The Edgbaston Priory Club grounds management duo of Grounds Manager Dave Lawrence, and Assistant Grounds Manager John Lawrence, detail the autumn renovation of their Centre Court, the issues a wet winter has created and how they've approached minimising their effect.
Writing articles about poor winter weather seems to be becoming a recurring theme for us, but after another unbelievably challenging winter, it's difficult to avoid it. We seem to have gone through several consecutive winters now characterised by extreme wet weather, and prolonged periods of milder weather. The potential challenges this throws up for turf managers is huge, but navigating them successfully makes the end result, i.e. good quality surfaces, all the more rewarding. That said, with spring seemingly finally arriving, and the weather starting to afford us opportunities to begin the task of building up towards the 2017 grass court season, including the Aegon Classic Birmingham, things appear to be on the up.
In reality, preparations began for this year's grass court season back in the autumn. Whilst we scarify hard every year, our most extreme work came on our Centre Court. While it received rave reviews through the 2016 season, and performed superbly despite the challenging weather last summer, we were not fully happy with the grass composition within the sward. There was certainly a greater percentage of undesirable grass species in the court than we would like and so we took the decision to apply a total herbicide and start again with a 'clean slate.' Once the court had completely died off, we then scarified heavily to remove all the now dead grass and organic matter, as well as any thatch layer that may have built up through the season.
At this point, some will likely question why we did not opt to use a Koro to simply plane off the top of our court, which would certainly have been a much quicker process. However, our reasoning is twofold. First off, as much as people perceive we are a big club with big budgets, the simple fact is we work with more modest amounts of money than people realise, and so the cost of purchasing, or even hiring in the equipment needed was off putting for us.
The second, more practical reason, for spraying off rather than Koro'ing, was that we need to raise the level of our court above the height of the surrounding concrete ring beams. This is something that was overlooked by the appointed contractor when the court was constructed and, as such, means that removing as little of the profile as necessary each year is vital if we want to get the court up to the height it needs to be.
With the court cleaned out, we set about preparing the surface for seeding. We aerated to around six inches with solid tines, applied an 8-12-8 Pre-seed granular fertiliser, and irrigated to soften the profile and ensure there was ample moisture at depth to encourage the new seed to spread deep roots. Limagrain MM50 grass seed was then applied with a pedestrian dimple speeder over several passes to ensure good seed to soil contact, and finally we re-dressed the court with around two tonnes of GOSTD Surrey Loam tennis dressing. The court was then covered and left alone for a fortnight (albeit the covers came off after 5 days, once signs of germination were evident).
After two weeks we had signs that the court was recovering well, and within a month it was hard to imagine that just a few weeks prior it had been completely bare. The success we had was strong enough that we opted not to carry out another over-seed before winter set in. When making the decision, we considered the thickness of the sward and the need to balance a thick sward for the following year's playing season against optimising air movement within the profile during the winter. This is especially critical given the sunken nature of our Centre Court. Anyone who has seen our court will know it is set in, essentially, a fifteen foot deep hole in the ground. This means we have very limited air movement, and that access to natural light is severely impaired. In addition, the nature of the construction of our Centre Court means that the drainage potential of the court is severely limited, meaning it often sits extremely wet. The set-up lends itself to a fantastic atmosphere as a bowl style stadium. However, what it does not do is lend itself to growing grass!
The decision not to carry out an additional overseed meant we were able to leave the court a little thinner, something we try to do with all our courts on site. In theory, this approach has a number of benefits. First off, and as alluded to above, there is greater potential for air movement within the sward. Additionally, with a less dense sward it limits the potential for fungal disease to be able to spread as easily. This contributes to a lesser risk of disease pressures causing damage to the courts, and historically has often meant that we have finished the winter with all the grass cover that we started it with, rather than losing any to disease.
