Six things l learnt in 2020 groundsman summary, is a look back on the year by Steve Fidler who is Head Groundsman at St James School for boys in London.
The term 20/20 vision has been in use for over 100 years by opticians to describe perfect eyesight. It refers to the line on the Snellen Chart that most people can read from 20 feet away. My own eyesight has been deteriorating for a while now and was the main reason for giving up my cricket-playing career five years ago …….. to become an umpire!!
When the year 2020 ushered in the new decade back in January, all the talk was of the recent general election and the challenges that Brexit would bring. The political shenanigans were quickly put into perspective a couple of months later, when it became clear that the covid-19 pandemic would have a devastating effect across the world. None of us saw that coming!
Using another type of vision, hindsight, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons learnt in this most unusual of years.
Six things l have learnt in 2020, below in no particular order.
N0 1 THINGS I LEARNT-TIMING IS EVERYTHING
OK, in terms of groundsmanship, I guess I already knew that, but this last year has reinforced that mantra considerably. I work at a private school and we were busy staging a series of rugby 7’s tournaments in March when the decision came to close the gates.
After a couple of weeks of confusion and with the rules changing on a daily basis, we were assured that we would be kept on full-time for the duration of the lockdown. I thought it was unlikely that the school would return before September.
The planned renovations on the winter pitches, due to take place in the Easter holidays, were brought forward a few days. The weather brightened up and for the first time, I was able to apply fertilisers and wetting agents at the right time, rather than rushing to fit in with the school timetable.
Being able to irrigate throughout a very dry spring and early summer was vital. This would have been much more difficult if the boys had been in school.
The exam season brings extra pressures, not being able to make any noise across large parts of the grounds for most of the working day. This usually coincides with the period of maximum growth in May and June.
The main difference I found was being able to work with the weather, applying fertiliser and wetting agents ahead of forecast rainfall made them all much more effective and the school is now seeing the benefits.
NO 2 Wetting Agents
This was a lesson I learnt with fertilisers a few years ago. I took the plunge and started using controlled-release fertilisers, which appear expensive but can be very cost-effective when compared to multiple applications of conventional release products.
Despite being able to carry out a programme of wetting agent applications through the spring and early summer, the field at the back of the school was starting to show signs of drought stress towards the end of July. The field of around 2 hectares is a relatively new construction on a reclaimed landfill site and needs a lot of water – more than we were able to put on.
A routine meeting with one of my regular suppliers led to a conversation about wetting agents. This took place on a Thursday morning and the rep asked if I would be able to apply their product the next day, if he could get it to me in the morning. Having weighed up the cost and potential benefit, I decided to go with it as rain was forecast for the Saturday (of course it was, it was the first day of the revised cricket season!)
The high-end wetting agent was delivered by 8.30 the next morning and applied that afternoon. The rain duly arrived and when I got to work on Monday morning the transformation had already begun. The green-up was dramatic and the effects continued for several weeks, with good growth and slowly filling in some of the thinner areas of the sward. The same improvement could be seen below the surface with core samples showing increased root activity.
The cost of a single application on approximately half of my playing area was almost £1,000 and will, I am sure, be beyond the resources of a lot of groundsmen. My budget has also been cut for 2021, but I have found room for 2-3 applications of a high-quality wetting agent, which I believe will be a great investment.
NO 3 THINGS I LEARNT– WE NEED EACH OTHER!
As groundsmen, we will be all too aware that without us, most grass roots sport would not be possible. That is not always the view of players and coaches, but they would soon realise it if we weren’t there.
I think the same is true in reverse, that is exactly what we experienced during the first lockdown.
As well as my day job at the school, I look after the cricket square at my club. Despite the prospect of having no cricket, I continued to maintain the square, carrying out all operations except that of preparing pitches for the weekend. The first half of the season was soul-destroying, knowing that the ground wasn’t going to be used on a Saturday afternoon. Also, the pavilion wasn’t going to be a hive of activity in the evening and that our ever increasing junior section wouldn’t be all over the ground on a Sunday morning.
Whatever the sport, and colleagues from the grassroots football and rugby worlds are going through the same with the second lockdown, we all have a moan about the antics of players, coaches and officials from time to time. But they are the reason we do what we do.
We prepare the playing surfaces to the best of our ability, but it’s simply not a cricket square or a football pitch unless someone is playing on it.Steve FidlerTweet
When the call came to return to cricket, most of us had pitches ready within a week. In my experience, both at my own club and the clubs I umpired at throughout Surrey, players were desperate to get back to playing. There seemed to be more people watching too. All were grateful for the playing surfaces we had produced.
I’m sure it will be the same at football and rugby clubs throughout the country when the current restrictions are lifted.
Players and coaches can be infuriating at times but always remember that without them, there is little point in preparing the pitches in the way that we do.
NO 4 THINGS I LEARNT-CYLINDER MOWERS IMPROVE THE SWARD
I mentioned earlier that my pitches are as good as I have seen them in my 10 years in the post. There are several contributing factors, but this summer I managed to persuade our new bursar to purchase a John Deere triple-cylinder mower. I had previously been using a Kubota ride-on rotary and a tractor-mounted Major roller mower, both of which have worked well for the last 10 years.
