As an ex-rugby player, an active club member and armed with a bit of soil and grass knowledge, my life as a volunteer groundsman began at Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club five years ago.
The Haberden’s playing fields and clubhouse has been home to Bury St Edmunds Rugby Club since 1963. During the 1970s, the club raised funds to rebuild its playing facilities and redevelop the clubhouse, which was further extended in the 1980s. In 2006, with the aid of a grant from the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the club added a three-quarter-size 3G synthetic pitch to its existing three full-sized pitches and introduced mini rugby into the club on the six acres of surrounding playing fields.
Today, the club encompasses a first, second and third 15 squad, the Bury Foxes Ladies team, as well as a veterans team and a youth section.
The first 15 pitch hosts 30 games a year, plus first team run throughs on a training night, pitches two and three accommodate 84 games each season, plus mid-week training, while the 3G pitch is used for training. The club also hosts the ULR7s – the biggest Rugby Sevens event in the East of England.
When I took on the groundcare role, I decided to sit in on club committee meetings to better understand the club’s sports surface needs and objectives and subsequently developed a strategy to achieve the club’s ambition to become a premier club in the eastern counties.
This strategy addressed the need to extend our existing knowledge – by enlisting help from club contacts to secure a pitch budget, develop a maintenance programme and establish a pitch policy.
As well as receiving support from club suppliers, colleagues and fellow club members – including plumbers and farmers who were happy to offer their equipment – I also received invaluable training and support from the Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG).
A big turning point in my turf education was meeting turf consultant Alex Vickers, while attending an IOG Winter Games pitch level 1 course.
The three key issues that stuck in my mind thereafter were:
- the importance of a pitch
- maintenance plan
- the need to aerate pitches on a regular basis
- the need to provide proper irrigation to ensure good root establishment and growth.
Addressing these issues, I was then able to design an annual maintenance budget and present it to the club committee. The £6,500 budget included £1,000 to self-install a pop-up irrigation system and £5,500 for spring maintenance. This plan was based on saving the club money in subsequent years by reducing seeding costs through increased turf emergence, establishment and growth.
The starting point
In February 2007, a verti drainer was used to break up both surface and deep compaction. This then allowed for the planning of end of season maintenance for that first year, which included:
- over-seeding all pitches at a rate of 25g/m2 with a dwarf perennial ryegrass
- topdressing at a rate of 80t-100t per pitch with an 80 per cent sandy loam dressing from British Sugar TOPSOIL.
The top dressing was applied after seeding to cover the seed and retain moisture around the seed. Because of budgetary restraints no fertiliser was applied in this first year and later that summer, with help from club members, a pop-up irrigation system was installed.
Since 2007, the savings made in seeding has allowed the groundsteam to fertilise the pitches with (typically) a spring dressing of a 12.6.6 blend at a rate of 30g/m2 followed by a further dressing, at a rate of 35g/m2 of the same blend in the autumn, which has helped promote healthier growth. This application rate was based on soil analysis that I’ve done independently and having the soil tests has allowed me to shop around for prices.
I’ve also varied the depth and type of de-compaction by alternating between using a verti drainer and a groundbreaker – as I find that their different modes of action complement each other.
In 2009, the club made its first purchase of turf care equipment. This was a 24hp mower tractor with rear lift arms. This second-hand unit cost £3,500 from a local John Deere agent. Previous to buying the mower, all the pitches and surrounding grass areas were regularly cut by a local contractor at an annual cost of around £4,000.
Having rear lift arms on the tractor has enabled the club to buy a tool bar, which can hold either a slitter or a scarifier. This means that mowing and slitting can be done together, which has saving a huge amount of time and labour.
The slitter helps to relieve surface compaction to a depth of 6cm. The scarifier is used to remove debris on the natural turf pitches and to de-compact the 3G pitch.
By working in accordance with the annual maintenance plan we have seen spring maintenance budgets reduced from £5,500 in 2008 to £4,000 in 2011. The bulk of these savings have come from a reduction in the amount of seed required each year. The seed rate has been reduced from 25g/m2 to 10g/m2 on the first 15 and the second team pitches.
The pop-up irrigation system has ensured that the maximum germination and establishment of the seed is gained.
The regular aeration encourages deep rooting and healthy grass, which is better able to survive and recover from damage. Aeration to depth and surface slitting also stops water-logging and promotes a drier, higher-quality playing surface.