Manage It! The Art of Keeping in the Green

Jan. 1, 2000

Golf greens, sports stadiums, and polo fields all have one thing in common: people expect the grounds to be green, gorgeous, and healthy every time they visit. Turfgrass is a high-maintenance crop, subject to wear and tear by golf carts, cleats, divots, the hooves of polo ponies, and the sliding of baseball players. Add weather to the mix-including ice, snow, wind, rain, and heat-and turf managers have their work cut out for them.

Bill Wall is general manager and superintendent of the 246-ac. Dauphin Highland Golf Course in Harrisburg, PA, which opened in 1996. Dauphin has close to 48,000 annual rounds and sits atop what had been the Bethlehem Steelton Management Club. There’s also a quarry next door.

As project manager throughout construction, Wall knows the course from ground zero. “The three most important construction considerations are drainage, drainage, and drainage. It’s imperative to have subsystem drainage. Right now we’re preparing for Hurricane Floyd, and it’s pouring like mad. On a golf course, if the drainage system fails, the sand traps can wash out. We’ve mowed everything, including areas around the drainage, and taken off many drain grates that clog from grass trimmings.”

Wall recalls a previous storm. “With the remnants of Hurricane Dennis, we had three and a half inches of rain in an hour, and the sand in the bunkers was almost totally removed. We had 2,500 tons of sand in the bunkers, and we had to move around 1,500 tons with shovels. We even had exposed drain tiles, and the rain blew some of them out of the ground.”

Storms come and go, but the quarry causes an ongoing set of problems: sinkholes. “We had one pond that held 7 million gallons of water. At the start, there was a tiny sinkhole. Eight hours later, all the water had drained into the quarry next door.” Wall filled it with slag to form a kind of honeycomb that allows the water to go through the eye of the sinkhole. It took 12,000 tons of slag to fill the 20-ft.-deep sinkhole. He notes, “All the soil had already washed through into the sinkhole, which occurred on and off between 1994 and 1998.” Now with the slag in place, there’s an avenue for water to follow without taking the soil with it.

Wall admits they’d had some clues about sinkholes before construction. “However, we brought out engineers who said everything would be all right. Because 40 percent of our drainage was leading to that pond that turned into a sinkhole, it was Murphy’s Law in action.”

Losing the pond meant losing a 7-million-gallon storage facility. “That had an impact,” Wall recalls. “It had been fed by a well. I put a new pump in the well and now redirect the water over a hill to a new pond that holds 4.2 million gallons.”

Prior to Hurricane Floyd’s drenching, the Dauphin course struggled through the Drought of ’99. Says Wall, “A problem in Pennsylvania is groundwater. We’ve been dry since July of ’98, after two minimal snow winters. They had a big effect, because snowmelt gets into the groundwater far better than water in a heavy rain that runs off. My monitor well is 20 feet lower than it was this time last year, and we were rationing water well before the drought.”

In only four years, the Dauphin course has struggled with more than its share of challenges. Wall remains upbeat. “Turfgrass is much more resilient than we give it credit for. We never use a lot of water. We keep the turf as dry as possible, which forces the grass to grow deep roots.”

Wall’s ongoing maintenance procedures include water management (“that’s the most important”), pest management and disease control, and traffic management with golfers and carts (“because we have poor, heavy silt-loam soil”).

Without good water management, Wall says the invasion of the annual bluegrass Poa annua is inevitable and uncontrollable. “It’s our biggest weed grass.” Next he’ll experiment with biologicals to control the Poa annua to weaken it and allow the bent grass to outcompete it. “Our major concern is on the putting surfaces. We’ll use a microbe bacteria from Eco Soils.”

Wall now uses an enzyme called Mac II on the larvae of the Japanese beetle and the black turfgrass Ataenius. “In their grub stage, the beetles are voracious root eaters, especially during a summer like this one when the turf was so stressed.” Although the grubs couldn’t survive in the rough because there was no moisture, “on the edges of the fairways where we irrigate, we had a grub problem. This enzyme is fabulous. It affects the molting process of when the grub sheds its exoskeleton, upsetting the timing and leaving the grub vulnerable.”

