There are few labor sources as attractive to management as free volunteer labor. The next best thing is local labor committed to maintaining a clean and green environment. Several courses have found that teaming up with local birders, scout groups, master gardeners and similar interest groups makes it easier to maintain an environmental program.
Ironic as it may seem, getting natural and native species planted in the roughs and out-of-play areas is not the biggest challenge. Getting them established and ahead of unwanted species in the second through fifth year is far more of a management issue.
Superintendents across the country warn that it is not enough to plant some seed and hope that the seed will thrive. The same is true of encouraging birds and wildlife.
“It definitely requires some maintenance,” says Paul Diegnau, CGCS at Keller Golf Course, Maplewood, Minnesota. He knows some superintendents believe it is sufficient to scatter native seed around and let it grow. “It isn’t like that at all,” he says.
Working with the local Ramsey- Washington Metro Watershed District makes his job easier. In 2013, Keller restored 26 acres of the course to native prairie and savannah. “We established blue grama, prairie brome and a lot of forbs,” Diegnau says. (For a full list of what went into the natural area, see sidebar.)
Right away he knew the ongoing challenge would be to keep the restored areas clean. “As the native areas mature, there will be less invasives,” he says.
In the meantime, Keller cost-shares the salary of an intern with the watershed district. The intern’s job is to handle invasive weeds and woody plants that inevitably show up in natural areas. Woody plants are cut off and stumps are chemically treated.
“The district hires the individual, and we pay half their wages,” Diegnau says.
Canada goldenrod remains an ongoing headache. “It is an aggressive species that tends to take over if you don’t stay on top of it,” Diegnau says.
“Natural areas are a lot harder to manage than what most people think,” agrees Tom Egelhoff, Class A superintendent at The Club at Las Campanas, Santa Fe, New Mexico. “It was very eye-opening,” says Egelhoff, explaining that it took three full seasons to establish a natural look at his course.
A major turf reduction program was implemented at Las Campanas in 2011, reducing the amount of irrigated turf. The two courses now cover 60 acres per course, whereas the average desert 18-hole golf course covers 90 acres. The turf reduction project returned over 30 acres of previously irrigated turf to native desert.
At the outset of the project, they pulled the irrigation pipes and striped out the grasses. They worked the soil, seeded it and worked it with rollers. “I’d have left the irrigation in for a year to help establish it,” Egelhoff says in retrospect. With just 9 or 10 inches of natural rainfall, things move slowly in the desert.
Las Campanas, which has two Jack Nicklaus Signature courses dubbed Sunrise and Sunset, earned its Audubon Certification in 2016. Not only are they environmentally sound, but they also earned “Best in State Rankings” with the Sunset course in the top spot and the Sunrise course coming in third.
Volunteers monitor 80 bluebird boxes on the course, each of which has a dedication plaque that was part of a fundraiser for the Las Campanas Community Fund, which raises money for employee scholarships.
What goes into a natural area?
Paul Diegnau at Keller Golf Course in Minnesota shares the plant mix that made their course visually stunning:
- Wild bergamot
- Nodding onion
- Hoary vervain
- Butterfly weed
- Early sunflower
- Anise hyssop
- Smooth blue aster
- Aromatic aster
- White wild indigo
- White prairie clover
- Pale purple coneflower
- Button blazing star
- Black-eyed Susan
- Prairie spiderwort
- Dotted blazing star
- Purple prairie clover
- Rattlesnake master
- Cream gentian
- Meadow blazing star
- Prairie dropseed
- Side-oats grama
- Blue grama
- Prairie brome
- Canada wild rye
- Little bluestem
- Prairie brome
- June grass
- Strict blue-eyed grass
It was a volunteer who got the purple martin program going at Mendham Golf and Tennis Club in Mendham, New Jersey. Six years ago when Chris Boyle, CGCS, started at the golf and tennis club, there was one member interested in setting up a program. Boyle consulted with USGA and, working with the now-deceased member, he got the program rolling.
“We are lucky that we have a group of member-volunteers who are very active,” Boyle says. “It takes a lot off our plate.”
The course plays 6,812 yards from the black tees and a more friendly 5,841 from the club tees. Along the course is a bluebird box trail and, of course, the martin houses. The program grew from a half-dozen to 80 birdhouses now.
On Mondays, when the course is closed, the volunteers ride around in golf carts to count birds, fledglings, eggs and other relevant information. The volunteers run a 9-hole tournament each fall to raise money for the bird program. “Without member support and the volunteers, we couldn’t do what we do,” Boyle acknowledges. “They raise the money so it is not coming out of our budget. And they do all the monitoring.”
