25 years a legend

By Alistair June 30, 2024 08:06

Penny Comerford charts the birth and history of Drill n Fill in the UK and Europe.

“Bretton, it’s St Andrews Links Trust on the phone enquiring about Drill n Fill.”

An exciting call to get in the early days of this legendary aerator becoming the initial mainstay of Ecosolve, a family-owned and run business now celebrating its quarter century.

As it turned out, it was Drill n Fill’s sister aerator, the Deep Drill 60/18 which went to Scotland because its longer, finer drills could penetrate to the depth of 450mm, that Gordon Moir and Eddy Adams wanted. That early visit was a total success, avoiding the vast expense of taking more drastic action to rectify the issue on the Old Course’s first green. The likes of Gordon and Eddy thus became unofficial ambassadors of the system, providing welcome kudos for the burgeoning business as it made its first tentative steps into the golf world via Saltex at Windsor Racecourse and BTME at Harrogate – no internet and social media in 1999!

The concept of drilling into rootzones stemmed from an American agronomist realising that solid tine aeration was compacting the USGA-specification greens and there needed to be a reintroduction of greater inter-particle pore space to enhance gas exchange, percolation rate and general soil profile health.

In the mid-90s, a small American engineering company run by the Hines family in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, took on the challenge of producing a self-propelled, light footprint machine with a drilling rig to extract the growing media rather than pushing it downwards and sideways. They further enhanced it with an automated backfilling mechanism to introduce amendments such as zeolites, calcined clays and diatomaceous earths into the inert sand-dominated profiles which had a low Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC). And so the Deep Drill and Drill n Fill (DnF) aerators were born and are still being exclusively manufactured in North Carolina.

The DnF normally penetrates to a depth of up to 310mm with a 20mm diameter drill and is used when backfilling is required. The Deep Drill with its slimmer, longer drill bits will extract rootzone without compacting it, allowing deeper roots and improved sward and soil structure.

“In summary, these machines are key weapons in improving greens drainage by allowing water to percolate down through the soil to promote the finest putting surfaces,” said Ecosolve managing director, Bretton King. Use of the system will reduce greens closures during wet periods and promote optimum grass growth due to improved rootzone and microbial environment.

Bretton King first spotted the Drill n Fill in action with contractor ProGreens, at a golf club in Florida, USA. Tipped off by the late Keith Kensett, who had seen a machine at the American greenkeepers’ exhibition, he had been attracted to the fact that this was the best way of introducing into the soil, sand mixed with a zeolitic amendment which Ecosolve was already importing for use in agriculture due to its organic provenance and numerous ameliorative properties.

Bretton and his parents, Roger and Jean King, Ecosolve CEO and company secretary respectively, immediately arranged finance with John Deere – no British bank wanting to stick its neck out at this point! – imported a machine and tied up the UK and European distribution rights. Bretton’s wife, comms manager, Penny, arranged a photo shoot at nearby Carswell Golf Club and the marketing campaign clicked into action.

Once deployed on a demo UK tour, it became clear that the process made huge improvements to percolation and drainage rates on greens, with clay push-up constructions being transformed.

Even better, results were instantaneous, with a course’s wettest greens frequently becoming its best following treatment.

“The principle is so simple,” added Bretton, “drill and extract the old growing medium and puncture the impediment – be it a compaction layer, a thatch band or an iron pan – then inject a high infiltration rate dried sand , often plus amendment, to retain the channel.” Water that was once trapped in the upper rootzone or puddling on the surface simply drains away. “A further advantage is that surface disruption is minimal so courses needing to be in play can resume almost immediately.”

Sweden was Drill n Fill’s first European job when Bengt Zander from Kungsangen, a PGA course which hosts the Volvo Scandinavian Masters, placed an order in autumn 1999. The Drill n Fill was duly loaded onto a trailer on a dark stormy night and headed from its Wiltshire base up to the ferry port at Newcastle. Other Scandinavian jobs swiftly followed and then it was over the Irish Sea to the K Club, host of the Ryder Cup, at the behest of course manager Gerry Byrne.

France was next with prestigious clubs including Pau, Hossegor, Arcachon, Biarritz, Chantilly, Bordeaux and La Boulie Paris, joining the DnF portfolio. The last few years have seen Ecosolve’s machines in Luxembourg; Kennemer, Netherlands: Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The company went from one operator, Bretton, to a highly skilled team. Some of the largest clubs in the UK and Europe have bought their own machine through Ecosolve and the company maintains a full parts replacement service.

One of the first British clients back in 2002 was Denham Golf Club in Bucks, through the course manager, Guy Jenkins, who inherited 100-year-old clay push-ups which flooded quickly and got wetter and wetter due to the build-up of overly fine top-dressings.

“Drill n Fill revolutionised our greens and probably saved my job!” he said. The only other option had been lifting and relaying all the greens which would have been expensive and time-consuming. Delighted with the early results on his compacted greens, he instituted a rolling programme of drilling which was still in place in March of this year. “This winter,” continued Guy, “we’d had 21 days of greens closures before drilling. Immediately afterwards, we had 25mm of rain in one hit and those greens stayed open! Club members love it and so do I.”

Over the years, the pages of GreenKeeping have documented many success stories up and down the country and often greens staff will take the process with them when they move jobs. Simon Justice, who was head greenkeeper at Wellow GC in Hampshire, employed DnF for his clay push-ups which were compacted below a depth of four inches and frequently puddled on the surface. “I first chatted to Bretton about the DnF at BTME Harrogate,” recalled Simon who also spoke to other clubs, including Romsey, who had used it to good effect. “I discovered that this machine would get through the compacted clay and provide lots of drainage channels to move water away from the surface and in time, improve the health of the turf. Within days there was a visual improvement to the firmness of the surfaces.”

When he became course manager at Alresford GC, Simon knew exactly which tool to use for the poorly draining greens at his new club. “We have three soil make-ups: clay push-ups, fen soil and USGA sand greens,” he said. “Around 25 percent of the greens’ area suffers from shading and lack of sunlight, resulting in black layer in the subsoil.

“Our equipment could only go down to 200mm so using DnF to create drainage ducts down to 300mm was a no-brainer!” He had Ecosolve put 11 tonnes of sand and zeolite mix into six greens back in February in the middle of the apocalyptic wet winter and even wetter spring. “I’m very happy with the result,” he recalled. “There was a little puddling after the worst rainfall but the greens’ recovery time was much quicker than those we didn’t do. I also noticed that the treated greens were much firmer – our maintenance machines leaving far lighter tyre prints on them than the ones that were not drilled.” Alresford GC is now investing in DnF yearly with six or seven greens being treated each February.

And if the current warnings about climate change and ever increasing rainfall followed by intense drought periods are to be heeded, many in the industry will doubtless follow suit.


By Alistair June 30, 2024 08:06

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