Grass Clippings

Science and the Greenkeeper

In my 35 plus years of greenkeeping, many things have changed in the industry, almost entirely all for the better. Much of what we use, in terms of the technology, comes from the agriculture sector, whether this relates to pure mechanics, of the machinery and irrigation development, on a trickledown effect. The innovation of the science involved with plant fertility or pest and disease control has grown exponentially over the decades, as companies supplying the industry with products grown from investment in tailoring science to grass plant development.

In the early 1980’s self-propelled or ‘ride-on’ machines were quite the innovation and the use of hydraulics for powering the cutting cylinders was very much in the Heath Robinson stage of evolution. The preferred choice for most of those designated to purchase machines was for good-old geared, chained and belt-driven beasts which were built to last and more a kin to the Sherman tank than something you would propel across a fine-textured green.

Companies such as John Deere, who evolved the combine harvester used the same innovations adapted for the smaller scales required for turf cutting. Gears were eventually replaced with transistor then printed circuits with chips where crammed into machines to control everything. Even the speed that the cutting cylinder can be altered to deal with cutting a variety of grass length. Incorporating the cutting head and the means to transport it, as well as the operator has been long legacy, to which is a story itself. What it enabled is the fact that the need for independent power units – tractors was less needed and has led to the efficiencies to allow operators to multitask and combine jobs so reducing manpower on the golf course. Like the latest combines that harvest great swathes of wheat, the technology to allow grass cutting machinery to be under the control of GPS – free from human operators, is there. The safety concerns of drone machinery roaming a golf course is holding back the process of mainstream rollout. The costs cited for such a revolution are eye-wateringly expensive, no single manufacturer has committed to advancing the launch of such an innovation, but the technology is there.

What will be the norm quite soon with operator present machinery used on greens and other surface mowing is likely that a greenkeeper will transport the machine around the course and when reaching the green they will skip off and change holes or rake bunkers while the mower is cutting the green on a preordained route, with the help from the satellite link but always under the watchful eye of a human. Other bolt-on adaptations from the farmers’ toy box will be the use of infrared detectors to monitor grass health and highlight when disease spikes are likely as well as feeding back information on nutrient requirement in the plant, square meter by meter.

Irrigation systems were even more the primitive beast of burden and in my lifetime have been the singular most important change to sports management. Most were derived from the development of automatic systems being created for commercial glasshouse production and relied on pins which were stuck into a ‘clock wheel’ to turn valves on or off to deliver water to brass fittings water jets, it was all a bit hit or miss, on a literal basis. The jump came with the release of high-density polyurethane piping from the late nineties. Prior to this, piping had a limited life span of 15 to 20 years, as PVC pipe would go brittle in the ground with age which lead to a rather leaky business of fixing broken pipes on an ever-increasing scale. HDPE plastics could be extruded into pipe and injection moulded into irrigation parts much more cheaply than brass fittings bringing down the costs dramatically in the past twenty years. As with all our lives, computers have reduced the process of organising work and efficiency.  As irrigation systems became more extensive from solely watering 18 greens to managing over 1.500 irrigation heads, for a course which has wall-to-wall irrigation. The need to improve the calculation of water management also required the deft synchronisation of the microchip to ensure that a course can be watered in a singular night time. Water flow and sequencing of when irrigation heads pop up and go down requires thousands of individual calculations for one nights watering. The system computer will not only monitor the pump stations performance but will also consider the hydraulics of water flow from one size pipe to another as it feeds around a golf course. You would need a team of people with calculators and flow diagrams to attempt to replicate what a small CPU does in seconds in organising the watering of a golf course after dark.

The area which has had to reform most in the last thirty years is how we manage pests and disease. The greenkeepers I worked with at the start of my career, cited on many occasions that post second world war, greenkeeping was highly dependent on a cocktail of materials which would raise an eyebrow of any pharmacologist. Arsenic and mercury-based products were prevalent and basis to ‘Agent Orange’ – DDT was used for pest control as a cure all product well into the 1960s. Science expanded the amount of compounds available in the twentieth century in agriculture and then on wards to other markets, including sports maintenance. Crop diseases also affect lawn turf grass, being in the same family genera of plant so the market to sell these products expanded. The addiction for a remedy out of a bottle to solve problems with turf, in a similar mode to our reliance on antibiotics in medicine has led to the scenarios that we are running to out of ways to beat infection. As chemical compounds built up resistance in the plant, then the pharmaceutical industry would have to pull another compound out of the hat to supersede the last generation of materials. It has taken decades of governmental lobbying to ban compounds that may harm the environment in this competition to outdo nature. We have now reverted in greenkeeping (and amenity horticulture) to a state where chemical reliance is a thing of the past. This is also true for pest control, grubs and larvae that munch happily on grass roots and so since 2018, all turf pesticides that rely on organophosphate content are now banned in the UK. The need to produce healthy grass, instead of pushing it to the extremes has become the only option we have available now. The mantra ‘healthy turf is stronger turf’ is now the first line of defence for  greenkeeping and we are limited to using natural products such as seaweed extract and micro-nutrient feeding to try and bolster the plants immunity defences to resist invaders. Today we use weather data and prediction modelling to try and take the guesswork out of disease events and when a spike of infection is likely. So, we can help the plant and bolster the grasses natural defences to resist turf disease. What does this mean to the golfer or tennis player, well hopefully they do not notice any singular issue to the turf. But what will be the long-term effect on the industry is that we must reduce stress on the turf which makes it weaker and more disease prone. In the summer, heat stress will need to be reduced, keeping the leaf of the grass plant longer and in better shape is the singular one way to achieve this. In winter, water management and removing excess water way from the turf is again the most practical method of keeping viruses away and out of the equation.

