Ornamentals add so much to the overall enjoyment of the golfing experience. They provide various vibrant and subtle colors, vertical scale, differing textures and depth to an otherwise medium green monoculture.

For some golfers, especially those who are not trying to make it to qualifying school, the golfscape is just as important as the friendly competition, fresh air and outdoor exercise. Even so, golf is golf and it’s really important that trees, shrubs, flowers and groundcovers don’t get in the way of hitting a golf shot. This is accomplished by placing and maintaining them properly.

Whenever ornamentals are considered for incorporation into the golf landscape, it’s of utmost importance to keep golf play in mind. This means off the tee, out of the rough, from a bunker and, of course, on a fairway approach shot. On the other hand, some obstructions are intentional, placed to make the game challenging. The point of keeping golf play in mind is that the tree, shrub or flower bed shouldn’t make a shot more difficult than it is intended to be.

When broadleaf and evergreen plants are placed into any landscape, the guideline of right plant, right place is a common principle to follow. The normal components of height and width, color, sun/shade preference, disease resistance, zone hardiness, texture, flower color, fall/winter features, soil adaptability and presence of fruit are evaluated for the best fit in terms of the assessment of the site. Adding the additional consideration of enhancing the golfscape without interfering with golf play is essential to success.

The obvious

When looking for the best locations for placement, there are obvious and not-so-obvious spots. Each course is different in terms of its makeup and desires of the green committee, leagues, the pro, the club manager and the long-term members. That said, the two that rise to the top are the clubhouse and the tees as natural choices.

Keeping with the tenet of “staying out of the way” in regard to golf play, the clubhouse seems least intrusive of all other possibilities. A clubhouse should have curb appeal without screaming for attention, reflect the theme of the course and offer a welcoming visual in all seasons. It’s common to have shade trees for framing; small- to medium-sized ornamental trees for softening of corners; shrubs that grow in their shadow to replicate Mother Nature; perennials to display texture, color and height variation; and annuals in containers and ground beds to attract interest and a certain “wow” factor to be utilized in a clubhouse setting. Toss in a few evergreen trees for winter color and possible holiday decoration, and there are the bones of a good clubhouse landscape.

The next most obvious location are the tees. In these areas, it’s possible to make a dramatic or subtle impact, add visual appeal and define the functional space of the teebox. Lots of possibilities are available for these areas, especially to create a sense of place, most commonly accomplished through replication of colors, shapes and sizes of plant materials. As well as plants, hardscape elements such as flagstone, hole markers, benches and ball washers are certainly part of the golfscape and can easily add to unity by replicating the materials utilized.

In either the clubhouse or teebox settings, try to avoid “ornamental creep,” where too much of a good thing expands to replace turf or other materials, simply because they are well-liked or a few positive comments have been received. Expansion of beds along the sides of tees or between the clubhouse and cart rental facility can conflict with the original purpose and design of these spaces and possibly add to the overall maintenance of the course as well as intrude into golf play.

Backdrop plants provide framing and visual relief.

The not-so-obvious

If course objectives call for incorporation of ornamentals beyond the clubhouse and tees, many other options exist. Each of the following should be considered in relation to amenity value, functional value, required maintenance and possible conflicts with golf shots.

Backdrop plants – The backside of a green is a great location for backdrop plants. These offer the visual scale needed to size up the distance of the approach shot to the cup. Often, evergreen trees fit the bill, as they cast less shade than broadleaf species, which can be problematic on greens.

Buffer/half-hide plantings – In certain locations on the golf course, various elements exist that you would rather not be ultra-visible to the public – pumping equipment, electrical boxes and even railroad tracks can be an eyesore. In some instances, ornamental plantings can “half hide” these nuisances.

Traffic interrupters – Unfortunately, not all users of the golf course follow the rules of etiquette or even common sense as to movement during golf play. Well-placed shrubs and groundcover beds can often redirect traffic to more sensible routes.

Screening between holes – Especially on up-and-back holes, where sequentially numbered holes run parallel to each other, separation is usually needed to prevent a golf shot from slicing or hooking into the neighboring hole, causing a danger to other golfers. Trees and shrubs planted in the rough between holes can serve to create a physical barrier as well as provide visual relief.

Historic/memorial plantings – The older a course is, the more likely it is to have a proud history of successful tournaments, philanthropy and societal betterment. In most cases, some sort of identifying plaque accompanies the planting, noting the achievements and/or generosity of the individuals involved. The most tasteful historic or memorial plantings tend to be understated rather than elaborate.

Approach shot plantings – Some courses use approach shot plantings, commonly placed 150 yards away from the green. These serve to be an icon to help golfers gauge distance and club selection. Usually placed on each side of the fairway, care must be taken to prevent balls from becoming lost in the foliage, thus slowing down play.

“If you had to” plantings – If pressure is being received for more color, texture, height, vining, fragrance, pollinators or any number of other desirable features that ornamentals bring, it may be wise to comply through placement in the least obtrusive places. One such spot is on the left side of the fairway, rather than the right. As most nonskilled golfers slice their shots, their ball usually ends up on the right side of the hole layout, due to the righthandedness nature of our population. Less time will be taken looking for lost balls if plantings are installed with this in mind.

On their own turf

Using ornamentals effectively is an exercise in realizing that each plant group has different needs. In general, annual flowers and turf are the most alike in terms of need for inputs of fertilizer, pest control and irrigation.

Perennial flowers usually require lowered levels of applied resources, while ornamental grasses and shrubs require much less in terms of care and input. Evergreen trees come along next in terms of maintenance requirements, with broadleaf trees usually requiring the least.

Of course, each specific region is different and may reverse these general characterizations. For example, tea roses are usually a high-maintenance item in the Midwest, while they may be an attractive, disease-resistant, low-maintenance option in many parts of California.

Recognition of the individual needs of the ornamentals on the course is key to success. Once they are known and identified, it’s best to group them accordingly. The largest and most overt grouping is the separation of turf from ornamentals.

Obviously, there is no mowing needed for ornamentals, and by grouping trees and shrubs together, fertilizer and irrigation applications can be diverted on some occasions to provide more for turf, less for ornamentals.

Well-placed ornamentals can help keep traffic flowing appropriately.

Bad locations for ornamentals

Flipping the coin of location choice from good to bad may be helpful in some situations. It may be more useful to consider spots where no ornamentals should ever be placed. A few such settings come to mind:

  • Where they block irrigation water-spray patterns. Usually more of a problem as flowers, groundcovers and shrubs grow to a mature size, these ornamentals can get in the way of even water distribution on turfgrass. A few options exist if this occurs – plant shorter ornamentals, move the ornamentals, eliminate the ornamentals or move the irrigation head.
  • Where they restrict foot traffic to a narrow space, causing compaction and wear damage. Sure, ornamentals may be desirable near a tee, but if they restrict movement from the cart path to the tee and back, damage from compaction is likely if they force golfers into a smaller turfed space.
  • Near the putting surface, where they might drop unwanted fruit, stems and foliage that interfere with a putt.
  • As mentioned above, in the midst of turf where they are irrigated and fertilized the same. Instead, group ornamentals together according to their own needs for sun/shade, soil fertility, pH, air flow and support.