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Top Dressing Bowling Green

The Great Top-Dressing Debate

Towards the end of every bowling season thoughts start to turn to the autumn renovation program or the “closing of the green” as many clubs call it. Bowling clubs throughout the UK will take delivery of between 3 and 10 tonnes of very expensive top-dressing compost, which will be applied to the green after hollow tining or some other aeration operation, in the belief that this will ensure that the green is in perfect condition next season. However, too much top-dressing can actually  harm the green and in many cases, clubs simply shouldn’t be doing it at all…but why?

The answer is simple yet full of complexity. At it’s most basic, the answer is that excessive use of sand on bowling greens causes the under lying soil to become inert; lacking life or the complex web of interactions that go to make healthy, high performance turf. The natural balance of the soil/turf ecosystem is upset and the green will never be capable of consistent high performance for as long as the folly of top dressing is allowed to continue.

The complexity comes in when we start to consider that top dressing is recommended by most experts and consultants and that this advice is religiously followed by the vast majority of bowling clubs. However, a brief look at the facts facing many bowling greens after decades of this type of maintenance makes it perfectly clear that top-dressing is not a good option for the majority of bowling greens in the UK.

In the remainder of the article I want to explore the issues I have experienced with greens that have been routinely top-dressed using high sand top-dressing composts over the past 30 years. I will explain the problems with Localised Dry Patch, Thatch, Soil Exchange, Green Levels and Surface Smoothness, Irrigation and water
management and the dilemma that all of this leaves many clubs facing.

So lets’ start with Localised Dry Patch or LDP.

Localised Dry Patch

Over the last 20 years Localised Dry Patch (LDP) has become a major problem on bowling greens, and although this is not wholly attributable to top-dressing, the excessive use of sand in the top-dressing mix has caused water retention problems on a lot of greens.

It is of course desirable to have a free draining soil profile on a bowling green to help to encourage deep rooting of the grasses and to maintain a reasonable green speed for play. However, continued application of bulk sandy dressings is of limited benefit to most greens and actually harmful to many due to their already high sand content and related lack of soil microbial activity.

Thatch

Natural plant decomposition results in a release of nutrients from dead plant material, but soils low in microbial activity tend to suffer from a build up of organic material (thatch) at the soil surface, which will become much more water retentive than desired. However, the answer to this does not lie with dilution of the organic layer with huge amounts of sand, but rather in reducing this layer through judicious and very regular aeration and core removal and the ongoing encouragement of soil microbial activity.

Soil Exchange

Where the soil is less than perfect for fine turf production, soil exchange programs consisting of hollow tining followed by top-dressing with a more desirable growing medium will still be required, but this is an entirely different subject.

Green Levels versus Surface Smoothness

There is a great difference between “Surface Smoothing” and “Surface Levelling”. Surface smoothness in this context relates to very minor discrepancies in the surface which can be rectified by a combination of surface aeration, rolling and light top-dressing.

Surface levels on the other hand cannot generally be greatly improved through even “Heavy” top dressing work. This term relates to much more severe changes in level which can be measured by laser survey and can be seen to have a visible affect on a wood’s traverse across the green.

“Heavy Topdressing” usually defined as dressings over 6 tonnes will not have a dramatic effect on surface levels and are more in keeping with the type of operation required by new greens for the first 2 to 3 seasons to achieve the final levels not ironed out during construction.

I say this because if you do the calculations, a 10 tonne dressing over an average green (1400 m2) will result in a maximum coverage of 4mm, which is only suitable for smoothing out the smallest of imperfections.

By far the biggest culprit in poor levels is excessive thatch which moves, swells, compacts and contracts continually. Trying to keep up with this with top-dressing is futile.

Irrigation

Going back to the main issue of greens drying out, the average bowling club in the UK is finding it difficult to find the money to irrigate the green sufficiently during dry weather. Again when we look at the numbers, the average automatic irrigation system throws out approximately 1mm of water for every 2 minutes of run time.

Now I visit a lot of bowling clubs and I know that many of them rely on “rule of thumb” measurements like 4 minutes per head etc when timing irrigation. Well, on average a green will lose 25mm of moisture to evapo-transpiration (a measure of the combined effects of soil evaporation and plant transpiration) and that’s from a  healthy green in a normal dry week. This doesn’t take account of excessively high sand content, drying winds or existing dry patch problems etc.

To simply replace the moisture lost from one day’s evapo-transpiration you need to run your irrigation system for 8 minutes per head, that’s double and in some cases several times what many clubs are doing. Over a 7 day period this equates to 50 minutes of run time per head.

Catch 22

Turning back to Localised Dry Patch. This is a condition that causes large sections of the green surface to turn brown due to lack of moisture. No amount of irrigation will make these areas re-wet. They are literally hydrophobic or water repellent. Careful use of wetting agents and hand watering can make some improvement, but usually it takes a wet winter to bring about full re-wetting. The main trouble with LDP is its tendency to make the green bumpy. This happens when the baked dry thatch layer on top of the soil starts to shrink below the surface of the surrounding healthy turf. Irrigation makes the problem worse as the healthy areas grow more and the dry areas recede further.

