Note: this was originally published in late March 2015.
Northeast superintendents take wait-and-see approach to turf buried by snow and battered by cold.
To say it was a tough winter in New England is an understatement.
By mid-March, Boston had recorded its snowiest winter since record keeping began in 1872. The nearly 109 inches bested the 1995-96 winter.
For superintendents in some of the areas buried by white, there is deep concern about what is going on beneath.
The worry was palpable during the western Massachusetts golf course superintendents’ March 11 special meeting held specifically to discuss what they should expect when spring arrived.
The nearly 50 attendees, made up of superintendents and a smattering of sales reps, listened to reports and prognostications from Jim Skorulski, USGA senior agronomist of Northeast region, and Michelle DaCosta, associate professor of turfgrass physiology at the Stockbridge (Massachusetts) School of Agriculture. The group also asked plenty of questions and offered lots of advice.
A Jan. 4 rain-freeze event coated courses with a thick layer of ice, mainly in the Connecticut River Valley from southern Vermont to just south of Hartford, Connecticut. In Massachusetts and New York, the storm followed the Interstate 90 corridor and spread as far east as Worcester, Massachusetts, and west to the Albany, New York, region. Smaller pockets of trouble could be found south and north of Boston.
Alarm bells sounded for many in late February when superintendent Jedd Newsome posted a video of ice removal efforts at his course, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Country Club. He hired an outside contractor to clear paths to greens and push aside the deep snow, used an aerifier to break up the ice, which was then removed, and blew snow back onto the greens to guard against desiccation.
According to Newsome, he has had significant ice damage three of the previous six years, and that compelled him to be proactive this time.
“I knew I was going to be dead if I didn’t do anything,” he told the group.
At the meeting, superintendents discussed how they were taking advantage of the sun and warming temperatures by removing the snow on greens and putting down black sand or whole sunflower seeds on the ice to speed up the melting process.
Some were getting up-to-the-minute photos on their smartphones so they could monitor that day’s progress.
For a few weeks prior to the gathering, superintendents had pulled plugs and brought them inside to induce growth with varying results. Some had wholesale dead turf, while others had only spotty kill. In the days leading up to the confab, warm weather rolled in for the first time and greens were cleared. At more than one facility, the putrid smell of rotting turf was evident, superintendents said, leading most to believe every course will have some sort of significant damage.
Skorulski said he no longer adheres to one of the traditional rules about predicting winter kill.
“I don’t hold to 40 days as tight as I used to,” he said, referring to that adage that Poa must be covered that long by ice before it starts to die.
One superintendent said he cleared away more than 2 feet of snow, then was stunned to find water under the ice. He was looking for an explanation for this unfortunate surprise.
“We never see what’s going on under the ice,” DaCosta said, unable to give a definite explanation. “Is the grass decaying, creating heat and melting ice?”
She added that there’s a possibility that, as plants respirate, they release heat that way, as well.
The daily melting of ice and snow continued into the third week of March, but night temperatures still dropped below freezing, including a few times into the 20s. That can lead to more turf death.
“It’s really critical to get the water away from the crowns,” DaCosta told the assembly.
Because the ground remained frozen, she said, “the surface water has nowhere to go.”
There also was plenty of focus on next steps once the snow and ice are gone for good.
The general theory was that, for those who will not sod, the grass seed must be kept moist.
That means seeding shouldn’t take place until the irrigation system is recharged.
Superintendents also were warned against over-fertilizing to jump-start the growing process, and instructed to let the grass come out of dormancy on its own.
Skorulski advised closing greens for as long as possible during the recovery, but he acknowledged that is a decision usually made by green chairmen and owners, not superintendents.
Photo:(Left to right) Jim Skorulski, USGA senior agronomist of the Northeast Region, Matt Kowal, golf course superintendent at the Country Club of Wilbraham (Mass.) and Michelle DaCosta, associate Professor of turfgrass physiology at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, discuss ice and snow and turf at recent meeting.