Hazlegrove Preparatory School is situated just outside of Yeovil, within a beautiful rural Somerset location. The school is steeped in history that stretches back to 1519 and, as part of the The King's Bruton Foundation, Hazlegrove is part of an educational lineage that spans nearly five centuries. Graham Kitley is the school's Head of Grounds, responsible for managing twenty-two acres of grounds - maintained and manicured to perfection. Lee Williams caught up with him recently.
The striking lawns and gardens are the school's main focal point at the front of the 18th-century house, but Graham and his staff also maintain four boys' cricket squares, three girls' pitches (recently added) and a six-hole golf course and putting green. Also, during winter, the outfields are split into five rugby pitches and seven training grids. Artificial surfaces include two synthetic pitches and an eight-lane cricket net system.
Being set in rural parkland, the soil profile is made up of heavy clay, which Graham tells me is not the easiest to work with. "In winter, it holds a lot of water and, in summer, it dries out very quickly. Compaction causes major issues, so we verti-drain, slit and ProCore as much as possible (at different depths) to avoid creating a pan. We have undertaken a vast amount of aeration which has had a positive effect on root growth in most areas and we have had some positive feedback recently about the pace, bounce and carry of the ball."
"The golf course is set around a multitude of large old oak trees which also causes a few problems as all our greens and tees suffer from shade. Our smaller artificial pitch also has shade issues, causing algae and moss problems and sometimes it does not thaw out during frosty periods."
Graham talks me through the general maintenance and fertiliser regime of his natural surfaces. "We try to stick to routines, but weather and general school life makes that hard. All greens are cut three times a week at a height of 5mm, using the Allett Shaver 20, as it's small enough not to scalp in some of the undulations we have. The new borehole enables us to irrigate more regularly. During autumn and winter, we spray monthly with Turfite 20:20:30, liquid turf hardener and Seamac ProTurf to reduce plant stress and disease. Granular feeds are also used to keep a base feed ticking over and, if time and budgets allow, sand dressing and pro-coring are undertaken. The greens are regularly verti-cut with the Allett C24."
"As we move into autumn, the rugby pitches are cut to 40mm using the John Deere 7700, with the Trimax ProCut attached. They get one granular feed of Evolution (a controlled coated granular) and are regularly Verti-Drained and Quardraplayed. We overseed and apply a sand dressing in the spring - again if the budget allows."
"In summer, the outfields also have one granular feed and are sprayed for weeds. If the budget allows, we apply one liquid feed for sports day. If the weather is favourable, these are cut every other day usually between 17-25mm."
"The cricket squares are renovated annually using Ongar loam, before overseeding. During winter, they also receive a liquid feed and granular base feed of Agrovista Amenity's Evolution 5 - a controlled slow-release granular. Our square is cut to 19mm and the wickets are cut at around 6mm. Water management can sometimes be tricky as they are used daily, and summer feeds vary depending on weather and usage."
"Our main lawn is also used for croquet and significant events, so it is treated the same as the cricket square, but is overseeded with a 100% perennial ryegrass mix. Regular liquid feeds are applied every two to three weeks, supplemented with a granular once a term. I regularly change the pattern and verti-cut to stop the nap from becoming so bad."
The natural turf surfaces are all predominantly annual meadow grass and Graham tries to introduce different cultivars of grass seed from various companies. "The rugby pitches, cricket outfields and the main lawn are overseeded with a 100% perennial ryegrass mix annually. It is impossible to control the poa in and around a large mass of fields and meadows, especially on our greens. We overseed with Limagrain's MM7; a mixture of 40% Cyrena perennial ryegrass, 40% Venice perennial ryegrass, 10% Caldris chewiness fescue, 10% Sefton browntop bent, which offers fast germination, establishment and wear tolerance. Our cricket square is overseeded with Limagrain's MM50; a perennial ryegrass mix and an ultra-fine dwarf ryegrass with 25% Clementine, 25% Angelina, 25% Estelle and 25% Gianna."
Graham has to be smart when considering what fertilisers to use, with pupils being out on the fields all the time, which also reduces the number of times he can get out and cut. "I always look for a feed with a slow-release element, which will give a nice colour and does not have to be watered in immediately after application, and my preferred product in summer, is ICL's Pro Turf. This autumn, I have tried the Evolution range from Agrovista Amenity, which has also worked well. Luckily, our grounds have healthy nutrient levels, so we don't need to tailor a feed to counteract this."
Fortunately, the site does not suffer from much disease other than a little red thread however, because the school is situated in the countryside, a variety of animals often cause damage to the playing surfaces. "Rabbits are a big problem and they scratch about on the greens sometimes, so we fence them off if the digging gets too bad. Foxes and badgers are also present, but they don't cause as many issues. On the other hand, worms are my biggest problem and have been a real headache for the past two years. It has been a real battle of trying different new products, none of which have really worked for us. I appreciate other groundsmen have had good success, but I think it depends on where you are and the soil types."
Graham looks after the grounds budget which covers everything aside from salaries. "I have to put a capital expenditure report forward and justify why I need something, then the governors decide. I have been fortunate along the way and have had backing on many larger purchases that are outside my budget."
The machinery budget for the year generally determines how Graham purchases new or additional equipment, which is done through local dealers and/or direct. "We have purchased some great second hand or ex-demo kit. I try to keep smaller pieces, such as hand mowers, refreshed regularly, but the larger equipment is on an as-required basis. We look after the kit as best as possible to enhance its life span; annual servicing, regular cleaning and maintenance checks help."
