In the shoes of a Downing gardener

Englishmen are known to be very meticulous when it comes to appearances. Their lawns must be impeccable. Whether it is their football stadiums or their parks and colleges, Brits do know how to make a good lawn, a lawn which will make the neighbours jealous.


Dale, Downing gardener

One would find it very odd and ridiculous to dedicate an entire article about the Lawn at Downing College. Yet, coming to study at this highly renowned university, we found the amount of care the gardeners at Downing give to the lawn very confusing.

Why is the lawn so important? What does it reflect about Downing College? The Lawn, to our understanding, seems to represent Downing College in its whole beauty, a token of its greatness. Thus, it only seems logic that it should be spotless all the time.

This article is an unprecedented interview of Dale, one of Downing site’s wonderful gardener. We hope that our discussion will answer all the mysteries of the University of Cambridge’s gardens.

Students: How often do you mown the lawn?

Dale: Quite often actually, twice a week in the summer. Nowadays, since it is fall season, it has mostly been leaf vacuuming.

 Students: So you don’t necessarily have to keep the shades on the lawn?

Dale: Well a lot of people keep off the grass in the winter so it’s not absolutely necessary. You know you cause a lot of compaction, and you should be doing a lot of things rather than grass cutting. So there should be a lot of growth and you don’t want to encourage a lot of growth in the winter because you get a lot of diseases. So you do practices like aeration which is spikes in the lawn to let the air in to encourage deep roots to minimize diseases.

 CAUTION: even if you think you have green fingers, we strongly discourage you from reproducing these professional advices at home!

Students: How do you manage to make it equal size and with different dyes? Because we see that there are 2 different shades!downing-lawn

Dale: The machines have rollers. So, when you go that way it pushes the grass down. And when you return the grass goes the opposite way and that’s why you make different shades.

Students: You have to go very straight!

 Dale: Yeah…

Students: But how do you manage for the shades to be equal sized?

Dale: It’s just expertize. It’s practice, you know, it’s like a formula one driver. They’re good at what they do because they practice and practice and practice. And practice makes it perfect, doesn’t it?

Students: It is a stressful job?

Dale: It is stressful. There’s a lot of requirements to meet. Also, there are a lot of European laws now with removals of chemicals from the market. There is a college nearby where they had to excavate a whole lawn area because of the infestation of chafer grubs. Because they’re in the ground, the birds come along they look for the chafers and they damage the lawn

quotes-2Students: How many people in this college are in charge with taking care of the lawn?

Dale: Oh there’s me, my deputy, my senior gardener, and in total we are 5 there.

Students: And in the whole university?

Dale: There are 31 colleges, some colleges have 10-12 gardeners. Yeah, we’re very cost effective for our size of gardeners. We also manage a sport ground.

 Students: Is there a selection in the recruitment process when interviewing a new gardener?

Dale: We encourage all people from all backgrounds. It’s open for anybody, irrespective from gender. I give to everybody the opportunity to work in an environment like this. Everybody doesn’t have the benefit of a good education.

Students: Is there a difference between mowing a dry lawn and a wet lawn?

Dale: Wet lawn is okay; but the more blades define the final cut and also cutting really wet grass is not really good because all it does is it pushes it down and it ends up bruising. Every time you cut the grass it bruises and removes nutrients from the grass because you reduce it by cutting it. If you badly wound it, it doesn’t look really nice.

 Students: What obstacles do you encounter when doing your job?

 Dale: Obstacles could be trees, students playing, all of a sudden somebody comes out and plays football, or starts running in front of you and also stuff found in lawns (coins), squirrels.

Students: Have you ever killed squirrel while mowing the lawn?

 Dale: NO! we also have muntjacs here, and they are running from the backs of the colleges but you can’t catch it’s so fast it’s unbelievable. We’ve got rabbits as well, foxes, badgers.

Students: Do you have a garden?

Dale: I do have a garden with a lawn.

Students: And is it as nice as it is here?

 Dale: My next-door neighbour, he says I set the standard for all the neighbours. Because people know what I do I feel I had to set an example and I think sometimes if you set an example, it has a domino effect.

Students: So you have a very nice street with perfect lawns?

Dale: I try to keep it straight. I always praise myself. I have cut the grass when it was nearly dark, and I’ve woke up the next morning, it was a long day after the job, I woke up in the morning and I thought “that’s good.” I might have said that to myself…

Students: What about the keep off the grass panels? Who is in charge of saying to students they have to keep off?

 Dale: Well, students handle to say whether they can use for recreation and when they cross, you just have to say politely “please could you restrain from walking along the lawns, but you’re more than welcome to go and use that lawn, or the rose garden…”

Students: But why do professors have the right to cross the lawn?

Dale: it’s a privilege. University academics do not get over paid. They’re specialists and they’re expertise is second to none. It’s something they chose by coming here. In the industry, they could go out and earn a lot more money. Some of them do consultancy but it’s not significant what they earn and what they can do on the outside of it. So, it’s their little privilege.

Students: Is there a college where you think they have a perfect lawn?

Dale: I’ve seen a set of colleges that I found quite nice. We’re all about the same, but there’s a couple I like and I found attractive.*

Students: Do you have an example?

Dale: I do like Emmanuel College, St John College. Cause I walk around colleges on weekends.

We thank you Dale and every gardener at Downing site for their wonderful work, that is a part of the University of Cambridge’s myth.

author-photo(By Oumaïma HADI, Clara Le Saux et Antoine LE QUINQUIS)


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