After a challenging winter which saw rainfall figures across the country breaking records, the grounds team at the Edgbaston Priory Club are hoping to finally see the sun return and some drier weather in the lead up to the Aegon Classic Birmingham 2016.
Led by Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence, and his son and Assistant Manager John, the team have a number of hurdles to clear in the run up to the tournament, demonstrating that the modern groundsman has to be about more than just grass!
It's probably fair to say that the whole country is due a better winter for 2016/17! The last three or four years have seen us battling record rainfall, milder than normal temperatures and even snow in April! A return to more 'seasonable' seasons would be most welcome from now on! Sadly the chances of that appear to be waning and, as such, groundsmen and women we have to adapt to our ever changing climate, whether that be at elite level stadium venues, or grassroots park pitches.
At Edgbaston Priory we're no different, and certainly aren't immune to the problems that the weather has created this winter. Rainfall figures alone have made for grim reading and, whilst we haven't experienced volumes of places such as the North West of England, the number of consecutive wet days has been incredibly frustrating. Indeed, it hasn't been so much the volume of water as the number of wet days that have been the issue. Coupled with the unusually mild temperatures, it has been a minefield for turf related problems! For weeks at a time we've not been able to so much as dew brush our grass courts for example, such as has been the effect of the constant rain, but with the frosts not arriving until mid-January, we've had to deal with several months of disease risk, with very little window to apply preventative, or curative action.
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That would explain why, during the gap between Christmas and new year, in one of the few dry windows we've had this winter, we were in mowing courts, sarrel rolling and having a good hunt around for any signs of stress or disease! Again, in January, just before the frosts arrived, we were able to get on with a liquid feed to toughen the courts up and keep any disease risk at bay.
In a sense, the frosts arriving in February were a welcome presence, as they finally delivered a little bit of respite with regards the grass courts and an opportunity to take stock of where we were heading in to the new season. Of course, having such a poor window has highlighted the importance of plant nutrition. We were very lucky in that we avoided any major disease outbreaks, but much of this can be attributed to the feeding we were doing in the autumn and early winter, ensuring that there was enough nutrition in the soil to ensure we would get through the winter.
Another method we have employed this year to try and mitigate any disease risk has been the use of fans on our Centre Court. Anyone who is familiar with the layout of our site will be aware that our Centre Court is sunken into the ground by about 15 foot. This means that we get very little air movement due to the sheltered nature of the surface. In order to try and alleviate the issues this causes, we have brought fans in to the court this winter, which have been used through the week to create a breeze, helping to dry the grass sward and keep some constant air movement around the grass plants. The effect this has had has been dramatic. In previous years, damping off has caused us some major problems, however this year we have seen a vast reduction in the outbreaks of this, despite how wet it has been. We'd therefore consider this a major success!
One person who is probably, in a way, a little disappointed we haven't seen more disease is our apprentice Tom Day, as gathering evidence for his course would likely be a lot easier! Tom joined us at the start of the winter, and is with us four days a week, with a day release at Birmingham Metropolitan College, and it is fair to say he has been a massive boost to what was already a strong team. Avid Pitchcare readers will be able to make another family link in the industry (which seems to be a common theme in our team!) as Tom's father, Peter Day, Head Groundsman at Harborne Cricket Club, was featured in Issue 63 of the magazine!
Tom is currently studying for a Work Based Level 2 Diploma, under the Sports Turf Groundsman pathway. This will give him the skill set to progress in the industry and, whilst he is already a massive support within our team, will enhance the skillset he already possesses. Tom is proof that there are good quality apprentices out there. When, as an industry, we seem to be struggling to attract younger people, it is heartening to know there is potential out there if we look hard enough!
Whilst Tom has joined us with a primary interest in sports turf maintenance, one of the first job's he has been involved in is the renovation of our four American Clay Courts. These are popular with our members, as well as performance players based at the club, as they are a little softer on the joints! However, to maintain and renovate them, they certainly create a huge workload.