Because Wall is the general manager as well as the superintendent, he doesn’t want to spend money if he doesn’t have to. He runs a tight ship. “We have a very, very low budget. We have a hefty debt service from our building construction, and in 22 years Dauphin County gets this course for one dollar.” He has four full-time workers plus himself, 60 seasonal employees-almost all retirees-who work from five to 20 hours a week, and a volunteer crew of inmates from the county prison. “I have six guys dropped off every weekday and two guys I pick up on the weekends.”

The tight budget ties into Wall’s program of spot spraying for pests rather than blanket spraying, which he seldom does. For fertilizer, he uses a spoon-fed foliate feeding spray, using less than one-tenth of a pound of nitrogen per square foot. “We do this biweekly throughout the season. We try to avoid really lush plants because they’re more susceptible to disease. You want a hardened-off plant that’s able to resist a lot of problems.”

Wall feels that drought itself wouldn’t necessarily be lethal, “but add in grubs eating turf roots as well as cart damage, and it’s a secondary problem that causes loss of turf in most areas.”

Wall is currently involved with construction of another golf course in Mercersburg, PA. “It’s being grassed right now, and it’s at its most vulnerable stage because there’s nothing to hold the soil. They have some pretty good slopes there, and here comes Hurricane Floyd!”

he Texas Rangers baseball stadium sits on 2.5 ac. in Arlington, TX. Even an area that small has its share of challenges, including shade, wind, and extremes in climate.

The stadium is five years old, and Tom Burns, director of grounds, arrived in October 1996. Comparing a baseball field to a golf course, Burns says he doesn’t have cart traffic and the divots of golf clubs to contend with, “but the ball we play with is a lot bigger, and the players have big feet sliding.”

The stadium’s original installation was a sand-based field with a clay-based sod. Burns says, “You get a layering effect immediately because the roots don’t want to move from the clay to the sand as a result of a lack of water in the sand since sand drains quickly. I tore it out and put in a washed sod, and with that, the roots aren’t going through the clay. The sod I use is Tifway 4-19.”

Burns has microclimates to deal with. One is a shade problem in winter on about 20,000 ft.2 in right field. “The scoreboard is on the south end of the stadium, and there’s no sun on that area for nearly five months, causing the Bermuda grass to really suffer.” Because the team’s home dugout is on the first-base side, they use the right-field area for warm-up. This adds more wear to the most tender part of the field. “We thought of using a subaeration system, utilizing drainage tiles and blowing warm air through them. When the outside temperature is 70 to 80 degrees [Fahrenheit], you can draw heat down through the soil. It’s a possibility we’re looking at,” he says.

Another option is heating pipes, which many newer stadiums use, but retrofitting is more difficult than incorporating a design in new construction. “Unfortunately, they build these stadiums and the field is just thrown down in the building. We need to communicate with the architects. If they’d just put the scoreboard on the east side, it would have been easier,” Burns remarks.

Arlington’s winter temperatures drop to about 45ºF “and Bermuda needs 70 to 75 degrees to really come out of dormancy. As a rule of thumb it will break dormancy at 65 degrees, but the soil needs to be 78 to 80 degrees for Bermuda to grow vigorously. It takes so long in the right-field area that it’s one month behind the rest of the field,” he notes.

Burns tries to push the right-field turf with a fertilization program. “We use a lot of foliar fertilizer because it doesn’t leach into the soil. It’s a lot more cost-effective and a little safer for the environment. We fertilize more often but lose less in the soil. Given the nature of a sand field, it’s really hard to hold nutrients. Working on sand, you almost have to forget everything you learned about fertilization. Sand is a different animal; it’s like having a thoroughbred versus a plow horse.”

Then there’s the wind. The prevailing wind blows from the south. It goes into the seating bowl and gets directed back to the south. This means the north end gets a lot of wind and the south side is a dead area. “That part of the field has almost everything going against it. We may put fans out there to circulate the area.”

The wind blows around 15 mph, but 25-30 mph is not uncommon, especially in the spring. So Burns waters portions of the field by hand to keep the wind from blowing water onto the infield, where it will get the clay too wet.

