The success of any natural grass sports facility is down to a number of key factors; its location, the state of the playing surface, the ambience of the clubhouse and, most importantly, how the facility is run and managed. That's a lot of factors to get right to ensure a club remains successful and solvent.
However, the most important component of any club are the people within it; they can have the best machinery, clubhouse and resources available, but it is, without doubt, the ability, knowledge and commitment of individuals that brings success.
I still find it ironic that the one major asset of any sports club - the pitch, green, playing surface, call it what you will - is, by and large, given the lowest priority when it comes to funding, management and resources.
Bowling clubs are a prime example. In recent years, the sport has suffered a downward spiral of club closures and a loss of members. Much of the cause for this, I believe, is clubs not investing in their main asset - the green - whilst the people who are tasked with looking after it are rarely given the support and financial backing to make a difference.
It is vitally important that clubs put aside an allocation of funds for the maintenance of their greens. I see far too many bowling clubs whose greens are in a poor condition due simply to the fact that not enough work is done on them.
At the end of the day, there is a basic cost for materials and specialist operations. A typical end of season renovation, using a competent contractor, will cost between £1600-£2000; this would usually include the cost of the labour and materials - scarification, aeration, topdressing and overseeding.
Some contractors will offer a yearly maintenance programme which will allow for spring and end of season renovation work, plus a number of other relevant cultural practices, such as regular aeration, and applications of fertilisers, wetting agents and fungicides, to keep the green in good condition; this might also include some winter mowing regimes. However, it may be that the contractor, unless asked, will not normally carry out the regular mowing duties during the growing season, but will always be available to offer advice and knowledge as required.
The cost for this would be in the region of £6000-£9000 depending on circumstances, location and condition of the green. All of the above costs are only a guide.
Obviously, many bowls clubs do the work themselves through a number of dedicated and committed volunteers. In those cases, the annual maintenance costs will be greatly reduced, having only to pay for products and materials used. Regardless of whether a contractor or in-house methods are employed, it is vitally important that clubs fund these operations.
Once a club is aware of the annual costs for maintaining a green, they should effectively be able to generate the money to pay for it via subs and other activities.
Most bowls clubs have around fifty members in total. Therefore, if they were to charge just £100 pounds a year membership - that's under £2 per week - that, in itself, would raise £5000 a year - a substantial sum which, if set aside for greens maintenance, would make a substantial difference to its condition. A good playing surface will not only retain existing members but attract new ones. It sounds simple doesn't it but, in my experience, rarely happens.
In England, there are grants available through what is known as the Inspired Facilities Fund. Hugh Robertson, MP for Sport, headed the £135 million initiative, funded through the National Lottery, in order to leave a legacy after the Olympics - it has been named the People Places Play programme.
One bowling club in Wiltshire has recently made the most of this new funding stream by procuring £50,000 through the scheme.
Stratton Churchway Bowls Club will put the money to good use by rewiring the clubhouse, laying new paving and improving access to the club.
The club was also successful in securing funding from Stratton Parish Council to the sum of £2,150, whilst Swindon Sports Forum gave £1,200 towards the overall project cost of £65,000.
Being proactive and just 'going for it' can reap rewards and secure a club's future for many years to come.
The chairwoman for the club, Janet Willis, was pleased to secure the funding: "We are delighted to have secured this investment, which means we can upgrade the quality of our facilities that are available to our members and community, and all from part of the 2012 Olympics legacy."
It's interesting to note that, in the example cited, whilst the clubhouse, access and pathways are being upgraded, no mention is made of monies being made available for the green upkeep. This mindset must change.
Bowls England, the national governing body for the sport of lawn bowls in England, uses a computer system to generate a report for clubs and counties outlining funds they may be eligible for. For more information on this service, you can e-mail email@example.com. You never know, your club may well be eligible for funding through the scheme.
Clubs should also look at other ways of generating additional income by utilising their clubhouse for other activities. Whist drives, dominoes evenings, quiz nights and barbecues spring to mind and, if the clubhouse is large enough (and licensed), dance evenings, discos, wedding receptions and other private functions.
Training and Gaining
Committee and club members need to understand that the patch of land outside the clubhouse is not just a lawn that needs regular cutting. There is a science and proven methods to producing a surface suitable for the game of bowls. This science goes way beyond the actual playing surface.
If a club is using volunteers to look after the green, it is important that they understand this science, or at least seek specialist advice when problems occur.
There are a number of organisations, including Pitchcare, who offer Lantra accredited training courses for bowls greenkeepers. In addition, the governing bodies have county advisors who are able to offer hands-on advice. Pitchcare also publishes a monthly diary of works that should be undertaken at any given time of the year.
