September 24, 2014

The difference between rain and irrigation

There is a significant difference between natural precipitation and irrigation, and it is quite evident just 24 hours after the first significant rain event in almost two months.
I took the top picture at the end of August when the course was being prepared for the Club Championship Weekend. We had not had rain since the middle of July, but the cool temperatures and low humidity made it possible for me to conserve water and keep the course as dry and firm as possible knowing that everything would green up with the first rain storm that rolled through the area. 
In the weeks that followed we watched rain events fall apart as they approached the area, one after another. 
I do everything I can to conserve water for a few key reasons.  First, we purchase our irrigation water, therefore conserving water helps me manage the line item in my budget. Second, it is better for the golf course and the turf. Coastal golf courses are meant to play firm and fast with well played drives bounding down fairways and poorly played approach shots bouncing off greens.  Drought stress places selective pressure on the turf, and each season the turf that cannot survive the stress is replaced by more durable, reliable plants through over seeding, or by healthy, resilient plants creeping to fill voids. Finally, fresh water is the most valuable natural resource on the planet, and golf is a luxury consumption of that resource. Ultimately this boils down to sustainability.
Each time I water fairways I use over 50,000 gallons of water, so I work very hard to rely on irrigation solely for the purpose of getting from one rain event to the next. In order to keep the course lush and green this summer I would have had to run irrigation cycles four or five times per week instead of once or twice. Not only would that break my budget, it is irresponsible from an environmental standpoint and would have ruined the playing conditions that we work so hard to produce.  For the majority of the season the contrast of the dark green fairways against the bronzed rough was as appealing to most golfers as the extra twenty yards they were getting on their drives.  As the drought persisted, some fairway areas thinned a bit more than I intended, but rarely to the detriment of the playing surface.
The bottom photo was taken one day after the first significant rainfall in over two months, and thanks to all the aeration, seeding, and fertilizing we have done over the last few weeks in anticipation of the rains that I knew had to come eventually, the course is beginning to return to its healthy green color.  Was I always pleased with the condition and appearance of the course?  Certainly not, but I was certain that the turf was resilient enough to recover once the favorable conditions returned, and I am proud of the fact that I was able to weather the storm (or lack of storms) without wasting valuable resources.  In the long run the turf will be more resilient due to the stress that was imposed, and for the lessons we learned along the way. In the coming weeks I will be reviewing my programs to see where I can make adjustments and improvements so that we can continue to satisfy the golfers that enjoy a firm, fast golf course without upsetting the club member who prefers more of a parkland look to the property. 
This post has inspired me to begin a series on sustainability, and what this concept means to the future of golf.  The decisions I made this season were sometimes unpopular, but they were all well thought out and intentional.  No one forced me to conserve water or scale back on fertility.  I did it because it is the right thing to do, and the weather conditions were ideal to test this philosophy.  This won't always be the case.  There will be years when excessive heat, humidity, or other extreme conditions require reliance on additional inputs.  In my corner of the world, this was the year to turn the water off.  Many superintendents have admitted they did not, and their courses remained lush and green, and in some cases soft. 
If the golf industry doesn't take the lead on matters such as water conservation and responsible use of fertilizers and pesticides, someone else will do it for us.  As a good friend of mine often says "It's better to have a seat at the table than to find yourself on the menu." 

September 21, 2014

USGA: Our Experts Explain

An excellent analogy that will help explain why some areas of the golf course are taking longer to recover from the dry weather we experienced this summer.
Areas of particular interest are the 3rd green, where roots from trees on the opposite side of the cart path reach half way across the green, and the 13th hole where tree roots penetrate half way into the green from the left and rear.
We will be looking very closely at root pruning and tree removal options in the coming weeks to eliminate competition between trees and turf.

Sent from my iPad

September 10, 2014

Nobody's favorite time of year.

Aeration week is here again, and not a minute too soon considering the extremely dry weather we have been experiencing.  This is one of the most important times of the year for the health and performance of the turf throughout the golf course, and is the first step in preparing the course for next summer.  The turf is beginning to shift all its energy from survival and recovery to building a root system that will sustain it through the heat and drought stress that we will experience again in nine months or so.  We are doing everything we can to facilitate this process by improving the soil and providing water and nutrients to encourage the plants to grow a deep, dense root system.

While the course was closed on Monday and Tuesday we core aerated the greens and tees and spiked the fairways.  Due to a few equipment malfunctions we had to drag some of the work out into Wednesday, but the bulk of the operation is now complete.  We will spend the rest of the week finishing the cleanup and shifting our focus to recovery and restoring the playing surfaces to their original condition.  The guys have been working long, hard hours to get as much done in these two days as possible, and we will continue these efforts throughout the week so that the course recovers as quickly as possible.

The core aeration and topdressing that was completed on greens and tees provide many benefits to the soil and turf.  First, core aeration removes excess thatch that builds up over the course of the season.  Then the sand topdressing dilutes the thatch and improves the soil structure and drainage, and improves the durability of the playing surfaces. 

Aerating the fairways is a bit more challenging due to the acreage as well as the rocks and shallow ledge found throughout the property.  The firm dry playing surfaces we have been enjoying all summer were the result of the extremely dry, compacted soil.  If we were to apply the same aeration process used on greens and tees we would spend more time repairing the machine than we would aerating the fairway.  Two years ago we chose to purchase a more durable machine that shatters the compacted soil with vibrating spikes rather than punching and pulling soil to the surface.  As this machine only deals with compaction, we will have to find other ways of managing thatch later in the season.

A light dose of fertilizer was applied prior to aeration, and we will be watering to promote growth and recovery.  The turf will recover slowly over the next 7-10 days, and soon our normal management programs will be back in place and the course will be ready for fall golf.  Thank you for your patience, and if you get a chance, please take a minute to thank the crew for their "above and beyond" efforts this week.

Click here for an article from the USGA describing keys to a successful aeration.