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Start-Up Courts: Four Low-Cost Options For Building Your First Lawn

by Dr. Carl Mabee, Chairman, USCA Courts and Greens Committee

Carl Mabee, national USCA singles champion in 1994, is the author of the definitive GUIDE TO CROQUET COURT PLANNING, BUILDING, AND MAINTENANCE, published by the Croquet Foundation of America and available by order from the USCA. For those who lack the resources to build a world-class lawn, he offers four budget-wise alternatives.

Once you've played croquet on lawns as good as those at Sonoma-Cutrer in Windsor, California, in the backyard of Bert Myer in Hampstead, New Hampshire, or at the USCA headquarters in West Palm Beach, your image of croquet will be transfigured. There is, quite frankly, nothing like it. Think of the ease with which a ball can be made to move, how it continues along its precise path, the inescapable smoothness which keeps it hugging the ground as if magnetized. This is what we aim for when we build a court....flat, level, smooth and fast, and a quarter acre in size.

But to build a Sonoma-Cutrer lawn or a Bert Myer court, there is a price to pay. Contemporary estimates range from $3.00 to $5.00 per square foot for a court built to USCA specs. This investment may well be worth it if you want playability and agronomic integrity (lower maintenance costs) along with the least amount of trouble.

Not everyone, however, has the budget for a first class lawn, including myself. Or the space. Moreover, not everyone has the time or the inclination to deal with the maintenance ordeal that follows building of a full-sized grass court.

Clubs or individuals who are just starting out may want a significantly cheaper alternative with perhaps room for future improvement and expansion. As the club grows and revenues become more abundant, improvements can be made to existing sites or new locations found for larger and more sophisticated courts.

Here are four examples of what people have done in various parts of the country to get them on the low-cost trail to croquet.

Option #1: The Easy Way Out

Back in 1989, on a visit to my in-laws in Yonkers, New York, I called the nearest person I knew who played croquet. Dave Hull lived in the hilly, western section of Connecticut, in Danbury, about 45 minutes from Yonkers. Dave discovered 6-wicket croquet very early on and undoubtedly has played serious 9-wicket croquet since he was knee-high to a worm casting.

I was a little embarrassed when I first saw the court. I was, after all, the newest chairman of the USCA's Courts and Greens Committee, and I thought that my goal was to get everyone to strive for perfection when it came to creating lawns.

Dave's court was little bigger than half size, though it occupied nearly all the back yard, and it had a distinct bowl shape, with an elevation drop of four feet or so from corner one to corner three. The grass was long by modern croquet standards, but it was mowed, green, relatively weed free - except for the planned clover - and astoundingly smooth.

The court was slow, but the longer grass allowed a hit ball to travel in a reasonably straight line despite the very large changes in slope. Because the texture of the surface was uniform, the outcome of a shot was reasonably predictable.

Dave's boundaries were properly set, and his center stake and 6 hoops were all in the correct positions, with brightly colored flags marking the corners. Playing on this court was as much fun as playing on perfection. You just had to work a little harder.

The Hull court was probably nothing more than a contractor-installed lawn, overseeded some by Dave, of predominantly bluegrass, some fescue and some ryegrass. These grass varieties hold up well to the climate, resist disease, require little maintenance, and come back every spring. Bumps were leveled and holes filled in with native topsoil. Rolling then produced the smooth surface. Fertilizer designed for home use was applied to encourage a lush stand of grass.

Nothing more than ordinary native topsoils were used as a rooting medium for the grass, which Dave mowed to a height of 1.5 inches with a push-type reel mower.

There is no simpler way of getting together a playable court for 6-wicket croquet than working with what you already have in your back yard, as Dave Hull has successfully done.

Option #2: Looks Sophisticated, but Not a Budget-Buster

At about the same time we were re-landscaping our house, Bert Myer turned me on to croquet. Although it would be a modest quarter-sized court, I wanted my croquet lawn to glow like an emerald as the centerpiece of our yard.

It would be bentgrass, something I could mow to resemble a golf green. I would make it perfectly flat and modify the soil so it would drain better and resist compaction - which seemed very important to me after talking with the local golf course superintendents.

All the landscaping would blend together with the patio and the flower beds and shrubs to make it a showplace which would bring out the oh's and ahh's of visitors. It would also be a place to practice, so that when I traveled afar to croquet tournaments, the closely cropped surfaces would not be a surprise.

