Home » Symptoms, Causes and Cures in Bowls Green Maintenance

Symptoms, Causes and Cures in Bowls Green Maintenance

A few years ago I wrote a short article 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. 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 the Causes of Bowls Greens Maintenance problems.

For such a short article it has generated a huge number of questions from greenkeepers over the years.

If I had to sum the article up in one sentence it would be this:

The never ending quest to end symptoms

Then, if I had to sum up the majority of the questions that have arisen from the article it would be this:

“So, how many of the problems that we encounter on bowling greens are merely symptoms of a bigger issue…what are these symptoms?”

Well, its very simple…everything that goes wrong with a bowling green is a symptom of inappropriate maintenance.

There is a kind of hierarchy though:

Poor maintenance practices usually result in excessive Thatch and/or excessive Compaction (they usually go hand in hand) and almost all of the other symptoms we spoke about earlier are in turn symptoms of these two big issues or (importantly and perversely), the greenkeeping practices we employ to deal with Thatch and Compaction.

Flooding, puddles, poor drainage, fungal disease, localised dry patch, weeds, moss, slime, algae, bumpy surface, skinned heads, loss of grass cover, annual meadow grass ingress, spongy surface, foot-printing, poor grass growth, bare patches, slow surface, uneven surface…the list goes on and on…

These can all be attributed to poor maintenance, which in turn leads to compaction and thatch problems.

You will see some confusion in the list; it’s sometimes unclear if thatch or compaction is the main cause of a problem and that is because the problem is best thought of as circular and not linear.

This is why I first introduced the concept of the Circle of Decline.

Imagine you are 5 years old and your pals are all spinning happily on the roundabout in the park, but you are just watching, wishing you could get on.

Sad, I know, and I’m sorry if I’ve brought back any bitter memories for you, but the answer is to just take the plunge and jump on! After all they aren’t going to stop it for you are they?

The Circle of Decline is similar (but I am seriously considering changing it to the Roundabout of Disappointment now 😉 ), and it’s never quite clear what the starting point is, but the answer to curing it is to just jump in and start doing something positive; and if you start doing something about Thatch and Compaction, then you can’t really go far wrong.

My previous post on the Circle of Decline is here.


To explain a little further, think about some of the common problems on bowling greens like Moss taking over large patches of the surface for example.

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 nonsense.

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 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 Bowls Central, I could sell many tonnes of Ferrous Sulphate at a nice profit margin every year by simply pandering to conventional thinking, but you won’t find any for sale here. Let me explain why:

On greens where this kind of thinking is employed, the next thing that happens is that, you guessed it, the green gets invaded by moss again very quickly afterwards 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 moss…why?

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!…there, I’ve said it!

 Grass plants use a lot of Iron but can only take it up in non-oxidised form. Ferrous Sulphate that is applied or washed into the soil will quickly lock up as an Iron Oxide in the soil and become unavailable to plants. Chelated Iron remains available for uptake by grass plants and doesn’t add to the locked up Iron (often significant) in the soil.

Ferrous Sulphate is a mineral salt and for every 100grams of it you apply to your turf, you are applying over 70grams of salt.

LDP stresses our grass plants to the point of wilting due to the lack of moisture in the soil. Adding several kgs of salt 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. This might well involve controlling moss with Chelated Iron so that it doesn’t spread, but the main focus is on curing the Localised Dry Patch.

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.

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 have a look at the testimonials page to see how many other greenkeepers are enjoying the fruits of a more joined up approach to greenkeeping that deals with the green and its soil as an eco-system instead of a series of symptoms to be eradicated.

Once you’ve done that, please feel free to drop me a line or two with any questions you have about bowling green management and especially about turning around sickly, inert greens that seem to succumb to symptom after symptom every year.


  1. admin says:

    Hi Syd

    Usually between August and October, but treatment is sometimes necessary in the spring. This is when the larvae are fully grown and at their most voracious.

    Treatment isn’t usually required until there is a significant infestation.

    keeping on top of thatch control is a key weapon in prevention of this problem.



  2. kevin i says:

    Hi john i inherited a small moss problem and i remember reading soimewhere that moss is a sign of poverty in the soil. we cored and brushed in soil amandments and an organic fertilizer with mycorrhiza. the greens thrived and the moss was pushed out. an added bonus was no dry spots the rest of the season.

