Croquet Lawn Maintenance
This article relates to the maintenance of quality croquet lawns and although many of the principles could apply to Garden Croquet lawns the requirements are far less rigorous.
Croquet players want a flat surface boundary to boundary. Decent hoop approaches. No rabbit runs. A reasonably fast surface but not so fast that ball positioning becomes a lottery. This is the story about how Letchworth Croquet Club achieved all this from scratch without irrigation. All of the recommendations made in this article apply to the conditions that we have at Letchworth and may not apply with other soil structures. Thanks to Grants from the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation and the Croquet Association we were able to create two new croquet lawns at Letchworth in 2005. All subsequent groundwork has been done by club members after we had bad experiences with contractors. The two lawns are are now amongst the finest non-irrigated lawns in the UK. The are impressively flat, fast and true although there is still room for improvement which will happen with further annual top dressing.
The Sports Turf Research Institute drew up the original plans, went out to tender and managed the construction phase. The original site was on a slope so the top soil was removed, the sub soil laser levelled and top soil replaced. The soil was worked into a fine tilthe, mechanically stone picked, levelled and 76 tons of sand ameliorated into the top 2 inches (that is about an inch of sand added to the top 2 inches). The lawns were designed to have no slope at all for drainage as it wasn’t considered necessary. The only drainage installed was a catch drain between the tennis courts and croquet lawns. We have a well structured top soil free of stones which drains well except after a deluge of the exceptional type. A few feet down there is a solid band of clay some 35 feet thick. Ominously the address of the new Croquet Club at Letchworth is Muddy Lane.
Clay and water: The clay holds the water and gives some drought protection.
Clay and cracking: In the first 3 years of maturing we experienced cracking below the surface during drought conditions. This produced an uneven surface enough for balls to bounce and was rather worrying. We thought the only solution was irrigation. But from the 4th season onwards this cracking has not recurred even though the conditions have at times be much drier. It seems that the roots have matured and formed a considerable structure which either masks or prevents the cracking.
Sand: In the first two years particularly the sand produced a very fast draining surface. As the sward has matured this free draining seems to have gone backwards a little but not seriously. We use Leighton Buzzard washed sand which has round granules which have more air spaces when compacted than sharp sand. It is used at Woburn Golf Club for their 36 greens. It comes from a pond and equivalents may be river sand that I have seen advertised but I don’t know. This very free draining surface means that nutrients are absorbed and wash through very quickly so considerably more nitrogen has to be provided in the early stages of maturing.
Bad advice: We were badly advised by three contractors about the maintenance of our new lawns. I learnt that each contractor has his own ideas and they definitely don’t agree with one another. STRI consultants don’t agree with each other and agronomists can disagree with everyone too. This makes it tricky so I end up relying on what I know works. Inappropriate machinery was used by contractors causing valleys where the tractor tyres ran. I am simply astonished that these people can actually earn a living by doing such a poor job.
The result of this experience is that I decided to start providing lawn care advice to croquet clubs myself and now trade as Duncan Hector Turf Care. See my web site http://www.duncanhectorturfcare.co.uk
Grass – Sauvignon: Yes Sauvignon was the name of the Dwarf Rye grass that was initially sown when the lawns were constructed. Letchworth was among the first croquet clubs to take this radical step. People think of Bents and Fescues in connection with fine turf and they are right. But our needs are rather more demanding. We want a grass plant that will withstand a lot of wear particularly around hoops. It must also withstand dry conditions because we don’t intend to use irrigation. Around 2004 I discussed the virtues of rye grass with the Head Groundsman at Hurlingham and was surprised to hear that he had overseeded the croquet lawns with Sauvignon. It has been used at Wimbledon for years and major cricket grounds too. Our experience has been very good indeed. I don’t think Sauvignon is available now and more recently we have been using the brand Bar Extreme.
Living, breathing surface: To get a good surface you have to consider the welfare of the top few inches of soil – this is where the roots collect the nutrients. Top soil is top soil because it is living and breathing. Sub soil does not live and breathe. A handful of topsoil is full of all sorts of things – thousands of fungi spores and vast numbers of micro-organisms. Grass roots love a lively medium where things are going on and if the action is deeper down, that’s where the roots go. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. At Letchworth we do not top dress with anything other than pure sand. The reason is that if we add nutrient rich soil to the top, the roots will concentrate their growth exactly there, near the top. To get strong grass you need deep rooting grass plants. Roots are single minded, their job is to locate water and nutrients, if you provide these at the surface they will stay there waiting for more. That is why if you are irrigating you must really soak the grass so that the water gets down deep. A living breathing surface needs oxygen to work well. This is easily provided by regularly aerating. We use a Sarel Spiker which has thin spikes that penetrate a couple of inches or so. The Sarel is a good implement because it doesn’t disrupt the surface at all which is important at a busy club where play goes on for up to 8 hours a day 7 days a week.