“It’s easier to direct water by hand even though it’s more labor-intensive. The things we do here are no different from those at municipal fields, but we’re under a microscope, playing at the highest level. We have more manpower and can nitpick.”

In northern Texas, observes Burns, “Every front that comes through the country comes through here. One winter day, in four hours, the temperature can go from 75 degrees to 35 degrees, and the next day it can be 75 again. We get extremes in temperature, wind speeds, and precipitation.”

Disease isn’t a major issue for Burns. The only time he’s concerned is when he overseeds with perennial rye, which is more susceptible to disease. Because Bermuda takes time to repair itself (and sometimes Burns doesn’t have time), he’ll overseed or resod. “We overseed in early fall after the season is over. We’ve tried it in spring, but we run into trouble getting it established before the season starts.” A big problem involves going from overseeded grass to Bermuda grass. “The perennial rye gets really strong, so it’s quite tricky getting the Bermuda back and strong without being noticed. We’re on TV every day, and tours are going through. People expect to see green grass all the time.”

Burns relies on aerification, mowing, and fertilization to aid in the transition. “I try not to focus on the rye grass and just make the conditions optimum for the Bermuda.”

Whereas Bill Wall’s mantra was “drainage, drainage, drainage,” Burns doesn’t echo that same concern. “We have outstanding drainage here. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes a curse. Our drainage system takes 8 inches of water an hour. That’s a curse in a drought, and we went 57 days with no measurable rain here.”

For Burns, a major challenge is keeping both the turf and the dirt in optimum condition. It’s the dirt that makes a good field because 70% of the game is played on the dirt. “You have 10 players on the field: the team of nine and the batter. Only the outfielders are on grass; seven are on dirt.” That’s a good reason for hand-watering-to keep water off the clay/sand mixture so it doesn’t turn into mud.

For Kevin Pryfeski, golf course manager of the Cattail Creek Country Club in Glenwood, MD, even with the Drought of ’99, his number-one challenge is the golfers. “They’re more unpredictable than this Maryland weather. You never know what their gripes will be.”

Pryfeski manages about 160 ac. on this new private course, which opened in 1993. With 21,000 rounds, he estimates that 5% are avid complainers. “They’re a minority, but they’re vocal. I don’t know why they even play. They have big scowls on their faces.” Pryfeski takes their complaints very personally. “We’re making a living providing a product for them to play a game on.” He admits that he has spoiled the golfers, giving them better and better conditions.

For example, superintendents used to be only worried about the greens; that’s all the golfers looked for. “Then they wanted good fairways, and now you have to have a perfect lie on the rough. They shouldn’t even be in the rough. We spend more money on the rough than on the fairways, as far as fertilizer and seed go, because we overseed at least once a year out there.” Pryfeski doesn’t overseed the fairways, which are bent grass.

Pryfeski laughs, recounting members who have paid $5,000 to play golf in Scotland, true home of golf in the rough, only to return here, expecting everything to be green and perfect. “Roughs today look and play like yesterday’s fairways.”

Pryfeski breaks the complainers into two groups: younger players who want green speed so they can play “fast, fast, fast” and older players who complain about the rough.

In 1995, Pryfeski set up a clever split on the practice greens, setting apart half of the area for metal-spiked shoes and half for soft spikes. Each side had three cups. After two weeks, you could see a dramatic difference. “On the soft-spike side there was a better, smoother surface, less wear on the turf, and better putting.” He then banned metal spikes.

The other main challenges for Pryfeski remain water and keeping out Poa annua, which, because Cattail Creek is a new course, only has a toehold in certain areas, not the death grip it has on many older courses.

Although the land has three ponds with a total of 4 million gal. of water, recharging from the seven wells is slow-only 110 gal./min. “We’re pretty stingy with water,” Pryfeski notes. “We have to be. With this year’s drought, Maryland issued a mandatory 80 percent cutback on fairway water use, but we’d already curtailed ourselves before because the drought really began in May.”

He says that every year he goes through a water issue because he lacks great enough well capacity. However, he’d rather be on the dry side. “We had 9 inches of rain in September, and you can’t groom a wet golf course.”

