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Time to get serious about green performance

Having worked in the greenkeeping industry for more than four decades now in varying roles, I have often been frustrated by the proliferation of mis-information about the correct greenkeeping approach required to produce high performance bowling green surfaces (writes John Quinn). I regularly encounter three common obstacles to achieving excellence on bowling greens and strangely enough, all of them occur in the clubhouse and not on the green. They can be divided into:

  1. Acts of desperation in an attempt to speed up green improvements;
  2. Inconsistency or chopping and changing, usually driven by desperation;
  3. Tradition – “We’ve always done this” syndrome.
    Let’s take a closer look at these clubhouse problems:

Desperation mode: Greenkeeping is seen as a simple and menial task by many non-greenkeepers and the timescale required to turn a poorly performing green into a high performance one is misjudged or thought about in too literal a fashion, leaving science and real greenkeeping knowledge and experience on the sidelines. As a result, clubs often embark on a roller coaster ride of chopping and changing their approach to maintenance year after year. One year they will engage a contracting company to turn the green around and shortly into this arrangement there will be a revolt by a group of the club’s elite players due to the lack of progress and it will be all change again to a different approach, which could be another contractor, a new greenkeeper or even a combination of these. These are all clear signs that the club is in desperation mode and if you are a member of a bowling club, you might well recognise this.

Inconsistency: Desperation mode kicks in when consistency of maintenance is lost. And of course, consistency of approach goes out of the window as soon as an element of doubt creeps in to the equation. In this respect, the members are being passionate about all of the wrong things, and it damages the club and green in terms of the wrong maintenance regime being applied, the extra costs involved in continually changing the plan and the cost of lost members, matches etc. However, the really dangerous part is the long-term damage possibly being done to the green as a result of there being no focus or agronomic plan and that’s where the third big obstacle usually makes its presence felt and that is the obstacle of tradition.

Tradition: Insisting on particular maintenance operations for no other reason than: “We’ve always done this,” is flawed because in many cases, the operations or techniques in question are damaging to the green and can actually compound the damage already done by continually repeating poorly thought through maintenance programmes.

Let’s take one of the worst as an example: top-dressing. Continually top-dressing bowling greens with high sand content dressings is one of the worst things many clubs can do in their quest for a high performance green, yet it is now a greenkeeping tradition even though it has only been around for a relatively short time, maybe since the late 1960s in the UK.
Fifty Years of Sand: A very high proportion of the greens I test each year have in excess of 90% sand in the rootzone. In many cases, this has resulted in hydrophobic soil, which shows up mid-season as Localised Dry Patch, characterised by large brown areas of turf in the summer time that won’t readily accept water and won’t re-wet. This weakens the turf and leaves the green susceptible to a range of symptomatic problems such as moss invasion, increased disease outbreaks, bumps, bad runs and dips in the green surface and a proliferation of annual meadow grass. This happens because the soil is inert, lifeless with a vastly depleted soil microbiome. The soil microbe population is essential for the prevention of disease, the recycling of dead plant material, the structure and health of the soil and the release of nutrients to plants.
Some microbes even form symbioses with the fine grasses without which they can’t thrive. Other traditions include continually applying pesticides to eradicate these symptoms (moss, LDP, disease) and more top-dressing in a vain attempt to level out the bumps.
This is called the Circle of Decline.
The answers
At some point, we have to take responsibility for the future of the green and make sure if we can that we are continually working towards a healthier and better performing green. After changing to a greenkeeping programme designed to improve soil health, improvements in green performance will begin right away, but the thinking has to change away from symptoms management for the
What do I mean by bowling green performance? Bowlers look for certain characteristics in a green and they despair of certain others. Over 40-plus years of greenkeeping and teaching greenkeepers, I have come to notice that bowling green performance comes down to just three major characteristics that can be influenced and manipulated almost at will by skilled greenkeepers who have a deep understanding of how the green stuff below their feet actually works.
They are as follows:
1Green speed: Possibly the single best understood and simultaneously misunderstood factor in bowling green performance is green speed. Can you gently cajole your wood up the green to nestle against the jack or do you need to hoof it to get it past the middle or anywhere near the jack, just taking your chances as to where it ends up? A fast green helps good players to excel by using their skill and experience to play shots that just wouldn’t work out on a slow surface.
2 Green trueness: However, the pace of the green matters not a jot if the surface isn’t true. The trueness of a bowling green is often called into question by bowlers. Just when you think you are performing
at your highest level of ability all season, you visit a green where you just “can’t find the roads,” or when you do, and your most sweetly delivered shot suddenly swerves offline and stops a meter away from where you thought it should. Green trueness is a measure of how much horizontal, (side to side) movement of the wood is induced by discrepancies in or on the green surface.
3Green smoothness: Green smoothness is often noticed when the greenkeeper would rather it wasn’t i.e. when it’s not smooth enough! Smoothness is the third and last major factor in green performance and is defined by how much vertical deviation (bounce) the wood encounters on its way to the jack. Smoothness can also contribute to the wood going offline or against the draw.
The problem with thatch
The condition of many bowling greens has deteriorated as a result of conventional, reactive greenkeeping and if that isn’t enough to convince clubs to return to a more natural greenkeeping programme, then the potential to reduce the most expensive physical work and treatments should be. The build up of thatch isn’t a natural phenomenon; you won’t see thatch on natural grasslands or even on less intensively managed amenity turf. Thatch builds up simply because there isn’t enough life in the soil to recycle dead plant material into humus, where it becomes a key player in the Nitrogen Cycle.

Thatch and green speed
Due to the spongy, soft nature of an excessive thatch layer, the energy needed to propel a bowl a set distance is increased significantly.
The fibrous mat of thatch actually saps the energy from your shots making it difficult to play with any level of finesse or predictability. It essentially produces a surface that is unfairly inconsistent. It’s a bit like playing on deep pile carpet, but
more tricky.

Thatch and green trueness
Excessive thatch build up has a tendency to dry out unevenly, leaving dips and bumps on the green surface that will cause a bowl to veer off its course unexpectedly. The nature of thatch means that even if you could get a handle on this and play accordingly in your match, it will all be different tomorrow. Thatch is continually moving, shrinking and expanding in response to the environmental changes in air temperature, soil temperature and moisture, weather and relative humidity. Thatch is the main cause of complaints about straight hands, bad runs and dodgy rinks.

Thatch and green smoothness
Almost imperceptible dips, hollows, bumps and gullies in the surface which move and change continually with weather and moisture changes are features of excessive thatch. Of course, this can cause quite a lot of disruption to your shot as it traverses the rink. In addition to the sapping of speed and deviations in the direction of the shot, thatch causes vertical deviation of the shot due to bumpiness on the green surface.

Quick start guide to improving green performance

  1. Evaluate your green using my three-part guide.
  2. Use only low salt fertilisers.
  3. Stop using blanket applications of fungicides as they kill off essential beneficial fungi in the soil.
  4. Thatch is caused by the wrong maintenance.
    You can start reducing thatch and improving your soil’s health immediately with good aeration practices and natural BioStimulants.

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