Green keeping for an amateur bowls club is a thankless task - but autumn is on the way and with it, the busiest days of the season. The day after the last game is the first day of the new season for your green. The success of works achieved in the autumn will shape the condition of the green for the following season. Unlike with spring, soil temperatures are high and rainfall is adequate - these autumn weeks are a golden opportunity to bring the green up to scratch. Here we look at the common troubles of bowling greens - what needs to be carried out and why.
It's important to understand that no two greens are the same. The surfaces will have been constructed at different times, using different drainage systems and soils. Greens will have different local factors such as shade, maintenance practices, available funds, labour and machinery. It is important that core samples are taken from greens and problems assessed rather than entering end of season works blind - wasting time and money on counter productive work. From these cores it is also advisable to send away a soil sample for testing to mold a fertiliser plan for the green, rather that taking a stab in the dark at what the green really needs.
With assessments made, it's time to make a plan for autumn / winter, and therefore the following season. Here's a few things that should be on your mind.
A well used green will likely be suffering from compaction; a compacted soil is not one that grass will find attractive to grow in. Aerating with hollow-tines removes soil cores from your green - it is an age old method for green keepers to get plentiful air into the soil. These holes as they close will introduce air pockets across the whole green which are vital for the health of both established and new grass plants.
Hollow-tine aeration is also a must in a green with a thatch layer. If the thatch layer can be punched through, the breakdown of this can be improved by getting air into the soil profile. Hollow-tine aeration can remove 2-3% of the green, so it's some thatch removed within the cores, and plenty of air to benefit it's future breakdown, and for the benefit of the grass plants.
Many greens suffer from moss due to compaction. Moss has no root system, and therefore depends on surface moisture to thrive. If the top couple of inches of soil can be made more attractive for grass and less attractive for moss then it's going to be a great help.
Scarification / Thatch Removal
Many bowls clubs are maintaining a green with a toxic thatch layer and do not even know it. Again, the removal samples from the green will show a layer of dead / decaying matter between the leaves of the grass plant at the soil - this is know as thatch. A thatch layer inside a centimetre is expected and manageable. Past this and management practices need to be ramped up.
Thatch is naturally produced waste by the grass plant - dead leaves, stems and roots die back and to form this layer. This must be worked hard each autumn and to a lesser extent spring. Thatch is both detrimental to the health of the grass plant and to the playability of the green. A thatch layer will lead to an inconsistent surface through rapidly drying out or holding moisture, making the green unpredictable.
Thatch is dreadful for your green when it comes to overseeding. Green-keepers waste volumes of seed attempting to grow grass in thatch. Like any other plant, grass needs to be growing in soil to germinate.
An aggressive end of season scarification will remove volumes of thatch, improving the surface. The grooves that a heavy duty scarifier will create may make for an ideal seedbed if the thatch layer is now under control. If a layer is still present, resist wasting your money and play a long game with the green, concentrating on improving the soil health first, before throwing the club's funds away in materials. Get the basics right first.
As just stated, only overseed if this material is going to reach the soil. If aerating to a shallow depth of half an inch with pencil tines gets the seed down to soil then do this first. Maybe trial a small area before an overseed of a full green.
Remember that adequate irrigation will be required. Most greens are made up of a high sand content which are prone to localised dry patch. Check that water is making it into the soil and consider wetting agent applications. A high sand rootzone is all well and good in professional sport but will prove tough to manage at amateur level if irrigation is inadequate.
Many clubs enjoy piling anything from two to seven tonnes of sand onto the green at the end of the season, in the hope that the expense and labour of this will improve the green without first identifying the causes of problems. If the green is being maintained well and there is little thatch presence then the correct work can get seed into the soil and germinating without any top-dressing, or just a light dusting of a compatible material at most. If there is a thatch layer then resist the temptation to spend money on burying that thatch.
The only thing worse than thatch is sub-surface thatch. It needs to come out rather than be pushed further in.
So what is the plan?
With bowling greens as you can see, it really does depend on your starting point as to what work is carried out at the end of the season! If the green is already in fair condition, then a standard renovation would be made up of aerating, scarifying, overseeding and a fertiliser application. If deeper problems persist then this will need to be modified and a 12 month plan put in place for better maintenance.
Autumn / Winter Quick Tips
Get your mower(s) serviced and correctly set at a winter mowing height of 8-10mm. Do not neglect the level of mowing that is required through winter, or your key machinery.
Aeration, aeration, aeration. Slit (chisel) tine the green as often as every 2-3 weeks through the off-season. If there is no play then you have several months to get as much air into the soil profile as possible. If your green is in good condition and used for competitions through parts of the winter then this can be done with strategic timing, or with solid tines for less disruption to the surface.
Address the fertiliser requirements for your green. Get a soil test completed to understand what the green actually needs. Most greens possess toxic levels of iron following repeat applications to control moss, rather than the correct mechanical work. This excess iron will cause a direct lock-up of other nutrients, a lowering of pH - thereby again causing a lock-up of nutrients. Apply what the green needs, rather than what will make the grass greener rather than the grass healthier.
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. In frosty or icy conditions there shouldn't be any bowling or any work being carried out on the green. Winter bowling is fine providing the surface is carefully managed, just like with golf.