Added on December 20th, 2018 by Lorne Smith
Posted in Greenkeeping

With the increasing interest in healthy soil biology or ecology by greenkeepers in their quest to move towards high performance perennial fine grasses and away from use of pesticides and inorganic salt fertilisers,  FineGolf has invited John Quinn MG, who wrote a brilliant detailed article for FineGolf 18 months ago, to write a more philosophical piece on how those involved with golf course maintenance, whether hands-on or on a greens committee, can find a way to change their approach on how to improve green performance. He has used an example of ‘moss’ as an example of how to refocus on causes rather than symptoms:-


“The Answer to Poor Green Performance is Ecology” by John Quinn MG


I have a website aimed at helping bowling club greenkeepers with their greenkeeping and a few years ago I published a short article there, that encompasses exactly what goes wrong on many bowling greens, with the result that periods of memorable performance when the greens are “the best they’ve ever been!” are few and far between.


The article was called The Circle of Decline;  why many greens never improve”, or words to that effect. It explains why most greenkeeping difficulties are related to our focus on Symptoms, rather than Causes of green performance problems.

For such a short article it has generated a huge number of questions from greenkeepers over the years and if I had to sum the article up in one sentence it would be this:


The never ending quest to end symptoms


Then, if I had to sum up the majority of the questions that have arisen from the article it would be this:


“How many of the problems that we encounter on greens are merely symptoms of a bigger issue…and what are these symptoms?”



The Problem with Conventional chemical Greenkeeping


The ‘Seek and Destroy’ Greenkeeping deployed from after the last World War, through the ‘target-golf’ years, up to now can, I think, be considered impoverished as far as a philosophy of turf husbandry goes. Poor maintenance practices such as over reliance on inert pure sand, pesticides and high salt mineral fertilisers often result in excessive Thatch build up and/or excessive Compaction (they usually go hand in hand) and almost all of the other problems we see are related to these. Localised Dry Patch, Disease, Moss, Weeds, flooding etc are often merely symptoms of these two big issues or (importantly and perversely), the greenkeeping practices we employ to deal with Thatch and Compaction.

Flooding, puddles, poor drainage, fungal disease, localised dry patch, weeds, moss, slime, algae, bumpy surface, shallow rooting, loss of grass cover, annual meadow grass ingress, spongy surface, foot-printing, poor grass growth, bare patches, slow surface, uneven surface…the list goes on and on…

These symptoms are the main causes of disappointments for members as they interfere with the 3 key measures of green surface performance: Smoothness, Trueness and Pace.


Understanding of Ecology in Fine Turf Greens


The answer is very simple…everything that goes wrong with greens is a symptom of inappropriate maintenance, but there is hierarchy of sorts:

The soil’s physical condition, in particular soil texture and structure is compromised by inappropriate top-dressing. High sand content is great for fine grasses up to a point, but there is a point I define as Peak Sand. Anything beyond this increasingly causes problems with the soil’s biology and results eventually in inert, lifeless soil. Conditions such as Localised Dry Patch (hydrophobic soil), more frequent disease outbreaks, moss and surface flooding then follow in many cases.

The soil’s chemistry can then be thrown off course. Cation Exchange Capacity for one is usually very low in these very high sand greens meaning that the soil can’t hold onto plant nutrients as readily. Organic Matter is usually very low which also affects soil nutrition, the nitrogen cycle in particular and also soil moisture retention.

Finally the soil’s Biology is diminished with very low populations of beneficial soil microbes such as fungi and bacteria, which are required in order to recycle thatch and release nutrition from the soil and natural fertilisers.

It can be a struggle to pinpoint where these issues begin and that is because we are dealing with a circular problem. This can make it difficult to know where to start the recovery process and is the reason I first introduced the concept of the Circle of Decline.

Imagine you are 5 years old and your pals are all spinning happily on the roundabout in the park, but you are just watching, wishing you could get on. Sad, I know, and I’m sorry if I’ve brought back any bitter memories for you, but the answer is to just take the plunge and jump on! After all they aren’t going to stop it for you are they?

The Circle of Decline is similar (but I am seriously considering changing it to the Roundabout of Disappointment ), and it’s never quite clear what the starting point is, but the answer to curing it is to just jump in and start doing something positive; and if you start doing something about Thatch and Compaction, then you can’t really go far wrong.


The Knock on Effect


To explain a little further, think about some of the common problems on greens like Moss taking over large patches of the surface for example. One formula that guarantees moss ingress looks like this:


Thatch + Excessive Sand = Localised Dry Patch = Space = Moss


Now, many many books, articles and even college lecturers will tell you that to deal with moss you need to improve the drainage of the green. Of course, in some cases this might well be true, but it is mostly nonsense.

There are a great many types of moss and the ones that like to take over fine turf greens aren’t necessarily looking for wet conditions, otherwise why would they be so prevalent on greens where the underlying soil is 95%+ sand? The mosses that take over greens are looking for space, a little space in the turf sward is all the encouragement they need.