Check it out: You can easily check the health of your lawn by taking out a plug of soil, this can be done with the proper device or use a penknife to cut a pyramid of soil which can be heeled back after inspection. Look to see how deep the roots are growing. 3 to 4 inches is good. Roots will develop round and in the spiked holes where there is plenty of oxygen. Monthly aeration is recommended but our lawns get too hard in mid summer for any depth of penetration, so we spike after rain when it is softer.
Worms There are some 28 species of worm found in UK soil of which only 4 are of the casting variety. They are surface feeders and are the ones that can ruin your fine lawn. Chemical control (we use Ringer) is currently available but may not be in the longer term if regulations change.
Growth regulator: We have been using a growth regulator (Primo Maxx) for two seasons. This is sprayed in a mixture of liquid farmyard manure (Farmura) which percolates down into the soil to get the micro-organisms going and to provide nutrients to the roots. The growth regulator causes the grass to adopt even more of a dwarf habit and encourages sideways growth rather than vertical and root development too. It really works and reduces the amount of mowing necessary. The grass looks as though it has just been cut for longer and gives a faster surface too.
Nitrogen: Hitherto we have used granular slow release fertilisers but they do rely on rain to water them in which can be very difficult to forecast and inconvenient. Last year we used slow release granular at the beginning and end of the season but liquid biofeed throughout the main season. The downside with liquid is that there is no slow release and applications must be done monthly. However the nitrogen is absorbed by the leaf immediately and our biological approach means that thatch is now used as a nutrient and scarification has become unnecessary (See "Thatch" below). Experience has shown that this approach has been very successful. We use an SCH sprayer that is towed by our lawn tractor. It has a capacity of 180litres and the pump is powered by the tractor battery.
Thatch: This is dead or dying material and roots in the top layer of the sward. It can be removed by scarifying which we used to do every autumn. More recently we have adopted a biological approach using biofeeds and aeration to help create a lively root zone where bacteria and micro-organisms can break down the thatch into usable nutrients. The lawns have not been scarified at all in the last three years and do not require scarification this year. The measurable thatch layer has not increased during that period. This lack of aggression means that the root mass is stronger and healthier and the playing surface has improved as a result.
Mowing: This is shared by two or three of our members. For years we used a 24” ATCO ride on which couldn’t cut lower than about 6 or 8mm. Now that we have flat lawns we want a faster surface and have purchased an Allett Tournament 24 mower with the help of a grant from the Letchworth Heritage Foundation. The manufacturer modified their standard mower to take our old ATCO seat and also fitted a larger collecting box (the standard one is very small). This mower has a shaver blade that can cut down to 2mm, it is easy to operate, vibration free and cuts very finely at 246 cuts per metre. An important asset is the fact that this mower has a groomer device which flicks the grass and other stuff up into the blades. George has experimented with the groomer. He cut one section with the groomer and another section without. Both sections were cut the same length but the section that had been groomed was 1 Plummer faster. Allett tell me that Bowls Clubs have been reporting this too. The significant advantage is that grass can be kept longer than normally possible without losing speed. Longer grass is stronger grass and has better resistance to drought and disease.
Hoops: Our club is very active with both AC and GC. To prevent rabbit runs and to rest the grass George Woolhouse developed a rotation system of hoop settings which works very well. There are two main settings, one for AC, the other for GC. The AC setting is in the standard position and the GC setting is about a foot to one side. So that we can rest these, we create another setting two or three feet away longitudinally. When the second setting is used we move the boundary lines to match. The holes are never in-filled except when we top dress because of the fear that hills would develop. They rarely seem to be a problem to players.
Top dressing: This is done in the autumn using a lawn tractor pulling a trailer filled with sand. We have been applying 20 tons a year in order to get the lawns flat – but in future we will reduce this to 10 tons. The sand is shovelled from the trailer onto the grass and a 12 foot aluminium ladder is dragged around to spread it. This acts as a large lute and has enabled us to achieve an excellent standard of flatness. Although we apply seed before top dressing we also have to overseed the thickly dressed areas and a further overseed is usually necessary in these areas in the spring. The use of a germination mat can protect the seed from birds and warm the soil too. Normal white garden fleece does this job well – simply peg it down over the offending area and water as necessary. It can be removed and replaced before and after play if necessary. Rye grass needs 9 degrees to germinate so that is the deciding factor with timing. Our experience has shown that very thick amounts of sand can lead to problems because the sand doesn’t hold moisture so in areas where deep top dressing is required I would recommend a 60/40 sand/soil mix topped off with pure sand.
