Which is better: to raise or lower the cost of maintaining the ornamentals on the golf course? Is that a trick question? After all, I’ve been known to do that sort of thing from time to time. In this case, the answer is no – the point is to reduce cost.

On the other hand, even though lowering the cost of maintenance is a worthy goal, it should be endeavored concurrently with retaining the current level of aesthetic value in mind. It would be easy to reduce maintenance costs by removing all of the shrubs, discontinuing the planting of annuals and perennials, and tossing the container plantings near the clubhouse into the recycle bin, but then what would be left? A monochromatic, monotonous golfscape. Believe me, there are less drastic ways to save money and retain appeal, plant diversity and environmental quality.

Time is money

We’re all interested in lowering the cost. If you think about any household project – painting a wall, changing a light fixture, staining a deck – the time it takes to complete the job in a manner that produces a quality product is probably the largest input. The same is true for horticultural/agronomic/arboricultural projects. On average, about half (or more) of the cost is related to the actions taken by an employee.

So, if time is money, just how much is that? Certainly, it’s more than the hourly wage paid to the worker. Social security, insurance and workers’ compensation are required; training classes, retirement, vacation, sick leave and holidays are optional.

In addition to the tangible forms that show up in an employee’s paycheck, the other part of the time equals money formula is the need to repeat maintenance activity on a regular basis. As decisions are being made, it’s worthwhile to ask how often a given task must be undertaken – is it annual, monthly or weekly? If weekly can turn into monthly by choosing one plant material or piece of equipment over another, it’s probably worth it, even if it costs more initially.

Disease resistance

As golfers go about their business of chasing around the little white ball, they also notice trees, shrubs, perennials and subshrubs. These should be thriving and add aesthetic appeal to the course. And, as much as is possible, they should not be infected with fungal diseases that require frequent fungicide applications; after all, time is money. If a disease-susceptible cultivar is present on the course, keeping it in place requires buying the product and paying someone to apply it.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is with a group of trees, the crabapples. There are several hundred cultivars, usually indicated Malus spp. followed by the cultivar name. Like cultivars of bentgrass, bermudagrass or Kentucky bluegrass, each one has an inherent level of genetic resistance to fungal diseases such as apple scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust and fire blight. When deliberating on features for eventual selection, consider disease resistance in addition to flower color, fall color, height and spread, leaf shape and fruit size. A high level of resistance means the tree won’t have to be sprayed often, or at all, which means lower cost of maintenance.

Smaller beds

Often encouraged by well-meaning members or advisors who want color, or for the course to be pretty without a real understanding of how much effort is required to keep them as an asset rather than an eyesore, small beds often gradually grow into large ones. One superintendent described this phenomenon quite well as “ornamental creep” – an unfortunate occurrence in terms of unwanted expense.

The best way to fight the unnecessary expansion of beds is to develop a set of program statements or guidelines for each plant material grouping on the course and stick to it whenever the subject arises. The more specific the language is in one of these documents, the better. One step better in terms of staying power for program statements is to codevelop them with a like-minded member of the green committee or philanthropic guild. This collaboration often results in raising considerations you may not have thought of, and adds credibility to the notion that smaller is better, at least in terms of keeping costs down on the golf course.

Right plant, right place

In terms of keeping costs down, or actually reducing them, it’s wise to choose plants that grow to the height and width that you want them to be. Avoid planting a shrub that normally grows to be 6 to 8 feet tall in a 4- to 5-foot space. In addition to size, consider sun and shade exposure. For example, in shady sites, plants that grow best in moderate to full sun usually develop leggy, or stretched, plant stems. These are often viewed as unwieldy or rank, and need to be removed or shortened to keep them looking their best.

Soil moisture and pH are other important factors in terms of right plant, right place (RPRP). For example, adequate or inadequate drainage can either encourage vigorous root growth or predispose plants to soilborne diseases. Many ornamentals, such as pin oak, hydrangea and azalea, are pH-dependent for success. If plants are chosen without consideration of these components of RPRP, lots of time and money must be spent in an effort to keep them as a viable part of the golfscape.

Pruning

Pruning is expensive, especially shearing. Even though there can be high ornamental value with pristinely clipped hedges, they take a lot of time and effort. Instead, wherever possible, consider thinning instead of shearing. This is especially appropriate for shrubs such as privet, yew, viburnum, lilac, forsythia, dogwood, spirea, plum, cherry, mock orange, quince and cotoneaster. Plants are healthier without shearing anyway; in a thinning operation, about a third of the oldest stems are removed at the ground level to open the plant up, increase the amount of sunlight entering the crown, and encourage vigorous growth and flowering. Thinning is generally required once a year, while shearing is a three to four times per year endeavor. Doing the math on thinning versus shearing is easy.

In addition to the type of pruning, another viable consideration is to cease pruning altogether. Who says that a particular plant can’t grow to be the size that Mother Nature had intended? If it gets bigger than is desired for the site, it means one of two things: Either the person who made the selection forgot to consider RPRP, or the plant didn’t read the care tag it came with and so didn’t realize it should have stopped growing at a certain height.

Like disease-resistance selection, it’s a sound best management practice to choose plants that don’t need much pruning to begin with. Instead of a boxwood, how about an Oregon hollygrape? Except for the size of the leaves, the other attributes are similar – evergreen leaves, attractive form – but less pruning is required.

Proper pruning is a mindset, in that the goals include removal of dead tissue, to direct growth, to avoid competition with a central leader, to remove crossing/rubbing and broken stems – not cramming a medium to large plant into a small space.

Mulching

Weed control can be an expensive and labor-intensive operation. The price of the herbicide, the time and effort to apply it, as well as the recordkeeping involved with the purchase and application of the product are all costs. Likewise, the need to keep the roots of ornamental plants moist involves equipment and labor. Some of these costs can be reduced through the use of natural wood chip mulches. Though they won’t completely eliminate the need for weed control or irrigation efforts, a 2- to 3-inch layer between plants will suppress germination and allow for easier removal of weeds, as they tend to be less extensively rooted in mulch than in native soils.

Implementation

All in all, reducing the maintenance costs for ornamentals is a multifaceted endeavor. In fact, it’s a little like learning a new language. If you listen to recordings, it’s helpful, but if you practice pronunciation, sign up for the electronic delivery of a word of the day, share coffee with a language partner, watch TV in the language, eat at restaurants where the waiters speak that language, and take a class at a community college, your chances for success increase tremendously. Implementing one of the above techniques for cost reduction is a step in the right direction, but the more you adopt, the more you save.