The pretty North Island city of Palmerston North or "Palmy", as it's affectionately known to the locals, is home to the Manuwatu campus of Massey University, which enjoys a world renowned reputation for excellence in teaching and research.
With around 40000 students, Massey is one of the biggest university's in the southern hemisphere.
Gary Mack, originally hailing from Belfast, Northern Ireland, has been Grounds Manager at Massey University's Manawatu campus for the past three years. Green fingers run in Gary's family. His Grandfather was a gardener who worked on country estates and he grew up with an interest in horticulture. Gary remembers the crossroads he was at as a teenager; a choice to go down the university route to study horticulture or enroll in one of the UK's top training schemes at Belfast City Council. With the council scheme only offering four places a year Gary did well to secure a spot. He completed a three year apprenticeship and then stayed on for a further year at the Belfast City Council. The course enabled Gary to combine turf, horticultural and business management studies, giving him a finger in every pie.
Gary keen to further his experience went onto to work for the State Housing Authority, and as he recalls "it was a bit of a nightmare" working in some of the roughest estates around Northern Ireland. Gary reflects this baptism of fire was in many respects a "real eye opener"'. He realized then he was only a small cog in a big wheel of bureaucracy. Encountering "turf war" management issues were one of the many challenges Gary faced, and after over four years there he decided to move on feeling he was losing touch with his horticultural and turf roots.
Massey began its life as an agricultural college in 1924, when the agricultural food industry was at the core of New Zealand's economy. The extensive university grounds consist of 106 hectares. It's proud to boast 11,500 species of plants one of largest collections in New Zealand. The university is in the process of rolling out labeling for its extensive collections of plants, certainly a huge task! Gary tells us his own team work in conjunction with the academics in providing some of their extensive range of plant species for research and teaching.
The facilities include eight rugby pitches and five soccer pitches as well as tennis courts. There is also synthetic turf to manage at the site. 17 full and part time staff is currently employed on these grounds and gardens. This includes a trainee member of staff that completes an in depth three year apprentice program before acquiring a permanent post elsewhere in the industry.
The current holder of the position Caleb comes from a sporting background having played representative cricket and soccer including New Zealand under 15's.
Gary informs as he is a well deserving candidate and has done very well since his appointment. This is a much sought after position due to Massey's excellent academic and training reputation; shown by the high tally of applicants; there were 81 for the current post.
Massey's Grounds Foreman is Bob Dalgleish who has a horticultural background and Terry Walker is the Groundsman responsible for the sports turf.
Taking on apprentices Gary looks for a good grounding and "base" education in candidates. They are required to be complete assignments and do block release to the SRI. Having a keen interest and passion in the physical and practical "hands on" side to the job, is paramount. If they're standing around on a cold wet morning in the rain scratching their head wondering what the hell they're doing there, it may be time to ship out and choose another career! The past graduates of this apprentice program have gone on to do well and are highly regarded within the turf industry.
Gary is also responsible for the hard court surfaces as well as the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) athletic track that is part owned by the local community and used to host some major events and as a result has to meet their stringent specs. "We recently hosted the NZ Special Olympics which was televised and was an extremely rewarding event and a great community partnership"
The University has an excellent reputation for international students who take part in its extensive distance education or "extra mural programs", with Massey being a flagship institution for this type of study.
The university offers the largest range of extra mural programs in the southern hemisphere allowing students to study and complete their course from overseas. If you're a champion volley ball player in Venezuela with playing commitments around the world, that won't stop you getting a history degree from Massey, as long as you are willing to put in the hard yards!
The university has a proud sporting history with 12% of the NZ Beijing Olympic team hailing from the university. A good number of the 12% were involved with the sport of equestrian and Massey has a well equipped equestrian centre. Students who wish to study at Massey and continue to train in the sport can bring their horse and have full access to the University's vets and facilties as they have a school of veterinary science to boot! It all sounds a bit Medieval and Knights of the Round Table, taking your horse to University while you study!
The Sports and Rugby Institute at Massey University (SRI) was built in 1999 as a joint venture between Massey University and the New Zealand Rugby Union. It has established itself as a world class training facility for several sports, but predominately for New Zealand's national game, with the formidable side the All Blacks using the facility.
New Zealand Rugby pulled out from the management of the academy relinquishing shares but as Gary explains the facility is still used extensively. The all female side the Black Ferns and the under 20's squad, who romped home to victory after beating England in the Junior World Championship in June 2009, both use the site.
International Rugby Academy NZ is also based at the institute and runs over ten academy workshops throughout the year led by ex All Black players to teach coaching and playing skills. These academies give an opportunity to promising young athletes with star potential to shine and be snapped up for further training. The busy Institute recently played host to the Indian 7's Rugby squad for three weeks as they prepare for the Commonwealth games that will be held in Delhi.
There is no rigid routine for the daily tasks at Massey. The team's jobs are varied dependent on weather and events that are happening at the university. Staff was recently involved in planting at the SRI for the Rugby World Cup. The area due to its position in the central North Island can be prone to high winds that rip through the campus. The debris that remains sees the team kept busy, with pitches needing to be cleared of fallen branches.
