Work with nature, not against it

A successful turf surface is one where the groundsman or greenkeeper works with nature, not against it. What I mean by this is that we must nurture nature by understanding ecological processes and the impacts maintenance activities and weather conditions have on these processes.

Frost on a lawn

Frost on a lawn

Don’t try and force grass to grow (making it weak, more susceptible to disease and easier to wear and be kicked out of a surface) by applying an incorrect fertiliser or with a late in the year fertiliser application just because a supplier has said that fertiliser will encourage grass growth and will help it over the winter period – this is quite disingenuous and is a message which is played out year on year to encourage fertiliser sales.

A similar situation is now arising with grass seed which can germinate at low temperatures (around 3C) although the speed and development of the grass will be influenced by prevailing weather conditions which need to be in the order of 10C before much meaningful growth occurs. So some germination, at a high cost, but for what exactly? Valuable finances going into the coffers of suppliers.

Good groundsmanship and greenkeeping practices throughout the year, but especially during the main growing season, would have helped a grass sward to develop a strong and healthy plant with a well distributed root system; all to help withstand wear and wear and reduce the potential for disease attack and limit the damage from pests – especially chafer grubs and leatherjackets as they will only eat a certain amount of root mass; a well developed root system will be able to feed and withstand a certain density of pests – undesirable but a way of helping to manage without the use of pesticides.

Correct mowing practices, which means not taking off too much grass leaf per cut, not cutting too short, and not using machinery under unsuitable soil moisture conditions (otherwise compaction will result), not (over?) applying pesticides which reduce and eliminate not just undesirable pests but also the more beneficial fungi and bacteria in particular, resulting in a pretty hostile rootzone for turfgrass growth.

Irrigation practices influence rooting depth, but how many staff are unduly influenced by well-meaning, but unknowledgeable, customers wanting a green surface – it might be green now, but it has a negative impact later on and on the extra resources (especially pesticides) that are needed to rectify this seemingly innocuous activity.

Why the panic over limited pesticides to control earthworms, chafer grubs or leatherjackets in turf? Who is actually making, or stoking, the most noise? Often the suppliers and manufacturers.

If some groundsman or greenkeeper actually produced a stress free (well less stressed) turf which had been maintained with correct maintenance practices linked to an understanding of natural processes the turf would be significantly more resilient. More effort on physical and cultural practices in the first instance, along with changing misperceptions of what a natural (outdoor) surface is, will go a long way to a successful outcome.

Some people do not like to face up to reality and blame others for their limited knowledge and understanding of turf management (in which case take advantage of the wealth of education and training opportunities out there); the more successful managers understand the need to work with natural processes and there are quite a number of advocates within the industry who have shown what can actually be achieved by using resources effectively and not just blindly throwing money at issues; the latter is not exactly the most difficult thing for anyone to do.

Why the desire to have a pristine surface free of any weed, pest or disease? This is an image promoted by many in the turf industry and strongly supported by suppliers. What is the value decision on having a pristine surface? How does this sit with a natural cycle of ebbs and flows in surface conditions? If, for example, we accept disease attack in the short term and some of the unsightliness it produces then there will be increased resistance in the longer term and less need for fungicide applications in the future, obviously not a position any supplier would wish to support. Mind you, if we managed turf in a reduced stress way through effective turf management then we would be reducing susceptibility to attack in the first place – again, not something suppliers would want to encourage so they try and over-engineer what is needed and offer plausible solutions which only increase the need to rely on their products even more – and obviously increasing their profits in the mean time, whilst depleting a grounds persons remaining budget.

We need to accept nature for what it is and not try and control it – we will never succeed, so why not try and work with it and better understand how we can nurture it for our ends. Trying to control it artificially is false economy and doomed to failure, no matter how much money some organisations and groundstaff seem to throw at producing a supposed pristine surface.

These are often some of the same staff who mention that they have a ‘sustainable’ surface, which does the industry and term a disservice. These people clearly show they are either delusional or clearly lacking in knowledge and understanding and just give the false aura of being an ‘expert’.

So, work with nature, not against it, and you’ll find you have much more sustainable turf surface and one which doesn’t negatively impact on the environment and ends up saving you money.

Chris Gray, 19th November 2017