This is an article by John Quinn the greens guru whose advice we have chosen to follow.

Desperation, Inconsistency and Tradition

The preparation of bowling greens for play has caused more debate over the years than the average general election does. 

Having worked in the greenkeeping industry for well over 3 decades now in varying roles, I have often been frustrated by the proliferation of mis-information about the correct approach required to produce high performance bowling green surfaces. 

The answers are not radical or even that groundbreaking; it’s just that most of the generally accepted greenkeeping wisdom that abounds in the industry is so counter productive for long term success that it makes what I say seem too different and maybe even strange to some people. 

I regularly encounter 3 common obstacles to achieving excellence on bowling greens and strangely enough, all of them occur in the clubhouse and not on the green. They can be divided into:-

   ~ Acts of Desperation in an attempt to speed up improvements.
   ~  Inconsistency or chopping and changing, usually driven by                  desperation.
    ~Tradition. “we’ve always done this” syndrome

Let’s take a closer look at these Clubhouse problems:

Desperation Mode

By this I mean the almost constant quest by clubs to achieve an excellent green overnight. Greenkeeping is seen as a simple and menial task by many bowling club committees and the timescale required to turn a poorly performing green into a high performance one is misjudged or thought about in too literal a fashion, leaving science and greenkeeping knowledge on the sidelines.

As a result, clubs often embark on a roller coaster ride of chopping and changing their approach to maintenance year after year. One year they will engage a contracting company to turn the green around and shortly into this arrangement there will be a revolt by a group of the club’s elite players due to the lack of progress and it will be all change again to a different approach, which could be another contractor, a new greenkeeper or even a combination of these. Other factors that contribute to this problem include a new wonder product being introduced, that a vocal member promotes as the way forward; a contractor who promotes a new approach or an expert who promises a tournament green overnight. 

These are all clear signs that the club is in desperation mode and if you are a member of a bowling club, you will recognise this instantly. Headless chickens and dogs chasing tails are phrases often used to illustrate this kind of behaviour. This happens because the club members are desperate to have a good green and just can’t wait for the results. Unfortunately, this invariably results in failure, great expense and a perpetually mediocre green. 

You might think I am being unnecessarily harsh, surely having members who are passionate about achieving an excellent green surface is a positive attribute for any club and of course you are right. However, this turns into desperation mode when consistency of approach goes out of the window. And of course consistency of approach goes out of the window as soon as an element of doubt creeps in to the equation. In this respect, the members are being passionate about all of the wrong things and it damages the club and green in terms of the wrong maintenance regime being applied, the extra costs involved in continually changing the plan and the cost of lost members, matches etc. However the really dangerous part is the long term damage possibly being done to the green as a result of there being no focus or agronomic plan and that’s where the 3rd big obstacle usually makes its presence felt and that is the obstacle of tradition. 


Of the major obstacles to success this has to be the worst and I encounter this 50 times a year at least. The sheer volume of clubs that insist on particular maintenance operations for no other reason than we’ve always done it this way is astonishing, because in many cases the operations or techniques in question are damaging to the green and can actually compound the damage done through repetition on a regular basis. 

Let’s take one of the worst as an example: top-dressing. Continually top-dressing bowling greens with high sand content dressings is one of the worst things some clubs can do in their quest for a high performance green, yet it is now a greenkeeping tradition even though it has only been around for a relatively short time, maybe since the late 1960’s in the UK. However, that unfortunately has been long enough to cause a whole lot of damage to the performance characteristics of many greens. 

The Unseen Damage from Tradition
Imagine if you will a typical bowling green, let’s say it measures 36 X 36 metres (40
yards X 40 Yards) and the original constructed depth between the sub-grade and turf was 200mm (8 inches) which is about typical. Now imagine the top half of the green, the upper 100mm (4 inches). Now I won’t bore you with the calculations here, but that top 100mm zone of the green is where all of the sand top-dressing has been going for 50 years at the rate of say 5 tonnes a year. The original weight of soil used in the construction of that top zone would be around 250 tonnes. Now 5 tonnes of sand applied 50 times is 250 tonnes, even allowing for a 75/25 (sand/soil) mix that equates to around 190 tonnes of sand being applied to the green over the period. In other words the original soil has now been diluted 50/50 with sand at best. 

However, many of the clubs I talk to claim to have applied at least 10 tonnes every year and sometimes even 20 tonnes in some cases. I’ll leave you to do the sums.
Meantime you might be thinking so what? What possible damage can that have done, it must have improved the drainage, the green speed, the smoothness of the surface and generally have improved the green for play. Well this isn’t usually the case. 

very high proportion of the greens I test each year have in excess of 90% sand in the rootzone. In many cases this has resulted in Localised Dry Patch, characterised by large brown areas of turf in the summer time that won’t readily accept water and won’t re-wet. This weakens the turf and leaves the green susceptible to a range of symptomatic problems such as Moss invasion, increased Disease outbreaks, bumps, bad runs and dips in the green surface and a proliferation of Annual Meadow Grass. 

