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Bowls Central Newsletter

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We have provided numerous links to the Bowls Central website which offers greenkeeping services and advice. The latest newsletter from them is reproduced in full below with a link to a soil analysis service which will cost you £110 including a programme for the year for your green. For some greens this may be good value for money. The read is a bit deep for me but will probably mean a lot more to those responsible for bowling greens and may be of interest to you.

Bowls Central January 2021 Newsletter

Eco-thinking for Better Bowling Greens

If you asked me what is the one piece of advice greenkeepers can learn most from then it would be to: Learn to think in terms of Ecology What is Ecology? Ecology is the study of interactions among living things and their environment. It provides a new understanding of these vital systems as they are now, and how they may change in the future. The 4 Laws of Ecology*

Law 1. Everything is connected to everything else. Bearing this in mind suddenly reveals the folly of using blunt instruments like pesticides to deal with symptoms on your turf. Many beneficial organisms are wiped out along with the pathogen. Pathogens like Fusarium for example are also likely to have beneficial roles in the eco-system, so we simply don't know the extent of the potential domino effect of using a broad spectrum fungicide

Law 2. Everything must go somewhere. This is, of course, simply a restatement of a basic law of physics—that matter is indestructible. Applied to ecology, the law emphasises that in nature there is no such thing as “waste.” In every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is taken up by another as food. Animals release carbon dioxide as a respiratory waste; this is an essential material for green plants. Plants excrete oxygen, which is used by animals. Animal organic wastes nourish the bacteria of decay. Their wastes, inorganic materials such as nitrate, phosphate, and carbon dioxide, become nutrients for other organisms.

Adding unknowns such as fungicides and herbicides into the eco-system raises a lot of questions, but particularly what the fate of these chemicals eventually is. Agri Scientists are now starting to uncover the long term problems of bio-accumulation (chemicals building up in the soil and even in our vital organs) and the so called cocktail effect of pesticides combining with older pesticide residues in the soil to create new chemical compounds, some of which have been shown to be are carcinogenic Law 3. Nature knows best. There can be a lot of resistance to accepting this seemingly simplistic view. After all haven't we successfully developed an advanced understanding of nature and its workings? The advances in medical understanding and treatments seem to suggest that we can control and exploit nature to improve on it. The question is, "do we rally understand what effects our actions have on the broader eco-system?". It's possibly best illustrated with an analogy.

Suppose you were to open the back of your watch, close your eyes, and poke a pencil into the exposed works. The almost certain result would be damage to the watch. Nevertheless, this result is not absolutely certain. There is some finite possibility that the watch was out of adjustment and that the random thrust of the pencil happened to make the precise change needed to improve it. However, this outcome is exceedingly improbable.

It's the same with poking and prodding your bowling green with inputs of pesticides, sand and inorganic fertilisers. They don't always have the effect you expect. Law 4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Self-explanatory this one, but if a new wonder product seems too good to be true, it probably is. Even if it does what is claimed, there will almost certainly be a price to pay later.

Turf Disease

One area where the benefits of this can be best demonstrated in when thinking about how to deal with turf disease.

Managing turf disease can seem like an endless battle for many greenkeepers, but it doesn't have to be that way. The quickest, most economical and least stressful way to create a high-performance bowling green is to focus on the health of the soil and plants. Even in the very early stages of adopting my Performance Greens Program, greenkeepers notice a reduction in the incidence of turf diseases, allowing them to significantly reduce and in many cases stop fungicide applications. All because the soil is being allowed to recover its naturally healthy state.

One aspect of turf management I've talked about a lot is that the excessive thatch build up commonly seen on sickly bowls greens is unknown in natural grasslands. Closely related to this is the almost complete absence in natural grasslands of serious fungal disease outbreaks. The reason for this is that the two (excessive thatch and fungal disease) are cause and effect; the excessive thatch creates the ideal environment for fungal pathogens i.e. a soft, wet and warm substrate populated by weak, sickly plants.

Another reason that we don't see widespread disease outbreaks on natural grasslands and/or healthy sportsturf surfaces, is that nature helps plants become disease resistant. And interestingly, we now have the ability to reintroduce and encourage the dominance of many of these natural defences that plants have against diseases in our greens. This isn't a nice to have feature on your green. This is essential for the future of the game as it not only benefits the plants, but it helps to create the right conditions for high performance.

In natural grasslands, the grass plants provide the food for the billions of beneficial microbes that live in every teaspoonful of healthy soil. If plants actually suffer and die this food source is lost to the microbes. Over millions of years, the grass plants and microbes have evolved their own systems of co-existence and in the process have developed a range of defence mechanisms to make sure plants stay alive. The easiest way for greenkeepers to manage turf well is to exploit these defence mechanisms. First we must ensure that the grass plants have strong cell walls that are resistant to invasion from fungal pathogens like fusarium. To do this we need to prevent too much lush growth by limiting Nitrogen application. We can also help this process by applying bio-stimulants which provide plants with many of the elements they need to naturally strengthen the cell walls.