Red Thread: I have seen this at lots of clubs and we get attacks at Letchworth from time to time. It is the result of a fungus that is ever present in the soil. The spores just wait until you provide the right conditions for it to do its work and then it produces pinkish/red threads. It indicates a nitrogen shortage and so the cure is simple.
Snow mould: We had unexplained white patches all over the lawns in February 2011. It turned out to be snow mould which is a fungal attack resulting from snow lying on the surface. It soon disappeared with no remedial action necessary.
Dry patch: This has been a problem for the last two seasons. During very dry periods micro-organisms produce a waxy substance which binds the particles of soil together forming a totally waterproof surface. Having done that, the roots dry out and your grass dies. Even after two inches of rain the water didn’t get through. We took soil samples from affected areas and the soil below was just like dust and absolutely dry as a bone. Yet a few inches away where the area wasn’t affected, the soil was healthy and moist. In 2016 we have now solved the problem by using Aqueduct and Revolution.
Fusarium patch: This is a fungal attack that creates white rings and patches. It happens in the darker winter months but disappears in the spring. We haven’t had to use any remedial measures.
How much Nitrogen
Duncan Hector Turf Care
Helping to create great croquet lawns
My service includes advice and guidance on all aspects of croquet lawn maintenance and the specification and supply of tailor-made fertilisers. First I need to understand the requirements of your club, the nature of your soil and grass plants. I carry out a soil analysis then devise a nutrition programme that suits the soil, your club and your budget.
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Visit my web site www.DuncanHectorTurfCare.co.uk
Video - Top dressing a croquet lawn
This video shows how we use a ladder as a lute to acheive a very flat surface. Shovelling is done by volunteer members and we use Leighton Buzzard washed sand.
Video - Setting hoops on a croquet lawn
This video shows the method of hoop setting used by George Woolhouse at Letchworth Croquet Club. This method should not be used for tubular steel hoops or Garden Croquet hoops because they could be damaged as a result. Tubular steen hoops should be set using a hoop drill.
Moss thrives in swards where there is little competition. So the creation and maintenance of a strong and vigorous turf is vital if moss is to be kept at bay. It spreads by producing spores which lie dormant in the turf waiting for the right conditions to germinate. So it is important to kill moss before the production of spores. Moss crops twice a year, spring and autumn, to be successful you need to kill it as soon as it appears.
There are many proprietary moss killers on the market varying from lawn sand to Ferrous Sulphate. These will scorch the moss but not prevent further growth and I am not sure whether it kills latent spores. The simple rule is to treat moss early and be prepared to treat on a monthly basis if necessary. This regime allied to a grass maintenance programme should eradicate the problem.
This method has proved to be very successful at Newport Croquet Club (Essex). In 2010 they had about 70% moss which was about 1” thick in places. A restorative programme was started in the winter of 2010 and by the spring of 2012 there is virtually no moss at all. Newport had several problems including worm casts, dry patch and moss all of which have been cured. The initial treatment carried out in the autumn was:
1/. Aerate the turf and spray wetting agent to cure the dry patch.
2/. Spray moss killer.
3/. Spray “Ringer” to dissuade casting worms.
two weeks later 4/. Scarify – two passes at a 20 degree angle.
5/. Aerate again
7/. Top dress.
In spring 2011, moss treatment was carried out again and since then there has been hardly any moss on the Newport lawns.
In early May 2012 I visited Guildford and Godalming Croquet Club with Gavin Merrison of Collier Turfcare to look at their four lawns and propose a restorative programme. Gavin masterminded the Newport restoration and has a lot of experience with croquet lawns. We found a very free draining soil apparently sitting on 100 feet of sand. The moss coverage was around 70% and at least half an inch thick so the surface was very spongy. The recommendation was that, if funds were available, treatment could start immediately. First apply moss killer. Two weeks later scarify, this will only remove 10 to 20% of the dead material so there will still be a spongy layer of dead moss. Overseed using a drill which will ensure that the seed is planted into this layer rather than just spreading the seed on top. This will maximise germination and the grass should become established fairly quickly. A fertiliser programme will run alongside the moss control to ensure that the grass plant grows vigorously. If funds were not immediately available the programme could start in the autumn. In either case the treatment would be moss killing, scarification, overseeding and top dressing applied. This top dressing will bulk out the spongy layer which will gradually disappear as the root mass develops.
Do bear in mind that these treatments are specific to the conditions prevailing at the sites concerned and a different programme could apply elsewhere.
I do hope that this is useful and, as always, I welcome any feedback.
Author: Duncan Hector