Greenkeepers should consider attending the industry shows and seminars up and down the country to gain further knowledge. There's also the Pitchcare community to tap into for advice, and your contractor, should you employ one.
On the green
Last year's wet weather will not have helped clubs, and may well have contributed to lost revenue due to greens being waterlogged and, subsequently, suffering cancelled fixtures.
In agronomical terms, the wet weather may have helped flush the soil profile and re-wetted greens that previously had dry patch problems. With spring around the corner, there is plenty of opportunity for clubs to get organised and start getting their greens ready for the oncoming playing season.
One of the first things to do is to take soil samples to ascertain the condition of the green. March is a good time to do this. They should be sent off for analysis to enable you to get them back in time to make a difference to your new season's maintenance. Ideally, you should have a full Particle Size Distribution (PSD) soil analysis done to tell you the actual make up of your soil profile.
Soil is made up of percentages of clay, silt and sand. The PSD analysis will identify the ratio of these and confirm soil type, thereby giving you a better understanding of what soil you are dealing with. Also, you can establish the amount of organic matter (OM) content as well as soil nutrient status and soil pH. With this information, you will be able to identify the needs of your soil.
There is an optimum for each plant nutrient and, when coupled with other properties such as soil structure and particle sizes, determine how vigorous your plants are. Different nutrients undertake different tasks within the plant.
Once you have this information, you will be in a better position to plan the work required to improve the quality and performance of your green. Investing in spring renovation work will go a long to ensuring your green is able to withstand the rigours of the forthcoming playing season. However, this will not be productive unless you invest in a robust maintenance programme which, ultimately, is dependent on the skills and experience of your greenkeeper and/or volunteers.
Spring renovations will be underway not long after this issue has been published, so ensure you have ordered your topdressing and seed requirements, along with any specialist machinery you may need to hire in for the tasks ahead.
Soil temperatures should begin to rise during March, enabling the grass plant to make use of any fertilisers being applied. The grass plant's transpiration/respiration rates need to be active to initiate movement of soluble solutions from the soil into and through the plant's tissue.
Early March is a good time to carry out aeration (when conditions allow, but not during frost), thereby opening up the soil profile, alleviating any compaction problems and, at the same time, keeping the surface free draining.
Sarrel rollers should be used to aerate the playing surface (top 30mm), and deeper, tined aeration to relieve compaction to the base of the rootzone layer.
Care should be taken not to go too deep. Some bowling greens have been constructed with shallow rootzones, often less than 200mm in depth. You could do untold damage or begin to bring up base debris. Even worse, you could damage the sub-surface drainage systems if aerating too deep.
Mowing and Brushing
Grass growth will be influenced by soil and air temperatures. Once we begin to see temperatures rising above 8 degrees C, grass growth will be stimulated. Regular mowing will be required to maintain sward at between 10-12mm, before lowering the height of cut for the playing season.
Brushing/switching of the playing surface will keep the green clean and remove any dew or surface water. Keeping the surface dry will aid resistance to disease.
Keep an eye on fungal disease attack. Fusarium has been quite prolific recently, with some surfaces getting severely scarred. Use an appropriate, approved fungicides to control any further outbreaks. With the grass now beginning to grow, it shouldn't take long for these scars to grow out. Fairy rings are also quite prominent on greens at the moment. A dose of feed or liquid iron will stimulate grass growth and this will help mask these patches.
Machinery and sundries: Keep machines overhauled and clean. Arrange the servicing of your machines ready for the new season. Keep an eye on your material stocks (seed, topdressing, petrol, oil), remembering to replenish as required.
Perimeter fences and hedges: Most bowling green facilities are enclosed by fences or hedges. Now is a good time to complete any tidying up of these features. Hedges should be pruned and cut to maintain their shape and form.
Repairs: Carry out any repairs to ditches, paths, gates and other building features. If you have floodlights, these should be serviced on an annual basis to check that they are safe and operating to the correct lux values. Also, check they are correctly positioned to prevent light pollution.
Irrigation systems: After the recent frosts, it will pay to inspect your watering systems and check for any leaks or damaged pipework. Also remember to organise the recommissioning of your automated watering systems with the aim to have it ready before the end of March.
That list alone should convince the committee and members that being a bowls greenkeeper is not just about 'cutting grass'. Rather, as many golf greenkeepers do, it is time that their bowls counterparts kept the members informed about the science and methods required to provide that pristine playing surface they all long for. Maybe then, their £2 a week subs won't seem so extortionate!