Grass makes pitch perfect

Problems with the playing fields at Old Anniesland in Glasgow have been resolved thanks to specially developed fast-growing grass

Founded in 1124, The High School Glasgow is the oldest independent school in Scotland and widely considered to be one of the top schools in the country. Set among the playing fields of Old Anniesland, it has a history rich in sporting achievements and a long line of notable pupils including illustrious politicians, academics and even prime ministers.

The 27-acre grounds themselves are owned by the Glasgow High School Club Limited and are the responsibility of estate manager Keith Hodgson, who has seen some pretty large upheavals in the last 18 months.

“Glasgow High School Club is responsible for the maintenance and operation of Old Anniesland and all of its sports sections,” says Keith. “Playing under the name ‘GHK’, teams include rugby, hockey, cricket, triathlon training and lacrosse. We also have active golf and angling sections, but rugby is our core sport and we’re home to premier club Glasgow Hawks and all associated community teams. From first and second teams, teams under 15, 16s and then the p6 and p7 teams – they draw from the whole community.”

The site is mainly used by the school in the week. On evenings and weekends it’s home to a host of different clubs. “We are essentially a community sports hub,” says Keith. “We reckon we have about 2,000 users – though we gave up trying to count them! It’s a hive of activity, and between the community and the school, it adds up to a lot of games a week.

“When I joined a year and a half ago, they were having real problems with the condition of the ground in winter. They’d lose the grass, rendering the pitches useless for school sports and jeopardising weekend games for the clubs. We consulted with STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) who diagnosed the problem as thatch build-up. The ground was acting like a giant sponge, not allowing water to drain away and leaving us with flooded pitches.” Because the diagnosis wasn’t completed until February, there wasn’t enough time for Keith to get a plan in place. Convincing the governing stakeholders at the club to agree to a full renovation was a difficult prospect; instead, Keith and his team picked up all the pipe drains and took them from 10 to five metres apart, effectively doubling the amount of drainage.

“Having done all that last winter, unfortunately we still lost all five pitches because of the massive amount of rain we saw,” continues Keith. “It was a very wet winter. Despite that we persevered and miraculously managed to hold an international match in March this year. Ordinarily, when a pitch is like that you just can’t play on it. It was Scotland versus France; not easily rescheduled, so we did everything we could to ensure play. We borrowed extra equipment and undertook additional work wherever we could, just to get one of the five pitches playable for that one game. Thankfully the weather was kind to us, but we still had the underlying problem of the thatch layer.”

So this year Keith managed to persuade the clubs governors that removing the whole pitch surface was the only way to go. Once they agreed, his next challenge was fitting it in around bookings. Keith turned to Kevin Brunton at Greentech Sportsturf who advised him on how exactly to go about it.

“We couldn’t start until 30 June because we had a televised Shinty Celtic Cup booked,” says Keith. “It didn’t leave us much time, but Greentech assured us the pitch would be ready for play in just 10 weeks. We were sceptical, but on the Monday straight after the match we used the Koro Field Top Maker to shave about 65 mm of surface across the entire pitch and remove all vegetation.

“Having removed all the top soil, grass and thatch, we levelled out undulations, then regrafted the drains to the surfaces and installed additional gravel and sand. This process of sand banding, integrating a thin strip of sand helps the water run from drain to drain, gives you proper drainage. The whole process took 10 days.”

Once the ground was good, Keith seeded at 40g/sqm with Barenbrug BAR 7 RPR grass, one of the most highly rated grass mixtures for renovating and repairing sports fields in the UK. BAR 7 RPR blends four cultivars including stoloniferous ryegrass Barclay II to produce a fast-growing turf that can withstand and recover from extreme wear. Keith says: “As we were to find out soon, being 100 per cent ryegrass, it provided us with strong, fast natural growth.”

Next, the team started irrigating and sowed the first seed on the Friday. By the following Wednesday grass was growing.

“We were yet to be convinced when Greentech said we’d see grass is just five days, but amazingly we did,” said Keith. “It was very dry at this point, but they provided us with a mobile irrigation system which helped hugely. Around day eight to 10 the whole area was lush and green, and we kept irrigating and brought the pitch back into play in early September looking better than ever. Straight after that we had a school game, followed by a first 15. We were thrilled when both teams won!

“My advice to anyone doing similar work to their pitches is to treat it gently during its first season. While the robust nature of Barenbrug Bar 7 RPR enabled us to get back into play faster than any other grass seed we’ve used before, we decided to restrict the number of games, while still fulfilling league commitments. We want it to be perfect for its first international match in February 2015, when we hold Scotland Club v Ireland Club.”

Changing the entire infrastructure of the pitch hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players. In fact Keith says it’s been recognised by the premier teams, many of whom have commented on how good it is: “The Hawkes tell me this is one of the best pitches in the whole premier league now.” It’s a sentiment echoed by other visiting clubs, referees and officials. “It’s really satisfying to see what a difference all this hard work has made,” he adds. “When you’re going to this much effort, it’s important that you get your soil tested. Greentech sent samples to their lab in the US for in-depth testing. The resulting analysis gave them the information they needed to provide us with a bespoke nutrition policy. Through this process, we learned that this pitch is nutritionally different to our other pitches. In the past we’d tended toward a once-size-fits-all approach, so this gives us another opportunity to fulfil our ongoing commitment to innovation and to making our playing surfaces ever better.

“We’ve also bought two new mowers and now do everything by hand, removing all the clippings – whereas before we would mow with a tractor. It’s these little things that can add up to making a big difference to the performance of your pitch and could save a lot of time and resource later on.”

Kevin Brunton from Greentech says: “Any clubs thinking about doing this kind of work should generally start putting it in to their work schedules now, ready for next year. Schools are likely to implement when they finish around June. Rugby clubs could be earlier, around the end of April – so work could begin in early May. The same for football clubs, who will generally take the top of their pitch off every three years or so.

“It’s really rewarding to see how well the new pitch has been received at Glasgow High School and the emails Keith receives from the clubs back this up. He worked hard to convince the sceptics, but they are delighted with the results and the club are now planning to renovate one pitch a year over the next five years.”

“Overall we are really satisfied with everything that has gone into this pitch overhaul,” concludes Keith. “From the advice from Greentech to the Barenbrug RPR grass seed mix, I genuinely believe it’s a winning combination which has given us the best pitch in the league.”



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