Next year, St Christopher School in Letchworth celebrates its centenary. It will be a proud day in the history of 'St Chris' and one that Grounds Manager Alastair Ogilvie is determined to contribute to in the best way he can; the presentation of the lawns, gardens and sports pitches
St Christopher School was established in 1915 by Dr. Armstrong Smith, soon after the foundation of Letchworth Garden City. Throughout its history, the school has been a champion of progressive education and, at the time of its foundation, reported that the school was based "not on the sameness of children, their conformity to type, but on their differences."
This concept of treating children as individuals was revolutionary at the time and continues to be one of the distinctive characteristics of an education at 'St Chris'.
As its informal name might suggest, they do things differently, so much so that everyone is called by their first name - children, teaching and support staff and the Governors. There is no school uniform - children are able to dress as they think appropriate - and a vegetarian diet of seasonal food is provided.
In a recent blog, Headmaster Richard - it almost seems churlish to mention his surname - Palmer commented; "It really is time that schools started to combine care for the individual with forward thinking, rather than relying on archaic traditions of the past to lock everything down so that over precious egos within false hierarchies are preserved". Strong words, indeed.
By dint of alphabetical order, Grounds Manager, Alastair Ogilvie, appears top of an impressive list of staff on the school's website (along with all other groundstaff) which includes everyone from cleaners and servery assistants to department heads and, of course, Richard. No distinction of perceived importance is made.
Alastair has been at St Chris for over seven years and states that it was his father-in-law Colin Robinson, Course Manager at Kings Lynn Golf Club, 'getting him into golf' that encouraged his career in groundsmanship, although he always wanted a career working outdoors. To balance things up, he also quotes his father Mike, who sadly passed away late last year, as being an inspiration to him.
He manages a team of three; sixty-three year old Jeff Worcester, who has been at the school for almost forty-three years; James McGrenery (29 and three year's service) and Alex Ash (24 and two and a half years).
Together, and with occasional help of two staff from other departments, they manage a site consisting of thirty-eight acres, which includes nine acres of sportsfields. The remainder is made up of the Senior School, Junior School, Early Years Centre and boarding houses. These include amenity lawns and gardens, ornamental gardens, allotment areas, compost areas, tree spinneys, artificial surfaces, paddocks, wildlife areas, bee hives, wormeries and orchards.
"Each groundstaff member has their own area which they check on a daily basis - Senior School, Junior School and Early Years Centre - but then each person works on the whole site, depending on the job and skill required," explains Alastair.
He goes on to say that constant training and education is important. "Being in the education environment, health and safety is a massive part of everyday work. Two of my team have completed their NVQ Level 2 in Horticulture and Sportsturf and we are now looking for them to start their Level 3."
Situated in a fairly low lying area, flooding and surface water is an issue, both for the school and local residents. "We have big issues with surface water, as it takes so long to penetrate and drain. The soil type is predominantly clay," confirms Alastair. "There are a lot of techniques I would like to perform, but cost prevents me from carrying them out, so it's pretty much slitting and basic aeration, when conditions and the weather are right. We've also done a lot of work to keep the field drains clear, and have recently installed a further 110 metres of drainage, which should help alleviate the problems. The drainage system we have though is pretty basic."
Presentation is a key consideration for Alastair. "It's the highest priority for our department. The presentation of the school is very important; the lawns, sports pitches, the road ways, flower beds - all have to be of a very high standard. It's part of the overall selling of the school."
"In addition, we have Luton Town Youth Academy, Grassroots Soccer, Goalkeeping FX and Sports Extra (a Freddie Flintoff cricket academy) all using the sportsfield, plus local football and rugby clubs using the artificial and sports hall, so presentation is paramount."
Alastair explains how the various aspects of the grounds are maintained; "For the football and rugby pitches, we aerate and slit at least once a month; more, if possible. Cutting is carried out using the Ransomes Mk10 Sportscutters behind our Kubota L245, maintaining a height of 20mm."
"For weedkilling, I have contract sprayers do the whole field once a year and I spot treat if needed. We fertilise the pitches with Everris Sierrablen 15:5:22 40g/m in September and spray Everris Effect Iron and Prestige Super Seaweed during November and February. We also spray for worms, as and when needed."
"We mark the pitches out at least once a week and overseed or returf goalmouths and bare areas during the Easter holidays, ready for the change from winter to summer sports. The whole field is fertilised during the spring with a 12:6:6."