Through the winter, in between wet spells, we scarify the top of by hand using scarifying rakes. This removes all the detritus that accumulates during the season. Across the four courts we remove between six and eight tonnes of debris, all of which has to be processed by hand as we can't take trailers on to the courts when they are wet, as we'd simply sink.
Once the courts are fully cleaned, we then have to topdress, in a similar way to how a grass court would be, using fresh new har-tru clay dressing. If the weather allows, then when there is a heavy frost we can go on with a pedestrian topdresser and spread the clay mechanically. However, there are occasions where it is necessary to dress by hand, because we can't risk machinery sinking in to the surface if it is soft. This year, we are also having the line tapes relaid. This should be being completed in mid-March, so all being well the courts will be back in play by the end of the month.
Of course, as with any other external surface, the weather plays a major part in the works carried out on these courts. Because of the persistent wet weather this year, we have had a real battle on our hands to get work completed and, as such, have had to put in some very long days when we have had the window of opportunity to get on and work on the surface. It's probably fair to say that while the surface is a bit easier on the joints of those that play on it, it has been anything but kind to us to work on!
This winter has been especially busy for us, as well as the regular works, such as maintain the grass courts and renovating the clay, we've also undertaken some major landscaping projects. There have been several areas on site which have needed to be softened after major building works. For example, we have had to re-instate two large beds in the front of our Indoor Tennis Centre. These were effectively bulldozed prior to resurfacing works taking place in the building to create access routes for the large plant required. In addition, we've had areas to finish off around our two new all-weather artificial grass courts. These areas are some of our last major landscaping projects to complete, and so have been extremely exciting to undertake!
Virtually all of the plants used in the areas were sourced through Whiting Landscape Ltd, who have assisted us in the landscaping of many areas of our site. Fortunately they are a local company with a fantastic reputation, and have made such projects so much easier. In addition to this, we also required other items such as turf, planting soil and topsoil, which was all sourced through Pitchcare / Maxwell Amenity. Again, we get great service from them and so jobs are much easier to complete.
Turfing was completed in a number of areas, including car park verges and around our new artificial courts. We also created to 'feature' lawns, which will be used to place sponsors show cars on during the Aegon Classic Birmingham. In order to ensure these areas will not cut up, we have laid the turf onto Rite-Pave plastic ground reinforcement. This again was sourced through Pitchcare / Maxwell Amenity, and means the grass in these areas will not cut up and therefore remain stable, despite the traffic on it.
All of the plants used were also planted by the grounds team. Once holes were dug, we then back filled part way using ALS Mycorrmax Planting Compost, before siting the plants. Hopefully this will give the shrubs a good growing medium to get them off and away. The beds were topped with ornamental wood chipping to finish, which should help moisture retention through the summer, which is particularly important in the first year. Finally, we also installed post and ropes around some of the beds to demarcate these areas so as to discourage traffic across them. We think it's fair to say that this has made a major difference to the presentation of the site.
Tying off all these projects before the on-set of what will hopefully be a good spring has been really important to us, so that we can focus as much as possible on the grass courts heading in to the Aegon Classic Birmingham. That said, there are still a number of other tasks we have to complete prior to the summer. For example, during the tournament each year we take on a team of around forty additional temporary ground staff. Sourced through local universities, these team members work with us to complete the final touches around the site prior to the tournament, and also act as our court covering team, in order to facilitate the use of rain covers on the eight grass courts. However, recruiting so many staff is a mammoth task, so whilst the tournament does not take place till mid-June, adverts go out in February, with interviews following on the month after. The results of these interviews are extremely important; when the eyes of a global TV audience are on us, we need a strong team around us. One mistake when pulling a cover on centre court, for example, could be catastrophic, so we have to ensure we have the best people possible for these rolls.
