High performance bowling greens – a quick guide
I’ve sometimes asked readers to take on board some fairly lofty principles, which at first, might seem unrelated to the real world of daily greenkeeping with all the incumbent pressures and demands it brings. Bowling green performance is a long-term game and consistently paying attention to three key principles will pay great dividends. In stark contrast to this, we have the chopping and changing of techniques, materials and ideas I see and hear about at clubs all over the UK which almost always results in disappointment.
The three guiding principles for high performance bowling greens are:
1. Knowing what you’ve got: Making sure that you are working with hard evidence of the current condition of your green and not here-say. You need to know the starting condition of your turf in terms of sward species composition, thatch levels, compaction and most importantly the physical and chemical condition of the soil. If you have records of the previous maintenance programmes, this is good, but not essential as you can work it out quickly with a bit of soil profile sampling and a thorough soil analysis.
2. The importance of soil health: This is overlooked or at best given a cursory glance at many clubs. Performance bowling greens are generally healthy living greens. Barren, sand blasted greens that are sprayed with every pesticide known to man at the merest hint of a problem are generally very difficult to prepare for high performance consistently. To achieve success, we must start to think and act on the basis that the bowling green is a living eco-system and not a series of negative symptoms to be eradicated.
3. Knowing what defines and what dictates high performance: In many cases where clubs complain about poor performance, I can’t get a coherent answer to the simple question “What defines performance?”. Surface trueness, smoothness and speed define green performance. The control of thatch build up dictates trueness, smoothness and speed t a large degree.
Practical greenkeeping tips
Try to always commit to the three guiding principles detailed above and only apply any tips you receive in the context of what you know about your green. If you do this, then soon you won’t need tips any more!
Soil health tips
Healthy turf needs healthy soil. Healthy soil is 25% air space. Oxygen is critically important to keeping the soil sweet (not too acid or too alkaline) and the health of the billions of soil microbes that do much of our work for us. Let’s look at some practical things we can do to get the ball rolling on soil health.
Surface aeration: Keeping the green surface well aerated helps water to penetrate the surface more readily and improves air circulation around the base of the grass plants, decreasing the likelihood of disease and pest problems.
Verti-cutting is a form of light scarification aimed at slicing through lateral growth and gently opening the plant canopy to the elements. This also has the effect of controlling the build-up of thatch.
Sarrell rolling is a useful addition to the summer programme. This utilises a light roller with short, round section tines which pierce the surface by 10-20mm. By allowing water to enter the turf more easily and preventing the formation of a surface crust, the sarrell roller is an unobtrusive way to help with problems like localised dry patch.
Aeration of the deeper reaches of the soil is also important to enable the relief of soil compaction and to remove unwanted material such as excessive thatch. Slit tining is the most underrated maintenance job the greenkeeper can do on the green. This is a winter only job, as the shape and profile of the tines can cause the tine holes to open up and dry out if used in the summertime. Deep (125mm +) slit tining once or twice a month (more if you can manage it and conditions allow) between October and March is one of the most beneficial operations for compaction relief and prevention available to the greenkeeper. OK, it’s seen as old fashioned by many these days, but it works. Hollow tining (coring) is commonly carried out in autumn and is designed to remove plugs of thatch from the green surface. This allows a great deal of air into the surface which provides a boost for the soil microbes allowing them to multiply quickly and be more effective at breaking down the organic material otherwise destined to become thatch. In the process, they release plant available nutrients and contribute to building humus which is important for moisture and nutrient retention in the soil.
Carbohydrates aren’t just important for human health, but a key requirement of the plants and other soil organisms too. Just look at these quotes from two of the most highly respected soil and turfgrass scientists: “Readily available carbohydrates are of major importance for the soil microlife, but the grasses also benefit directly from the application of carbohydrates (sucrose) which are available to them, as these can be absorbed to a minor extent directly by the leaves” (Parent 1996).
“A carbohydrate store in the plant is important throughout the entire growth season, as carbohydrates act as a direct source of energy in re-growth if/when the grass is exposed to injury, disease, stress and wear. The plants’ carbohydrate content is also an extremely important factor in the grass’s ability to survive the winter” (Beard 1973).
Applying carbohydrate rich bio-stimulants to turf and soil doesn’t feature highly in the greenkeeping programme at many clubs, but it is a vital element of maintenance for healthy, living, high performance greens; but how do you apply it?
Seaweed liquids and/or meals applied to the turf will provide carbohydrate and micronutrients.
Products based on molasses are available to buy and these are formulated to be easily sprayed on to turf.
Many greenkeepers have their own secret recipes for adding carbs to their turf cheaply or for free in many cases. One such source of carbs is the beer slops from the bar (minus pipe cleaning chemicals of course), which can be diluted and sprayed on the turf to give a carb boost. And, no, the grass doesn’t come up ‘half cut’. If you decide to try a few of your own experiments with beer, treacle or whatever other carbohydrate source you can come up with, remember to try them out on a small area first, preferably off the green! However, the ultimate home brew is aerated compost teamade from a known source of beneficial microbes i.e., properly made and inoculated compost.
This is a contentious issue and flies in the face of all the commonly espoused greenkeeping advice you will receive. As before, please remember that all advice, tips and hints here or anywhere else must be viewed through the lens of the 3 guiding principles above. I am often said to be ‘anti-top-dressing.’ I’m not. In some cases, there is a need for top-dressing on bowling greens. However, in the vast majority of cases in the UK there is no need for any further sand top-dressing of greens. It’s a fact that most clubs have continued to apply top-dressing based on advice they first received decades ago. The thinking is, that top-dressing is essential for a smooth, level green surface when in fact, the continued application of many tonnes of sand every year is actually detrimental to the health of the green and is actually a big contributor to poor levels and poor performance on many greens.
The main culprit in poor surface conditions is thatch, and on inert, overly sandy greens thatch builds up fast due to the lack of soil life and the subsequent need to boost growth with large inputs of high salt chemical fertiliser and irrigation water. This leads into the Circle of Decline.
A quick start guide
Here’s a sure-fire way to get started on making your green a high performance one that is actually easier and cheaper to maintain.
1. Find out what you are really dealing with.
2. Analyse what you’ve found.
3. Understand the three key elements of high performance turf.
4. Formulate a plan of attack.
5. Get support.
Number five is easy. If you need any help, please feel free to drop me a line to john@bowls-central. co.uk
Caption: Top dressing can usually be reduced or stopped with marked improvements to sward composition