Blundell's School is a co-educational day and boarding independent school in Tiverton, Devon. It was founded in 1604 (under the will of Peter Blundell) - one of the richest men in England at the time - and moved to its present site on the outskirts of the town in 1882. Grounds Manager Graham Cox has been looking after the site for the past eighteen months and spoke to Kerry Haywood about taking on a role during the pandemic.
Graham describes his first few months in the role as interesting. "The challenges the pandemic put on myself and the team, whilst each dealing with our own worries regarding the larger issues at play, will affect the mental health of a lot of people for a long time to come. Also, not being able to buy pasta and toilet roll was just a nightmare!"
"During the first lockdown, we staggered breaks and the team was split so that we were able to complete a variety of jobs that would normally have been put out to contractors. We were able to keep on top of the essential works during this time, although jobs such as powerwashing, painting and fencing had to be left. Coming out the other side, we are optimistic about future projects including bore hole installation and, hopefully, some more all-weather cricket nets."
"I really enjoy projects and try to do as much in-house as possible. From relaying entire cricket squares, to big drainage works. I think that, with good advice and some detailed planning, plus lots of team discussion, there is not much at Blundell's that we are not capable of. It's always good to have something a bit different to get your teeth into on the large site."
The school has 120 acres in total; 45 acres of sports turf which comprises nine cricket squares, thirteen rugby, six mini rugby, four football and four small football pitches, one 400m track, a 200m track and four sets of cricket nets). 35 acres of woodland/parkland and 40 acres of gardens and buildings completes the site.
During the cricket term the maintenance regimes are generally; "Outfields are cut at 16mm for main cricket areas with the Jacobsen LF550 (three times per week) and 20mm everywhere else with the Major 4m Swift (twice a week). Rugby pitches are cut at 35mm. We find that this height encourages growth to help produce a great sward which, in turn, helps with recovery and pitch longevity. I think the old school idea of much longer grass only serves to weaken the plant and shorten the lifespan of the pitch. Our recently purchased SISIS Quadraplay is great for both in-season use, for light turf conditioning and also end of season renovations, by levelling and lightly rolling the outfield."
"For aeration, we use a Verti-Drain as much as conditions allow - changing depths on each use. We have also used an Air2G2 and Toro ProCore on stubborn areas and lawns which have offered great results. We used to suffer from heavy thatch in some areas, however, since the purchase of our Amazone SmartCut, removing thatch has become a routine and simple task. As a result, thatch is no longer an issue for us. It also helps remove invasive grasses and weeds."
"We also recently purchased two Dennis G860's with a verti-cut unit, so we can now undertake verti-cutting on all our cricket surfaces at least once a month. This keeps the turf density to a maximum, whilst making it much easier to rake out for strips when preparing for future games."
When prioritising fertilisers, price and longevity of the product are key factors, with recommendations from other groundsmen too. "In spring, I like to apply a long-term slow release and then use liquid the rest of the year. This allows me to target the needs of the turf (based on weather conditions and wear of the pitch) with the correct application, at the correct time. On the cricket squares, I use several biostimulants which greatly improve the condition of the root mass, plant health and sward of the plant. Johnsons J Premier Wicket is used to overseed all the cricket surfaces and a 3 Way Rye for all our outfields and winter pitches."
Graham describes the soil profile as 'wet'!!!! "Due to the nature of our grounds, the school had to invest in a Wiedenmann Terra Spike which we use as often as conditions allow. There are certain areas that have particularly bad compaction issues. We have started to alleviate the problem with a collection of cultural methods such as subsoiling, mole ploughing and use of the Terra Spike. We are getting some results, but it takes time."
"We have also introduced a topdressing programme for our main two fields. In the last two years, these have had nearly 300 tonnes of sport sand added to the profile. This has aided with surface drainage and the added benefits of root growth, along with faster recovery times for the plant in times of stress."
"I have worked in the independent school sector for a long time and root depth/sward density is always an area that can struggle. This is mainly down to the fact of changing of sports regularly with each term, allowing minimal rest periods for sportsturf. Therefore if, for instance, a rugby pitch gets torn up in December, it can be difficult to get a decent sward coverage ready for the cricket season in April as you do not have the optimal temperature and conditions for new seed growth. We are lucky to have our own disc seeder and try to use this on all our worn areas when conditions allow."
"During a term, I find that good communication is often key and we try to move training sessions away from particularly wet areas to extend the life of the pitches. It is a difficult position for all school groundsmen to be setting up for your current term, whilst preparing for your upcoming term at the same time as repairing your previous term's damage. All the while, fitting in other projects in between."
"Over the years, the renovations budget has improved and, as result, the standard of pitches has been raised, however, there is always room for further improvement. There can be a gap between what you can cope with financially for renovations and what you would like to have. This is where a positive relationship with your line manager helps. If you can justify the expenditure and also deliver on the results when additional funds are given, then everybody's happy. I have a great relationship with my Estates Bursar (Ian Barnes). He and our Bursar (Annika Hendich-Wiggans) understand that we are trying to achieve excellence at Blundell's and have given us great support when it comes to providing us with a realistic budget that allows for significant improvement."
