When golfers look at the turfgrass on a course, they see its color, its height, its texture, its consistency. If those sorts of factors meet their approval, that’s enough for them.

Superintendents, though, know that it’s the underlying health of the turfgrass that will determine whether they can sustainably provide the playing conditions that golfers are looking for. In that sense, “plant health” — while it may never make its way on to a job performance review checklist — is at the heart of the profession. And plant health is more than one single scientific definition; it’s a philosophy that will shape how a course is maintained.

With that in mind, we asked some superintendents, “What does plant health mean to you?”

John Zimmers – Oakmont Country Club – Oakmont, Pennsylvania

In my opinion, plant health is defined by the ability of turf to withstand varying levels and types of stress. In our profession, the importance of plant health can be compared to crop yield in the agriculture industry. Stronger and tougher turf will yield better playing surfaces with less need for inputs. Through the use of tissue testing, soil fertility testing, and soil physical analysis, we are able to closely monitor plant needs. At Oakmont, we put a premium on providing firm and fast playing conditions. In order to do this, the plant must be healthy enough to tolerate high frequencies of mowing and rolling throughout the golf season. In addition, the plant must be able to sustain a wide variety of climatic elements and traffic stress.

Brian J. Stiehler – Highlands Country Club – Highlands, North Carolina

To me, plant health is the goal by which we optimize the physical environment of a golf green (or other surface), including sunlight and air flow combined with the best soil physical properties and chemical properties (soil nutrients and plant protectants) we can achieve. As superintendents, we know the proper timing for fertilizer applications and we understand the response we get from cultural practices performed at the right time of year based on our turf variety. For example, we aerify, verticut, topdress and groom; we can change the height of cut based on conditions; and we soil test and tissue test to dial in our inputs, focusing on those things we can control. Our equipment technicians provide us with the sharpest mowers for a precision cut. We use other less-understood inputs like biostimulants and pigments to optimize the condition of the turf. Simply put, optimal plant health equates to satisfied customers and members because we can provide them with quality turf. I believe there is an overall environmental aspect, too; healthy turf isn’t prone to the same pest potential as unhealthy turf.

Tyler Bloom – Sparrows Point Country Club – Baltimore, Maryland

As a new superintendent, I find plant health to be one of the critical components that ensures a high quality product for our members and guests. I’ve been able to identify and constructively assess plant health on our golf course as a progression, not as a single identity. We utilize a variety of approaches – water management, fertility, pest management, course conditioning programs, data collection and implementation, weather monitoring and other methods – to improve the environment for the plant to be healthier on a daily basis. Our agronomic programs are modified weekly to ensure we are maximizing opportunities to create a stronger, denser and tougher plant and root system. Taking all things into consideration, I view our property’s plant health as its ability to stand strong against environmental extremes, consistently provide a standard of conditioning, and constantly evolve. Each year, I am confident our team will re-evaluate our definition of plant health based off of resources, new weather challenges, agronomic advances and membership demands. As we get more comfortable with our property, we’ll be able to create a unique product that reflects good management decisions, improvements and a sound approach.

Chris Threatt – Cypress Creek Golf Club – Sun City Center, Florida

Plant health to us is a direct byproduct of soil conditions, with an equal importance on structural/physical, microbial, and nutritional. Great plants come from great soils; the soil is the life source of the plants. Plant health is just enhancing what the plant is already capable of doing; it’s the unconventional thinking and focusing on the plant versus the conventional thinking of the pathogen. It’s moving away from just N-P-K thinking or pesticide use and instead focusing on encouraging the plant to be at its best and be capable of handling the stress that Mother Nature may throw at it. That can be accomplished by preparing the soil for the plant and using tools/pesticides as accents when needed.

