Superintendent Magazine - October, 2012

COLUMNS

Turf Talk: The Sweet and Sour of Blackberries on the Golf Course

Expert say on everyday issues
By Ron Furlong

There is a short window every year when I don't mind the invasive wild blackberry plants that try and take over the outer edges of our golf course. This starts in mid-August and lasts about six weeks. It's the time of year when golfers and staff alike can be found patrolling the edges of the course, reaching into the thorny, prickly plants and grabbing the big, fat, juicy berries (remember to never grab a berry below belt level, the reason for which I won't mention here).

They're quite tasty. About 15 or 20 go directly into the mouth (a quick check for spiders before inserting into said mouth is prudent), and then another 50 to 75 to take home to the family. There's something quite satisfying about picking your own wild fruit. Similar, I suppose, to the sensation one experiences when grilling a fish you caught. Outside of living on a farm or orchard, it's getting harder and harder to experience these things in this world. And, to tie it in with a round of golf or a 15-minute break at work makes it all the more special.

But my love of blackberries ends there. The other 10 and half months of the year I hate this noxious weed.

If you're not familiar with the blackberry's growth habits, consider the fastest-growing plant you can imagine, growing up anywhere from about 2 to 10 feet high, and then jutting out horizontally just as far. I swear to you I've seen blackberry canes grow outward a foot in two days. It's quite remarkable.

The growth is also usually very dense. So dense you'd need a machete to walk through them. And don't forget to throw in the fact that they are as sharp as a barbed-wire fence. I've seen golfers in search of lost balls emerge from a thicket looking like they just escaped an attack by Freddy Krueger.

Note to golfers: No ball is worth it.

Controlling blackberries is an almost impossible task. Short of clearing the land where they are thriving (which we've done quite a bit here) you are left with few options. How does that old sports saying go? "You can't hope to stop them. You can only hope to contain them." It's been said that a single cane can turn into a 6-square-yard thicket in less than two years. The plant spreads by nodes that grow off established roots. This makes control particularly challenging.

There are, of course, herbicides labeled for blackberries. Some of them might actually give you significant control, but I've never been fond of this method myself. For one thing, targeting just the blackberries can often be tricky. Another problem I've encountered at this golf course is the weeds tend to grow along ditches and other open water sources - not an option for most herbicides.

So what we are left with is cultural control. To me, this means one of three things: cutting the plants back as they grow out of control; digging up and removing the plants entirely; or mowing the area where they are growing on a regular basis.

Option one, cutting them back, tends to be the method we most often use, but it has its downsides. It's temporary, it's time-consuming, and it's frustrating. But if you don't do it at some level, you'll eventually be overcome.

Option two, digging them up, works in certain situations, usually when they're growing in smaller areas. Short of abandoning all other endeavors on the golf course, there is no way we can spend time digging up the millions of plants growing on this property. But in certain, smaller areas, it's an option.

The final cultural option, mowing the area, is fairly successful. We've taken relatively flat areas that were overcome by blackberries (probably areas that were maintained years ago) and mowed them down to our secondary rough height. Incorporating these areas into the bimonthly deep rough mowing schedule has pretty much eliminated the plant. It can't compete when cut at 2.5 inches every two weeks.

As I write this it's late August, and the fruit of the blackberries is at its peak. They are big, ripe and tasty - sweet as can be. But by the time you read this my hostile feelings for them will return in full force. And then, once again, it's war.

Furlong is the golf course superintendent at Avalon Golf Club in Burlington, Wash. He can be reached at rfurlong5@gmail.com.