0 Taking care of business at Northenden Golf Club

Founded in 1913, Northenden Golf Club survived fires and floods before a complete redesign and reconstruction in 1973. Situated on the banks of the River Mersey, five miles south of Manchester city centre, Course Manager Scott Gardner has just completed his first year and, in his own words, tells us about life on the course and how he has settled in.

I was first given an opportunity to work as an apprentice greenkeeper at Rishton Golf Club. My role before Northenden was as course manager at Swinton Park Golf and Country Club. I also had some varying experience in similar fields (pun intended), ranging from contracts manager at a UK leading landscaping firm, to draining the family farm's meadows and rough pastures. Along the way, I have gained many qualifications including NVQ Level 3 in Sports Turf, PA1, PA2 and PA6, CS30 and 31 chainsaw certificates and Level 2 Health and Safety in the Workplace. I also hold football coaching qualifications as I used to work as an academy goalkeeper coach at Blackburn Rovers.

I have worked and continue to work with some great people, but my main inspiration comes from my late grandfather. Seeing the amount of hours he used to put in on the farm, day in day out - 365 days a year, laid a foundation within me that only few can relate to. Getting up at 2.00am from a young age was my normal and, looking back now, it seems like madness. It set me on a good path with my work output and belief that hard work pays off. Another great inspiration for me is golf - I have played from a young age to a good standard.

The soil type at Northenden is mainly silty clay. We have two holes that were built on an old tip, so they prove to be a significant ongoing challenge in prolonged dry spells, due to hydrophobic soil conditions. This is created by sunken ground finding its way deeper into the pockets of space, as rubbish beneath decomposes and creates very shallow soil and a rather strange unevenness on two fairways.

The greens are constructed to USGA standard and they were built in 2005. We have a mixed sward, including poa, bents and some fescue. The tees vary from native soil to 50/50 rootzone and a few which are something inbetween. The tees have been confirmed for renewal in the long-term development plan and it was agreed that we could strip, level and turf three holes of tees per year. The construction means that the level of precision required with nutrient inputs and disease pressure, leaching etc. is greater. Given our wet, shaded site, our location and the amounts of rainfall we receive, chemicals leach through the sandy soil profile at a much faster rate than in a poor draining clay push-up green.

STRI conduct a soil report and I also use two independent companies to test the soil profile twice per year. I test the pH myself and remove soil samples to inspect the core visually.

In terms of being sustainable and not wanting to waste chemicals unnecessarily, I try to time chemical-based applications on growing degree days, and I use Microsoft Excel to analyse data that I input into graphs.

For the microbiology side of things, we brew compost teas fortnightly (predominantly throughout the summer months), to help balance out our nematode activity. We are trying to become more environmentally friendly with our practices overall.

In summer, on the greens, our day-to-day cutting heights are 4mm, sometimes more and sometimes less depending on circumstances such as big competitions, weather or disease etc. We look to carry out at least one form of aeration per week, which is generally a micro-tine with the Toro ProCore or sarrel rolling on a varied schedule. We also use the Air2G2 twice a year and verti-drain often - using various tine sizes and depths. We scarify and core our greens and overseed 2-3 times per year with varying cultivars to suit our growing environment. We try to verti-cut once a fortnight in summer, followed by topdressing.

We have recently invested in a fleet of Baroness machinery through GGM Groundscare, which has helped us dramatically. We are fortunate enough to have almost all the supporting kit we need for all the none day-to-day tasks such as overseeding or aerating greens. Most of our machines are owned by us after completion of the five-year finance term (seven years for the rough mower due to its higher value).

I have to say that, throughout my career, I have used most brands of machinery and dealt with many companies, but the service from GGM and the quality of cut from Baroness would now take some matching. The greens mower is the best thing the club has purchased for years, in my opinion. It's a very light and capable machine.

In terms of soil biology, we fortnightly use Symbio compost teas which are brewed in-house as well as a liquid endo mycorrhizae before overseeding plus various biostimulants. Our chemical programme is carefully cherry-picked based on our current requirements. I use Excel spreadsheets and graphs for data cross-referencing with moisture levels, rain, soil temperatures, disease levels and types etc. so that I know exactly what to put into the greens and how long certain chemicals will last.