It turned out well.

The bulldozer spent less than one day. He pushed off the topsoil, graded easily drained subsoil flat to my specifications, and returned the topsoil. Then came the truckloads of masonry sand (in about the same volume as the topsoil), which was bulldozed evenly over the surface of the court. The next day, I brought in a farmer with a tractor and a rear-mounted, heavy-duty roto-tiller to thoroughly mix the two layers together.

Over the next several days, I used a four-wheel drive vehicle and intermittent watering to compact the surface. Then I dragged a ladder over the entire surface to get it as smooth as possible.

When I was satisfied with the smoothness of the surface and convinced that it was sufficiently compacted, I seeded with Penncross creeping bentgrass at a rate of 1-2 pounds per thousand square feet.

Having no budget for an underground sprinkler system, I kept the entire area moist using ordinary portable lawn sprinklers until germination — about one week. Then I cared for it like a baby.

In the North, the ideal lawn for croquet is creeping bentgrass, but you will pay the price for maintaining your ideal. To keep my lawn in good shape, I have bought a used Jacobsen greens mower, computerized hose valves to aid in irrigation, a topdressing machine held together with baling wire, a centrifugal spreader for fertilizer and other chemicals, a Greens Wheelie push-from-behind lawn sprayer for pesticides, and numerous small hand tools. I rent a verticutter and core aerator several times a year.

When we lost half our turf to disease one winter, we hired a man to slice and seed with a machine.

I did what I had to do to get a Commercial Applicators Pesticides License from the State of Maine so I can legally apply certain kinds of chemicals. Our club (which now also includes a full-sized court in Sanford, Maine) spends approximately $1500 for chemicals and topdressing sand every year.

The Sanford court, in the back yard of Trux and Alice Chase, was constructed in much the same way as my court. The difference was that it was full size, and a lot more fuss went into making it perfectly flat. The entire quarter acre was compacted and leveled to a variance of 1/8 inch using a water manometer, landscape rake, shovels and wheelbarrows.

If you have a small budget but plenty of time and volunteer labor, you can do almost anything. Because Trux and Alice supplied most of the labor themselves over a long period of time, construction took a year and a half.

With more money, the same surface could be constructed much more quickly using bulldozers and a laser grader, which can level and surface to within 1/4 inch.

The labor and materials to build my quarter-sized court cost about $1000 in 1986. The Sanford court cost about $10,000 in 1989 - substantially less than the $30,000 it could have cost with imported management and labor.

Option #3: The No-Grass Solution

If you're lucky enough to live near the ocean where tides rise and fall 10 feet or more, Mother Nature could give you the best imaginable no-cost/no-maintenance option for 6-wicket croquet on a fast, evenly-textured surface. In my native Kennebunkport, Maine, we play on the beach when every other court is covered with snow. The tides roll in and then retreat, leaving a brand new surface of hard sand with a slight pitch to the ocean. And it plays well. The limitations, however, are obvious. Not only do you have to schedule your play by the tides, but you can't play at all in the summer, when the beach police forbid all sand sports, no matter how benign.

But the principle of playing on sand was brought inland long ago by the French Canadians who immigrated to Sanford and other New England towns, bringing with them a croquet game which somewhat resembled roque. With few resources, courts were built of hard-packed sand or fine gravel with a containment board on the perimeter. It was a popular game for more than a generation. Courts could be found on every other block and frequently at lakefront cottages.

Today, this court-building technique has been applied to six-wicket croquet. "Not that there's anything wrong with being rich or retired - but croquet is too good a game to leave just to the retired and the rich." These are the words of Hugh Barger, a North Carolina cattle farmer. Like many other younger working folk smitten with croquet, he had neither the time nor the financial resources required for building and maintaining a good grass court. Even if he could talk the local golf course management into building one, he would still have the financial burden of joining the golf club.

But Hugh Barger did have the space for a court on his farm, and a good idea about what to do with it.

He rented a bulldozer and a transit for scraping and pushing around a quarter acre of pasture so that it was flat and would pitch about one inch from one side to the other. Over this base, he dumped 120 tons of creek sand and spread it with a farm tractor to a uniform depth of four to five inches.

