Late winter is a time when anticipation stirs, when looking ahead to the challenges and rewards of another year is unavoidable. But before the grass turns from winter brown to spring green, take some steps to reduce maintenance and improve efficiency for the year ahead. Following are a group of possible options and modifications that should be considered to improve the functionality and aesthetics of a golf course maintenance program. As each is pondered, much like the advice that Leigh Anne Tuohy gave to Michael Oher in “The Blind Side” when shopping for big and tall clothes, it’s useful to ask the question, “Does this make sense for us and this course?”
1. Improve airflow
Adequate airflow across tees and greens reduces leaf wetness and foliar disease pressure while also encouraging boundary-layer disturbance in the turf canopy that helps the evaporative cooling mechanism heat-intolerant turf species rely on to cool themselves during warm and humid summer months. To reduce problematic pockets of uncirculated air, first remove diseased, damaged and aesthetically unappealing trees and shrubs. Some of these may have been damaged from winds and snow loads during winter, making them good choices for first action. In so doing, however, keep the original purpose for the plant in mind to ensure consistency with the master plan for the golf course. For example, the need for screening and barrier trees is likely to remain after removal, thus removal is only sensible if another device or tree remains to serve that purpose.
If outright removal of problematic trees is not possible, thorough crown cleaning and or crown raising should be considered in consultation with a certified arborist. Regrowth of woody tissues is likely to occur following these procedures, and relief commonly is seen for several years. Where pruning or specimen removal aren’t plausible or sufficient airflow-improvement techniques, the installation of fans around putting greens may benefit stuffy microclimates.
2. Reduce mowing
Mowing is a huge expense for a golf course, both in terms of time and the actual equipment that runs over the playing surfaces. Just about any reasonable step that can be taken to gain efficiency regarding mowing operations should be strongly considered. Perhaps the first consideration is to reduce the acreage of mowed turf by increasing naturalized areas or reducing land area occupied by closely mown turf that requires more frequent mowing. An easy way to make a big difference is to narrow or otherwise reduce the size of fairways. In some situations, this may not make much of a difference to the average golfer, but could save 10 to 15 percent on mowing costs. Obviously, the turf species used in fairways, or differences in species between fairways and roughs), may limit the use of this strategy. Alternatively, the mowing height of all turfed areas – roughs, tees, fairways and greens – could be increased to further reduce mowing frequency. Of course, this option may produce the biggest push back from members or advisory committees, but we can easily advocate for these changes because in addition to reducing mowing requirements, they may produce healthier turf that is more resistant to weed and disease invasion.
Another possibility is to use plant growth regulators to suppress vertical growth. Though growth suppression varies among products, an average of 20-percent to 40-percent reduction in mowing need is common following a PGR application, resulting in labor hour savings and reduced wear of mowing equipment. As well, with fewer passes over the mowing surface, the potential for soil compaction and wear and tear of turf is subsequently reduced. With regard to all of these positive outcomes, it’s necessary to weigh in relation to the cost of the products, the time required for application, and the necessary commitment to reapply with proper frequency to limit a potential vast increase in vertical growth rate following a suppression phase. If proper application frequency isn’t feasible, it might be best to skip PGR use. Alternatively, or concurrently, also consider if nitrogen fertilizer use is excessive. The goal of fertilizer applications should be to provide adequate green color and allow turf to recover from injury without encouraging excessive vertical growth.
3. Calibrate sprayers
A good late-winter activity that pays off in improved efficiency and reduced need for re-application of pest control products is calibration of boom and backpack sprayers. Any improvement in efficiency is worthwhile, however a 30-percent increase in application uniformity is often produced through calibration as an out-of-calibration sprayer may result in gaps in product delivery that require subsequent applications that take time and money. Even worse, turf could be directly injured by applying more product than desired.
Begin by checking output by spraying water on concrete – look for gross differences in output, and evaluate the spray pattern on the concrete. It’s likely that some nozzles will be blasting out large volumes of water; others could produce a fine mist, and some may not spray water at all. These initial problems may be easily remedied by replacing worn or nonfunctional nozzles. Next, further evaluate the sprayer by rechecking efficiency by collecting output at each nozzle with plastic jugs or jars for a given period of time (e.g. 10 seconds).
