How Symbio grew over 30 years

Added on December 21st, 2019 by Lorne Smith
Posted in General, Greenkeeping

A golf entrepreneur has just retired after 30 years from managing his own company Symbio, passing it on as the brand leader in Europe for an increasingly important part of greenkeeping, the soil biology located below the grass on the greens. He pioneered the use of Compost Teas and Mycorrhizal fungi.

Martin Ward

Symbio was started in 1990 by Martin Ward and his brother David and has recently been sold to and is an indepedently managed company within The Origin Group (who also own the 100 year old Rigby Taylor & Headland Amenity) while generating a group turnover of more than £1bn from sales mostly within agri-chemicals.

Martin recognised the importance for the future of golf of supporting an independent online platform and has been a sponsor of FineGolf for the last five years.

He has written three articles for FineGolf to explain simply and clearly to golfers and greenkeepers the importance of healthy soil biology and, in line with conservation greenkeeping, of the move away from using inorganic salt-based fertilisers and fungicides, as well as away from physical maintenance practices that are overly disruptive to golfers’ playability on the course.

We thank him for his previous support and we are honoured that he has agreed to join FineGolf’s Advisory Panel.  We have invited him to explain how it all started and developed.

Below is the fascinating story of Symbio:

“I started Symbio in 1990 with my brother David Ward to develop and market products using recent developments in biotechnology for the bio-remediation of polluted soil and water and industrial waste.

We started to work with golf courses in 1992. Time flies when your work involves course walking and analysing upwards of 200 golf courses a year and it certainly does not seem I have had a nearly thirty year association with the sports turf management industry.

We started to work on sports turf after a light-bulb moment when bio-remediating the irrigation lake on the Brabazon course at the Belfry. The lake was experiencing heavy algal growth caused by the run off of fertiliser from the greens and fairways. The obvious long term solution was to stop the fertiliser run off, which was quite simple when looked at from a waste water treatment perspective because every sewerage treatment plant uses microbes to remove the nitrate and phosphate from the effluent before it is pumped back into the environment.

With no experience of turf management we approached some clubs to trial the application of microbes that would fix nutrients in the rootzone with amazing results. Greenkeepers reported fertiliser applications dropping by over 50%+ (this was in the days when many greenkeepers applied 250kg N p.a. and even super phosphate was applied to some courses). Other feedback included reductions in disease and conversion of annual meadow grass (Poa annua) swards to perennial grasses. Our learning curve that year was almost vertical as we introduced microbial products to solve a range of problems caused by the high input management of USGA specification greens specifically to degrade thatch, mineralise black layer and retain nutrients in the rootzone.

Good fortune then struck when we met Dr (now, Professor) Alan Gange, a mycologist from Royal Holloway College, who was conducting experiments on sports turf. We sponsored Prof Gange to conduct trials on 108 golf greens to try and find out why annual meadow grass (Poa annua) reduced in favour of perennial grasses when the microbiome of the soil was increased. Prof Gange discovered that there was a positive correlation between perennial grasses and mycorrhizal fungi.

This led us to incorporate mycorrhizal fungi in many of Symbio’s products which we found could halve the grow-in time for a new course leading us to be involved in many of the most prestigious new golf course constructions throughout Europe.

For our product development in the horticulture market in 1999 we were also invited to exhibit in the Millennium Dome as one of the top 200 products to take British Industry into the 21st Century.

The publication of Prof Gange’s paper enabled us to raise funds for further product development and we have enjoyed excellent cooperation with the University of Surrey and owe a lot to Dr Elaine Ingham latterly of the University of Oregon for her inspiring work in researching and teaching the importance of a healthy Soil Food Web.

In the first 20 years it was always a struggle to expand the customer base in the UK, where the majority of greenkeeper consultants only knew how to advise on high input management which caused a lot of problems and they could only mask symptoms of poor management.

They feared they would lose business to Symbio if we supplied their customers so a very large part of the industry advised against the creation of healthy biologically diverse rootzones and in favour of the unnatural chemical and disruptive physical management that they understood.

This forced us to look overseas to develop the business and Symbio now sells throughout Europe with an active distribution network in over twenty countries with customers stretching from the Mediterranean to north of the Arctic Circle.

As a pioneer of creating healthy soil for sports turf management the Symbio team was the first company to develop and introduce microbial products for thatch degradation, nutrient retention, black layer treatment, annual meadow grass (Poa annua) reduction, disease reduction, improved drainage and friability, without hollow coring, liquid aeration and fairy ring and fungal dry patch management. These concepts are now rapidly gaining acknowledgement as the way forward given the restrictions on pesticide use and, in some countries, fertiliser inputs.

When Symbio began to understand the relationship between a healthy rootzone microbiome and the ability of the grass plant to absorb nutrients produced by photosynthesis instead of inorganic fertiliser, we could then fine tune the soil biology to convert annual meadow grass (Poa annua) to perennial swards by degrading thatch and converting it to humus which in turn increases the soils friability reducing the need for heavy scarification, hollow coring and pure inert-sand top dressing. This method provides a much improved playing surface with less disruption and increased profitability, all essential components of a successful golf club.

Symbio has a strong ongoing management team that will operate as an independent company within the large Origin Group.

I will still be involved with the sports turf industry and am very happy to advise clubs on how best to reduce chemical inputs and invasive physical management”

Martin Ward,

07956 898 004

Reader Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave us a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

FREE, every 2 months
The FineGolf Newsletter

It will keep you up to date with what new course reviews and articles have been published