Left to right: Richard, Holly, Dan, Gary, Harry, Graham and Josh
"End of season renovations on the cricket nets and squares consist of a deep scarification followed up by overseeding and topdressing with Super Surrey Loam. "It's a busy couple of days where we have all-hands-on-deck and hope that the weather plays nice! The main outfields have a scarification with the Amazone Smart Cut 1800, followed by the Terra Spike, before being seeded, topdressed and irrigated."
"Summer renovations are always tricky to fit in due to usage and external lettings. Also, with the incoming rugby term preparations, it means that planning works can be a thing of very precise timing. It's not helped by our unreliable summer weather … and, of course, staff taking their own holidays!"
Grahams' team consists of eight full time staff including: Richard Hutchings, Deputy Head groundsman (8 years); Groundsmen - Dan Coffin (5 years), Josh Allen (2 years) and Stuart Kerr (5 years). Plus Gary Everatt, Groundsman/Gardener (6 months), Harry Flower, Head Gardener (4 years) and, last but not least, Holly Smith (3 years).
"This team are great at pulling together and having a can-do attitude. My deputy Richard and our Head Gardener Harry have given me amazing support since my arrival. I'm a big fan of trying to diversify all staff and have everyone competent at all tasks. However, different staff have varying backgrounds and skillsets that make them better suited to certain tasks, particularly when time is against us!"
"I am fortunate to lean on the advice and support of reps - particularly when it comes to new products etc. David Bevan from Agrovista Amenity UK has been very helpful lately, especially when it comes to requiring products at short notice. We also have external help looking after our two all-weather pitches from Verde Recreo Ltd."
"General maintenance on the artificial surfaces consists of a weekly sweep (using a recently purchased Logic MSP), to clear any debris and agitate the sand. We spray an algicide several times a year so that we do not allow the carpet to become congested. Then, Verde Recreo come in a couple times a year for a deep clean and occasional revitalisation works. We had terrible issues with a collapsed drain and compaction on our older carpet. We were able to dig out the drain and replace it (all in-house) to help the drainage - now, with consistent cleaning and algaecide, the whole surface is now free draining."
"Across the site, the changes that new equipment has made to our grounds is significant to say the least. When I arrived at Blundell's, the team were already on the way to pricing up a new fleet of machinery. We trialled many different bits of kit and ended up purchasing several tractors and mowers from MST (one of our main machinery suppliers who are on our doorstep). They give us great service and supply via Scott Struthers and Andy Parr) - including a 4m wide Major Swift and a Jacobsen LF550, a Mule from Andrew Symons and a SISIS Quadraplay, two Dennis G860's and Logic MSP from DGM. Before this, we also managed to purchase the Amazone and a Vredo discseeder. I would like to purchase a Toro ProCore and GPS marking robot at some point, as well as more battery equipment in the future"
Richard and Josh topdressing
"We tend to use the suppliers of our machines to service the new bits of kit, but we try to do the majority of the rest in house. Our senior groundsman, Dan Coffin, is a mechanical wizard and has saved the day on more than one occasion!"
After twenty-one years in the industry, Graham thinks it is in a far better position now, than when he started. "There is a wider acceptance to the science and skills required to be a successful groundsman. There is also always good support via social media, other groundsman/greenkeepers, reps, colleges and of course the GMA."
"I believe that aesthetics is very important. Not only as a selling point for the school, but for job satisfaction for us the ground staff. The wow factor of well-presented grounds can have a lasting impression on prospective parents, current parents and visitors to the site."
Graham told me how he first got involved in turfcare. "After leaving college, I had a variety of jobs before becoming an apprentice at Wellington School when I was nineteen. I stayed there for five years, before moving to Queens College where, over the next nine years, I continued my training, before returning to Wellington as Head Groundsman. After another six years there, I made the move to Blundell's."
"Over the years, I studied at Cannington College (now Bridgewater and Taunton College) for my Level 2 and 3 Sports Turf Management which took several years to complete. I don't think I have ever refused training and, as a result, I have also attained many chainsaw tickets, spraying certificates, tree surveys and various GMA qualifications … to name a few. Anybody can work in the industry, but training is key if you want to make it a career!"
"I've had the privilege of working with some great people through the years and gained as much knowledge as possible from each of them. I cannot state enough the support I have received from all the team and the school - from new machinery, to investing in staff training and supporting essential renovations and projects. I believe that Blundell's is a great example of the levels that grounds teams can produce, when supported fully by your management team. This, aligned with a highly competent and well-motivated team, means that the future here at Blundell's is very bright."
Gardening at Blundell's
Increasing biodiversity at Blundell's was a priority when I started in February 2018, the planting at the school consisted mainly of evergreen shrubs with very few herbaceous perennials or annual planting. I was quite surprised by the lack of insects during my first summer here and the difference can be seen after 3 years. With invaluable help from our brilliant gardener, Holly Smith who started in October 2018, we are really starting to see our efforts come to fruition.
