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Natural greenkeeping – a practical guide

Bowling green maintenance can feel like a constant battle against pests, disease and disorders, but this struggle is largely human in origin. I’ve often heard greenkeepers say things like “you can’t beat mother nature”, while simultaneously hoisting the knapsack sprayer on their back to get the preventative fungicide on the green asap. It’s very clear now that the chemical heavy, reactive approach to greenkeeping so prevalent in recent decades has failed and that the time is right to change the way we maintain our greens to work with, instead of against nature to improve them. And nature has an abundant toolbox we can dip into to not only overcome problems, but also to hugely improve the sporting performance of our greens


We often see such ideas described as, for example, ‘a growing trend towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices’ and this has the tendency to implant the idea that natural greenkeeping is somewhat less effective than real greenkeeping a bit woo woo or hippy in its origin and that maybe we’ll need a kaftan and a fancy pipe. In reality, it is simply getting back to sound observational, science led greenkeeping practices that harness the power of nature to help us get the performance results we are looking for. Natural greenkeeping should be considered the real ‘real greenkeeping’ and is simply an approach that seeks to leverage nature’s own mechanisms to maintain the health and vitality of bowling green turf.Let’s explore the key aspects of natural greenkeeping and how they can be applied simply to create healthier, more resilient greens that perform better.

Natural vs. Conventional

Conventional greenkeeping practices, most of which emerged post-war, often rely heavily on the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and a lot of sand to ameliorate heavy soil-based greens. While sand amelioration of heavy soil is a good idea when done correctly, if someone forgets to turn off the sand tap for a decade or three, we can find ourselves trying to grow grass in the desert and facing some very expensive and frustrating problems that aren’t easy, cheap or quick to solve. The fascination with sand has had the side effect of introducing harsh chemical wetting agents to our greenkeeping armoury. Yes, the language of conventional greenkeeping is rich with military connotations. These methods, while undeniably effective, for a while, focus on neutralising symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes of turf health issues. The problem with this approach is that the underlying problem has invariably been caused by the same system and is therefore continuing to grow as a bigger problem that will come back to bite harder later. Localised Dry Patch, where the soil is unable to accept or hold water has been the most widespread of these in UK bowling greens. In contrast, Natural Greenkeeping takes a more holistic approach (‘yeah man, far out’), viewing the turf and soil as an interconnected ecosystem, because, it actually is. Rather than reacting to symptoms as they appear, this approach aims to proactively maintain and enhance the health of this ecosystem, reducing the need for chemical interventions and creating a more sustainable and resilient turf. It does this in a number of ways and has an almost infinite number of existing plant and soil tools and mechanisms to call upon to enhance the effect. Let’s look at some of these.

Enhancing Natural Plant Defence Mechanisms

Plants have their own built in defence mechanisms that play crucial roles in plant growth, development, and defence against pests and diseases. These are largely natural chemical compounds that the plants have evolved to produce based on specific threats and environmental changes, and frankly leave our human attempts at chemical management look amateurish at best. Cytokinins, auxins, and gibberellins are three important plant hormones that play crucial roles in plant growth, development, and overall health. Cytokinins are primarily involved in promoting cell division and growth and are known to delay the ageing of plant tissues. They help regulate various processes such as leaf expansion, shoot growth, and root development. Auxins are primarily involved in regulating plant growth and development. They are responsible for promoting cell elongation and differentiation and help control the direction of growth in the plant. Auxins also play an important role in tropisms, which are growth responses to external stimuli such as light or gravity. Adequate levels of auxins are necessary for healthy plant growth, but insufficient amounts can result in stunted growth. Gibberellins are primarily involved in promoting stem and leaf elongation, as well as seed germination and flowering. They help regulate various physiological processes such as cell division, cell elongation, and enzyme activation. Gibberellins also play an important role in the development of fruits and seeds. Adequate levels of gibberellins are necessary for healthy plant growth. These three hormones work together to ensure healthy plant growth and development. The levels of each hormone must be carefully balanced to ensure optimal growth and function of the plant. A disruption in the balance of these hormones can lead to various plant health problems, including abnormal growth patterns and stunted growth. We can enhance these natural defences by maintaining optimal soil conditions, ensuring adequate nutrient availability, and using organic amendments that promote plant health such as liquid seaweed and molasses derived bio-stimulants.

