Like the undulations of a green, interest in verticutting rises and falls, says Alan Avant, territory sales manager with First Products. After a few down years, he’s seen the number of golf course superintendents verticutting increase over the past two seasons.

“It’s come back to what I would consider normal,” Avant states.

Glenn Musser, president of TurfTime Equipment, has observed the same trend.

“I’ve heard from a number of superintendents this year who are bringing back verticutting. They haven’t been doing it, and they call to tell me they have a machine that’s been sitting for five years and want to be sure it’s working,” he notes. “I’m seeing a tendency for superintendents to go back in the direction of verticutting.”

Weather – particularly a warmer, moister climate pattern – may be a driving factor behind the increase in verticutting, Musser surmises.

“If it’s wetter and more humid, especially the southern grasses can get very thick,” he explains, noting it’s particularly true with newer generation ultradwarf bermudagrasses. In fact, Musser notes that TurfTime has even altered the design of its Thatch Master verticutters to help them perform better on these thick grasses, adding weights to the units in order to keep them from bouncing during operation.

Not surprisingly, verticutting is generally most popular in areas that feature southern (or stolon) grasses, especially bermuda-grasses and ultradwarf bermudagrasses that grow aggressively and densely. These are the grasses that can most benefit from frequent verticutting. Of course, one of the main reasons that many golf courses choose to verticut is to remove thatch buildup.

“Primarily, it ensures greater organic removal, better air and water movement, and stronger root penetration,” says Michael Dryden, president of Graden.

“Removing the dead material promotes new growth,” Avant says. He also notes that pockets of dead material can create low spots where water can collect. “If you go in there and verticut, you can clean that area out and let the water evaporate or soak into the soil,” he explains.

But it’s not only thick grass stands that can be improved by verticutting.

“In those thinner areas, where you can’t seem to get grass to grow, if you go in and verticut, you’re cutting those stolons and getting them to grow,” he says. “You might be able to fill in some thinner spots by verticutting.”

Trending deeper

While some superintendents may be verticutting more often because of the use of new varieties of fast-growing, dense turf, Musser says he also sees a changing trend in how verticutters are being used, with many courses verticutting more deeply than in the past.

“It’s a two-for-one situation, where they are verticutting in a way that they are also doing aeration,” he explains. “They are verticutting down to an inch and a half.”

Just as TurfTime Equipment added weights to its verticutters to help in thick grass situations, the company has also redesigned its units to stand up to the deeper depths being selected these days.

“We made the drivelines heavier to accommodate that,” he explains.

Verticutting deeply and incorporating topdressing or amendments directly into the subsurface is a cost-effective way to improve course conditions, says Graden’s Dryden. “This gives the superintendent the option to eliminate one aerification process [coring] due to more efficient thatch removal,” he notes.

Further efficiency can be gained by the use of a unit such as Graden’s CSI (Contour Sand Injection) machine, which allows operators to verticut and fill with topdressing or other material simultaneously, directly placing the filling material into the target area using a gravity feed system. The benefit, states Dryden, is a surface that is instantly firm, as organic material is removed and replaced with new material.

This is not to say that every situation requires deep verticutting, however.

“It varies from course to course depending on thatch levels and what process and outcomes they are trying to achieve,” Dryden says. For those interested in basic, traditional verticutting, he says “the rule of thumb would be to cut a little past the thatch layer to allow for greater water and nutrient penetration with increased air exchange.”

With northern grasses that typically root a little shallower, verticutting deep isn’t as much of a concern, Avant says. But deeper verticutting can be used to help promote deeper root growth on southern grasses.

“If you can verticut 1.5 inches deep, why not do it?” he says. “If you’re verticutting that deep, you’re not only pulling up thatch, you’re bringing up some soil and all. So once you blow it off, you can come back and topdress.”

Blade spacing is another area that superintendents are experimenting with when it comes to verticutting. Avant says that while blade spacing on mower grooming reels can be very tight (.25 inch or less), the standard spacing on verticutters tends to be wider.

“At First Products, our blades are a little thicker, so we use the 2-inch standard,” he explains. That means operators can move in a crisscross pattern without tearing up the turf. “You can be a little more aggressive with our verticutters than you can with the verticut reels on mowers,” Avant adds.

Some verticutters allow for changing blade spacing. On TurfTime’s Thatch Master verticutters, for example, blade spacing can also be altered from .5 inch up to 2 inches on center in .25-inch increments. These units also allow superintendents to choose from three blade widths. For example, 1-milimeter models are designed for greens and tees to promote quick healing.