Because most of Pryfeski’s fairways are sloped, drainage isn’t a problem. There is a lot of surface runoff, and the clay/rocky soil drains adequately. His main day-to-day maintenance strategy is being observant. “I have two good assistants, so we have three good sets of eyes.”

Pryfeski installed a fertigation system this year. “Then we couldn’t use it because we weren’t running the system enough to make it worthwhile. We were hose watering.”

His top pest issue is the dollar spot fungus prevalent on bent grass fairways. Although he’s been using all-organic fertilizers for three seasons, he can’t say that it’s really helped so far. He acknowledges that the nutrients have a good release, so “there are no peaks and valleys, and that part I really like. I also like that we’re building up the soil.” He uses Nature Safe, on the fairways and Earth Works on the rough. He also applies Compro, the trademark for composted sewage sludge on the fairways. Pryfeski still sprays for dollar spots with typical fungicides, including Dackanel and Sentinel, alternating the two.

Back out on the rough, Pryfeski sprays fungicide and growth regulators. “We do have ‘extreme rough’ beyond the maintained rough. Really bad golfers get in there-and we have a lot of bad golfers! They complain about how it hurts their wrists and so on. No matter what areas you don’t mow, people get in there and complain.”

Pryfeski feels it’s the golfers who have pushed up the costs of golf with their demands and complaints, which are responded to. “For example, a lot of our money goes to both the rough and bunker maintenance now. Our members want perfect sand, hand-raked, because it creates a better lie.”

ill Triller, turf specialist at both the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club in Carpinteria, CA, and the Royal Palm Polo Club in Boca Raton, FL, purrs over the fruits of his labors. The primary fruit is the drastically increased safety for horses and riders as a result of his unique formula for creating ideal playing fields.

Triller, with a master’s degree in agronomy, has 14 years under his belt at the Santa Barbara Club. It has three fields, each 300 x 200 yd., and the club is “The smallest little gem in polo.” The club in Florida has seven fields, each the same size as those in California.

Before Triller arrived on the scene, it wasn’t unusual to have 10 horses per season break their legs on the Santa Barbara fields. Not only were the fields planted in kikuya grass (also known as “could kill ya,” shares Triller), but 211 brass quick-change valves on the field, part of the old irrigation system, were prime culprits in breaking galloping legs.

No other sport challenges turf as much as polo. As Triller explains, “You have 1,200-pound horses going 40 miles an hour, and each game lasts two hours. Every team has four players, so there are eight horses on the field at one time going full speed wide open for seven minutes per chukker.”

Triller claims, “The whole secret to polo is the footing of the grass. That’s what gives you safety.” He keeps the grass thin-six-sixteenths of an inch and sanded like a putting green. “This keeps it dry on top because the water percolates down, allowing horses to toe down. If the ground is hard, the horse can’t toe down and breaks a leg. Sanding also makes turf more wear-tolerant.”

The turf that Triller uses is Santa Ana hybrid Bermuda. “The roots in Santa Barbara go down 6 to 8 feet. It’s the most wear-tolerant grass in the world.” In Florida, he uses 4-19 Bermuda. He adds, “Sanding and aeration are the two most important things and are what have made me successful.”

Polo games are ranked by the number of goals; the higher number, the harder the game. Triller’s worked out a specific strategy a couple of weeks before every eight-, 12-, and high-goal game. His “critical path” includes the following steps:

  • Verticut.
  • Scalp grass down to 6/16ths.
  • Aerate in two different directions to cure compaction and thatch.
  • Follow with a steel mat to shatter plugheads and reincorporate into the soil.
  • Apply time-release fertilizer.
  • Top-dress fields with 0.25-in. Gilderbrand Silver 30 sand.
  • Irrigate.

Within 10 days, Triller has 100% erect leaf plates per square inch. The fields are emerald green and offer ideal footing for the horses. Right before the game, he takes a fertilizer spreader and puts on a light sprinkling of sand. Concerning sand, Triller says, “There’s a whole science in sand. It must all be the same size. You can’t mix coarse and fine-grain sand, and if it’s angular, you get air spaces.”