To crown it all, continued heavy use of the irrigation system in the desperate effort to bring these areas back to life, starts to encourage thatch fungus, which eventually sinks and causes an even more uneven surface.

The Alternative

The Performance Bowling Greens program isn’t completely anti-top-dressing, but I have found that very few greens, at least in the UK, can actually cope with the damage that would be inflicted by applying more sand. The program recognises that some greens will still require top-dressing and gives advice on this.

However, the most important aspect of the programs I recommend for most greens is that they focus on returning bowling greens to healthy, living eco-systems that are not only disease and pest resistant, but also in a condition that helps the club to provide their members with a consistently high performance playing surface that can be set up predictably over the entire playing season.

The Performance Bowling Greens Program is set out in comprehensive detail in Performance Bowling Greens, a practical guide.

managing turf disease

Managing turf disease effectively, cheaply and permanently

Managing turf disease effectively, cheaply and permanently is well within the grasp of every greenkeeper. The soil in our greens already holds all of the answers to this, or at least it should do. Some of the routine work we do on greens is more damaging than beneficial. The need to manage turf disease more effectively gives us the perfect excuse to start returning our soils and grass plants to their natural disease resistant selves, much to the benefit of our members and clubs. John explains how to manage turf disease outbreaks simply and with reference to vegetarian sausages :-)...may contain nuts!

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Compost Teas

Compost Tea Quick Start Guide

Compost Tea is a home made spray that is applied to fine turf to increase the micro life in the soil. It reintroduces missing microbes and boosts the populations of all of the main beneficial microbe groups such as bacteria, protozoa and the all important Fungi. Some of these help to degrade thatch, turning it into valuable humus, giving life and body to the depleted and often excessively sandy soil in many bowling greens.

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Mycorrhizal fungi and turf health

Mycorrhizal fungi and turf health, better bowling greens rely on us understanding this.

Mycorrhizal fungi and turf health go hand in hand. The symbiotic relationships that exist between our turf grass plants and soil fungi are critical to producing a high performance, perennial grass dominated sward. Here we look at the benefits of mycorrhizal relationships in turf and the techniques greenkeepers can employ to encourage them.

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Healthy soil = healthy turf = healthy soil

A beautifully made film that explains how our turf grasses can interact with soil bacteria and fungi to build the perfect, disease free bowling green eco-system if only we’d let them.

So how can you make 2019 the year you finally make a start on this process at your green?

  1. Become a Free Member of Bowls Central here
  2. Take advantage of the offer I’ll send you when you join to have your soil analysis and report written specifically for your green.
  3. Start following the program I will detail for you and allow me to guide you through the process.

What will the results look like?

  1. Your green will improve in surface performance (faster, smoother and truer) year after year .
  2. Your green keeping costs will reduce.
  3. Your green will behave more consistently and problems like disease, moss and dry patch will disappear.

Watch the video then start the process here.

Other articles related to this:

The Circle of Decline

Compost Tea, what is it and what can it do for your green?

Managing Turf Disease

Poa annua to fine grass transition

 

Compost Tea Category

Compost Tea, what is it and what can it do for your bowling green?

Compost tea is a specially home brewed spray that will boost the microbe population in your bowling green, allowing you to encourage the finer grasses and combat dry patch, disease and thatch, naturally and effectively.
After studying this subject I can say that compost tea is an essential addition to the Performance Bowling Greens Program. Regular use of compost tea can significantly boost soil microbial activity and helps to make better use of fertiliser inputs. Correct formulation of the mixture during brewing will increase the dominance of the fine perennial grasses in the green sward.
By using compost teas, greenkeepers can reverse decades of damage caused by inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and excessive sand top-dressing.

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Transitioning your green from Poa annua to bent/fescue is not only critical to achieving a Performance Bowling Green, but is actually a realistic goal. The spongy, soft turf associated with annual meadow grass is less than ideal for bowls. Common wisdom says that this can't be done without major disruption and that even after it is achieved it wont last. This article explains in detail how to undertake the transition of your green from Poa annua to bent/fescue turf and dispels the myths about stressing Poa. This is the way to change your green permanently and without fuss. It will also save your club money on maintenance, so what's not to like?

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Grass, greenkeepers and the soil food web

The soil food web has become an increasingly popular term in greenkeeping and bowling green management. The problem-solution-problem, or symptoms approach to greenkeeping has been exposed as fundamentally flawed by the diminishing list of available pesticides now available to turf managers. Is there a better way to manage greens...yes. And the extraordinary discovery is that a greenkeeping program that focusses on the green as an eco-system is fully compatible with producing tight, natural turf dominated by the fine perennial Fescue and Bent grasses.

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Successfully dealing with fairy ring in fine turf is a challenge facing many greenkeepers, but one that can be broken down into easily taken key steps. The conventional remedies that feature the use of fungicides are simply dealing with symptoms and can guarantee only one outcome; temporary relief followed by a worsening of the problem over the longer term. In this article you'll find a pesticide free, long term solution that also alleviates the short term symptoms.

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