Croquet is on the up!
Croquet is seeing a resurgence in one Suffolk town – and so is the lawn where the sport is played.
Tucked away at the heart of Ipswich’s historic and picturesque Christchurch Park is Ipswich Croquet Club and its immaculate lawn. Comprising two pitches, it is tended by Ipswich Borough Council groundsman Tony Powell, who has been a groundsman at the 90-acre park – the town’s third largest – for 40 years. He is also charged with looking after two bowling greens, as well as several other sport and amenity areas.
“But this is where I like to be,” he says. “It feels like we’re hidden here surrounded by the trees, away from the hubbub of the town. It’s a quiet and pretty spot.”
Not so on a match days, however. Club membership has taken off, much to Tony’s surprise and delight. “When I started here in 1969 there were about 60 club members, most of whom were over 40 years old. Gradually the number of members dwindled to the point where it was questionable whether the club – and the lawn – would survive.
“But during the past 10 years membership has been on the up again. We’ve produced two world champions – Mark Avery and John Walters – and membership numbers are back into double figures and rising. And, best of all, we’ve got a lot of young people joining the club.”
To reflect this growing popularity, the lawn has been receiving some special attention and Tony is pleased with the way it’s looking and playing.
Croquet lawn maintenance is similar to that for bowling greens, with the season also running from mid-April to the end of September.
Heavy scarifying and spiking – both solid and hollow tined, but usually solid – mark the beginning of the end-of-season renovations and serve to aerate the soil and aid drainage. “And the latter also helps to push the top dressing into the soil,” says Tony, outlining his autumn programme.
A divot mix is broadcast across the lawn and the 3.5 m perimeter around it. It comprises bents and fescues – a typical bowling green mixture – offering small, fine-leaved grass that’s also hard wearing.
Top dressing is a loam/peat mixture that matches the profile of the soil that’s already there. “The exact mix depends on the soil sampling results,” he says.
Soil analysis is carried out by Chris Hale from Newmarket-based Sherriff Amenity, who also draws up a tailored fertiliser programme – and a mini granular fertiliser is applied at the recommended rate.
“We go for very low nitrogen at that time of year, and go heavier with the potash to promote root growth. There’s also a lot of iron in the dressing, which helps to strengthen the grass and keeps the moss at bay.”
Until recently, Tony left the lawn alone for much of the winter, only venturing onto it to brush off dew and dead leaves. But now he says that the winters are so mild that the grass continues to grow and typically he has to cut it once a week. “I don’t like to see the grass taller than 15 mm during the winter – ideally I like it to be around 12 mm.
“Come the spring we start to lower the cutting height by 1 mm per week to get it down to 5 mm in time for the start of the season and we go as low as 4 mm when the season is underway.”
Warmer winters necessitate other tasks such as spiking and slitting, with pencil tines. “This is done once a month and helps to keep the soil well aerated,” explains Tony, who also makes regular passes with the brush. “I’ll even come down at the weekend. I don’t like to see dew sat on the sward for more than 48 hours – it’s a haven for disease and very poor for grass health.”
February and March see another two passes with the scarifier, made at 10oangles: “Just to touch the soil surface and keep that thatch and moss down and the surface of the soil clean,” he explains. March also sees the first application of a nitrogen-heavy fertiliser in the form of a slow-release mini granule.
A wetting agent is applied for the first time in April along with a bio stimulant. The wetting agent helps to encourage root growth and helps to prevent dew from sitting on the plant and the soil surface. “We use this product on Chris’ advice. He’s been helping to look after the green for the past 10 years,” says Tony.
Just prior to the start of the season, he marks the lawn into two pitches – each one is approximately 30 m by 25 m – using a traditional white-lining machine. It takes him an afternoon to do that and to position the hoop centres – there are six on each pitch and a centre pin.
Other holes do occasionally appear on the pitch – made by squirrels. “They take a shine to the lawn in August and September, when they start to bury nuts and seeds for the winter, then the magpies come along and dig up them up. Between them they make a bit of a mess.”
Insect, fungal and weed pests don’t tend to trouble Tony or the lawn. “I prefer to tackle them the natural way by keeping the sward fit and healthy - and it tends to work most of the time. If it does succumb to disease then I will use a fungicide if I really have to. But I find that if the grass is strong then it stays disease-free.”
But even the strongest grass is no match for human vandals. It’s a public park so vandalism can be a problem. “There’s certainly more of it than when I began working here. Back then it was a rare occurrence, but not so today.”
People playing football on the lawn is Tony’s biggest headache and there’s not an awful lot he can do about it since the site is open.
That said, people can’t just turn up to play croquet – the hoops and other equipment are kept in the clubhouse. Club night is on Tuesdays and that’s when non-members can join in. “Members can come and go as they please, within reason – it’s a similar set up to a bowling club.
“I have to make sure I get my regular maintenance work done first thing in the morning or last thing at night so I don’t interfere with play, which usually starts at midday.”
Keeping the sward short and tight requires cutting every other day during the summer, unless the weather is exceptionally barmy. In this instance, like during July 2008, the grass is cut every day. “Also, we continue slitting and spiking once a month throughout the summer.”
Irrigating is another summer job: “I can get away with doing it once every four days during dry weather – the ground doesn’t dry out too quickly. We use a hose and sprinklers, and it takes about five hours to water each green.”
Tony doesn’t play croquet himself – he’s a ten-pin bowling champion and was runner up in the world championships back in the mid 1970s. “I still have to get my ‘fix’ – I used to play six days a week,” he says, but now just finds time to play a spot of tennis instead.
He’s a great fan of the outdoors, which is hardly surprising considering his lengthy tenure at the park. “I love working here – every day is different. I couldn’t be cooped up indoors all day.”
At 55 years old, Tony is hoping to retire in four years: “I have to think of my back! But I’d also have to keep my hand in – I’d miss working here too much.” Indeed, it would be a shame if Tony didn’t stick around to pass his wealth of experience and knowledge on to any predecessors.
“Like I said, it’s where I like to be and looking at the lawn I think it likes me being here as well.”