Not only did the board of directors call Triller’s first field for them a “field of dreams,” the rich patron (head) of one Canadian polo team said, “We’re playing on friggin’ AstroTurf!” (“That’s a direct quote,” Triller laughs.)

Today’s irrigation system involves a Bauer hard hose traveler, “so there’s nothing in the field that can hurt a horse,” he says. It has a reel with a 4-in. hose on a sled with a cannon on top. Water from a well goes through a turbine and turns the reel, and the gun automatically shoots out water at a 24º angle, emulating rainfall.

Every time Triller mows, he sweeps to keep the clippings from creating thatch. He uses a Jacobson LF128 and a 3400. Both mower and sweeper are 10-ft. wide.

Triller consults worldwide on polo grounds. “I will not build a field unless they’ll put two and a half inches of sand first, as a cushion for horses and players. In polo, when the horse’s hoof hits the soil, it’s like 4,500 pounds per square inch in compaction.”

Fields with heavy grass; wet, slippery conditions; or hard-compacted soil are prime candidates for accidents. “When playing, the horse’s back hoof has to move in the turn or it will get a compound fracture,” explains Triller. “Argentine men are such strong and aggressive players that it’s important to have thin, open grass so the horses can move and twist.”

Triller’s polo fields in Florida have more challenges than those in California. Near-daily rain, fire ants, mole crickets, and a torpedo grass that’s “like Bermuda on steroids. It’s very slippery, like clover, and horses will slip. You want a monoculture, all Bermuda, because every bit of the field should be exact footing.”

Mole crickets can fly in and eat up all the turf roots in three days. The fire ants create mounds all over the field, which prohibit the balls from rolling. Triller combats fire ants with Diazinon and mole crickets with Chipco-2 and Ornathane. Drainage isn’t an issue since the fields there are mostly sand. “It’s like a reef with 3 feet of sand, and that’s how it is almost all over Florida,” Triller says.

Triller’s in high demand as a polo field specialist. He’s built fields for Sylvester Stallone, for Pat Nesbitt, head of Embassy Suites, and the Sultan of Brunei, who wants Triller to build a field for him in Las Vegas once permits are approved.

Polo’s an old sport, and Triller’s brought the playing fields to a new height of safety and perfection. He recalls how a polo guidebook published in the 1800s recommended putting sheep on the fields to eat the grass to the ground while automatically fertilizing the soil.

And here in 2000, Triller claims that the Sultan of Brunei’s polo fields are still hand cut with shears!

stablished in 1922 north of Chicago, IL, the small Wilmette Golf Course is owned and operated by the Wilmette Park District. Mike Matchen, supervisor there for 27 years, tells us his biggest concern is the amount of traffic on the 104-ac. course. “We get 50,000 rounds between April and November, while private clubs in this area average 20,000 rounds.”

Matchen seeds, aerifies, and fertilizes “to create a healthier turf to stand up to the wear and to be less susceptible to disease.” He also cuts everything and keeps it clean and trimmed.

Matchen is pleased to move more toward organics. “For example, using potash that comes from sunflower seeds. It’s the direction the industry is heading. We’ve had a 40 to 50 percent reduction in the use of chemicals in the last five years.”

Poa annua offers Matchen another challenge. “We’ve been trying forever to get rid of it, but we never will. It comes in on its own and seeds continuously and thrives where areas are thin. But it has shallow roots and is very susceptible to heat and cold and diseases. We try to keep it in check. Now it’s 30 to 40 percent on the fairways and greens, down from maybe 60 percent.” Matchen combats the Poa annua by establishing dense, healthy bluegrass on the fairways and bent grass on the greens.

He’s been overseeding the last six to seven years. Another long-term strategy is aerification every fall and vertidrain in the spring, using very thin, 0.375-in. tines for the vertidrain. They don’t bring up plugs, and the holes heal quickly.

Matchen looks for alarm signals by daily scouting. “Hot humid weather gets me out a lot. I look for thin grass, grass color, and signs of disease.” Chicago faced the Drought of ’99, yet, he says, “We had a wet spring, one storm after another, so the roots never went down to search for water. Having shallower roots made for weaker plants going into the summer with the heat wave and drought.”