“There are superintendents in Florida who tell me the surfaces heal in seven to 10 days, which is a good thing,” Musser says. “Or, if they’re doing topdressing they may want to open it up more so they can put more sand down and in, so they’ll use the 3-millimeter blade.”

The ability to tinker with blade width and spacing lets superintendents precisely dial in the performance they want for a specific part of the course (greens/tees versus fairways), grass type, current conditions and personal preferences.

Mowing and cutting

Just as use of dedicated verticutters is rising, more superintendents are also relying on verticutting rollers on the greens and fairway mowers, says Lyall Adams, president of Wood Bay Turf Technologies. That company’s dynaBLADE verticutting blades can be found on mowers from Toro, John Deere, Jacobsen and others, and are designed to fit many OEM verticutting heads.

“I think we’re seeing more verticutting because superintendents are doing more rolling and topdressing – verticutting lightly, topdressing very lightly, and rolling that material in,” Adams states. “People are wanting faster and more consistent greens, and to get that you need to do all three.” He says the current trend on mower heads is to use thinner cutting tips and verticut in two directions.

The blades on a verticutting head on a mower are thinner and smaller than are found on stand-alone verticutters, Adams notes. They also typically aren’t used as deep as on standalone verticutting units.

He developed Wood Bay’s dynaBLADEs, which are made of high-quality steel with tungsten carbide tips, in response to the many problems created in the past by lower- quality verticutting blades.

“Because they are used on sand on the greens and fairways, it’s very abrasive on the steel, and the steel would get rounded on the corner of each tip,” he explains. “So after about three holes they are really not pulling up thatch – they’re just putting a slit in the surface.”

In addition, the lower-quality blades used in the past would quickly wear down, meaning that depth settings would need to be constantly adjusted to compensate for the ever-shrinking diameter of the blade. By using higher quality steel and carbide tips, the dynaBLADE is a much longer lasting and more consistent performer.

“They last almost forever, and people can’t believe how much thatch they pull up,” Adams states.

Superintendents interested in upgrading the existing blades on their mower verticutting heads can see the options available – in terms of fit as well as blade spacing, etc. – for their particular units on the Wood Bay website.

“We offer about 100 different types of blades,” Adams explains. “All they have to do is slide off the old ones, keep their spacers, and put on the new blades.”

Buying considerations

Dryden says that shopping for a verticutter is no different than shopping for any other piece of maintenance equipment. His advice: Look for a unit that comes with a solid warranty from a reputable manufacturer. Beyond that, he says, “It should use a quality engine, have good depth penetration, blade thickness and spacer options, ease of operation, and a clean cut to be able to fill and firm at the same time.”

Dryden adds that, depending on whether superintendents are verticutting smaller greens/tees or larger fairways, it might make the most sense to choose either a tractor-driven (such as Graden’s SW04 Swing-Wing verticutter) or walk-behind model (for example the company’s GS04 verticutter).

First Products’ VC-60 verticutter features a patented pivoting hitch that allows the unit to turn while still continuing to operate.

“You don’t have to keep picking the unit up before turning around and setting it back down in order to run straight lines,” Avant explains. “That means you can go around your yardage markers and sprinkler heads, and follow the contours of the fairway and zip right around bunkers. You can also go around the collars of the greens.”

The model operates on a belt (five belts, actually) rather than a chain system, allowing the drive to slip instead of break if an underground object is struck. Another feature of this model is a skid-type depth gauge system that keeps the depth consistent and that can be adjusted in the field with a simple pin.

Avant says that First Products’ verticutter is 60 inches wide and designed mainly for use on fairways and tee boxes. The units are towed using a three-point hitch, so superintendents who don’t mind putting a tractor on their greens can also verticut the putting surfaces with these units.

Thatch Master verticutters are available in four sizes ranging from 34 to 70 inches, depending on whether the unit will typically be used on greens and tees or on fairways. Musser says the 60-inch unit (TM-6000) is the company’s most popular choice for general verticutting throughout a course.

“And if a superintendent doesn’t want to change blades out, they’ll go with a 2-millimeter blade [thickness], so they have the best of both worlds,” he says, recommending that a minimum 25-hp tractor be used with the company’s 4-foot verticutter, while a little more horsepower might be required for larger models or when verticutting deeply.

Learn more about verticutting and other important cultural practices.