Victorious at Leamington Spa

The rinks at Victoria Park in Royal Leamington Spa have once again been prepared to perfection for the Bowls England National Championships – thanks to an expert all-year-round greenkeeping regime instigated by head greenkeeper Michael Finch and his team

The move from a long-established and successful career in football groundsmanship into bowls greenkeeping – after 24 years as head groundsman at Coventry City FC to become head greenkeeper at Leamington Spa’s Victoria Park – has confronted Michael Finch with a different set of challenges.

“This is a seven-days-a-week facility that continually endures a lot of wear and stress,” says Michael. “So, I have to look at turf care in a totally different way. Working closely with STRI we evaluate, in depth, the greens on a rolling three-four-week cycle collecting and monitoring the performance data for speed, smoothness, trueness, firmness and moisture. My job is to ensure the greens are in the correct condition throughout the whole of the six months they are in use and I do whatever it takes, whatever the weather, to present the type of top-quality surfaces the bowlers want – greens with consistent pace.”

Michael is now in his sixth year at Victoria Park, an 18.5 acres site owned and run by Warwick District Council. Its maintenance services, which include Michael and his team, are contracted to The Landscape Group. The facility accommodates play areas, tennis, netball and cricket in addition to bowls. The five rinks are of international standard – though are also available for public use.

“When I arrived here, many of the greens were ‘soft’, had loose, coarse grass cover (a lot of bent grass) and lacked consistency,” says Michael. “But with my colleagues Tim Rouse and Rob Peel, we’ve made continual improvements by including deep scarification and hollow coring down to 95mm – also on occasions vertidraining down to 125mm with 12mm diameter tines – plus sand injection and the application of plenty of topdressing then overseeding with some bent fescue mixes. We’ve reached the stage now where the surfaces are drier than they’ve ever been and are therefore quicker.”

Michael continues: “The general height of cut is maintained at 7mm throughout the winter and at 4.5mm during the early part of the season for three to four weeks. This is then reduced to usually 4mm at the beginning of May – though if it is hot, we keep it slightly higher – then will drop it to 3mm for the Championships. This is when the rinks are mown every day – often double cut - and a turf iron is used prior to the matches. Surface performance is measured on at least five occasions during the final run-in and during the Championships, to optimise the playing qualities and to achieve a good level of consistency between greens. They are also rolled every day for major competitions to ensure smoothness, trueness, firmness and good pace, which regularly meets/exceeds the 12/13-seconds criteria.

“While maintaining bowls greens is different to managing a football pitch, similar skills are required. Importantly, this includes the correct amount and frequency of both aeration, using sarel spike rollers and solid punch tines, as well as feeding.

“Combined with the monthly application of wetting agents, we employ a balanced feeding regime using granular and liquid products, such as a slow-release 16.0.16 spring fertiliser plus regular liquid feeds every four to six weeks to maintain colour and vigour, as well as the use of Primo Maxx from May through to September.”

The result of the continual improvements at Victoria Park has seen a gradual increase in the number of competitions being played there which this year, in addition to this month’s National Championships, include:

• Junior International Trials – men and women

• Senior International Squad – men and women

• Women’s Senior British Isles Championships

• Women’s Senior International Series

• Women’s Junior International Squad

• Men’s and Women’s National Top Club Finals

• Senior International Trials – men and women.

Such a fixture list says more than enough about the high regard that Bowls England holds for the quality of the rinks, and of the achievements of Michael and his team