Two years ago, when Robert Murray walked through the Penrhos College gates for the first time, he didn’t realise then that this school would become not only a big part of his life, but at the same time give him more life at home...
The story begins in Perth where he was born and raised. Leaving school he worked his way through the usual supermarket, fast food and hospitality positions before taking off on a young man’s adventure to Victoria. While living and working for a few years in Bendigo, several major things happened. He fell in love; he got married; his son was born; and he made the decision to direct his career by studying horticulture. “When I qualified, I started driving trucks and doing weekend landscaping, then I moved on to work at a garden centre where I learned a lot. After that I started my own business full time.”
Most people who run their own business will know what this is like. “The work was good but there was no work-family life balance. I had a wife and a little boy and I never stopped working.”
The family decided to sort this by setting themselves up afresh. Robert started applying for jobs and, when he got past the phone interview, and was invited to the face-to-face at Penrhos College, he flew home to Western Australia to grab the position.
Penrhos sits on around 13 hectares, four kilometres south of Perth’s CBD. Over a thousand girls come to the College to learn and grow, from pre-kindergarten through to year 12. Given that a section of the student body boards on campus, it’s a place that’s constantly alive with goings-on. And as acting Head Groundsman, Robert and his team are responsible to maintain the setting where this action takes place.
It’s a perpetual, never-ending dance that notionally begins on Monday, when the team head out to make the school presentable for the week ahead. Appreciating that they can’t make any noise after 8:30, that hour and a bit is a busy one - the aim being to set themselves up so that top-up grooming is easier over the week ahead.
The College grounds include the expected mix of hedges, high profile ornamental beds, 24 outdoor pockets of green between the buildings, the odd courtyard, an outdoor swimming pool, various surfaced playing courts dotted about, and a large oval bordered by a four lane 400m track. The hands-on delivery of the programmed maintenance schedule keeps the team busy; liaising with staff – especially the Physical Education department – falls to Robert. For example, “In winter we manage the mowing with a three to four week rotation, but once spring hits we’re on the oval on a weekly basis. Thanks to the white board, I can check out who is using what area and when, which helps us to maintain both the standard of the playing surface and staff access.” Then there are the track lines to keep fresh every fortnight. Oh and let’s not forget the school’s hedges, which takes the team three full days periodically to keep in shape.
Maintenance aside, there are always those areas that need a fresh look, sometimes thanks to new building works, and at others, because a planting bed has reached its natural used-by date. “I’d just started here when we put in a landscape around the school’s new creative arts centre. More recently, when the fence was replaced around the power plant that sits on our north-west corner, we rejuvenated the screening planting. And then we had a re-think about planting at the main entrance of the admin building which needed a lift.”
Robert’s solution is to create garden beds that can be frequently refreshed which he and the team will deliver thanks to some clever-thinking. “We’ve decided to propagate our own annuals in the area beside our works centre, and grow them on into potted colour to put in using the double potting method.” In other words, a set of empty pots is set into the garden bed, and then potted annuals in full flower are set into the empties before the surface is mulched to hide the pot rims. “We’re aiming to work back three months prior to a special event, picking up the theme with the colour – like red poppies for Remembrance Day.”
School life is certainly a major part of what makes this job interesting to Robert who has bought in on many levels. He’s a school bus driver. He coaches one of the basketball teams. He’s working with junior school staff on a students-hands-on vegetable garden project.
“I love the job and the school atmosphere. There’s an energetic, positive atmosphere and everyone, teachers and students, say hello. Your day is never the same, not only because there’s a lot happening but each school term is different horticulturally.”
Best of all, the reason for moving west has been given the biggest tick of all. Robert’s hours are now normal and he has time to be at home, though he admits he almost doesn’t know what to do with himself on the weekends.
Nathan Phillips showing what hands-on finesse can achieve with a collection of conifers.
Another of the Penrhos team – Neil Fletcher – mowing the sports track above which sit the basket ball and tennis courts and the swimming pool.
Robert’s plan to double-pot the highly visible areas near the College’s main entrance will produce swift change and refreshed floral displays as plumped and pumped as this.