We occasionally suffer from localised flooding after heavy rainfall, resulting in saturated soil conditions for most of the winter. This can be frustrating as it often means hole closures and taking backward steps in maintenance practices. I have only been at Northenden for eighteen months, but I have learned fast that the ground conditions can be tricky to manage.

In an effort to combat the flooding, we have so far installed 1000m of drainage and a pond that was excavated expertly, using laser levels. We are also currently in the process of submitting plans to the Environment Agency for a new headwall and flap valve in the River Mersey. After a recent GPS survey, we established that we only have 3 inches of fall from our inlet into the water holding area to the flap valve in the river - over 400 yards away. So, I have developed a plan to pump water from the holding area to a new area on the high ground of the course which sits above the River Mersey. This will basically be a pump station (with filtering systems) to service and clean the pumps, and a trench of pipework underground to another holding pond 6 metres above the Mersey, where it will then exit into the river.

We are currently working with Dobells Profesessional Tree Care to thin out trees which are healthy enough to have reductions, without impacting other areas such as wildlife and other trees in the immediate surroundings. Shade and air flow are a major issue at Northenden and something we are keen to develop a long-term strategy for. We have the Forestry Commission on site regularly, as we have many species of protected trees.

We have varied skill levels across the team and I am a big believer that all staff should be given the opportunity to progress and master each job on the golf course. We have recently enrolled two staff members on to their level 3 greenkeeping qualifications and one member of the team has just completed his PA1 and PA2. I think this type of progression through education avenues, increasing staff's leadership opportunities and overall skills are important things to offer a team if you are keen to progress as a group.

Left to right: Scott Gardner, Adam Barton, Steve Darby, Luke Johnstone, Sean Doyle and Steve Preston

The current team of six includes: Scott (32); 1st Assistant, Steve Preston (54), thirty years' service; Assistants; Sean Doyle, ten years' service; Steve Darby (50), four years as a greenkeeper, five years as the club's handyman; Adam Barton (29), 3 month's service (previously my deputy at Swinton Park) and Luke Johnstone (31), 3 month's service. We also have additional help from a long-standing member who, now and again, clears ditches etc. which is a particularly good help.

All staff have appraisals twice per year and have the opportunity to present their training requirements so that I can set them goals and targets. I can then adjust my training budget accordingly, if it's realistic to do so.

I report all budget plans to the club's directors monthly. However, I am fully responsible for setting out yearly categorised plans, keeping track of how it is spent every month, along with a monthly expenditure sheet.

As with most courses, renovations are worked into the overall budget. For us personally, we are incredibly fortunate as we have a full membership and have the 500-Club Charity where members pay £5 per month and can win cash prizes monthly. The remaining money goes into the course, which proves remarkably successful for projects and renovations. This all helps improve communiction with members, whilst I also send out a blog four times per year. We use emails for day-to-day communication and have our Twitter feed for the hardier members - who like to know that little bit more. I also play regularly at the club, so I listen to what members have to say and take their opinions on-board.

Changing weather patterns (due to climate change) have definitely affected us. Warming weather patterns and more flooding make managing a golf course more difficult year upon year, but I think a big part of being a greenkeeper is how you learn to adapt to new circumstances. More recently, my plans seem to be focused solely upon water management in the autumn/winter due to flash flooding; all with the goal to increase or at least flatline the length of the playing season, by improving our drainage system.

We try to start and finish projects earlier in the year, almost knowing the rain will hamper our progress if we start them too late; not always an easy thing to achieve when the playing season is still upon us! In summer, it is becoming more and more all about moisture too because of increased long persistent hot and dry spells! So, we are focusing on better and more effective irrigation practices and patterns. This is becoming one of the key areas for me, ensuring we move forward with the times and adapt to the ever-changing regulations. We have a Bailoy irrigation system to the greens and tees, with mainly Toro heads on the greens.