Brent Palich – The Mayfield Sand Ridge Club – Cleveland, Ohio

To me, plant health is derivative of our entire golf course management program. Each component is just as important as the next in growing healthy turf. Our program at The Mayfield Sand Ridge Club includes:

  • Soil and foliar nutrient inputs based on soil and tissue test results; along with daily monitoring of clipping yields, plant color and stress recovery.
  • Aerification and topdressing program based on our turf types, visually monitoring organic layers and confirming physical properties through ISTRC [International Sports Turf Research Center] soil testing.
  • Maintaining proper sunlight and air movement for all highly maintained turf areas throughout the course.
  • Sufficient surface and subsurface drainage to eliminate standing water and water soaked soils.
  • Maintaining adequate soil moisture levels through irrigation, and using tools such as moisture sensors, soil probes and visually inspecting dry and wet areas.
  • A mowing/rolling program that allows for consistent playing conditions, which meet the memberships’ expectations without compromising turf health.
  • A pesticide approach that is both preventative and curative depending on the pest. Our first approach is to create conditions that don’t favor pests.

Drew Ramsey – Cutter Creek Golf Club – Snow Hill, North Carolina

To me, plant health can be viewed as the plant preparing and participating in a marathon race. First comes proper conditioning: nutritional diet (NPK), strength training (rooting) and endurance (hardiness) are factors that need to be addressed to create optimum growing conditions for the plant to prepare itself for the long race. Then, once the summer marathon begins, the plant is able to withstand the frequent harsh cultural practices, low nitrogen amounts, erratic watering, heavy traffic and the environmental elements while still producing and healthy high quality canopy. Once the summer race is finished, the plant can enjoy a refreshing beverage and then prepare for next year’s race.

Neil Mayberry – New Orleans Country Club – New Orleans, Louisiana

To me, plant health means managing all of the biotic and abiotic factors that are involved in the environment, which includes non-natural agents and all the natural agents that we deal with as superintendents. The basic elements that a plant needs are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – I think at times people, especially golfers and other golf officials, forget that and want to push a plant to its limits, especially with greens. Plant health and greens probably shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence. With the demands of speed and ball roll, it sort of puts a damper on plant health. It’s hard to consider plant health when you’re held to those expectations, but it starts with having a good cultivation program – aerification is essential for plant health, especially on putting surfaces. Something else that’s big now are all of the biostimulants on the market – they’ve really done a good job of increasing plant health, and I think they will continue to be important as we move forward. Finding alternative methods to increase plant health will be important, because everything else seems to be limited. Take the U.S. Open this year; they were trying to send the message that limited inputs is better. That’s OK for fairways and roughs, but when it comes to greens, there’s only so much that you can limit.

Jason Culver – Pine Acres Country Club – Bradford, Pennsylvania

What plant health means to me is to take a holistic approach in how I manage turf. It’s not one item or product, but a combination of tools and the knowledge to employ them. I may use cultural practices such as tree removal to improve sunlight and air flow to a turf area, or use various types of aerification from standard core to slicing/venting or adjusting the height of cut during extreme stress. I also believe in sound fertility management through soil and tissue testing to achieve optimal fertility level. Plant growth regulators also help as we can apply more nitrogen and still keep top growth in check – this, in my opinion, leads to a healthy plant. Managing water is just as important to turf health, and the use of wetting agents I find imperative to this task. Chemical use is an important part of plant health: fungicides, insecticides and herbicides all have their place in keeping turf healthy. I do lean to fungicides that through personal experience appear to give a positive turf response; the two I use most often are Affirm and Chipco Signature. Plant health is complex item and it is important to continue your education and apply new knowledge and technologies.

Brad Novotny Hillendale Country Club | Phoenix, Maryland

Because we’re not allowing the turf to achieve its genetic potential of growth, we’re forcing an unnatural growth habit. Plant health is the ability of that plant to utilize its internal mechanisms and resources to operate as efficiently as possible within the growth habits we’re dictating. With the proper balance of nutrients in the leaf and in the soil, a healthy plant will be able to help defend itself from pests and the stresses that we expose it to each day. As a result, a healthier plant requires fewer inputs of plant protectants and leads to a more sustainable management philosophy.