There is also a lot of preparation that goes in to facilitating the works that are carried out on the grass courts. For example, our spring renovation is a major operation, which requires a lot of deliveries of new goods for us to use on the courts. In order to ensure everything is on site prior to us starting works, we place orders as early as possible. This hopefully means we catch our sales rep at a time when business may be a little slower, but also, we're trying to get to the front of the cue with regard to stock!
We're very lucky to have a fantastic working relationship with our sales representative from Pitchcare / Maxwell Amenity, Mark Allen. Having this relationship is a big part of our success; if we can get orders placed and processed quickly, with minimum fuss or stress; this means we have more time to get stuck in on the tools instead! We're certainly very grateful for all of Mark's support.
As much as we rely on Mark of course, we suspect he's rather pleased of our business too! Each year we place quite a sizeable order for goods for our pre-season works, which includes a lot of seed and fertilisers, as well as some fungicide and any other goodies we deem necessary - though we are like everyone else, and do have to keep to a budget! In that sense we do have to compare products and beneficial gains against budgetary costs! All being well, as has been the case this year, we'll have everything in stock that we need for spring renovation by the first week of March. This means that as soon as the weather turns in our favour we can get straight out on the courts and press on with what is an extremely important phase of work.
Of course once the orders are in place, we then have the pleasure of receiving our exciting new goodies, care of Pitchcare's delivery driver Jon Jones. More commonly known as 'Speedy Jon' by regular customers, Jon is another valued contributor to what we do. Like everybody, we get our fair share of awful, unhelpful delivery drivers who want to be in and out ASAP. Those who have met Jon however will know that he is the polar opposite to this! It is a genuine pleasure when he comes to site, as he could not be more helpful, and again, the time and stress he saves us with his helpful nature means we can relax, safe in the knowledge that we are getting the best possible service, and that the products we require will be with us and handed over safely.
Once everything is in place, it is then a case of us carrying out the renovation plans we have. This year, because the grass courts have come through the winter looking in fairly good condition, we should have a reasonably standard renovation process to carry out; provided the weather plays its part!
The courts will be brushed using our Dennis FT610 and brush cassette in order to remove any debris and detritus from around the sward base. This should also allow us to stand the grass up a bit more prior to cutting. In an ideal world we'd keep the courts at 13mm over the winter. However, because the wet weather has kept us off for long periods, we've ended up slightly higher at 16mm this year. As a result, we'll take the courts down to 13mm initially, and reduce the height further over the following weeks.
Brushing will be carried out periodically to begin with, until we're happy that the sward is as clean as necessary. At the same time, and if temperatures are conducive, we'll start to introduce some verti-cutting. This allows us to thin out the sward a little bit by removing lateral growth and potentially pulling out any weaker grass plants. We'll overseed using Limagrain MM50 grass seed (100% perennial rye), and if conditions allow, apply a light dressing of GOSTD Surrey Loam to the surface to help the new seed germinate. All being well, the courts will continue to progress right up until the start of the playing season and the Aegon Classic Birmingham.
Beyond our pre-season renovations, we've got pre-tournament meetings to attend with the Lawn Tennis Association and their contractors. Hosting such a big event requires a lot of forward planning and, with temporary stands to be built and marquees to be erected, there is a huge operation that goes into the delivery of the tournament. We'll also meet with the TV production company to agree camera positions around our televised courts and make contact with the Hawkeye set up team to agree what they will require in terms of court access in the run up to the event.
The next few months will certainly go quickly. With so much to do we've no doubt it will fly by, and on Monday 20th June, when it's all over, we'll be wondering where the time has gone. However, it's such an exciting time and so enjoyable that it's hardly surprising it goes so quickly.
We know it's starting to come around when players start to be announced, and with the recent news that world number 5 Simona Halep will be returning, as well as world number 23 Madison Keys the excitement has already started to build. Unsurprisingly of course, we're most looking forward to seeing Australian Open Champion Angelique Kerber again, announced to be returning to defend the title she won last year, if only in the hope that we get another bottle of champagne from her!