That space they crave can be created by all manner of things going wrong on the green, but to stick with our example of very high sand greens, it is commonly Localised Dry Patch that is the instigator of moss invasion on greens.

Now, the conventional wisdom when moss invades your green is of course to kill the moss, so you will very often be given advice to apply Lawn Sand or Sulphate of Iron (Ferrous Sulphate) and of course the moss will go black and die…

On greens where this kind of thinking is employed, the next thing that happens is that, you guessed it, the green gets invaded by moss again very quickly afterwards and usually to a more extreme level than before. The reason for this is that the application of Ferrous Sulphate has actually made it even harder for the already highly stressed grass to compete with the moss…why?


Rubbing Salt into Your Wounds


This is because we lose the focus on what is a symptom and what is the root cause of the problems we encounter on the turf.

The moss in this case is just a symptom of something else that has gone wrong with the green, in this example it is Localised Dry Patch (LDP), which in itself is also a symptom of something greater. But we don’t want to go down any rabbit holes here so let’s just stay at the LDP level for now.

If we accept for now that the LDP is the root cause and have an understanding of what that is doing to the turf we can formulate a much better plan for dealing with the moss problem and it almost never involves killing moss!…there, I’ve said it!

Grass plants use a lot of Iron but can only take it up in non-oxidised form. Ferrous Sulphate that is applied or washed into the soil will quickly lock up as an Iron Oxide in the soil and become unavailable to plants. Chelated Iron remains available for uptake by grass plants and doesn’t add to the locked up Iron (often significant) in the soil.

Ferrous Sulphate is a mineral salt and for every 100grams of it you apply to your turf, you are applying over 70grams of salt.

LDP stresses our grass plants to the point of wilting due to the lack of moisture in the soil. Adding several kgs of salt to this situation can be devastating for these plants as it has the effect of tipping the osmotic balance in the soil so that osmotic pressure can actually suck water back out of already highly stressed plants. If these grass plants were healthy and thriving, there would be no room for moss in the turf.

So the answer to almost every moss invasion on greens that are built on high sand rootzones is to deal with the LDP first and foremost. This might well involve controlling moss with Chelated Iron so that it doesn’t spread, but the main focus is on curing the Localised Dry Patch.

Of course as I’ve said, LDP itself is a symptom, so the bold forward looking greenkeeper won’t stop at moss or LDP. Moving upstream from LDP will reveal a plethora of problems until you get right back to the root and that is almost always inert, overly sandy soil that has been decimated by pesticides and mineral salts over decades.

I’ve used moss as an example as it repeatedly comes up with bowling clubs, but there are many parallels such as the repeated use of preventative fungicides almost guaranteeing repeated outbreaks of fungal disease as they throw the soil ecology out of kilter.


Getting over Symptoms Thinking


In the face of an industry, and a world to some degree, that is obsessed with symptoms it can seem difficult to go against the flow of traffic, but adopt a greenkeeping approach that deals with the green and its soil as an inter-connected eco-system instead of a series of symptoms to be eradicated and things start to get better very rapidly.


Ecology as a study recognises that little if anything is superfluous in nature. Eco systems (ecological systems) are webs of interconnected organisms that rely on each other for survival…nothing is wasted.

When I use the word ecology I’m alluding to this and trying to discourage greenkeepers from thinking that issues like disease, thatch, Poa, moss etc can be considered or tackled in isolation(symptoms thinking).

Getting rid of moss or fusarium or Poa doesn’t require us to tackle any of these issues directly… we just have to maintain the ecosystem in a way that tips the ecological balance in favour of perennial grass dominance and they are no longer a problem.

Soil biology is a large part of this process of course, but not all there is to consider.

Any questions? Be in touch with


Reader Comments

On January 28th, 2019 Ryun Holden said:

It is often argued Greenkeeping is more of an art than a science. Whilst aesthetics, contouring, shaping have sculptural therefore artistic elements, the botanical management of fine grass is 100% a science. Science is the systematic and repeatable study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Too many in our industry unfortunately make unsubstantiated claims as fact. Any claim in science is only ever the best available conclusion of the current data set therefore nearly never fact. All science evolves and changes as new evidence based understanding becomes available. As of today I have seen no substantial evidence to support the claims made surrounding the negative impacts of the use of pure sand top dressings. In fact the wealth of evidence suggests the opposite. Although many points made within the article are broadly supported, the suggestion of adding additional organic matter to the profile supports the finer grasses is not supported by the evidence that I have seen. Reduction of organic matter in the upper 20-25mm to 4% is shown to offer both the best playing qualities as well as support for the fine grasses in favour against the Poa plant. These results are based on a data set of over 1600 golf courses, objectively measured by the STRI over a significant period of some 10 years. As a Greenkeeper of over 27 years myself I have come to realise more and more the importance of following the evidence in decision making rather than opinion.

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