The bowls and croquet greens at the prestigious Hurlingham Club in London performed better last year than in recent years. Grounds Manager Peter Craig explains how and why.
Even though I say it myself, the bowls and croquet lawns at Hurlingham looked and performed as well last season as at any stage during my eight years in charge. There are many reasons for this, the most significant one being the commitment, skill, attention to detail and sheer hard work shown by my team during a climatically challenging summer.
But, as will always be the case here, we cannot and will not rest on our laurels. The aim this year, as in all previous years, is to improve on past performance.
The major task we have undertaken on the six croquet lawns and two bowling greens over the last five years has been to introduce a far greater percentage of sand in to the soil profile. This has been achieved through a pre-season and post-season (as well as occasional in-season) hollow tining and sand top dressing programme. In that time we have been successful in changing the ratio of sand soil in the top 100 millimetres from something like 30/70 to around 60/40.
Whilst this form of soil exchange/amelioration is highly effective, hollow tining on such a regular basis makes maintaining surface levels and integrity very challenging. Bowls and croquet lawns should be perfectly flat and any deviation in the surface will quickly show in the track of the ball (not to mention the language of the player delivering it!). So, I have been looking for an alternative to bi annual hollow tining for some time.
Having read lots about the growing popularity, particularly in the golf world, of the "little and often" topdressing programme, and after discussing the pros and cons with my consultant agronomist David Whittaker, we have decided to adopt this programme at Hurlingham for the coming season and beyond.
To this end we have purchased a TY-Crop Pro Pass 180 gator-mounted topdresser, which can apply dressings in the same disc spread way as the standard cyclone fertiliser spreader. What this machine will allow me to do is to use very light application rates, as low as grammes per square metre rather than kilogrammes
The hollow tining/heavy sand top dressing has introduced the desired percentage of sand to the root zone and now we can concentrate more on building up the sand content on the surface, improving surface drainage and increasing green speed.
With hollow tining we were applying around 8 tonnes of sand per croquet lawn (1000 sq metres) and 10 tonnes per bowls green (1400 sq metres) in two applications per year In theory, with the TY-Crop we can apply up to 14 tonnes of sand dressing over a season by light weekly/fortnightly applications with little or no surface disruption or interference with play.
Time will tell whether the ends justify the means but I am very optimistic that this new topdressing maintenance regime will prove beneficial to surface and surface user. Watch this space.
Our aeration programme this winter consisted of running the Earthquake machine through all the lawns in late November. This was followed a month later with ½ inch solid tine aeration to a depth of eight inches using our soil reliever and we pricked the surface to a depth of about 2 inches with ¼ inch needle tines, a treatment we will probably repeat in February and March.
We have been maintaining height of cut since September at 6 millimetres, but have just raised it to 7 as the Earthquake has heaved the ground in places and some areas are in danger of suffering from scalping.
We have had numerous infestations of Fusarium over the last 3 months. All but one of the outbreaks we have treated with a heavy dose of iron and, though there is some scarring, I am delighted that we have been able to reduce our use of fungicides (and so is the club finance manager!).
For the first time last year we moved over to a 100% liquid feed programme and the results were excellent. We have been maintaining a monthly foliar feed programme throughout the winter months consisting of a turf hardener, potassium and soluble iron, and this will continue to the spring.
The croquet lawns and bowling greens open for play this year on Friday 13th April. If this spring is typical of recent ones then I am expecting dry cold conditions completely alien to encouraging growth and sward density. If this is the case then I suspect we will not have reduced height of cut to the 4mm we aim for by opening day, but this will be achieved as early in to the season as conditions permit.
Marking out and setting hoop positions for a croquet court is a time consuming task and we generally aim to have the hoop positions established by the beginning of April so we can identify damage in any critical areas, particularly those caused by foxes, and repair them before the lawns open.
Our feeding regime for the summer will again be applied as a foliar feed with a cocktail of soluble urea, soluble potassium, soluble iron and wetting agent with the percentages and timings dictated by weather and soil conditions.
For anyone contemplating turning to foliar feeding it is worth noting that, whilst I have had excellent results, feed has to be applied little and often and this is labour intensive and time consuming. We are lucky to have the manpower and machinery to carry out an effective programme, but you should look at whether you have the personnel and machinery resources before committing to a similar programme.
Once growth is well under way we will commence verticutting all the lawns on a fortnightly basis. Again this is dependent on weather conditions and will be suspended during times of sward stress as happened for most of July last year.
During last year's drought I made a decision to stop our automatic irrigation almost entirely on the croquet and bowls and resorted to early morning spot hand watering using wetting agent tablet guns. Not only did this prove to be very effective in maintaining a very consistent surface, both aesthetically and technically, but our water consumption dropped dramatically and meant we had plenty in reserve for the renovation period in September and October.
As a result of the success of this enforced experiment I intend to do far more hand watering of 'needy' areas this year, rather than the somewhat indiscriminate blanket watering provided by our automatic overhead sprinkler system. If the predictions of drier and hotter summers to prove accurate, this kind of more bespoke approach to irrigation may well become the rule rather than the exception for all of us.
Here at Hurlingham we have made it a policy to investigate any ways of saving, storing and using water in the most effective way. Any new buildings that are constructed will, if possible, have run-off systems that will direct roof water either to storage areas or to the lake from which our irrigation water is drawn. We are also looking at ways of adapting our current buildings to allow the same system to be utilised.
Back on the subject of the coming season, we will change the orientation of play on the bowls greens weekly throughout the summer and will also change the hoop positions on the croquet lawns at least once a month to prevent wear-paths, known as rabbit runs, from developing between the hoop uprights.
Exactly which parts of your best laid schemes you can carry out is dictated by the weather. With global warming now a reality we have to deal with, and weather extremes becoming common place, sports turf maintenance is becoming more and more challenging, and those challenges can be very daunting.
I can however honestly say that I relish the opportunity to pit my wits, and the skills and endeavours of my team, against whatever Mother Nature throws at us in 2007 and onwards.