Making decisions can be hard if we lack adequate information to make good selections. As attention is given to plant material choices on the golf course, spend some time focusing on pertinent factors to yield high-quality results. When choosing backdrop plants, it pays to fully consider these factors.

1. Clear goals

Before the first spade of soil is turned over, it’s critical to be clear about the purpose of the trees, shrubs and flowers. To do this, go back to the original goals for the course, or at least various holes on the course.

In some cases, it’s not so much “goals” as “program statements,” such as “we want low-water-use ornamentals that offer aesthetic appeal in all seasons” or “evergreen trees that surround the greens will provide needed contrast and guiding distance information as golfers line up approach shots.” These may be annoying to create in the design phase of the course, but it’s easy to see how helpful they are as you read through them.

Before one sifts through the many possible reasons for choosing backdrop plants – enclosure, spatial definition, color contrast for approach shots, safety considerations to limit injury from errant golf shots – it’s helpful to utilize a therefore technique, one that begs the question, “what is it there for? Asking this basic question helps to get to the bottom line of what the plants will be there for.

More than likely, in doing so, several purposes will be identified. In order to ease the plant material selection process later, it’s important to prioritize now. In this way, the goal/program statement/therefore technique will drive the selection process, not a good price on certain plants from a wholesaler or a whim mentioned by a green committee member.

On this dogleg, a grouping of woody plants helps golfers gain visual perspective for the fairway.

Photos Courtesy of John Fech.

2. Right plant, right place

For many applications – size, soil compatibility, disease susceptibility, insect tolerance, shape – the concept of right plant, right place (RPRP) serves us well. One of the seldom-mentioned components of RPRP is providing a backdrop. A plant or grouping of plants may be placed behind a prominent feature of the golf course, but is secondary in purpose and prominence to that in the foreground.

The classic example is a group of trees behind a green that is of a slightly different shade of green; it provides visual contrast that helps identify the distance and shape of the green, but doesn’t compete with it for capacity to focus on the hole location. Other uses of backdrop plants include tall shrubs on either side of tees and yardage markers, as well as trees and shrubs that frame other important elements of the golf course.

As RPRP is considered in terms of plant material choice, it’s useful to consider not only size and color, but features in all seasons – fall leaves, spring flowers, evergreen foliage, bark texture, fruit size and “messiness” and the amount of debris produced. As well, shape and growth rate often are overlooked in the selection process.

In some cases, backdrop plants can cause reduced airflow.

3. Potential problems

After all, not all plants solve problems; some actually create them.

Sometimes they:

  • Generate debris – Some plants such as eucalyptus, sycamore, crabapple, osage orange and silver maple create landscape waste at various times of the year as a natural growth process. When disease and insect issues arise, defoliation often results and adds to the debris deposited on turf.
  • Decrease air flow across a green – When plant material is installed on one side of an important golfscape feature, there is increased potential for diseases due to decreased air flow. If the backdrop plant mass is small, this is not a significant issue; however, in many cases, it is cause for concern.
  • Create excessive shade – No doubt about it, turf is a full-sun plant. When backdrop plants are near greens and tees, they often block valuable sunshine, causing the turf to decline.
  • Compete with turf for water and nutrients – Trees and shrubs have roots just like turf, and they occupy the same soil volume, thereby competing for water and nutrients. If the competition for these essentials is too fierce, the backdrop plants may need to be reduced in size and number.
  • Crowd out other plants and/or grow too fast – The plants may eventually cause problems for themselves if the growth rate is fast and/or they are planted too close together. A sturdy, moderate growth-rate grouping of backdrop plants usually is the best choice.

Good spacing as shown here is a balance between cost, establishment time, wind movement and visual enhancement

4. Right from the start

After the decision has been made about which trees, shrubs and groundcovers are best, they must be installed and cared for properly to help reach the goals of the course. Appropriate planting procedures are a good place to start.

  • Dig the proper-sized hole. It’s best to think of the excavated soil as a planting area instead of a hole. Size up the root ball and create an opening in the ground no deeper than the root mass and three times as wide. This wider-than-deep planting area helps to encourage roots to expand rather than remain where planted. Place the root ball on undisturbed soil in the planting area to prevent it from sinking.
  • Identify the first/top lateral root. Often, it’s necessary to scrape some soil off the top of the root ball. Because placement is important, strive to put the top root even with or slightly above the top of the planting hole.
  • Carefully loosen roots from the girdled root mass and spread them laterally in the planting area. This is necessary to avoid stem-girdling roots killing a mature tree in the future. In many cases, trees arrive at the planting site in plastic pots or ball and burlapped, with the outer section of the root system consisting of a mass of encircled underground stems. If left this way, they will continue to grow larger in diameter with few breaking free of this pattern and outward into the adjacent soil.

Inevitably, while loosening the roots, a few will break, exposing the inner tissues. Though unfortunate, there is a balance between damaging the roots to break them loose and allowing them to remain in an arrangement that is almost certain to create problems with uptake of water and nutrients and/or create structural weakness.

Well-chosen backdrop plants can be a real asset in the golfscape.

The best-case scenario would be for all the constricted or encircled roots to be freed and spread laterally in the planting area. As a last resort, cut through large roots in order to spread them out, but this is an action that should be avoided to deter invasion of root decay organisms.

  • Avoid adding sand, peat moss, bark, compost or other materials to encourage root growth. While well-intentioned, these amendments usually encourage the expanding roots to remain in the planting area instead of growing into undisturbed soil. The result is similar to a perched water table. In most cases, it’s best to use the soil that was removed to create the planting area as backfill for the new tree or shrub.
  • Wait to add nutrients. Woody roots are commonly stunted as a result of coming into contact with fertilizer in the planting area. If the planting area is suspected to be of low fertility, soil testing to determine which nutrients should be added in later years is a good step.
  • Remove constrictions such as burlap, pressed peat moss, string and cording from the root mass. The purpose of these materials is to keep the ball intact until arrival at the planting site … and, unfortunately, will increase the odds of restricting the expansion of the root system.
  • Don’t overwater. The acronym of KISS – Keep It Short Sweetheart – is often used at commencement or wedding reception speeches and is a wise suggestion, indeed. Similarly, KIMS – Keep It Moist Superintendent – is a proper guideline for newly planted trees and shrubs.
  • Mulch moderately. The application of mulch for weed suppression, moisture retention and cooler soil temperatures should be considered similarly foundational. It’s best to place mulch beginning about 6 inches from the trunk and extend it into the golfscape as far as possible.

These straightforward procedures will go a long way toward getting new plantings off to a good start.