If collection devices don’t allow for precise measurement of output, a graduated cylinder can be used. If more than a 10-percent difference is observed among nozzles, continue to inspect and replace nozzles, piping and other components to improve application uniformity. Last, don’t forget that application speed ultimately affects application rate, too, and remember to independently evaluate this instead of blindly trusting built-in speedometers. Determine how far your sprayer will go at a constant rate of speed in 10 seconds. This will allow you to link the previously measured output – from all nozzles in total – to a rectangular area (the distance covered in 10 seconds × the boom width) to determine the spray volume of the sprayer, for example, gallons of spray solution per 1,000 square feet.
4. Audit the irrigation system
Just as we calibrate sprayers, we must also schedule a thorough audit of the irrigation system. When it is activated for the season, it’s important to hydrate the crowns and roots of turf to help them recover from winter desiccation. Soon thereafter, the goal is to make sure that the distribution uniformity of irrigation water is high to facilitate evenly irrigated turf areas.
Overall in turfgrass management, there is a human tendency to irrigate for the dry spots, those areas that remain lackluster after an irrigation event. Auditing is a methodology to reduce the impact of the dry spots that occur due to flaws in the system such as worn nozzles, variances in pressure, clogs in drip systems around bunker faces, edges and ornamental beds, supply line choking from tree roots, or risers that don’t extend as they should.
Fix system components that aren’t functioning properly, fine-tune by measuring output with catch devices, further adjust system components, and then use the irrigation system judiciously, and only as a supplement to natural precipitation if possible. If done properly, a precipitation rate for each irrigation zone can be determined after an audit to accurately link station run times to the desired irrigation depth.
Auditing irrigation practices should continue throughout the season because, unlike the Ronco turkey oven that is touted as a “set it and forget it” device, golf irrigation systems need to be adjusted on a frequent basis to limit excessive or insufficient irrigation practices. In so doing, the guiding principle should be to check water penetration in various areas with the goal of watering to the bottom of the root zone, and allow the soil to dry (and maybe even allow turf to begin to wilt) before subsequent irrigation events. To accomplish this, it’s helpful to set regular monitoring sessions on your calendar to check the actual root zone moisture level and make adjustments for a receding root system as the season progresses. A time domain reflectometry probe is a helpful tool to distinguish areas where soil moisture is limiting from those that are suffering from a separate ailment. It’s also good to ensure that you have enough hoses on hand so that you will be able to use supplemental hand watering to correct localized dry areas when the time comes, rather than unnecessarily irrigating an entire zone to hydrate a much smaller area.
5. Other tips
As part of planning for in-season management, it’s often beneficial to evaluate whether or not winter injury will limit turf utility in early spring. A good strategy for evaluation is to remove plugs from areas where you expect damage. These would include areas that are exposed, low-lying or shaded. For comparison, remember to pull plugs from areas where you don’t expect damage. Place plugs inside under grow lights or a sunny window to allow the turf to break dormancy and evaluate what might be needed in terms of spring renovation – don’t forget to water the plugs. If renovation is deemed necessary, remember that seed and most preemergence herbicides don’t mix. Plan to use specialty preemergence herbicides accordingly to limit competition from summer annual weeds in areas that require sowing. Alternatively, skip the preemergence herbicide altogether, and apply a postemergence product when safe, as indicated by the product label.
Finally, consider alternative hiring strategies if staffing has been an issue. Consider retired or swing-shift workers to help out in times of high maintenance demand. As well, it may be appropriate to ask members or regular golfers to volunteer, perhaps trading them a few free rounds for their efforts. Doing so may pay off in terms of increased ownership and pride in their golf course and positive word of mouth with others. In any case, as some of the aforementioned possible maintenance changes are implemented, it’s prudent to communicate changes to owners, advisory committees and members to keep everyone informed.