If you look back to the future, on how life was perceived to be now, some fifty years ago we were all supposed to be vacationing on the moon and energy supplies were going to be sourced from cheap and endless fusion power. Life was a utopian dream free from health issues, never mind a minor issue such as a virus. Science would sort out all our problems without any consequences. The reality has become apparent over the last few decades. Technology is a great tool and we have made many advances in even my lifetime. The skill of turf management has been made some much more science based and well ‘technical’. But we have had to learn to work with nature more so than any time in the past and not take the pious view that we can control the environment to our own needs without consequences.

Not just a garden

Like many of our cultural and educational institutions around the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic is placing many in financial peril during these uncertain times. To date, the losses so far exceed more than £15 million from the purse of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, which is a concern on many levels.  Kew and Wakehurst Place are far more than enclosed parks which serve as a tourist attraction for the nation and overseas visitors. The work undertaken at Kew goes so much further than the maintenance of the world-famous collection of plants over the two sites. The gardens are a global arc of plant and fungal specimens which is resourced by the scientific community worldwide.

The figures are staggering, the Kew Millennium Seed Bank holds over 40,000 species of plant life, generally thought of as a depository for the future. An insurance policy in case of the future destruction of habitats of some of the most endangered plant species. The fungarium collection contains some 52,000 species of the classification of the life form which many are endangered from extinction directly. A DNA and tissue bank also hold a similar number of samples at -80oC representing some 35,000 species on the planet.

As a young man, Kew had always embodied the apex of horticultural excellence in that if you attained a Kew Diploma, you could reach for the stars in your chosen career path. Currently the educational faculty at Kew enables teaching across a whole range of levels. From school visits, to specialist training and apprenticeships. At a higher education level, Kew’s programmes extend to MSc and university course content and PhD supervision. Teacher training at the facilities is also offered to those on a post graduate certificate of education with a botanical specialism.

Kew is currently spear heading a research study to assist in the protection and a breeding programme to help find a resistant strain of ash trees in the UK and working closely with other organisations who are working towards this common goal. The Botanical Gardens also links in with the United Nations sustainable development goals for the environment, through the seed bank work at the Wakehurst Place centre. In a study commissioned by themselves in 2019, the Economic Value of Royal Botanical Garden (available to read on their web site), Kew has found that for every £1 spent operating Kew, it generates £3.50 in benefits to the UK economy.

In a parliamentary written question to the government last week on the impact the lockdown has had on the botanical gardens gate revenue stream, Defra minister Rebecca Pow replied: ‘Defra has regular meetings with Kew Gardens about the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak. There are significant impacts on Kew’s operations and finances … Kew has taken financial mitigation measures to partly offset the loss of income, including reducing costs, postponing investment plans and use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Under optimistic scenario planning of steady growth in visitor numbers and associated income and no second lockdown or related restrictions, their in-year operating deficit would result in a 25% reduction in total income for 2020/21, which will be funded by Kew drawing down its unrestricted reserves’’. Kew is one of the jewels of the UK legacy of horticultural excellence and for the sake of generations to come, it is hoped that it can rise the storm and the lobby the government for further assistance if it is needed.

Gardeners’ dilemma

August is an interesting time in the garden and this year’s unpredictable weather, has helped hinder the gardener. Wet winter became dry spring, which led into wet start of summer and now parched end to the season. It looks a particularly good season for soft fruit and hopefully this season will also be helpful to the apple and pear growers around the country too but for lawn owners, watching turf dry out isn’t joyous after all the work through spring. Anyone playing golf on the course lately would have seen that any place there is not irrigation now is slowly going rather crispy. This will also affect the trees also as we approach autumn, as unless there is rain returning soon, I can imagine that the fall (of leaves) will come sooner rather than later this year.

It may be prudent also to start autumn pruning a little early this year in the garden too, as removing leaf and soft green shoots may help the plant to survive this dry period as we approach the end of flowering season. It is a time to plan for the autumn and winter also and what needs to be done in terms of renovations, moving plants, or improving areas that need to be address. Talking to plant suppliers, this year is likely to be interesting one. As we are now out of Euro-land, obtaining some stock of materials may become more difficult or suppliers may rely on the fall back of buying wholly from UK plant producers which means there may be a reduced amount of plant material to choose from. If you haven’t already, purchase autumn bulbs now ready for planting in late September onwards. With the renewed interest in gardening this year, some stocks of such items shall be in high demand.

Peter Bradburn | Course and Grounds Manager