Although his is a fairly flat golf course, he has some ponds with erosion control issues. Clearly a steward of the land, Matchen refurbished the banks in May 1998. “It was through a Girl Scout planting project. We closed the course for one day and worked with three ponds and more than 200 Girl Scouts. We planted 5,000-plus plants, including native grasses and wildflowers.” Not only did the work stabilize the banks, it now keeps chemicals from washing into the ponds, which drain into the North Branch of the Chicago River.

This was a pilot project in cooperation with the Girl Scouts and the Friends of the Chicago River, a group partially funded by the State of Illinois. “We’ll continue the goodwill with an education day involving all the fourth-graders from a local school. It will be an annual event,” Matchen says.

He is anxious for the course to become an Audubon Certified Sanctuary. Currently, Audubon International lists about 2,093 registered golf course members, and the number is growing. “The golf course industry is changing,” Matchen observes. “We are environmentally friendly, and I don’t think a lot of people know that.”

t the Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, RI, Jim Medeiros, golf course superintendent, runs the 100-ac. club designed by Donald Ross in 1898. “We’re ranked 49th in the country by Golf Digest. We have a good piece of property and had about 27,000 rounds this year.”

The club owners spend money on the golf course over other amenities because the golf course is their “bread and butter.” “Whatever we need, we get,” Medeiros states.

A Genesis 2 computer program from Legacy Irrigation runs the club’s wall-to-wall irrigation. Two years ago it gave up city water and dug eight wells, and now it pulls water from a 28-ft.-deep pond. The pond covers 1.2 ac., and over the last two years, the club has used 55 million gal. of water.

Fortunately for Medeiros, the species of Poa annua he has is an old strain. “We don’t worry about it,” he adds.

Instead of fertigation, Medeiros uses wetting agents through the irrigation. He uses a liquid fertilizer and several growth-type products. “I developed a fertilizer through a friend who works with the sewage commission. It’s organic: milorganite, nutralene, and sulfate of potash.”

He stresses working as hard as you can and not worrying about what you can’t control. “You always have surprises when you have something growing. You have to be ready, and the owners have to give the money, which they do. They have high expectations, as they should.”

Another high-end club is the Tucson Country Club in Tucson, AZ. Marty Wells is the golf course superintendent. Designed by Billy Bell, the course opened in 1947 and, according to Wells, “has been private for so long you can’t even get a membership here.” Sitting on 160 ac., it handles about 35,000 rounds each year.

“I’m a water/fertilizer/mow kind of guy,” Wells remarks, talking about his day-to-day strategies to keep the grounds in optimum condition. “We have a lot of shade, and in the desert there are water issues. Of course you have to have some kind of Bermuda grass in the desert, and Bermuda doesn’t like shade.” Wells is mixing ryes, fescues, and bluegrasses-all more shade-tolerant-for the shady areas.

He does use fungicides but adds, “We have a very nature-minded philosophy. Even when we had African bees, a private company trapped them and took them away.” The course includes three large reservoirs, and it will be an Audubon stop. “Right now the osprey is eating our white Chinese amurs that we bought at 100 dollars a pop to eat the algae!”

While many Midwestern and Eastern courses suffered in last year’s drought, Tucson remained in excellent shape thanks to the summer rains. Even with an ample budget, Wells says, there are hundreds and hundreds of daily issues; one example is how to transition to summer. “You can’t really make long-range plans because of the extreme weather and constant changes. People want ‘The Plan,’ and you can’t give it. Grass is a living thing. There are mini ecosystems, and with gophers, birds, summer heat, winter frost, rains, or no rains, things go wrong. We try to plan three to four months out, but any more than 90 days is unrealistic.”

Although his water isn’t terribly bad, he does use large amounts of gypsum to lower the salts. “We use an acid-injection system, in which we basically inject acid into the water. It lowers the pH, turning salts into gypsum.” He also fertigates. “It’s a very effective, three-year-old system.”