If a rugby or soccer team come in and tear up the sports institutes fields through a heavy game or training session, Gary liaises with Massey University and asks what they want done, to rectify the problem and restore the pitch to good condition. They also discuss what pitches need to be maintained for use, which at times Gary admits can be a bit of a "minefield".
Gary believes keeping staff up to speed with current horticultural and turf practices is an important part of his and their job, and adequate training is provided to ensure this happens.
Sports pitches at Massey are over sown with Per.Rye. On some of the formal lawns in the grounds the team is introducing red fescue into the sward to improve presentation. Gary explains maintaing these surfaces, particularly the SRI's surfaces which are used several hours a day 12 months a year, is a challenge due to the general stresses and wear and tear the turf experiences. The Rye grass in particular in the summer can struggle with the high levels of play on it. Palmerston generally enjoys a mild climate throughout the year, but can get cold snaps with winter nights that can drop down to -3 degrees.
The grass needs to be in tip top condition with the institute being a show case facility and results expected from the team to produce consistently good surfaces. Gary praises the virtues of the computerized pop up Toro grillo sprinklers that are used at the SRI. The sprinklers are a real asset and have made management of the pitches easier, with traveling sprinklers used on the lesser used pitches. There is a pretty basic field drain system in place as project money ran out to upgrade it.
Preparation continues for the Rugby World Cup. Palmerston North has been selected as one of the host venues. The SRI's pitches have been chosen as a venue for Argentinean team training in the 2011 world cup. Gary was hoping to see the Irish rugby team at the institute for training but is still happy that "We have one of the major teams". The Sports and Rugby Institute was built with Rugby at the forefront, and Gary believes it ranks up there with the best in the world for training and coaching facilities.
The drainage set up the university is natural with a few paddocks that have old drains underneath that can bear the brunt of Palmerston's rainy climate.
Budgets have to be met, as with any orgarnisation. Gary believes that in receiving its budget the university generally does well, being a centre of excellence and innovation in NZ, he has no cause to whinge!
The perks of Massey being an agricultural university means that Gary and his team can loan the equipment of the practical teaching arms of the horticultural and turf departments, which is handy come renovation time. Jobs such as over seeding and spraying smaller areas are done in house. More specialised jobs such as verti draining are contracted out. Verti draining is carried out twice a year.
Soccer and rugby at the SRI and Massey stick to their own specific pitches and don't interchange, making Gary and his team's life a little easier. However, the huge steel rugby posts can prove a nightmare for the staff to move when maintenance needs to be carried out, requiring a bit of logistical planning! Gary says "Through Pitchcare I have been reading up on the Fibreglass posts and have decided to convert two of our rugby pitches to them this year, which is great timing for us as we are in the final stages of securing a deal with the Football Federation about developing a soccer academy on campus."
With the approach of the 2011 Rugby World Cup Gary is looking toward preparation of the SRI. Verti draining with hopefully a more efficient drainage and sprinkler system being installed is on the agenda, in readiness for any training or matches that will take place there. The time of year the World Cup is held in September and October will see the pitch get a pounding with regular downpours.
Gary also hopes to eradicate the winter grass Poa and build a strong sward, in readiness for the onslaught it will no doubt receive come 2011!
Gary says they've had some degree of success strenghting the grass with on going trials of the wetting agent "Revolution". It aims to increase the turf's stress tolerance by balancing air to water ratios in the soil. This agent was trialed two years ago in the USA on bentgrass. It appeared to prove its worth, sustaining good turf quality when drought had become a problem.
Keeping the Rye grass well irrigated ensures its robust health in harder, dryer times and generally this approach serves the team well. Gary tries to get out on the site as much as possible and conduct visual assessments. He receives scheduled reports from around the campus's pitches and the SRI on the condition of the grounds. This helps when making decisions regarding the maintenance programs. With spraying Gary says they are fortunate that this does not cause too much disruption, with a number of pitches available for use while one pitch is closed for treatment. The main pest the team has to deal with is normally worms although this summer they also had a major attack from the Porina Moth. Gary admits with a chuckle he'll be interested to see what will happen with the controversial insecticide Endosulfan. It was banned from use in NZ in early 2009 amid claims it's an organic pollutant - will it be allowed to be re instated for use in preparation for the Rugby world Cup in 2011?
Without Endosulfan Gary explains worm management will be dealt with preventative measures such as verti draining, looking at lime content, and monitoring PH in the soil. It's a case of wait and see at this stage without Endosulfan to fall back on.
Cutting heights are at the longest 33mm but can vary depending on the pitch. The grass tends to be kept longer on the pitches in NZ in comparison to pitches Gary has maintained in the UK, so with the World Cup the team may face a challenge having to reduce the grass lengths. World Cup guidelines for cutting heights, undulations and levels of the pitches are being developed and Gary is keeping an eye on this.
Gary hopes to continue to raise the profile of Massey University and its superb grounds; it's got all the right attributes and is a beautiful campus. Pitchcare enjoyed the stay in Palmersotn North a beautiful city in NZ's North Island.
Pitchcare thanks Gary for the tour of Massey and wishes him luck in preparation for the 2011 Rugby world cup