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The seven most DANGEROUS words in green keeping

I’ve worked in greenkeeping since I left school in 1981 and within a short time in the job, I saw that it was infected with unquestioned routines, probably more than most careers (writes John Quinn).
It was fairly easy to see that we continued to do the same work that had always been done, year in, year out, until a problem arose in the form of something that made the greens look bad or play badly.
When such a problem arose, a break in the routine would normally include the application of a pesticide (fungicide, insecticide or herbicide and we even had lumbricides to kill earthworms back then).
The answer to most problems seemed to be to kill things, without asking why they were there in the first place or indeed why they were considered a problem.
The trouble was that these problems would often recur frequently, despite previous treatment, meaning you didn’t need to be much of a scholar to realise that these problems were merely symptoms of something else that was going on in the green, but wasn’t being addressed by any of the work we were doing. It was a lot like popping aspirins every day instead of visiting the dentist once. There seemed to be no consideration of what damage we might be doing in our attempts to mask these symptoms. Could we be building up bigger problems for the future? Well, of course, I was still a teenager then and a rookie greenkeeper at best, so I didn’t have these answers.
With the benefit of 40 years of observation, however, it is now clear that the routines installed in the 1970s and that have been continued unquestioned in many cases since, are now causing us a lot of expensive problems with our greens.

‘We have always done it this way’
These seven words are the most dangerous in the world of greenkeeping. They reflect a reactive approach to greenkeeping that is resistant to change, driven by symptoms management and perpetuating harmful practices that not only damage the bowling green but also impact long-term sustainability, not to mention the budget.
The practice of top-dressing greens with high sand content dressings every year is rooted in the 1960s and ’70s. By removing cores of heavy clay soil and replacing them with a good quality, uniform, medium coarse sand, the soil will gradually become a much better medium for growing fine grass and for bowling on. However, I’ve carried out this operation on heavy greens and the job is usually completed within four or five years even for the heaviest of soils. It needs careful monitoring to make sure you don’t go too far with it, as going the other way isn’t possible. The mistake many clubs have made is in continuing this process for a further 30 or 40 years without monitoring or even questioning it. The thinking must be something like: “If a little sand is good, then more sand must be better.” A high proportion of the greens built in the UK over the last 200 years would have started with 150-200mm (six-eightinch) deep rootzones made up of local soil, rocks n’ all. As players demanded better green performance, the approach to improving these greens would quite rightly have included regular top-dressing with a sandy top dressing. In the last 50 years, we have seen a huge increase in the sand applied to greens in an attempt to improve them. Once a workable rootzone has been achieved, the relentless adding of sand every year must stop and for a very large number of clubs in the UK and further afield, that time passed many years or even decades ago. Every ounce of sand added now is taking these greens further towards the extreme left side of the Soil Texture Triangle and is making greens unmanageable. They are inert, lacking soil microlife and stuffed full of hydrophobic sand that restricts moisture and nutrient availability. Though the intention is to improve the playing surface and soil structure, it often does the opposite. Beyond a certain point that I’ve called Peak Sand, continued top-dressing with sand results in inert soil, devoid of the microbial life essential for a healthy ecosystem. A common argument in support of continued top-dressing is that it is essential to level and smooth the surface. If that were the case, wouldn’t the green be like a billiard table by now? The surface anomalies caused by the continued expansion and contraction of the thatch that builds up on inert greens that are already well beyond Peak Sand, and the uneven drying and wetting of the soil caused by this, are very much in excess of what can be levelled by top dressing.


  • Localised Dry Patch (LDP): Soil becomes hydrophobic, repelling water, leading to uneven moisture levels, bare patches, persistent moss ingress and poor
    green performance.
  • Poor Playing Conditions: Greens become bumpy, uneven and unpredictable
    to maintain.
  • Thatch Accumulation: Sand can exacerbate thatch build-up, reducing water penetration, encouraging Poa annua, weeds, moss, insect pests and fungal diseases.
    The routine application of preventative fungicides has been another staple during this period as the increasingly inert sand dominated soils lost their biological balance. While effective in eradicating certain diseases temporarily, this practice harms beneficial fungi, disturbing the soil’s natural balance.


  • Loss of Beneficial Microorganisms: Beneficial fungi and bacteria are eliminated, weakening the soil’s natural defence mechanisms.
  • Reduced Disease Resistance: The natural ability of the soil and pants to combat diseases is compromised, making them dependent on chemical inputs to
    manage symptoms.
    High salt, synthetic fertilisers
    Synthetic fertilisers are frequently over-applied in the belief that more nutrients will result in healthier greens. These fertilisers often have a high salt index, exacerbating existing soil problems, particularly in sandy soils.

• Soil life depletion: High salt levels can kill off beneficial microorganisms, leading to a sterile environment.
• Worsening of LDP: High salt concentrations can aggravate Localised Dry Patch conditions. The issues above are complex, and their consequences cascade into numerous other problems, affecting not just the health of the green but also their performance and the quality of play. The challenge lies in breaking free from the conventional greenkeeping mindset embodied by those seven dangerous words: ‘We have always done it this way’.
These common problems on greens are part of an overall agronomic situation I have labelled the Circle of Decline, as explained in some of my earlier articles and covered in-depth on bowls central.co.uk The requirements for breaking your green out of the Circle of Decline are the same as those for creating high performance bowling greens, so you get two for the price of one here. Conventional greenkeeping (fungicides, high salt mineral fertilisers and sand) has decimated the micro-life in many bowling greens. Microbes (Fungi, Bacteria, Nematodes, Protozoa etc) are abundant in healthy soil. In healthy soil, excessive thatch doesn’t build up. Instead,
it is recycled by soil microbes at the same rate it is produced, not just recycled, but turned into plant available nutrients. This is how grass got to be so successful the world over for millions of years before humans even existed.
What you can do to start the turnaround?
Soil analysis: Your analysis should have detailed explanations of the results in terms of their impact on greenkeeping and green condition. It should always include an assessment of the soil texture (sand, silt and clay). In this way you can ensure that the report you get holds value in terms of green performance for your club.
Aeration, including thatch reduction (hollow tining and scarifying) where it is excessive, de-compaction via deep slit tining in winter and pencil tining/sarrell rolling in summer to keep the surface aerated.
Bio stimulants adding carbohydrates to the soil will stimulate microbial activity when conditions are far from ideal. Seaweed and molasses derived bio stimulants are among the most useful of these.
Stop ‘putting the green to bed’. Greenkeeping is a 12 month a year exercise, or it certainly should be, so there is no time like the present to get started on this.

Caption: Hollow tining and heavy scarification are often combined to remove more thatch and to avoid the need for further top dressing

Here to help
If you have any questions or comments about greenkeeping feel free to drop me a line to john@bowls-central.co.uk

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