“We recommend superintendents get local bird or butterfly groups involved,” says Marcus Gray, director of the Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf at Audubon International. Not only will such groups participate in bird counts and survey data, but they also can be counted on to give benches, establish butterfly gardens or maintain nest boxes on courses.
Whether for birds or for natural habitat, there is plenty of room for a course to establish low-maintenance natural areas. Typically, only about 30 percent of a course’s acreage is actually in play for the game. The areas beyond are ripe for natural handling. If the roughs are on a silty soil or high organic content soil, the process will be easier.
Effect on play
Beyond the momentary distraction of watching a fox or roadrunner cross a natural area, players should not be penalized by natural areas. This is especially true for the “I hope I break 100” golfers who spend more time in the fringes than on the fairway.
No decision to turn a rough into a natural habitat should be made without input from the course pro and the greens committee. In most cases, the idea will be received enthusiastically.
But sometimes there are valid objections to certain types of natural greenery in areas where golfers over-hit balls or are prone to wide shots. Time spent searching tall grass for balls is a serious contributor to slow pace of play.
Landing areas, especially those with long carries, are another spot for special consideration. Likewise, contours and hills should be discussed. While it is great not to have to mow a sloped area, if that area catches a lot of errant shots, it might be better handled with a low-growth habit natural planting than with something likely to swallow golf balls.
Players can mess up a good thing if you are not careful with design. At Las Campanas, the areas outside the cart path pretty much match the areas inside the path, which is not necessarily good. Egelhoff has found that members take carts through the natural areas. “Native areas are very fragile and you have to keep carts out of there,” Egelhoff says.
The solution was to put in three or four decomposed granite rock paths, providing focused access to play areas on each hole.
On southern courses, consider use of pine straw on shaded areas where bermudagrass does not grow. Fescue also can be used on shaded areas. However, it is not native grass or bird trails that are the most demanding challenges.
Gray says the Audubon program finds superintendents are on top of managing turf, water quality and pesticide use. “That stuff is in their wheelhouse,” he says. “The bigger challenge is dealing with outreach.”
“Managing member expectations is important,” Egelhoff says, suggesting that what management envisions and what the members expect can be quite different. In the case of Las Campanas, they established a native grass-plant mix. In addition to blue grama, oats and three or four grass species, they added native wildflowers.
Members were not pleased.
Unfortunately, the wildflowers look like weeds between blooms, so the members made it clear that they wanted the area to look like desert.
Mulching was another mistake. “That did not work,” Egelhoff says. It turns out desirable seeds were buried too deep to pop in the dry climate.
Get the message out
Once an acceptable natural environment is established, it is important to let the community know what a good job a course is doing. “Golfers expect a certain level of environmental stewardship as part of the business,” Gray says, “just like a hotel or restaurant touts its environmental stewardship.”
He recommends online outreach, brochures and offering guest lectures to local groups as part of the public message. Good public relations can be almost as important to a course’s success as the practices themselves.
“Train staff as outreach to the general public,” Gray suggests. “Address issues like reduced inputs that save money as well as the environment.”
On its website, Mendham does just that. “MG & TC is a good neighbor to nature,” the website states.
It is not bragging if you deliver the goods. “Our course is a certified Audubon Sanctuary, and our bird program that stewards our purple martin colony and bluebird trail are noteworthy assets to who we are,” the language on the website reads.
While Boyle acknowledges that they always could do better with outreach in local papers, for example, they were featured on the cover of the Purple Martin Society’s magazine.
On top of that, and based on its reputation, Mendham has been chosen as a raptor relocation site for airports plagued with birds. Raptors are relocated away from airports like John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, and Newark Liberty International Airport and Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, where they can cause havoc with flights.
There is an old saying to the effect of “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.” The same is true for converting areas to natural plantings.
Have a plan and a reason behind each area that is turned to natural plantings. And look for financial help. Egelhoff notes that some of New Mexico’s neighboring states – like Arizona – get rebates for such projects.
Also, choose wisely. Make an effort to limit root impediments by selective harvesting of problem trees. This may have the added benefit of improving turf quality on tender areas like greens.
Finally, control what you can. There are seven ponds at Las Campanas covering 15 acres. The ponds on the course provide storage for the water purchased from Santa Fe County and the water from the Rio Grande River. The irrigation system is a computer-controlled, state-of-the-art system with the capability to irrigate based on measured weather data and has automatic shut-off capability controlled by multiple rain gauges.
A bonus of natural areas, Diegnau says, is pure aesthetics. “When the prairie is blooming it is just stunning,” he says.