovator plus dozer blade
Groundsman Turf Aerator
Locke 30" cylinder mowers
Dennis G660 cylinder mower
Hayter Harrier rotary pedestrian mowers 48cm and 56cm x 5
Kaaz/ Lawnflite rotary mower
John Deere 47S rotary mower
Tomlin compact trailers 750kg x 2
SCH compact trailer
Tomlin/Kubota leaf sweeper
Baroness TDA1600 Aerator
Redexim Speed Seed 1200
Greentek sarel roller and brush
Negri truck loader
MX C3 plus loader and 120cm bucket
Greentek brush and rake
Compact chain harrow
Kubota snow dozer blade
Billy Goat leaf collector
Toro hover mower
Eliet Super-prof shredder
Stihl BR600 petrol blowers x 2
Robin petrol blower
Petrol chainsaws (1 Stihl and 1 Husqvarna)
Backpack Electric equipment
Stihl hedgecutters x 3 (including 1 pole long reach)
Stihl leaf blower
Pellenc Helion hedgecutters x 2
Pellenc telescopic hedgecutter
Pellenc leaf blowers x 2
Stihl pole chainsaw