In 2020, we completed around 500m of drainage across three holes and created some new walkways, as well as many other projects including; the relevelling and turfing of 800sqm across five tees, moving irrigation on two of the newly laid tees, a new pond, new pathways etc.

I would love our drainage system to work normally by water flowing downhill, rather than being pumped uphill. I also would love another tractor with a set of big galaxy floating tyres - currently, on the model we use for our verti-drain, they are not available and create a little too much mess for my liking.

We have an environmentally-friendly washpad, where the surface wastewater and rainwater circulates back through the system after being cleaned, with the addition of bugs into the holding tank. The idea being that the microbe additives in the water neutralise it by eating away at the contaminants.

Our weed control is carried out manually; we strim path edges where possible and try to avoid unnecessary use of glyphosate in other general areas, in a quest to promote wildlife. We have wild areas around the golf course that we manage by hand and avoid chemical usage whilst promoting habitat for wildlife. We spray beneficial nematodes on areas that need treatment, but as long as the crows, magpies and starlings don't create a mud bath on our turf, I believe they play an important role in helping us remove unwanted pests from our turf.

Fusarium is our biggest enemy. Our wet site and riverside location make disease management a tough but rewarding task. I feel this can offer a good sense of achievement when outbreaks are nullified. Positively, we have much less disease visible than this time last year. We always try to be proactive in our approach to disease management, we were fungicide free from October 2019 until September 2020, but I think it was too much too soon for our greens, so I developed a management strategy this winter to spray systemic fungicides in the high-risk months only.

We have introduced almost 200sqm of wildflower turf around the course to renovate areas and supplement removal of dangerous shrubs whilst helping to promote habitat for bees and butterflies. We have several bird boxes, bug hotels and, with the recent construction of our new pond, we are hoping to construct a duck hotel in the not too distant future as the population of ducks is said to be declining in the UK.

Recent woodland project

Another major problem for us is worm casts. There is an incredible amount on our fairways and greens surrounds. Managing these can be tricky, as I am sure many people are aware. We try to do the small things well, like boxing off grass clippings as much as possible. We are planning to treat the surrounds more like a greens complex moving forward with a little more attention and cultural practices and increased chemical input, initially lowering the soil pH to discourage casting.

Flora and fauna on our site is incredibly important. Of course, each site has different levels for different reasons, such as pollutants and levels of wildlife habitats affecting other local habitats to the point of local extinction. It's an area that fascinates me and an area that I am continuing to increase my knowledge. At Northenden, we have many species of birds present on-site, and we try to promote our wildlife habitats to, in turn, encourage food source for the various birds etc. We have also been replacing areas of removed shrubbery with native species.

We have an environmental policy in place - working with government legislation for certain things like LERAPS, used for protecting waterways. The rest is done with the best interests of the site and many surrounding needs. Our number one goal is to try to become a more sustainable golf club year upon year.

We have local bird rescues that send out specialists to help us manage our population when we have birds of prey nesting. Quite an amazing site when you get certain birds such as Kestrels homing baby chicks on the course.

I think the industry has changed a lot due to course closures, lower staffing levels and expectations higher than ever. Something has inevitably had to give. Usually, under these sorts of circumstances, cash is king and, sadly, with lower membership numbers and debts increasing, it often means courses are closing for good. The remaining courses will continue to adapt and develop moving forward and I think the main focus must be: how do we progress golf courses/businesses at the lower levels and move forward in a more sustainable way, to include all aspects of the club.

It has become a very fast-paced industry; one that requires serious evaluation and a voice from those with the best communication avenues, e.g. BIGGA etc. The more golfers that appreciate the level of work, regulations and finance involved (even in preparing a very normal golf course), the better chances guys and girls working in difficult circumstances, often producing miracles, become respected and appropriately rewarded.

We are managing green spaces that are becoming under increased threat from things such as housing development and climate change. This poses a very real and modern challenge as a business. Whilst we try to be sustainable and develop our spaces, it is essential to try and gain accreditation and, where possible, get sites protected for future safeguarding of the industry.