Then he repeatedly used a cultipacker and a liquid-filled roller, interspersed with several rainfalls, to compact the creek sand until it was almost perfectly flat and very hard.

When this was done, two problems surfaced: the creek sand turned out to have pebbles large enough to interfere with the roll of a ball; and drainage was inadequate.

Drainage ditches were cut by machine at 12-foot intervals. Drainage tile, pitched one foot from side to side, was laid into the ditches and covered with washed stone. Around the perimeter of the court, 1" x 4" boards were installed. The entire court area was then filled with 80 tons of granite dust, sometimes called stone dust, commonly used as a base for brick walkways or driveways. The court was compacted and leveled the same as with the creek sand. But now the court drained well and was uniformly smooth.

Once set into this surface, the hoops can be expected to stay firm. The speed of the court can be regulated according to the amount of rolling and brushing that is done. After tests with a Stimpmeter on a swept court, a golf ball rolled 6'6", and after compacting and sweeping the ball rolled 9'4". Hugh has done comparable tests on good grass surfaces and has determined that the stone dust court compares favorably to grass with respect to speed.

The great advantage of this surface is its low maintenance. The court should be brushed after use, and rolled if possible. An obvious court imperfection can be repaired in minutes, compared to grass which could take months. The entire court can be resurfaced quickly by brushing and rolling. The occasional weed can be easily removed by hand before the roots get established, but the court materials do not support vegetation, so weeds are not likely to be a problem.

The total cost for this court in 1992, including site preparation and materials, was $1700. At one point the group building it had considered using a "Har Tru" tennis court material which would have increased the speed, but it would have also increased the cost to about $7500. (The tennis court material also required daily watering, which Hugh was not willing to do.)

"At this level of construction and maintenance cost," Hugh declares, "recreation and park departments in many localities, home owner organizations, and many individual enthusiasts might be persuaded to build a full-sized croquet court."

Option #4: Artificial Turf

For croquet zealots willing to pay a little more initially to avoid the ongoing high costs of grass-court maintenance, artificial turf could be a godsend.

Expect to pay between $25,000 and $35,000 for a completed full-sized court, including the base. You may want to trim your budget by subcontracting the installation of the base yourself, and it could be very similar to the court Hugh Barger built in his pasture. Otherwise, follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the base. Since the base is constructed to drain well, there is no reason to build in a pitch. Don't be satisfied until you have made the surface flat and level, with as few irregularities as possible. The material you will put over it will be very difficult to remove for second-thought corrections.

Most of the artificial surfaces recommended for croquet are similar to those used for tennis. The fabric has a stiff backing with a pile of 3/4" to 1". It is filled with a fine sand or sand-like granules. The sand not only holds the artificial grass to the base, but also allows for adjustments in the speed of the court; the more sand, the faster the court. Holes in the backing allow drainage.

Some manufacturers have recommended concrete or semipermeable asphalt as a base. For croquet, you will probably not use these base materials, because you will need to pound hoops into the ground, and you will have to move them around. If the facility is indoors, you may consider a concrete or asphalt base, since drainage need not be of concern, and several small-scale manufacturers (including Bob Kroeger-Reid Fleming Enterprises; and Wayne Rodoni) fashion good hoops that can be taped, nailed or bolted to concrete, asphalt, or other hard surfaces.

Although you will escape the burden of ongoing constant maintenance that comes with grass courts, you cannot expect to entirely escape the need for maintenance of artificial surfaces. The court should be brushed periodically to maintain uniform playing characteristics by revitalizing the fibers and the sand and erasing wear patterns. Occasional watering is needed, even indoors, to compact the sand between the fibers. Additional sand may have to be added, perhaps on an annual basis, to maintain the speed of the green. And occasionally, especially in the spring, all seams should be field-checked, fungicide applied, and the surface mechanically broomed.

The Search For New Varieties Of Grass

In 1983 the United States Golf Association Green Section and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America embarked on a joint research venture. Their goal was to develop new turfgrasses and management techniques to reduce turfgrass maintenance costs and water use requirements by 50 percent by 1993.

The jury is still out on how successful they were. In the meantime, the turfgrass marketplace smokes with the competition to find new varieties of grass that better resist disease, hold up to more traffic, allow a closer cut, tolerate more heat or deeper cold, have darker green color, resist damaging insects, grow vigorously in shady conditions, have slower growth, are cheaper to produce...and the list goes on.

