The route to the root of the problem by Dr Colin Mumford
Okay, before I start, a question, and be honest with your answer. How many of you have had a sudden outbreak of disease - on your grass that is, your personal issues with STIs don't count - gone "oh-my-gosh" (or words to that effect), rushed to the chemical store, made the air blue with a few expletives because, like Old Mother Hubbard, when you got there, the cupboard was bare, rummaged through your phones list of contacts for that rep that does the good deals, ordered a boat load of an exotic chemical based cocktail that promises to not only save your grass's bacon, it will also improve root growth, make balls bounce better than Zebedee on acid, save the environment and reduce your stress levels by averting yet another outbreak of creeping jank-weed root rot? Problem sorted, you carry on as before, until the next time. Sound familiar?
So, why do I ask this? You have a problem, you solve it, what's wrong with that? Nothing, and quite possibly everything, as you're only addressing the symptoms of an underlying problem, and not curing the underlying problem itself. You are assuming the role of Fireman Sam and are merely fire fighting.
Do you learn by your mistakes? Do you reflect on what has happened in the past? Do you review your current practices and processes, and their outcomes, to identify possible areas that could be improved, or problems that could be avoided?
The incidence of turf disease can be a shining example of a lack of review and adjustment to existing cultural practices. Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi knows this only too well, but learnt this lesson too late in life when Darth Vader told him "your turfgrass is weak old man". "That's it," thought Ben, whilst simultaneously receiving a dose of light sabre that ensured he'd have a split personality for the remaining one second of his life.
"But of course, healthy turfgra-urrghhh". Obviously you don't need to be a silth lord or jedi knight to know that healthy turfgrass is to what you should aspire to get optimum performance, including disease resistance. But do your cultural practices reflect this? Are your practices ensuring that your turfgrass is striving in an ideal environment, or just surviving in a toxic wasteland? "Toxic wasteland?" I hear you say. Let's define what I mean by toxic; anything unpleasant to the grass plant. Yes, a sweeping generalisation, it could even be called a bit of a cop-out, but it is true.
To illustrate this a bit further, let's look at what most people would say is a completely unrelated area to turfgrass disease; compaction and its treatment.
Compaction, what has this got to do with disease? What usually occurs when compaction becomes an issue; note "becomes an issue"? If compaction has become an "issue" it is already a symptom of an underlying problem, which could be the predominant soil texture, the construction method, excessive use of the facility, poor drainage, excessive irrigation, lack of de-compaction or the wrong timing of any decompaction practices, using the wrong maintenance equipment and so on and so forth. Some of these likely causes, such as the predominant soil texture, can't be cured easily, but others (decompaction) can. I digress.
Compaction can, amongst other things, result in an excessively wet soil because drainage becomes inhibited due to a reduction in macro-pores, and subsequent increase in capillary pores, in the soil's structure. This, in turn, can lead to anaerobic conditions and contribute to poor root growth and thatch development, as the grass plant is literally growing on top of itself to stay out of the wet conditions below it. In short, it is creating an unhealthy grass plant. An unhealthy sward in continually damp conditions, especially if it is coupled with warm temperatures, is more susceptible to the onslaught and ravages of disease. As you can imagine, if you lived with your bare feet in the water all the time, apart from it being unpleasant, you'd more than likely develop some sort of fungal infection, perhaps some extreme version of athletes' foot.
So, as you can see, there can be a relationship between compaction and the incidence of disease. There can be a plethora of reasons, however, for poor grass plant health and the subsequent occurrence of disease, such as over or under feeding, too much or too little supplemental irrigation, poor thatch control, inadequate aeration or decompaction, misuse of chemical products, excessively low mowing heights and poor quality of cut from a blunt mower, to name but a few.
Treat the underlying problem - in this example compaction - and you greatly improve the health of the turfgrass and reduce the potential for disease to thrive. Of course, if you already have rampant disease issues you may have to resort to the bottle [of chemicals] to remedy the situation. But, by asking yourself why your turf had problems, appraising the environment in which the turf is growing and re-evaluating your cultural practices, you should be able to identify the underlying cause, and cure it at source.
You may think this sounds like idealistic mumbo-jumbo clap-trap, and you can call it by whatever buzz word that takes your fancy, whether it be "review and adjust", "cause and effect", "the big picture", or "the helicopter view", but I am sure that once you have tried this approach to problem solving you will agree it makes perfect sense.
Dr Colin Mumford works for the Landscape and Amenity Management Advisory Service. Email: email@example.com