It will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the links land that fescue, with its hard, wiry stricture and similarly robust cell wall structure, is more resistant to disease than annual meadow grass (Poa annua), which is a softer, weaker grass generally, but has a particularly weak cell structure when compared to the hardy perennial grasses. Knowing this gives you a great advantage in managing turf disease effectively.

Fungal pathogens invade plants by exploiting weaknesses, such as physical damage from dull mower blades, through pores or by deploying enzymes to break down the cell wall structure. To counteract such an attack, the grass plant produces its own toxic chemicals and enzymes which fight back against the pathogen. Managing turf disease is made simpler if we can stimulate the grass to produce these immune responses by using bio-stimulants and minimising the use of fungicides.

Our lack of familiarity with Fungi

We've been taught to be suspicious of fungi. The only ones we commonly hear of are the baddies like fusarium, take all patch and dollar spot. In a healthy green there are many thousands of other fungi species, not to mention the thousands of bacterial species that work symbiotically with our grass plants all year round. Soil microbes need the host plant for food and survival, so they have evolved mechanisms to ensure their host plant stays alive. When a plant comes under attack, it sends out signals to the soil microbes which respond by defending the plant from pathogens. In bowling greens that have been through many cycles of the Circle of Decline the problem that arises is that these defensive microbes are missing.

We can start to counteract this any time we like. We can stop using high salt index inorganic fertilisers in favour of microbe friendly organics, which allow the microbes to restart the humus building process in the soil by degrading thatch naturally. Increasing aeration and applying the correct bio-stimulants will encourage soil microbes to thrive. We can add new microbes to ensure we have a full and growing compliment of these by using simple and inexpensive compost teas. Regular application of Compost Tea inoculates the rootzone with all of the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and beneficial nematodes it needs and natural bio-stimulants like liquid seaweed help to feed and nourish these, helping the populations to grow rapidly. It's cheap and it works.

How Soil Microbes protect grass plants from disease

Soil microbes employ a variety of key methods to protect our grass plants from pathogens in the soil.

They produce toxins

When a grass plant is attacked by a fungal pathogen it sends out a chemical signal to the surrounding soil microbes, some of which will respond by producing toxins with which to counter-attack the pathogen. These work by interrupting the pathogen's energy supply and are a bit like free natural fungicides, only very targeted and safe to the other soil fungi. They also act immediately, long before there are outward signs of a problem on the turf surface.

Good microbes work to exclude the baddies

I'm often asked:

"can't we just apply enough fungicide to get rid of the pathogens like fusarium once and for all and then start from scratch building up the beneficial microbe population?"

This isn't how ecology works and in fact, and perhaps surprisingly, many of the plant pathogenic fungi exist in beneficial form in the soil until plants show signs of stress or become weak due to weather, over fertilisation or lose their defence mechanisms for one reason or another. It would be a strange eco-system that nurtured a species whose sole job was to kill plants for the sake of it.

Good microbes create barriers to keep pathogens out

Beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil form barriers to entry for pathogens. Mycorrhizal Fungi form a sheath of mycelia around the roots of grass plants. This creates a physical barrier, stopping any pathogen from getting close to the roots and thereby stopping them from penetrating the plant cells. As pay back for this service the mycorrhizal fungi get access to the constant supply of carbs and protein leaking from the roots. These root exudates are the main source of food for soil bacteria, which convert the protein into plant available nutrients. Low levels of beneficial bacteria and fungi in soil make it easier for pathogens to reach and attack the plant. In addition to forming a barrier around the plant root system, when present in sufficient numbers these microbes convert root exudates to plant ready nutrients, making it possible for us to reduce fertiliser inputs.

The Microbial world has predators and prey

In a teaspoonful of healthy soil there can be a billion microbes and as you might imagine, they like to eat each other. Making sure therefore, that you have a predominance of beneficial bacteria, fungi and predatory nematodes means that harmful fungi and root feeding nematodes will be eaten long before they become a problem. We know that natural grasslands are naturally, relatively disease free. This is also true of some bowling greens, but I think the vast majority of greens are at some stage of the Circle of Decline which means a continuous cycle of fertiliser - water - disease - fungicide - fertiliser and the object for many greenkeepers must be to break out of that cycle. But, how can we re-introduce and then encourage the continuation of these natural defence systems over the long term?

Getting Started

Managing turf disease is really very basic and simple. We are simply facilitating the recovery of the soil beneath our feet to a state that it would actually revert to naturally over time if we did nothing. The only difference is that we have a job to keep, so we must provide a high performance sports surface while we do that.