That said, with the 16/17 winter being so wet, our courts have repeatedly ended up being sat under water. From the moment our end of season renovations have been completed, to the point when we begin our spring work, any mowing of the grass courts on site is coupled with sarrel rolling to try and keep the surface open and encourage water to penetrate through the profile more quickly. Again, this is done to limit the potential for disease to get in to the courts. However, with the sheer amount of rainfall we experienced through the winter, the courts quickly hit saturation point, meaning we could not get on to do any of this work. Fortunately, the lesser sward density offset the risk of any fungal disease spreading; however, and unsurprisingly, we have suffered with a small amount of damping off.
Unfortunately, there is little we could do about the damping off. In fact, it created a difficult situation, where we'd desperately like to have tried to do something to aid the drying of the court, but anything we would have done would only have created further problems down the line. Sometimes, the most difficult thing to do is nothing, but in this case, it was certainly the correct decision.
With our grass court work limited to some occasional dew brushing (and one cut between the start of October and the end of February), our attention turned to other projects around the site. Whilst we have eight grass courts on site, which take up a lot of our time and attention, we do have another twenty-three courts on site, including clay, tarmac, artificial grass and indoor plexipave. In addition, we sit within fourteen acres of grounds, every bit of which is maintained by a team of six of us.
We've also begun working with Calthorpe Vocational Centre (CVC), a local college for students aged between eighteen and twenty-five with special educational needs. One day a week, we are joined by a team of students from the centre, who are looking to develop skills that will eventually enable them to attain paid employment. The students are from diverse backgrounds and have a range of conditions including Autism and Downs Syndrome. These students have been a massive help to us, and have definitely developed their own individual skills in the time they have been working with us.
The whole experience has been a learning process for our whole team and selecting jobs appropriate to the individual's abilities has become really important. For example, during the winter, the team have lifted, refurbished and cleaned our clay court tape lines ready for the new season. This involved lifting the lines from the courts, removing several thousand nails, cleaning the tapes and then rolling up for storage. The repetitive nature of the work would likely become boring rather quickly for our full time staff, however the CVC students have excelled at the job, so much so that when the lines were re-laid in mid-March ahead of the clay court season, they looked brand new.
It should be noted as well that it isn't just tasks that some may deem 'menial' that the students from CVC have been able to help us with. Through the autumn, the team planted around 1500 flowering bulbs for us around the site, some of which are just starting to appear. They also took the lead in re-painting / staining the club's patio furniture over the winter; a huge undertaking but one completed to a very high standard. Such has been the success of the project so far, we are now joined by a student from CVC one day a week to work on a more independent basis.
The benefits have gone far beyond just getting a bit of extra work done for us to lessen the load on our full time team. Of course, the CVC students are getting the opportunity to develop work place specific skills which will hopefully set them up for the world of paid employment in the future. However, the benefit to our full time staff is probably extremely underrated. The experience has pushed our staff outside their comfort zones, and means that every task has to be thoroughly assessed and thought through. It isn't an exaggeration to suggest that the project has forced us to change the way we think in terms of the best way to approach various tasks, and it has certainly changed our perceptions of 'disability.' In truth, we don't see the students as having a disability, but just that they have different skillsets to us. As our ability to manage them has improved, so has the quality of their work as we have become better at pinpointing their skills and utilising them for everyone's benefit.
We'd encourage anyone who reads this to seriously consider the idea of working with students with special educational needs, such as the team from CVC. We know from our dealings with the college that there are simply not enough businesses willing to afford people within the SEN community the chance to develop skills, but being open minded has afforded us the chance to capitalise on a great opportunity. Friday, when the students come in to work with us, is certainly our favourite day of the week, for exactly that reason!
So, with the rest of the site having been afforded some extra attention through the winter, and assistance around the Grounds from the CVC team, we hit the start of March ready for spring to hopefully arrive and raring to go with some grass court maintenance. However, the first week of March continued to be cool and damp, with very limited drying conditions affording us any chance to get on to the courts. It wasn't until the 11th of the month that we were finally able to get any meaningful work completed on the grass courts. This presented the first chance for several months for us to get on the courts with a cylinder mower. Before taking the mowers on, we completed passes over the courts with stiff-bristled drag brushes to stand the grass up, and try to lift some of the detritus and debris to the surface to be collected by our mowers. The courts (with the exception of court number one which was still too wet) were then cut at 13mm with cylinder mowers, and a high nitrogen granular feed followed in order to kick start some
growth as spring appeared to have finally arrived.