Although Wells does overseed, “that’s a turf decision. And not overseeding is an option from time to time. The desert dictates the turf, so we use a Bermuda. We can grow bent grass on the greens because the humidity here allows us to bend the rules. With low humidity, you have a shot. However, in this climate, it’s tough to grow grass.”

Wells points out that “everything affiliated with playing golf keeps a course beat-up. Everything detracts from turf quality, and everything we do is a compromise. We keep things optimum for membership satisfaction, because everything is expected to be perfect.”

At the new Glen Annie Golf Club in Goleta, CA, Vince Gilmarten supervises the 110-acre course that opened in 1997. Already the course hosts 45,000 rounds a year, in part because it’s open all year and in part because the Santa Barbara area is becoming a golf destination, he notes.

Gilmarten speaks of the steep elevations, covered mostly by turfgrass. About 90 acres are steep, and about 15 acres are the most severe areas in play. “There we’ve incorporated native trees, Canary Island pines, and fescue turf. We want to incorporate the large root structures of trees with the smaller turf-root structures.”

Five acres of club grounds are part of a five-year mitigation project to reestablish native planting, returning the grounds to their native status. This area does not come into direct play on the course. Half the area is steep, and a stream runs through it. “We’re hoping to drive for Audubon sanctuary with the reestablished area,” Gilmarten says.

The club uses reclaimed water that is high in sodium. “We don’t treat the water; we treat the soil surface with a gypsum application every six weeks over the entire course.”

Happy to use organics, Gilmarten says, “I try to stick with them, but sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and the microorganisms don’t break down over time. They go dormant, then when the soil warms up, they become active and you get the lush growth that can make grass vulnerable to disease.”

He points out that golfer damage is the biggest thing to look out for; it contributes to wear-and-tear year-round. He expects the whole golf industry to shift to soft spikes within five years to eliminate a lot of compaction and damage and thus enhance long-term turfgrass maintenance.

As far as technological changes, Gilmarten notes the advances over the last five years with cycle and soak systems: weather stations that calculate the evapotranspiration and automatically irrigate to that level.

Built in 1924, the private club has 165 ac. “My Dad dug the three 1-acre ponds.” Two are used as reservoirs, replenished by a 1,400-ft.-deep well that taps into an aquifer fed by Lake Michigan water.

A big change Dinelli has made over 20 years is moving toward a more environmentally friendly maintenance regime. Dinelli’s definition of integrated pest management (IPM) is “avoidance of pest treatments by using sound cultural and biological practices.”

One cultural practice involved banning of spiked shoes. After just one season, the club enjoyed truer, smoother putting surfaces with less wear around the cups. “The smoother surface allows for a slightly raised mowing rate, which correlates with fewer pest problems.”

The most time-consuming IPM practice is the twice-daily scouting and monitoring. “It’s critical to detect and identify pests and potential problems as early as possible.”

Dinelli’s scouting approach includes monitoring, trapping, degree-day models (which indicate accumulated heat), phenology, disease forecasting models, and the use of indicator plants.

The trapping portion includes both pheromone traps and a black-light trap. Pheromone traps collect and monitor specific insects, whereas black-light traps collect a wider variety of insects. “Traps help us better understand the population cycles and density of insects, and this information helps with scouting,” Dinelli explains.

Researchers now know degree-day thresholds for many insects, which effectively gives Dinelli a calendar of insect activity so he knows when to combat the pests. Degree-days figures also help with the dreaded Poa annua, because there’s a degree-day model for its flowering period. This helps guide Dinelli’s timing in applying plant-growth regulators.

The role of indicator plants resembles that of canaries in coal mines. Dinelli’s nursery houses more than 35 varieties of creeping bent grass, grown in exactly the same manner as the turf used on the golf course; however, none receives plant protectors. Each variety has its own characteristics and differs in its relative susceptibility to various diseases, including dollar spot and brown patch. “These plants are highly susceptible to disease and thus can give us an early look at what we might see in the field,” notes Dinelli.