  3. howard spary says:

    Dear Sir
    Last year our watering system broke down for three weeks at a time of very high tempertures as ours is a sand based green we lost most of our fine grass in an effort to redress the balance we over seeded with a mostly rye grass in a effort to give a bit more drought tolerance but did not topdress as our finances with a small membership was not viable we are now left with a green that is heavy and moss which has died but has filled in where the fine grass would be we are getting plenty of grass off when we cut prresumebly this is the ryegrass mixture ( bar ultra fine) we do sorrel roll but if i verticut i suspect that it would also make the problem worse by removing what grass we do have we are due to start the spring and summer feed program with a follier feed and seaweed and wetting agent i am not a greenkepper but just a member trying my best with help from my local rep a member and myself spend hours trying to do our best but am now getting to the point of saying do i need the stress and now would be a good time to walk away from it any help would be most appeciated

    h SPARY Frustrated greenkepper

    • John says:

      Hi Howard

      It seems like your green might have a good deal of sand in the top 4 inches of the rootzone and this can often lead to problems with Localised Dry Patch (LDP), a very common problem on bowling greens described here.

      Some further information on starting to turn the situation around here.

      Please send some photos if you can and if you have a recent soil analysis, then I would be happy to look over that too and give you some pointers.

      Thanks for using Bowls Central.


  4. Dave Gaskell says:

    I accept the fact that it’s likely to be LDP that’s the greater problem for us to sort out on our green but as we stand here in mid March, our green has a very significant moss problem and if I’m not to apply sulphate of iron to knock back the moss, is the suggestion that I should just leave the moss as is and go into the season (end of April for us) with a widespread moss problem on the green?

    • John says:

      This article aims to cast light on the folly of the relentless focus on symptoms in fine turf care, moss being one of them.
      The purpose of Bowls Central is to spread information about a better approach to greenkeeping that focusses on improving the health of the soil and turf for long term and permanent improvement of bowling green performance.
      If you have underlying LDP, then no amount of Sulphate of Iron will fix your green, although it might well help to clear the immediate symptoms. The images of moss in this article are all related to LDP affected greens.
      The reliance on high salt fertilisers over decades is one of the main contributors to the problems suffered by many clubs, as I’ve described in the Circle of Decline.
      The first and most important thing is to establish the root of your problems and then to make a plan for tackling that your priority.
      Let me know if I can help further


  5. Mick Farrell says:

    Hi John, why are the crows pulling out a big amount of moss on my club green every day, the green has got loads of moss round the edges this year , very wet February probs didn’t help, but the birds are causing havoc, if I don’t swish the debris every day it can look terrible, just new to this green keeping , 3rd year, rookie , I’m going to read your stuff in the meantime, circle of Decline, I get on well with our contractor for green, so he’s into discussions about improving the green, hope to hear soon what’s going on with these pesky crows,

  6. Ian Jones says:

    Hi John
    We have overdone the iron spraying on the bowling green and it has turned black , will it grow out and recover.

    • John says:

      Hi Ian

      What did you use and how much did you apply?

      Send some photos if you can and I’ll try to help further.



  7. Dave Lane Green Keeper says:

    Hi John Dave Blaby Bowls Leicestershire

    John We have LDP on the our bowling green even with the water system being employed four times a week with each head discharging water for 12 minutes a time. I spoke to our contractor and said that in my opinion the main problem was compact he said no it needed a wetting agent with what I agreed.He did a pencil tine and applied a wetting agent.This improved the problem .I suggested to him that I thought a pencil tine would benifit his reply you’ve been reading to many books .But I think I am correct .I ask for your views.
    Many thanks Dave

  8. Susan wareing says:

    Hi John, my husband has just taken over the green keeping of a club with no money, partly due to Covid. Many of the expensive conventional treatments are simply not financially viable for us. I am a keen gardener and have grown from seed for many years and understand the importance of oxygen, space for freshly germinated root growth and growing mediums. I have pored over your articles and have what I hope is not a hair brained scheme to dramatically improve the health of this grass. I understand completely that healthy grass eliminates some of the problems that unhealthy grass facilitates, ie space for moss to grow. My idea is incredibly labour intensive, but we have volunteers, would you be willing to give your opinion?

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