“Thatch reduction” sounds a bit like “tax reduction,” which is fitting because both can lower your stress level. The difference is there’s not much you can do about your taxes (the IRS doesn’t take direction well), while thatch reduction is something you have the power to control.
If you’re in a high “thatch bracket,” you know the costs that come with this distinction: spongy turf, poor root growth, ineffective pesticide applications, prolonged surface wetness, and on and on. While some thatch is necessary to help turfgrass stand up to abuse, too much leads to a downward spiral in turf health and playing conditions. In addition to changing management practices – such as reducing fertilizer and irrigation inputs and increasing sand topdressing – there also are mechanical ways to reduce thatch.
Ian Camp with CS Turf Equipment (a U.S. distributor for SISIS, Dennis and ATT equipment) says thatch reduction on greens, tees and fairways is the No. 1 goal for most of his customers who purchase the SISIS Veemo.
“The unit is built for fast, light, regular dethatching,” Camp explains. “It was designed from the drawing board for that purpose, and it is fast – you can do up to six acres per hour.” And it’s not just superintendents managing warm-weather grasses who use the Veemo. “We’ve sold them as far north as Maine,” he states. “There was a time when superintendents with cool-season grasses said, ‘No, we don’t do fairway dethatching.’ But European golf courses have cool-season grasses, and they do it there. Slowly it’s become more accepted here, and we now see superintendents doing it all across the U.S.”
With cool-season grasses, spring is a popular time to attack thatch. “It helps to clean the grass up,” Camp says.
A unit like the SISIS Veemo, which is designed to work lightly, often is used on a regular basis – say, monthly.
“In that way, it’s a management tool rather than letting the thatch build way up and then have to rip it all out once a year,” he notes.
Staying on top of thatch can help you avoid having to deal with the consequences that come with a big build-up, emphasizes Camp.
“Particularly with some of the newer, warm-season grasses – the ultra-dwarfs and the paspalums – superintendents are having to do that, because, if they don’t keep up with it, the thatch builds up so quickly that they’ll be playing on a sponge.”
The investment in equipment and labor to reduce thatch not only improves turf health and playing conditions, but can save money in the long run. For example, says Camp, “We’ve had a couple of customers tell us that, since they’ve been using the Veemo, they’ve been able to reduce their herbicide rates when controlling weeds, so less time and money was spent applying chemicals.”
Wiedenmann North America offers several different products (including its popular Super 500 and Super 600 sweeper/verticutter/flail mower/collection systems) that are used in golf applications for thatch reduction. In particular, the Terra Rake is offered as more of a specialized dethatcher for fairways and tees, says Wiedenmann general manager Will Wolverton.
“It has spring tines that get in and just pull the thatch right out,” he explains. The company recently unveiled several new sizes of the unit, adding to the existing 63- and 83-inch models.
“We now also have 126-inch and 166-inch units; both of those fold up for transport. And we now have a smaller unit that can towed behind a utility vehicle,” Wolverton says.
The expanded line is a testament to the demand for the thatch reduction tool.
“Especially with some of the bermudagrasses, like Celebration, and the zoysias and even some of the paspalums – they get so thatchy that superintendents have to constantly stay on them during the growing season,” Wolverton says.
While verticutting is a proven approach to deal with the problem, it’s also time-consuming.
“When you go out and verticut, you can only travel at 3.5 miles per hour, and then, with some units, you have to come back and clean it up. With the Terra Rake, it’s more of a maintenance tool. You can get out there in front of your mowers and go as fast as you feel comfortable driving down the fairway,” he states.
In addition to pulling out thatch, the tines help stand the grass blades up to produce a clean cut. There’s no extra cleanup required with this light treatment; there just may be more clippings collected during mowing.
“It doesn’t necessarily replace verticutting, but it helps between verticutting,” Wolverton notes.
Another thatch reduction approach he reports that is on the rise, especially among superintendents with Celebration bermudagrass, is flail mowing. “They’ll go out and scalp things once a year, or every other year, just to give everything a good haircut,” Wolverton says.
This is being done during the growing season, and most often at Southern courses, where play drops during the summer.
“Once the snowbirds leave, they’ll go in and really tear things up and even close the course for several weeks,” Wolverton adds. “Those courses get all their play in the winter, so it’s hard for them to do too much then.”
Those courses that are doing an extreme flail mowing every other year often will do a deep verticut during the intervening years, he observes.
Wolverton sees superintendents in the North paying more attention to thatch, too.
“It was almost unheard of in the past to do much verticutting on fairways with cool-season grasses, but we’re now seeing more and more of that,” he says.
It’s becoming especially popular in wetter areas, such as the Pacific Northwest.
“They’re getting out and verticutting their fairways more because of the thatch issues that come with all that rain,” he says.
And the Terra Rake is being used by superintendents in Northern climates to help clean up and break up their fairways coming out of winter, Wolverton adds.
The VC-60 verticutter by 1st Products is another popular choice for superintendents looking to reduce thatch on their tees and fairways, according to Alan Avant, regional sales manager with 1st Products. The three-point-hitch unit covers a 60-inch swath.
“It goes in and pulls out the bad stuff – the dead grass. The blades are turning and throwing everything out the back,” Avant explains.
After that the material is windrowed or collected with a sweeper.
“You have to pick it up, or it’ll be right back where it came from,” he emphasizes.
Thatch reduction has become a more common practice in golf course maintenance as superintendents see the benefits it provides, Avant observes.
“Especially the newer grasses, like Celebration. I hear quite a bit about how quickly it gets thatchy. It’s a popular grass; it just needs a little bit more maintenance,” he says.
In the South, Avant says superintendents typically are running the unit twice a year, usually in the summer and fall.
“And we see quite a bit of demand in the North for superintendents with bentgrass,” he adds. There, it’s sometimes used in the spring to get the grass opened up after the winter.
The VC-60 offers depth settings, giving superintendents the choice between a deeper, more aggressive cut or lighter, more frequent thatch removals. “Some superintendents might want to just go in and tickle it every month,” Avant adds.
While some courses bring in contractors with a fleet of verticutters to knock out the whole course in a single day, superintendents with one in-house unit are likely to hit only a couple of holes a day, Avant says. The 1st Products VC-60 was designed small, he says, to let courses address smaller areas, like tees and individual fairways, without disrupting the entire course.
In fact, Avant points out, when it comes to thatch reduction, it’s not necessary to do everything; sometimes it’s just a hot spot on a fairway or a trouble-prone tee that needs attention.
“There are just some areas that tend to be thatchier than others,” he notes. “You can control these areas while still keeping the course in play.”
And you don’t even need approval from the IRS.