COVID-19 Greenkeeping - What is Non-Negotiable?
Updated: Mar 28
We're living in unpresented times. The Coronavirus pandemic is here and looks to be the case for a number of months. It is important that we acknowledge that this is a rapidly changing situation - we hope this post doesn't outdate too quickly but please be aware that it could do so.
Consult the most recent Government advice at all times with regards leaving your home before carrying out any greenkeeping activities. The impact on bowls is that the BCGBA moved to cancel leagues across the country. Although not sharing confined spaces such as changing rooms like for other summer sports such as cricket or tennis, it looks that both top and club level sport of all kind, indoor or outdoor is postponed. At this stage, it appears that this will be for a three month period at the very least - the likelihood could be further into the summer.
This blog post is aimed at the recreational, volunteer bowls greenkeeper. When we are out of the other side of this national crisis, we are going to need social contact and sports facilities to improve the health of the nation - both physical and mental. Spend too much money on the upkeep of the green, and your club may die through lack of funds. Spend too little time and money on the upkeep of the green - and the same fate is likely in an attempt to recover your surface. A delicate balance needs to be struck. For cricket and tennis there are a number of in-season operations which can be cut when the surface is not in use, certainly cricket. The operations of marking out, and preparing individual wickets are no longer required with no play. Bowling clubs don't have this luxury of obvious work which can be forgotten about.
Some of this will depend on if bowling clubs are able to open for limited social use between members following the main downturn of the outbreak. It is yet to be seen in a rapidly shifting situation if greens can open for a handful of members at once, under social distancing guidelines and with adequate handwashing facilities (some clubs will be dependent on a bar rather than an independent clubhouse). IF this is possible in future weeks and months then the given green will require higher maintenance inputs than a temporarily closed green.
A temporarily closed / dormant green
This looks to be the case for the immediate future. A green not in use requires maintenance, just like it does through the winter months when not in use. However, with this 'off-season' maintenance taken throughout the spring, virus or not, soil temperatures are still rising, daylength increasing, and growth improving. As we move through April and May, greens will require increased inputs verses the workload of February and March regardless of the fixture list.
Mowing height and frequency of cut A green in use would be cut up to three time per week (or more) in order to maintain a consistent height of cut of 4-6mm. The most important factor here is the one third rule - no more than a third of the height of the plant should be removed with any one cut - at the very most.
Your green, not in use now needs to be viewed as a fine lawn and maintained as such. In order to reduce the cutting frequency, the height of cut needs to be raised / kept high from the winter mowing height. Look to cut the green every 4-7 days at a height of 7-9mm. Not only will these mean a reduction in the usual mowing practices, but will reduce the fuel bill and the need for irrigation. Keeping the green at it's winter mowing height would mean that the green could be brought into play with a week or two of notice. If you allow your green to grow longer, density will be lost and the cost of end of season renovation work will increase.
If the funds and labour are available, maintain the height of cut at the lower end and keep the frequency at every 2-4 days.
A bowling green may only be aerated with micro-tines in-season to keep surface disruption to a minimum. If there was to be a period of wet weather, you may be tempted by with solid tining prior to this in order to improve rooting depth, mass, and reduced irrigation.
Nutrition It could be viewed as a luxury in the current climate, but when the grass is growing, it needs feeding. Why... as when we mow we are removing nutrients in the grass box. Grass clippings are 10% nitrogen and two thirds water - this needs to be replaced to maintain a healthy surface. Normally in-season most clubs would use liquid fertilisers given fixtures will be played most days. Now this is not the case a labour and cost effective controlled release granular fertiliser is a good option. There are granular products which can provide release patterns of 4-6 months which may be worth considering as a one-off application. Be wary of the application rate as you want to provide a consistent drip feed of nutrition to the green, rather than need carry out more mowing than required.
Many golf clubs are applying plant growth regulators (PGR's) at current, tank mixed with a liquid iron / trace of nitrogen. If your club has the funds and product availability then this could be a further consideration. Run the maths on product cost vs labour and fuel cost.
Scarification / Verti-cutting
As suggested, the grass doesn't know anything of the pandemic and will be producing thatch all the same. This will need to be kept in check across the year.
Green open, for managed member use
In the hopeful instance that greens could be used responsibly on the 'way out' of the current crisis, then 95% of normal maintenance will apply. If it can be tolerated from the membership, it could be that the height of cut of the green is left fractionally higher in order to aid maintenance and irrigation requirements. Fingers crossed for mid-summer?
Bedworth Bowling Club, during and 6 weeks following 2019 autumn renovation works in conjunction with ourselves.
Am I allowed to work on my green?
On the evening of Monday 23rd, the prime minister announced a 'semi-lockdown' of the UK, restricting the movement of people in a bid to control the spread of the virus. This as ever with many ground-breaking policy left many of us confused, and unaware of the detail. The most relevant information we can find on this being from English Golf and BIGGA, on the assumption that golf / bowls greenkeeping is essentially the same thing, posing the same risks, and very similar maintenance.
It is ultimately a personal decision as to if you carry out the above essential maintenance to your green. Everybody's mindset and circumstances are different and we must all respect that. However, if you think you can leave greens for three months with no maintenance and then come back to expect to produce a product for when your green opens, you are entirely mistaken. This will without doubt cost your club more in the long run.
What and how much we should be doing has been a contentious issue over Facebook to the point I refer you to the above webpages. You should make your own informed decision on this matter using the above links and current Government guidance - this could change within the space of days.
How could this be achieved?
Income for sports clubs in short supply in the strange world we currently reside. Here are a few ideas:
1) Involve the membership We all need exercise. As we collectively shelter from COVID-19, it's important that we do not allow other health issues to catch up with us instead. Assisting with the maintenance of your bowling green is more productive than having that walk in the park - do so behind a mower and help to keep your club alive (Government guidance permitted).
2) Ask for funds
When a business needs to raise finance, it may look internally to shareholders, or externally in the form of a bank loan. The most compassionate stakeholders of the club are going to be it's members. Should it be communicated to members that funds are still required to run the club, given they are? What percentage of green fees are required to keep the club alive this season? Could clubs ask for 50% / 75% of the usual subs now, in the hope that the second half of the season gets played, or if not, count as a donation towards fixed costs? Green fees are largely incredibly low as they are. Should a bowling club be keeping three months of overheads in the bank just as a business should?
Funding hasn't yet been announced for sports clubs, but loans and grants from bodies such as Sport England could be another place to go. Expect announcements shortly - funding for charities I understand could be next on the chancellor's priority list.
3) Ask to delay payments
If using a contractor for the management for the green - look to renegotiate the short / medium term maintenance to that of the above. If their income is not dependent on sports clubs, they themselves may be able to offer a payment holiday of sorts, or spread payments over a greater period of time. Many within the membership of a bowling club could be on a fixed income (OAP's). Some of those not in 'at risk' categories could be gaining 80% of their wage with their job effectively held by the Government, with time to give. If members are posed with letting their sports club die, or surrender time and funds, time and funds will be available collectively should they choose. As suggested, a sports club should be ran responsibly enough to have a level of reserve funds. Given this situation is here for the medium / long term, plans may need to be put into place sooner rather than later to secure futures. It's the perfect time to get out of the house, and into voluntary greenkeeping - with strict social distancing measures!