Specific bacteria and fungi, such as mycorrhizal fungi can be applied in liquid or granular form by themselves or combined with fertilisers, seed coats or bio-stimulants. However, by far the simplest way to get started on this vital work is to start brewing and applying Compost Tea. This is a low cost way to ensure you are applying the widest variety of microbes which you grow yourself in a simple brewer at your own green. You can then tank mix this brew with any number of natural bio-stimulants, such as liquid seaweed and organic fertilisers, minimising the time you need to spend actually applying sprays to the green.

As part of the Performance Greens Program this is the way to get your green's soil started on the road back to health. Once that's started, you can be sure that your soil will be increasingly attractive to the fine perennial grasses and once you do that you will be well prepared for creating a high performance green surface that provides your club with the greatest of assets. *some text for the 4 laws of ecology attributable to The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner

Making best use of Winter Down Time

The winter months can seem like a drag, but there is plenty of useful work you can be doing out on the green. If the weather is just too bleak to consider actual greenkeeping, then you can take advantage of the downtime to update your knowledge and skills.


By now you will hopefully have had the slit tiner out at least twice a month throughout the close season. If not, then it’s not too late to start this month. Regular deep slit tining through the winter months is the best aeration method for breaking up compacted soil layers. Compaction builds up over the year due to downward foot and machinery pressure, literally squeezing the air out of the soil. Deep slit tining also allows the surface to remain a little drier than it otherwise would be which is good for minimising the impact and spread of disease outbreaks.

Sarrell rolling, although not a common winter recommendation can also help the infiltration of Liquid Seaweed applications which help to boost the soil microbe population in winter and help grass plants to fight back against disease pressure.

Disease watch

Speaking of disease outbreaks, you should be vigilant for signs of fusarium during mild and wet spells of weather. However, instead of racing to the fungicide bottle immediately, try setting a threshold below which you don’t spray. This is a personal thing, but a good example is to decide not to spray until a pre-determined percentage of the green surface is affected. At first you might want to set this threshold low at say 10% of the surface.

The reason for this, is to try to work in a way that gradually creates a more disease resistant turf. The continued, routine use of chemical fungicides is a bit like continually taking painkillers but never going to the doctors to find out what’s causing the pain.

Meantime, you can be working to build up disease resistance in your turf. This can be through better aeration practices, the reduction of thatch and improving drainage. The most beneficial work in this area is to work on building a stronger, healthier soil and turf eco-system. This involves gradually moving away from chemical pesticides and inorganic, high salt fertilisers.

Mowing and Cleanliness

Keeping the the green surface clear of debris and the grass regularly mown will help a great deal to keep your green free from disease and surface imperfections.

Just having a regular presence at the green is important in winter. This way, any problems that arise can be caught early or at least monitored to make sure they don’t turn into big problems.

You should continue to mow the green if growth is evident. Mow at 8mm and never take off more than 1/3rd of the leaf matter in one go. This means you need to mow before it gets to 12mm long. Regular mowing (as long as conditions allow) helps to keep the green smooth, the grass plants fine leafed and minimises the occurrence and spread of disease outbreaks.

Machinery Maintenance

Time spent on machinery maintenance is always valuable. Make an inventory of parts needed for stock including tines, filters and oils. Give each machine a good service and make sure it’s set properly for the coming season. Don’t rely on back-lapping to keep your mower sharp as this can result in tighter settings which don’t do the grass or the mower any favours. Have cylinders and bottom blades professionally ground and aim for zero contact settings throughout the year. This ensures a cleaner, healthier cut for the grass and vastly extended lifespan for mowers.

Soil Analysis

While you’re out there, this is a great time to arrange a thorough soil analysis to discover what’s underlying any problems you’ve had or to guide your maintenance and renovations this year.

Order a proper analysis of all of the major and minor nutrients and other soil chemistry information such as the Base Saturation, the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) of your soil, the pH and the physical texture in terms of sand, silt and clay. Don’t order up fertilisers or greenkeeping products until you have this knowledge. And you thought Winter was going to be quiet!

Peak Sand/Chemical Soil Analysis

Comprehensive Chemical Analysis and Peak Sand (Texture Assessment) of your green's soil (rootzone).

You will receive soil sample bags with instructions for taking and returning (freepost) your soil samples to the lab.

The results will come back to you from Bowls Central with a full report detailing all Primary, Secondary and Trace elements, Cation Exchange Capacity, Base Saturation, Electrical Conductivity, Organic Matter, pH and your soil's position on the Soil Texture Triangle (assessed by the Laser Diffraction method and alerting you to your greens proximity to Peak Sand).

Includes a full report written by me with comprehensive 12 month greenkeeping program for your green. Unlimited support and further advice will be provided as required.

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