But with an undulating outfield, it has not been possible to get down to the required cutting height for a cricket outfield. The rotaries were a compromise in my early days at the school. I arrived in 2010 just as the school had re-located from a much smaller site and there was very little suitable equipment.
Budgets were tight as there was a lot of renovation work going on in the Grade 2 listed building. Over the years I have built up a good array of equipment but felt that cutting with a cylinder mower would give the pitches an extra lift.
I didn’t expect, in these uncertain times, to be able to spend £30k plus on a new machine, so I looked at the second-hand market.
A local dealer had a couple of suitable machines and I arranged to hire one for a month or so to show what it could do.
The impact was immediate and after a few weeks, the purchase was completed. The new machine is giving a much cleaner cut at a lower cutting height, without any of the scalping associated with the rotary mowers.
The quality of the cut has encouraged tillering and increased the density of the sward. With the wet and mild weather, we have had through October and November, the mower will be in use for a good few week yet and I can continue to show the powers that be that we have made a very sound investment.
Now for that Vertidrain!!
NO 5 THINGS I LEARNT-LOCKDOWNS ARE GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
I can’t claim credit for being the first or only person to recognise this, but my workplace is situated alongside a railway track, carrying commuters into central London. I can see the busy A30 and the control tower at Heathrow from my office window.
The most striking thing was just how quickly it changed. There was much less noise from the roads, railway and the airport, the air felt fresher and the skies looked clearer within a few days. Even in towns and cities people were noticing birds singing with much more clarity than they had heard before. We started to see new species of wildlife.
Red kites soaring over the playing fields, cormorants and great-crested grebes on our lake. The quiet roads even induced me to get the bike out of the garage and cycle the five miles into work most days, just before lockdown. I had attended a couple of meetings about the school applying for a green flag under the Eco-Schools initiative.
School grounds being one of the criteria against which the award is judged on, I was keen to play a part.
We had a small, unused space in the middle of the school, enclosed on three sides by a hedge, with a building on the remaining side, housing the music department. Along with members of the Estates Team, we designed and built a new eco-garden, complete with raised beds to grow fruit and vegetables, natural bark paths and three areas seeded with wild flower mixes.
The idea was that the boys would tend the garden and learn, first-hand, the process of growing their own food. Of course, just as we were putting the finishing touches to the paths, the school closed down and everybody disappeared for the next five months. Despite the lockdown, we managed to source some plants and continued to look after the garden ourselves.
It was a really nice project to work on and helped to ease some of the anxiety brought on by the pandemic and it goes without saying that we all benefitted from the produce! Now that the school has returned, the area has become a favourite place for several teachers to gather and has received widespread praise.
I have always believed in finding positives from difficult situations and creating opportunity from adversity. The garden has been a great example of this and the veg tasted fantastic!!
NO 6 THINGS I LEARNT- THE TURFCARE COMMUNITY
Earlier this year I became aware of the fast-growing, online community of groundsmen and greenkeepers. There are now several facebook pages dedicated to the industry, including specific sites for cricket, rugby and football. Lots of groundsmen, especially the grass roots volunteers posting queries which are readily and enthusiastically answered by more experienced colleagues.
The turf industry is almost unique in that it relies heavily on countless volunteers, working many hours, just for the satisfaction of producing the best pitch that they can. Any help and encouragement that they receive will be in the best interests of the grounds sector as a whole.
The pandemic has affected lots of us in some way. From groundsmen on furlough or worse still, being made redundant to those left behind to cope with a large area because others are furloughed. For those not directly affected there is the anxiety connected with the virus and the fact that we could be the next unfortunate employee to be laid off.
Having a forum on social media to let off some steam and see that you are not alone going through all this is a tremendous help. I would urge all groundsmen and greenkeepers to continue to contribute to these pages and keep that advice coming.
I also discovered the brilliant work being carried out by Brian Sandalls and his team at Turfcareblog.com.
Originally set up to create a platform for groundsmen to share their views, the website now includes a jobs page, a second-hand machinery market and an online shop. The blogs and how-to guides are still there and a mentoring scheme for groundsmen has been set up.
Brian recently asked me to write a booklet about winter pitches maintenance to be sold as an Ebook on Turfcareblog.com.
It now sits alongside a couple of other Ebooks that he has written. The project took me several weeks to put together, so I don’t know how Brian has the time to be so prolific with the blogs and all the admin that goes with the website and Facebook pages. Keep up the great work, Brian and all at Turfcareblog.
I hope you enjoyed my summary of things l learnt from 2020, always a positive if your looking.
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What a wonderful, beautifully written essay of the year which I really enjoyed reading, capturing so many elements of this turbulent, and sadly for many, tragic year.
Excellent little mini blog by Steve Fidler. Thank you!
The tips in there were both useful and slightly different.
Thank you for sharing Steve. I’m sure most groundsmen will nod in agreement at some of the ways you found to “work with what you were given”. Excellent stuff.
Thanks for engagement Phil
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