Then, there is the issue of raising awareness of the industry. I would love for the likes of Sky Sports Golf to speak with more greenkeepers in the lead up to big events. Also, for them to interview guest speakers/course managers, to raise awareness for the incredible amount of preparation that is put into a championship venue.

What's in the shed

Baroness LM315 greens mower
Baroness LM2700 4wd fairway mower
Baroness GM2810 rough mower
Toro sidewinder
Toro 3250 for tees
John Deere tractor
Toro Workman
Toro ProCore
Charterhouse Verti-Drain
Trilo S3
Three-tonne digger
Bernhard grinders
... and many other bit and bobs

COVID-19

How was your club affected by Covid-19?

We went down to two staff in the first lockdown. Then, when it ended, we saw a rapid increase in the amount of golf being played, resulting in 145 new members and an average of 1,150 rounds per week. We were then back up to full strength of four staff. Of course, this wasn't ideal with the level of play we had, as it gave us very small cutting windows to work with and we started at 5.00am most days ready for a 7:30am start sheet. Fast forward a few months and the club have invested in two new greenkeepers and another two machines.

Were you or your staff furloughed at any stage?

I was not furloughed and I am incredibly grateful to my employers. It is a tragic time for all affected by what is going on, and my heart goes out to them. We have had all staff furloughed at various stages, but I am hopeful we will get back to normal soon.

How did this affect you, both personally and at work?

I have not been affected by COVID and I have been pretty busy on a construction project at home. My staff getting furloughed and the loss of revenue for the clubhouse are the main negatives. However, the boom in golf is a great positive and the industry in general in my opinion, so all my focus and drive comes from the positives.

Were you able to continue working on the course?

Yes, we did just about manage to keep the place tidy, as we didn't quite have the early flush of growth given our location. When this finally started, we had no option but to call in another team member to help us keep up.

Other than the governmental restrictions in place at the time, did your club/facility place additional restrictions on you?

No, but I did implement health and safety procedures where we were only using specific machines - each allocated to one staff member and we sanitised machines and washed hands more often than usual.

Did club members/players offer any assistance?

We have a member who helped by walking his dog on the course at night, limiting criminal damage.

What condition was the course in once you were able to return full-time?

It was in particularly good condition; we struggled once play came back initially, as the tee sheet was so busy continually halting progress. We adapted by varying start times to suit the needs of the business.

Have any projects been put on hold as a result of reduced income to your club?

Our plan for a new headwall in the river is the project that has been put to the side temporarily. This suits us as it requires lots of finance, planning and dealing with local authorities.

Have you still been able to purchase sundries such as fertiliser, topdressing, hire in machinery/contractors etc.?

My budget hasn't been affected dramatically. We have to be sensible though and prioritise tasks appropriately, without just spending money unnecessarily.

Have there been any positives arising from the current situation?

The increase in members has been the most significant positive for us as a club. As a team, I would say we always look at the positives daily and this has brought us all together. The most notable positive during a lockdown is no golfers on the course, meaning we can finish projects that had been started before lockdown.

Has your mental health suffered?

Mental health in greenkeeping and the whole turf industry is a challenging topic. I recently lost someone I know well through suicide. Very sad. I had a tough upbringing and was in care homes for a while, so this taught me resilience from a young age. With the industry itself, expectations are rising, and greenkeepers salaries are not. Most are underpaid and not fully appreciated for what they produce daily and often in brutal weather conditions too. Sometimes, all it takes is a pat on the back, for any green's chairman reading this.

I like to set goals and write down achievable targets. You have to believe you can progress and move forward fully. After all, we are a product of our environment - whether that be at home or at work and, therefore, I try to create the right work environment for my staff, so I know I am doing my bit towards their progress and wellbeing. I am lucky to have a good network of staff, friends and family that help keep my mind busy and inspire me to reach my goals. Life is too short to be negative and bitter; one thing I continue to work on is becoming a better me today than I was yesterday.

I would like to add: I will always be on the other end of the phone, or go for a coffee or a pint with anyone who feels like they are struggling to deal with their mental health ... or anything else for that matter.


View Getting Personal with Scott Gardner here

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