Once this work was complete, we left the courts alone again for several days in order to let the granular fertiliser break down and get to work. On the 14th of the month, we managed to give the courts another mow, again at 13mm. We were also able to get on to our number one court for the first time since it was renovated. Given the court had become rather long since it had been renovated; we staged the height down over three cuts. Whilst this wasn't ideal, in that we removed a lot of the plant in one day, it reduced the likelihood of any tearing by removing it incrementally through several passes. Normally we aim not to take any more than 1mm off of the height of cut in a week. However, we took the view that being 'cruel to be kind' was the best course of action in order
to get the court back on track more quickly.
At this point, it's probably worth noting that as well as 'totalling' our Centre Court, we also carried out the same process, around 6 weeks later on courts one and four. Both courts were renovated in exactly the same way, with the exception of our autumn aeration. All courts are aerated every year with solid tines, with the depth varying year on year, but always deeper than 5 inches. However, in recent years we've also begun trialling the Campey Air2G2 Air Injector. Over previous years we've carried out a little more each year, starting year one with some small areas around the edges where we turn with mowers, and progress to aerating everything outside of the 36ft x 78ft playing court in subsequent years.
This past autumn we progressed to doing a complete court, namely our number four court, which gave us a brilliant opportunity to compare the effect the aeration had on court, namely in terms of improving drainage potential, compared to our number one court, which just received the normal perimeter works. The reason we implement these sorts of changes slowly, incrementally if you will, is so that we can make sure that anything we do does not lead to potential adverse effects on the performance or quality of the court. By starting on a small, off court area, if there is a problem we can stop the trial, before it has the potential to cause significant repercussions.
This year, we have noted that court four has remained significantly drier compared to court number one through the winter, and dried out much more quickly in the spring when we were ready to commence works. We also noted a significant difference in the amount of damping off occurring on the surface; i.e. Court Four suffered much less than Court One. This means that, provided we see no ill-effects during the playing season, we will likely make use of the air injector across all courts next autumn; such has been the perceived success of the work this year.
Having got another cut on the courts, our appointed 'spraying operator,' Senior Grounds Person Sue Lawrence, was then able to make our first Primo Maxx application of the season, coupled with an application of Greenmaster Effect Liquid Iron. We chose to apply iron to start and knock back some of the moss and algae that had built up through the winter; understandably given the damp conditions we suffered through the winter. Within days the effects of our first spring interventions were becoming apparent. The overall colour and health of the turf had greatly improved, moss and algae was dying back rapidly, and firming of the surface could already be felt under foot.
Our intentions over the next few weeks are now clear; to get the courts to a point where we can get a spring overseed and light application of top dressing down as soon as possible. While the winter damping off has left some scarring of the surface, we'll get our Dennis FT610's in to full action with regular verti-cutting and brushing to lift out any detritus, which will quickly begin to give us a cleaner looking surface to work with.
Our rain covers are being installed during the second week of April, so should we need to manipulate the climate to our benefit, our window of opportunity will open up, though we'll be crossing our fingers that the weather turns more favourably! At that point, the countdown to the 2017 Aegon Classic Birmingham will be well and truly underway, becoming closer on the horizon with each passing day. However, in order to ensure we deliver the courts in the best possible condition, everything we do is worked backwards from the tournament; between the two of us (Dave and John) and Sue, we plan everything; fertiliser applications, Primo Maxx, seeding and dressing; it's all timed to best coincide with delivering the courts in optimum condition for the start of the playing season.
Our aim is always to produce better results than the previous year; hence the drastic action we chose to take with our Centre Court in 2016; a court which many couldn't believe we would choose to start again with. However, in our eyes, the court could be better, and we won't settle for less. We guess that's the biggest challenge in being a groundsman; no matter how well we do something, we'll always think there is something we can do better. The interesting part is in deciding how we'll go about doing it!
You can find out more about The Edgbaston Priory Club by visiting their website here