A quick win for increasing inflorescence for pollinators, was the introduction of an annual wildflower mix from David Bevan at Agrovista Amenity UK. We had an area of poor grass on the roadside which we sprayed off, topped it up with poor soil and sowed with an annual cornflower mix. The succession of different flowers works really well for various insects and we have seen a diverse range of species of bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies. No one enjoyed mowing this area, so it is a bonus that it only needs cutting down and clearing once a year! It now looks excellent in the middle of the school and is seen by everyone who drives through.
In other areas (that were previously cut with a pedestrian mower and strimmer), we have now naturalised several thousand bulbs and leave the grass to flower and seed. This not only improves aesthetics, saves time, and reduces inputs and emissions from machinery, but also provides a haven for insects, birds and small mammals.
By planting a succession of bulbs, we can help pollinators throughout the year. Starting with early flowering Crocus species in January, through to late flowering Camassias and Alliums in May and June, we can help insects find a food source from the start of the year. In other areas, we have been using a perennial meadow mix from Agrovista with 80% meadow grasses and 20% perennial wildflowers inter-planted with bulb mixes. By keeping the grass long we are also encouraging native plants, also known as sports turf weeds! Dandelions and Lesser Celandines are an important early food source for bumblebees and, by encouraging them in certain areas of the school, we are starting to see an increase in numbers of pollinators.
This year, we have introduced two native bumblebee colonies to help boost numbers here at Blundell's. The colonies are set up with a queen, 70-80 workers and eggs, so the population will increase to over 200 throughout the season. Over winter, the colonies will hopefully produce new queens and set up new nest sites the following year.
The native bumblebee (Bombus terrestris audax) can carry more pollen and can fly at lower temperatures than honey bees, so are excellent pollinators to introduce into any area. We have one colony at the senior school within the Blundell's garden and one at the prep school in the new nature area. They are a great educational resource and show the pupils how a beehive works along with the life cycle of the bees.
We have helped set up an excellent range of gardening activities for pupils with the school's Director of Community Partnerships, Charlie Olive. The area that we use was originally the headmaster's vegetable garden, which had become rundown and underused over the years with just an area of grass and an overgrown fruit cage. The pupils have now put in twelve raised beds producing vegetables for the school kitchens, an outdoor classroom/meeting area, two cut flower beds, a wildlife pond, wildflower area and a chicken run.
We help with the activities that run on four afternoons a week and are really well supported by the School Community as a whole. The pupils run a pop-up cafe where they sell smoothies, hot chocolates, ice creams and snacks outside. The pupils really benefit on so many levels from these activities and, after the past year of lockdowns and spending time apart, being able to spend time outside with friends is increasingly important for their mental and physical health. And, with only one trip to the Medical Centre and one burnt out drill motor in three years, we think that the pupils are behaving very responsibly!
Elsewhere around the school, we have also been removing and replanting lots of the existing planting schemes that mainly consisted of evergreen shrubs. By planting more flowering plants, the aesthetics of the school have been improved and the food supply for pollinators is also increased. Planting a mixture of herbaceous perennials, decorative grasses and bulbs extends the season of interest and helps the local wildlife, some of the decorative grasses such as Stipa tenuissima are an excellent source of nesting materials for birds. By enhancing the aesthetics of the school, we are helping to improve the wellbeing of the students by creating a more pleasant environment for them to live and study.
We have also spent a lot of time renovating all our formal lawns. This has included scarifying, verti-draining, overseeding and installing metal edging.
Our future plans include a new garden cabin for lessons and meetings, more outdoor seating and classrooms, planting a community orchard, new fruit cages, a christmas tree plantation and school pigs. I just hope the Estate's Bursar doesn't read this paragraph!
Harry Flower - Head Gardener
What's in the shed
Iseki TG6495 x 2 (one with loader)
Iseki TXG237 compact tractor
Kubota L3600 tractor
Jacobsen LF570 fairway mower
Major Swift SW400w
Iseki SXG323+ garden tractor x 2
Club Car Carryall battery
Mountfield 1328H compact lawn rider
Dennis G860 x 2 (cylinders and verticut unit)
Allett Tournements x 2
SCH 70l sprayer
SISIS Auto Rotorake
SISIS Quadraplay 1.8
Vredo disc seeder
Wiedenmann Terra Spike GXi8
Amazone SmartCut 1800
Charterhouse 300l sprayerBamford flail/hedgetrimmer
Scarab minor road sweeper
Logic MSP120 Pro-Sweep
Kirsten snow plough
Billy Goat Gruffalo
Billy Goat Force Blower 9
Stihl; strimmers x4, blowers x 6, polesaw, chainsaws x 2, brushcutters x 2
Husqvarna electric brushcutter
Honda; HRD536 mowers x 2
Honda GVC160 mower
Honda IZY mower
Powerwashers x 2
Linemarkers x 3