Turf recovers after winter

Growers are now on the road to recovery after problems caused by harsh winter conditions, says Sally Drury.

Millennium Stadium  Image: County Turf
Millennium Stadium Image: County Turf

It doesn't matter whether you look at amenity or sports turf in Cumbria or Cornwall, Sunderland or Surrey - and in Scotland too - almost everywhere you can spot the signs of the harsh winter.

Much of the country saw a month of lying snow. It cleared only to come back for another 10 days in February. The result in many places is an abundance of moss growth and on most sites the blade-tips are brown and will remain so until mown off.

The winter has also been unkind to turf growers. There are regional variations, largely relating to soil type, but the long cold winter has had an effect on a lot of turf farms. Fortunately, much turf is already on the road to recovery. That's just as well, because now is the best time to buy it.

"In terms of national stock, much of the turf looks as though it has been through a hard winter," admits Tillers Turf managing director Tim Fell. "The most obvious sign is the singed tips. At the moment, turf is just not the colour everyone would like it to be, but the winter has not hurt it - the effect is purely cosmetic. A bit of fertiliser and mowing will see it quickly transformed." On free-draining soil, Tillers Turf is one of the farms reporting a lower than expected incidence of disease.

Fell firmly believes now is a good time for turfing and reports that turf sales are on the increase, especially the basic landscape turf (ryegrass, smooth-stalk and fescue mixtures). "It's an excellent time for landscapers to be thinking about turf," he insists. "We are just coming into a period when temperatures are rising, it's not too hot and there's plenty of moisture around - these are absolutely ideal conditions to put turf down."

It certainly seems that landscapers are busy catching up with schemes that had to be abandoned during the snow. But there is also the promise of new work to come. "A lot of work was held up by the winter and now it's coming to completion, but there are also signs of activity on development sites. At the moment it is looking positive," says Fell.

At County Turf in north Lincolnshire, where the first feeds were applied in March, the volume of turf leaving the farm is increasing. "In the past three weeks there has been a dramatic pick up in sales," confirms managing director Andy Fraser.

Inturf joint managing director Alex Edwards also reports good sales so far, with particular demand for the farm's Classic Turf. "We sell overwhelmingly more Classic fine-leaved dwarf perennial-ryegrass than anything else - it's the big brand in our portfolio," he says.

This year Inturf is continuing a returfing project at the 27-hole Wisley Golf Club in Surrey. "We returfed all the greens and tees there in the late 1990s. Now we are doing all the greens, tees and fairways. This year we will be doing the second round of nine greens, tees and fairways and hopefully complete the last nine next year," says Edwards.

In view of the bad winter, landscapers, groundsmen and greenkeepers wanting to buy turf now would be wise to shop around. Turfgrass Growers Association (TGA) chief executive officer Tim Mudge suggests visiting the organisation's website for details of its accredited members. Turf from TGA members is grown and harvested to exacting standards that are becoming recognised as good independent benchmarks.

Once laid, the turf is unlikely to need any extra TLC at the moment. "Everything is going in turf's favour just now and I don't think buyers will need to do anything special to get it off to a good start," says Fell. "The temperature is warming up, there's a lot of sunlight and the moisture is there, so it's just a case of following good practice. A preturfing fertiliser would help if turf is going down on low-fertility soils."

What about price? Last year, as the economic downturn hit the construction and home-building industries, sales to the landscaping sector fell with some companies reporting as much as a 40 per cent slump. A stock of turf put prices under pressure.

Most turf growers expect to see prices firm up this spring as volumes leaving the fields increase, although the 2006/07 peak sales levels are not expected to return until 2011, when it is believed a revival in house building will be at a point where landscapers are involved in supplying gardens prior to properties being marketed.

Traditionally labour-intensive, one way landscapers and contractors are increasingly looking to save time and manpower is through the use of big rolls, giving the advantage of speed of installation. "A huge area can be laid in a very short time," says Fell.

"The only time-limiting factor is getting the turf from the delivery area onto the laying machine. Once it's on the machine it only takes 20 or 30 seconds to roll out a 30sq m area of turf." Tillers Turf supplies a frame that fits a tractor three-point linkage and enables big rolls to be quickly unrolled.

Well-known for its patented Turfmaster System, York-based Rolawn combines a large-roll format (13sq m and 26sq m) with specialist, easy-to-use laying equipment for pedestrian or tractor-mounted operation.

LARGE VOLUME

County Turf, in conjunction with pitch-installer Talbot Sportsturf, undertook one of the biggest ever "instant play" sports pitch provisions last autumn.

After erecting new buildings within its grounds, Whitburn School near Sunderland wanted to turn the site of the former school buildings into football pitches and an athletics track.

County Turf supplied 18,020sq m of turf in 1.2x12m big rolls and Talbot carried out the installation, using up to seven articulated lorry loads of turf per day.

"This was a large volume project," says Talbot Sportsturf director Shaun Goodwin. "The criteria required sports turf that, while being uniformly cut, had to have a strong root system and an even sward.

"The consistency in depth makes it easier for us to deliver a level playing surface - one thing that is paramount in 'instant play' situations. County Turf ensured that the criteria were fulfilled and the project was a success."

Although a downturn in the construction industry affected sales of landscape turf last year, County Turf had a successful year with its Sports Greenscape and County Stadia products. It supplied turf to resurface Croke Park, Hampden Park, the Millennium Stadium and other major venues.

Following an Oasis concert last year, Inturf was contracted to strip off the old turf at Coventry's Ricoh Arena and replace it with 2,400sq m of new Fibre Turf.

NEW PRODUCT

Inturf has a reputation for innovation and it's a tradition the 25-year-old company means to continue. This year the York-based firm has a new fibre-elastic product based on pallets and using the porous recycled thermoplastic drainage material Aquadyne.

"It's not intended to be a movable system," says joint managing director Alex Edwards. "We are using a plastic reinforced pallet with a 40mm Aquadyne section welded onto it as a drainage layer and the fibre-elastic turf in a root zone on top."

Being lightweight and providing an evergreen surface that requires low maintenance, the pallet system could be used on roof gardens and green roofs. Inturf also has a hectare of fibre-elastic turf ready for harvesting.

TRIPLE TURF ECO PACKAGE

Low Maintenance Fine Turf from Lindum is the first to incorporate crested hairgrass - a grass noted for its low-maintenance qualities, slow growth habit and ability to thrive in dry, low-fertility soils.

In a triple turf eco package designed to combat climate change on the golf course, Lindum recommends the new Low Maintenance Fine Turf, plus droughtand wear-tolerant RTF with roots down to 1.5m and also Lindum Wildflower mixture of native flowers and non-invasive grasses on recycled felt.


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