For croquet any improvement in quality is welcome, but in particular we would like to see already good, low-maintenance standby varieties bred for a closer cut. Conversely, we would like to see varieties presently good for close cutting improved for lower maintenance.

Suggested Minimum Cutting Heights Of Some Turfgrass Species

RELATIVE HEIGHTINCHESSPECIES
Very close0.2Creeping bentgrass
.Velvet bentgrass
Close0.3Colonial bentgrass
.Annual bluegrass
.Bermudagrass
.0.4Chewings fescue
.0.5Perennial ryegrass
.Zoysiagrass
.Rough Bluegrass
.Buffalograss
Medium0.75Kentucky bluegrass
.1.0St. Augustinegrass
.Centipedegrass
.Carpetgrass
High1.5Red fescue
.Meadow fescue
.Bahiagrass
.Tall fescue
.Fairway wheatgrass
Very high3.0Canada bluegrass
.Smooth brome

In the mid eighties, creeping bentgrass, the standby for greens of all types in the North, had not been significantly improved since the development of Penncross in 1955 by Tee2-Green Corporation. In 1986, a new search for an alternative to Penncross began, driven by a few bad production years, skyrocketing prices, and state legislatures increasingly restricting the use of pesticides. Here are the main new varieties introduced:

  • Cobra (International Seeds, Inc.), 1987;
  • Putter (Jacklin Seed Co.), 1989;
  • National (Pickseed West), 1987;
  • SR1020 (Seed Research of Oregon, Inc.), 1987;
  • Providence (Seed Research of Oregon, Inc.), 1988;
  • Pennlinks (Tee-2-Green Corp.), 1986;
  • Lopez (Fine Lawn Research, Inc.), 1991;
  • PRO/CUP (Forbes Seed & Grain, Inc.), 1993-94;
  • Biska (Johnson Seeds, Ltd.), 1992;
  • Southshore (Lofts Seed, Inc.), 1992;
  • Regent (Normarc, Inc.), 1992;
  • Carmen (Vander Have Oregon, Inc.), 1993.

Every one of these cultivars has different properties. To find the best cultivar for your area, be sure to talk to your local seedsman and a local golf course superintendent. Say exactly what you want to do and where you want to do it. You will find no better resource than these local experts.

Kentucky bluegrass continues to be the standby for home lawns in the North. Most of them cannot be cut very low without undergoing a great deal of stress...even death. In 1991, Fine Lawn Research, Inc. imported Surpa Poa Supina, a bluegrass used in Europe on soccer fields and other areas calling for an aggressive, tough turf. The big advantage of this variety is its ability to be cut to 1/4 inch and its lower maintenance. You may find it a good alternative to bentgrass.

Other alternatives for Northern croquet include the improved varieties of chewings fescue, perennial ryegrass, and the drought tolerant buffalograss.

For the South the best available turfgrass for croquet has been the vegetatively reproduced cultivars of bermudagrass — Tifgreen and Tifdwarf. In recent years, lowermowing, seeded varieties of bermudagrass have been developed, making construction of courts much less complicated and less expensive. NuMex-Sahara is one such variety.

The transition zone offers special challenges. The best adapted grass is probably tall fescue, but its minimum cutting height is so high as to render it useless for croquet. Zoysiagrass, on the other hand, is well adapted to the warm, humid and transition areas, but its slow growth makes for a sluggish recovery from injury. Dalz 8501 and Dalz 8502 are newer cultivars now commercially propagated for their enhanced ability to recover from injury.

Breeding programs continue to develop new heat-tolerant strains of creeping bentgrass and cold-tolerant strains of bermudagrass.

Your choice of grass strain is one of the most critical decisions you will have to make in designing and building your croquet court. The smallest variations in soil types and climate can make a huge difference in the relative success of your top candidates. Do not make a final choice until you have consulted with your local golf course superintendent and seedsman to find out what works in your area.

(This article is a shortened version of an article originally published in Volume One of the Croquet Foundation of America's MONOGRAPH SERIES ON CLUB BUILDING, ORGANIZATION AND MANAGEMENT and reprinted here by permission of the author.)

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