This happens because the soil is inert, lifeless with a vastly depleted soil microbiome. The soil microbe population is essential for the prevention of disease, the recycling of dead plant material, the structure and health of the soil and the release of nutrients to plants. Some microbes even form symbioses with the fine grasses without which they can’t thrive.

Other Traditions include continually applying pesticides to eradicate these Symptoms (Moss, LDP, Disease) and more top-dressing in a vain attempt to level out the bumps.

This is called the Circle of Decline


The Answers
Of course, it’s great to have a bleat about the state of the game, but at some point we have to take responsibility for the future of the greens and make sure if we can that we are continually working towards a healthier and better performing green.

The answer is quite simple, but for many clubs the turning around of 50
years of conventional and mis-guided maintenance is expected to happen
in one season…

After changing to a greenkeeping plan that aims to improve soil health, improvements in green performance will begin right away, but the thinking has to change away from Symptoms Management for good. The improvements will be incremental, not instant, but there will be no downside, it won’t get worse at any stage.

What do I mean by Bowling Green Performance?
Bowlers look for certain characteristics in a green and they despair of certain others. Over 38 years of greenkeeping and teaching greenkeepers I have come to notice that bowling green performance comes down to just 3 major characteristics that can be influenced and manipulated almost at will by skilled greenkeepers who have a deep understanding of how the green stuff below their feet actually works. The 3 bowling green performance factors that affect the run of the wood are Green Speed, Green Trueness and Green Smoothness.

Green Speed
Possibly the single best understood and simultaneously misunderstood factor in
bowling green performance is green speed. Can you gently cajole your wood up the green to nestle against the jack or do you need to hoof it to get it past the middle or anywhere near the jack, just taking your chances as to where it ends up?

fast green helps good players to excel by using their skill and experience to play shots that just wouldn’t work out on a slow surface.

Green Trueness
However, the pace of the green matters not a jot if the surface isn’t true. The trueness of a bowling green is often called into question by bowlers. Just when you think you are performing at your highest level of ability all season, you visit a green where you just “can’t find the roads”, or when you do, and your most sweetly delivered shot suddenly swerves off line and stops a meter away from where you thought it should. Green
Trueness is a measure of how much horizontal, (side to side) movement of the wood is induced by discrepancies in or on the green surface.

Green Smoothness
Green Smoothness is often noticed when the greenkeeper would rather it wasn’t
i.e. when its not smooth enough! Smoothness is the third and last major factor in green performance and is defined by how much vertical deviation (bounce) the wood encounters on its way to the jack. Smoothness can also contribute to the wood going off line or against the draw.

The Problem with Thatch
The condition of many bowling greens has deteriorated as a result of conventional, reactive greenkeeping and if that isn’t enough to convince clubs to return to a more natural greenkeeping program, then the potential to reduce the most expensive physical work and treatments should be.

The build up of thatch isn’t a natural phenomenon; you won’t see thatch on natural grasslands or even on less intensively managed amenity turf. Thatch builds up simply because there isn’t enough life in the soil to recycle it into humus, where it becomes a key player in the Nitrogen Cycle.

Thatch and Green Speed
Due to the spongy, soft nature of an excessive thatch layer, the energy needed to propel a bowl a set distance is increased significantly. The fibrous mat of thatch actually saps the energy from your shots making it difficult to play with any level of finesse or predictability. It essentially produces a surface that is unfairly inconsistent. It’s a bit like playing on deep pile carpet, but more tricky.

Thatch and Green Trueness
Excessive thatch build up has a tendency to dry out unevenly, leaving dips and bumps on the green surface that will cause a bowl to veer off it’s course unexpectedly. The nature of thatch means that even if you could get a handle on this and play accordingly in your match, it will all be different tomorrow. Thatch is continually moving, shrinking and expanding in response to the environmental changes in air temperature, soil temperature and moisture, weather and relative humidity.

Thatch is the main cause of complaints about straight hands, bad runs and dodgy rinks.

Thatch and Green Smoothness
Almost imperceptible dips, hollows, bumps and gullies in the surface which move and change continually with weather and moisture changes are features of excessive thatch. Of course this can cause quite a lot of disruption to your shot as it traverses the rink.

In addition to the sapping of speed and deviations in the direction of the shot, thatch causes vertical deviation of the shot due to bumpiness on the green surface.