"The cricket square is brushed daily during the winter, sprayed for weeds and worms when needed - using Holster and Ringer respectively - and fertilised in mid February with Everris Invigorator 4:0:8 35g/m; end of March with Everris Autumn 6:5:10 35g/m; and May, June and mid August with Everris Sportsmaster 12:0:9 35g/m."
"The square is cut when needed over the winter, with a Hayter Pro, and twice a week during the summer using a Ransomes Matador. The spring preparation starts at the end of February or beginning of March with light rolling and light scarifying, leading to reducing the height of cut and increasing the weight of rolling up to the playing season. I start wicket preparation five to seven days prior to a fixture, including scarifying, brushing, mowing and rolling, then marking in the crease."
"End of season renovation is carried out by ATB Solutions, when I have the square renovated using the Koro machine. Then overseed using Bar Extreme RPR, Binders Super Surrey loam and Everris preseeder 18:22:5."
"We suffer a bit of red thread on the square and a little fusarium now and then, but I'm generally pleased with how the square looks and plays."
"Our artificial surface is a recent addition. It is a 10mm sand dressed monofilament surface that meets LTA approval. Litter and debris is cleared off on a daily basis with blowers and litter pickers. We brush once every two or three weeks using our Sisis sweeper and a dragmat. Weekly inspections are also carried out and repairs made as needed. Artificial Grass Cambridge come in every other year to clean the surface and sand, spray and repair any problems. I also treat for moss when needed. The lines, which aren't cut into the carpet, are resprayed yearly, by Sports and Courts Line Marking. We are also responsible for looking after the four macadam tennis courts at the junior school."
Alastair is working towards the school's most important event - their Centenary - and, to that end, the team has upgraded the junior school macadam tennis courts, renovated one of the prestigious lawns and installed over 100m of fence line along the school entrance.
"It's very difficult to plan ahead as the seasons aren't as precise as they used to be. I have to plan my work around the school's day to day running, as well as the weather, so it can cause no end of issues," he says, "but everything has to be right for the big event next summer."
Where environmental matters are concerned, St Chris is very active and works with local agencies. "The school won the 'Be Green' award last year, and has done for the last twelve years," states Alastair proudly. "One of the teachers is in control and I try and do my bit, recycling both green waste, card, metals etc. We also have a wormery, so use a lot of the vegetarian food there."
"We are situated within a Garden City and, whilst this can sometimes throw up issues, it can help, as we are donated trees and plants on a regular basis from the local heritage foundation. This is great, because we are involved in Plant-for-the-Planet, a children's initiative that aims to raise awareness amongst children and adults about the issues of climate change and global justice."
"The initiative works to plant trees and considers this to be both a practical and symbolic action in its efforts to reduce the effect of climate change. In 2011, it reached a goal of planting a million trees. I like to think we are playing our part."
"We also take part in lots of bee friendly planting schemes; we have wildflower areas and are currently having an area constructed for beehives. There are also plenty of bird boxes situated around the school site."
Where pests are concerned, Alastair confirms that he has no real insect problems, but that rabbits used to be; "but not anymore, possibly due to the fox population increasing in and around the school," he states.
"Our industry is pretty well run," concludes Alastair, "with all the relevant governing bodies and legislations in place. There are a number of organisations we can turn to for information, including Pitchcare. Perhaps the biggest issue is that the general public don't understand the science behind what we do?"
What's in the shed?
Kubota L245 Tractor
Ransomes MK 10 Sportscutter gangmowers
Ransomes 24" Matador
Tractor Mounted Fertiliser Spreader
Kazuma 150cc Quad and trailer
ATCO 28" Mower
John Deere 220 Mower
Westwood T1600 ride on mower
Hayter Harrier 48 Pro
Hayterette 18" rotary mower
Hayter Ranger 53 Pro
Hayter Harrier 41
Hayter Heritage ride on mower and trailer
Allen 221 5hp hover mower
SISIS Greenkeeper Spiker
Stihl 30" petrol driven hedgecutter
Sisis Auto Turfman Mk2
Stihl FS85R brushcutter/strimmer/hedgecutter/pole pruner
Stihl FS55R strimmer
Stihl SH86 leaf blower/sucker
Stihl BG86C leaf blower/sucker
Stihl HS80 hedgecutter
Stihl HS45 hedgecutter
Howard Gem rotovator
Turfguard professional spraying machine
Machinery is purchased outright from a local dealer, with servicing undertaken by Buntingford Mowers. Alastair remains loyal to manufacturers, using Hayter models for the lawns, Ransomes for the pitches and Stihl for the 'hand-held' work around the site.
His 'wish list' includes a new tractor, sprayer, verti-drain, triple mower ... "I could go on!"