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Want a performance bowling green?

A few years ago, I published a short article on Bowls Central that encompasses exactly what goes wrong on many bowling greens, with the result that periods of memorable performance when the green is ‘the best it’s ever been!’ are few and far between (writes John Quinn).
The article was called The Circle of Decline; why many greens never improve, or words to that effect. It explains why most greenkeeping problems are related to our focus on symptoms, rather than knuckling down and just concentrating on improving the health of the soil and turf.
For such a short article, it has generated a huge number of questions from greenkeepers over
the years.
Well, its very simpleโ€ฆeverything that goes wrong with a bowling green is a symptom of inappropriate maintenance. But what symptoms? Flooding, puddles, poor drainage, frequent fungal disease outbreaks, bare patches, insect herbivore damage (leatherjackets and chafers mainly), the bird pecking damaged associated with insect grub infestation, localised dry patches, weeds, moss, slime, algae, bumpy surface, skinned heads, loss of grass cover, annual meadow grass, spongy surface, foot-printing, poor grass growth, bare patches, slow surface, uneven surfaceโ€ฆthe list goes on and onโ€ฆ
The Circle of Decline in Action
Poor maintenance practices usually result in excessive thatch and/or excessive compaction (they usually go hand in hand) and almost all of the other problems are symptoms of these two big issues or, more accurately, the greenkeeping practices we employ to deal with thatch and compaction. This is why I first introduced the concept of the Circle of Decline in bowling greens. This is an observable phenomenon, which is simply a chain of events, with each subsequent event exacerbating the effects of the earlier ones.
For example, the green puddles easily after heavy rain and the water doesnโ€™t drain away as quickly as it should.
To the layman, it seems somewhat logical to conclude that there is a drainage problem and that by making deep holes and filling them with sand, the problem will be resolved.
With a bit of investigation, it will usually be found that such a problem is due to excessive thatch build up at the surface and that there isnโ€™t a drainage problem as such, just a thatch problem.
Thatch is often symptom of inert, poorly oxygenated and lifeless soil, usually due to poor aeration practices or excessive application of sand over the years or even decades previously.
This results in very low humus levels and a lack of microbial life in the soil. Some of these missing microbes are the ones usually responsible for recycling and breaking down the dead plant material that becomes thatch.
This is a circular cause and effect system in action, with the remedy that is applied, going on to make the problem worse in the longer term.
Sometimes itโ€™s never quite clear what our starting point to remedy such problems should be, but the answer is to just jump in and start doing something positive; and if you
start doing something to improve overall soil health you canโ€™t really go far wrong.
Another common example we can use to illustrate this concept is the very common problem of moss taking over large patches of the green surface.

Thatch + Excessive Sand =
Localised Dry Patch = Space = MOSS

Now, many many books, articles and even college lecturers will tell you that to deal with moss you need to improve the drainage of the green. Of course, in some cases this might well be true, but it is mostly not the case.
There are a great many types of moss and the ones that like to take over bowling greens aren’t looking for wet conditions, otherwise why would they be so prevalent on greens where the underlying soil is 90%+ sand? The mosses that take over bowling greens are looking for space, a little space in the turf sward is all the encouragement they need.
That space they crave can be created by all manner of things going wrong on the green, but to stick with our example of very high sand greens, it is commonly Localised Dry Patch (LDP) that is the instigator of moss invasion on greens.
Now, the conventional wisdom when moss invades your green is of course to kill the moss, so you will very often be given advice to apply lawn sand or sulphate of iron (Ferrous Sulphate) and of course the moss will go black and die.
On greens where this kind of thinking is employed, the next thing that happens is that the green is invaded by moss again very quickly and usually to a more extreme level than before.
The reason for this is that the application of Ferrous Sulphate has actually made it even harder for the already highly stressed grass to compete with the mossโ€ฆwhy?
Rubbing Salt Into Your Wounds
This is because we lose the focus on what is a symptom and what is the root cause of the problems we encounter on the turf.
The moss in this case is just a symptom of something else that has gone wrong with the green, in this example it is Localised Dry Patch (LDP), which in itself is also a symptom of something greater. But we don’t want to go down any rabbit holes here so let’s just stay at the LDP level for now.
If we accept for now that the LDP is the root cause and have an understanding of what that is doing to the turf we can formulate a much better plan for dealing with the moss problem and it almost never involves killing moss.
LDP stresses our grass plants to the point of wilting due to the lack of moisture in the soil. Adding several kgs of high salt fertiliser like Ferrous Sulphate to this situation
can be devastating for these plants as it has the effect of tipping the osmotic balance in the soil so that osmotic pressure can actually suck water back out of already highly stressed plants.
If these grass plants were healthy and thriving, there would be no room for moss in the turf.
So, the answer to almost every moss invasion on bowling greens that are built on high sand rootzones (over 90% of UK greens at a guess) is to deal with the LDP first and foremost.
Of course, as I’ve said, LDP itself is a symptom, so the bold forward looking greenkeeper won’t stop at moss or LDP.
Moving upstream from LDP will reveal a plethora of problems until you get right back to the root and that is almost always inert, overly sandy soil that has been decimated by pesticides and mineral salts over decades of time.
Getting Over Symptoms Thinking
In the face of an industry, and a world to some degree, that is obsessed with symptoms it can seem difficult to go against the flow of traffic, but if you get a soil sampler and take the time to familiarise yourself with whatโ€™s really happening under your feet on a regular basis, you will intuitively come up with better solutions to green problems than those who depend on the old fashioned greenkeeping hymn sheet of symptoms and cures.
Once you’ve started to do that, please feel free to drop me a line or two with any questions you have about bowling greenkeeping and especially about turning around sickly, inert greens that seem to succumb to symptom after symptom every year. You can contact me on john@bowls-central.co.uk

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