"You could say, at times, I'm loyal to one manufacturer, but ultimately, I want the best kit and what feels right for the team using it. Not all equipment from one manufacturer suits our site, so that has a bearing on some of my purchases."
Presentation to both Graham and the school is everything. "Alongside my team, I aim to make first impressions count as the grounds are the first thing any visitor, parent and pupil see on their arrival. As a result, it's important, for not only the lawns and playing surfaces to look their best, but also my staff and the machinery."
The King's Bruton Foundation comprises two schools - King's Bruton and Hazlegrove where Graham oversees a team at each, managed by two deputies. Keeping Hazlegrove look its best all year round are; Frankie Vass, twenty-five, who started as an apprentice and is now a fully qualified groundsman, plus Will Boucher, who joined the team from Somerset County Cricket Club; Will is currently studying for his Level 2 in Sports Turf. Graham commented: "Through our maintenance contract with Verde Recreo, we have additional help four times a year and they undertake a deep brush and clean, whilst Ecosol Turfcare come into deep drill our cricket squares."
Left: Will Boucher, Middle: Graham Kitley and Right: Frankie Vass
Like many schools up and down the country, Covid-19 brought about many changes and problems that grounds managers had to deal with and adapt to. Graham commented: "We have been affected in all sorts of ways and budgets were cut or frozen at times whilst in lockdown. Some staff have been made redundant and the rest were furloughed at times. When staff have been on site, we had staggered starts and break times and have incorporated a lot of lone working to keep staff socially distanced. We also adopted a one-way system around the school and closed certain areas completely. Also, with windows and doors open to allow airflow in the classrooms, noise from the machinery has been an issue. We have also found that pupils have spent more time outside, meaning the grass areas were used for longer into autumn and winter, which obviously had a knock-on effect with wear and tear."
As the light at the end of a long tunnel gets ever closer, I asked Graham if he has been affected both personally and at work? "Luckily, I have worked all through this awful time. However, it has certainly been challenging; to go from a team of four to just myself at times, as the rest of my team were furloughed when the school has been in lockdown. When you set high standards, it is tough not to get around to do everything you would normally do and not to the standards you usually set! Spreading myself thinly has just about kept a lid on things and it has kept me fit and occupied my mind at the same time. On a personal level, not being able to play sport has been difficult, but I realise I just have to be thankful for what I have got. Many other people have not been so fortunate to continue working, or even worse, have been made redundant and even lost loved ones."
"One big positive, that has arisen during the current situation, is that it has brought out the best in some people - especially my colleague, Frankie. He has really stepped up in difficult circumstances and worked his socks off, taking on more responsibility and more jobs that he may not have done before. He is using his initiative to work out problems on his own and working harder and, at times, for longer than the working day. Nothing is ever too much trouble and people like him are hard to find."
"How we raise the profile of the industry and encourage people like Frankie to join is a big question. However, like with most things these days, we all connect and view the outside world through social media. Using this platform is probably the best way to interact with the next generation. It is a long time since I left school, but there certainly was not a pathway back then (that I can recall). Maybe, when elite sport is televised, an emphasis on the grounds could be added in to explain to spectators and viewers what work is involved?"
Graham's career started in the sports turf industry when he was a teenager. "I started off by helping out on my local cricket ground, before becoming an apprentice gardener when I left school - attending college one day a week. I then moved to a private hotel that offered a small amount of sports turf mixed in with my gardening. From there, I moved to Warminster School as Head Gardener, but also helped on the grounds. During this time, I took my Level 2 in Sports Turf and realised that was the direction I wanted to take. Eventually, I became grounds manager and then moved to my current position at Hazlegrove Preparatory School and I have recently been appointed as Director of Grounds for both Kings Bruton and Hazlegrove."
No one person has inspired Graham throughout his career so far, but he has had a lot of help along the way. "I have received some great advice from my local reps, who are now good friends of mine, and I take a lot of inspiration from the quality pitches I see every week on TV, produced by my fellow professionals. Comparing those pitches to the state of some of the ones I was playing on as an amateur has motivated me to do my best and achieve the best."
Graham feels that our industry is struggling in many ways. "From what I see and read on social media and in Pitchcare magazine we are all struggling. Trying to find qualified staff is becoming harder, and salaries are not the best throughout the industry. I have heard about people leaving our sector to work in factories so they can earn more money. New machinery is costly, and second hand seems to be what people can afford. I think there is an enormous gulf between the big pro clubs and the rest when it comes to budgets, staffing and salaries."
What's in the shed
Kubota L5240 tractor with loader for bucket and snow plough
Kubota L1361 compact tractor
Kubota G26 low dump ride-on mower
Kubota hand mower
John Deere 7700 fairway mower
John Deere 2653B triple mower
John Deere TX Gator x 2
John Deere pedestrian scarifier
Toro workman electric
SISIS Zig Zag brush
Allett C34E with cylinder and verti-cut
Allett C24 with 10 blade cylinder, brush, verti-cut and turf rake cassettes
Allett Uplift 86
Allett BJB scarifier
Allett Shaver 20
Turfco Belt topdresser
Tornado leaf blower
Tractor mounted flail mower
Tractor mounted sprayer
Tractor mounted fertiliser spreader
ICL Acupro 2000 spreader
EvenSprey professional sprayer
Stiga hand mower
Little Wonder Wheeled Blower
Wiedenmann Terra Spike