Insect pests

The result of all this focus on symptoms has had the unwitting effect of damaging the in-built defences that the plant/soil eco-system provides naturally. For example, the widespread problem of hydrophobic soil can leave plants struggling for water, which is obviously a key component for health. These pressures allow predators and pests to take hold more easily. A good example of this in action is the increasing problems we are seeing with Leatherjackets and Chafer Grubs in UK bowling greens and either of these in sufficient numbers can wipe out a green for the season. However, research has shown that Furfural, a compound derived from molasses, has shown promise as a natural deterrent against insect herbivores. Salicylic acid, a plant produced compound has also been shown to reduce their impact, whilst enhanced Silicon levels in plant tissue have long been known to reduce the damage inflicted by grubs. These effects can be enhanced using molasses derived bio-stimulants as part of the regular fertiliser application programme.

Boosting soil biology

Healthy soil is teeming with beneficial microorganisms that contribute to plant health and disease resistance. Aerated compost tea and bio-stimulants like liquid seaweed and molasses can enhance soil biology, promoting a more diverse and robust microbial community. These treatments can improve soil structure, nutrient availability, and disease resistance, creating a more resilient turf.

Re-seeding humus in inert soils

Sandy soils often lack the organic matter necessary for healthy soil biology to thrive. The application of granular humus can provide islands of microbial activity in the sandy desert, improving soil structure and nutrient availability to aid the overall recovery of the soil’s health. Zeolite mineral applications after tining in autumn can be used alongside this to help provide some of the nutrient and water holding and distribution functions usually supplied by the clay and silt component of the soil, currently compromised by the over-abundance of sand. This approach can be particularly beneficial where turf health has been compromised by the over application of sand top dressings and the subsequent problems of Localised Dry Patch and hydrophobic soil.

Recovering hydrophobic soils

Hydrophobic, or water-repellent (Localised Dry Patch or LDP) soils can be a significant challenge in greenkeeping. Although wetting agents have been widely used for decades, many of these rely on fairly harsh chemicals such as nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and alkylphenol ethoxylates. Natural wetting agents derived from the Yucca plant, combined with beneficial bacterial treatments, can help to retain water in LDP affected soil and remove the waxy coating from sand particles that contributes to soil becoming water repellent. This treatment can improve soil water retention and promote healthier, more resilient turf.

Employing beneficialsoil fungi

Fungi play a crucial role in soil health and plant disease resistance. Fungal-rich compost teas, vermi-compost extracts, and mycorrhizal inoculants can introduce and encourage beneficial fungi into the soil, helping to suppress turf diseases and promote healthier plants. Mycorrhizae play a key role in the soil food web and provide a barrier to soil pests, e.g. harmful nematodes, and help to control them through their own defence capabilities. Mycorrhizae also help with plant nutrient uptake, particularly in low pH root zones, which the fine, perennial grasses prefer. They enable turf roots to make better use of water, offer protection from pest and disease attack and increase plant stress tolerance and recovery, while encouraging increased root mass and plant growth rates. Here to help Natural Greenkeeping represents a shift away from the reactive, symptom-driven management practices of the recent past towards a more proactive, ecosystem-focussed approach. By working with nature, rather than against it, we can create healthier, more resilient greens that are better equipped to withstand the challenges of pests and diseases. This approach not only enhances the aesthetic and health qualities of the turf, but gets us back to greens that perform better, are more easily, and crucially now, more economically maintained.

Caption: Chafer beetle larvae are an increasing problem in bowling greens with the potential to cause a lot of damage to the green surface

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