Computers play a critical role in Dinelli’s work. Staff can access their weather station and bring up degree-day figures, raw weather information, disease forecasting models, evapotranspiration rates, soil temperature, and moisture. Dinelli scans two complete sets of drawings into the computer. “Each set is a hole-by-hole drawing to a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet. One set has our irrigation and drainage; the other is used to map ‘hot spots.'”

Here are some of Dinelli’s cultural methods to maintain optimum turf health:

  • Pruning and thinning tree enclosures to increase air movement and solar radiation on turf canopy. This includes root pruning of trees surrounding all greens, tees, and fairways every five to seven years using a powered pipe puller and a vibrating plow.
  • Overseeding with improved cultivars. Look for similar leaf texture, growth habit, color, and fertility requirements.
  • Daily water removal-either mow or drag.
  • Vertical mowing of greens. On tees and fairways, undertake brushing or combing with each mowing to help keep turf grain-free.
  • Rolling greens after mowing to enable faster golf ball roll without lowering mowing heights.
  • Fertility management: Providing essential soil microorganisms to build strong, healthy, aggressive plants while improving soil productivity.
  • Performing tissue tests for a snapshot of plant activity.
  • Slow-release organic fertilizers, coming from activated sewage sludge, hydrolyzed feather meal, meat meal, bone meal, poultry meal, blood meal, fish meal, langbeinite (potassium magnesium sulfate), and sunflower seed hull ash. Make light and frequent applications to stimulate microbial activity but not excessive top growth. Yardwaste compost as top-dressing soil amendment reduces thatch, increases earthworm activity, and decreases dry spots.
  • Cultivation: Deep shatter tining on greens and tees relieves compaction.
  • Soil cores (spring and fall) on tees, fairways, and roughs. Follow with yard-compost top dressing, mix and drag in a virgin soil/compost mix, blow off debris from fairway into rough.
  • Irrigation: The weather station calculates evapotranspiration rates. Readings reflect soil-water tension or suction, a direct measure of how hard a plant’s root system must work to extract water from the soil. The sensor measures pressure in centibars from 0 to 200; the larger the reading, the drier the soil. Dinelli aims for soil moisture from 50 to 60 centibars, usually maintained by daily light watering rather than infrequent deep watering. Water-treatment additives in the irrigation system include surfactants to aid in water retention and percolation, urea-sulfuric acid to manage high bicarbonate levels, and a bioreactor to incorporate antagonistic bacteria for disease suppression.

Dinelli minimizes the use of chemicals because of their known side effects in plants and because plant pathogens have developed resistance to a number of fungicides. He adds, “Some fungicides can even make the problem worse, with both target and nontarget diseases showing an increase of incidence and severity.” Furthermore, pesticides are expensive and costs are driven up by the extensive testing required by the Environmental Protection Agency, Dinelli notes. “And the purchase costs don’t include cleanup and disposal costs or long-term ecosystem damage.”

One thing he has learned: “Tolerance of some plant diseases is acceptable. Many times, microbial antagonism, immunity, or a change in environmental conditions will make symptoms go away without treatment.”

Dinelli’s program has largely moved from chemical prevention to one of “prevention through cultural, biological, and biostimulant approaches.” He now only uses chemicals as a “curative measure.” This change brings challenges. “First, a more intimate understanding of a plant’s ecosystem is needed to manage plant health care. Also, it’s easier to budget for chemical preventive spray programs, and it is unnerving to monitor disease symptoms taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.”

Dinelli uses a BioJect irrigation injection system from Eco Soils Systems Inc. for microbial biocontrol. A self-contained microbial fermentation device delivers beneficial microorganisms into the irrigation system each time he waters. “The system delivers live antagonistic organisms, not dormant ones, in known, effective concentrations and in the places needed.” By using the system at night, he overcomes the degradation of microbials by ultraviolet light.

Dinelli reminds us that “greens, tees, and often fairways are disturbed sites. I welcome the challenge of restoring these sites for optimum turfgrass health in harmony with nature.”

Adding up the acreage devoted to golf courses, sports stadiums, and polo grounds, turfgrass is a high-demand crop covering substantial portions of our country. Fortunately, many keepers of the turf who work to keep it green also exhibit a growing interest in keeping it naturally healthy. After all, it is a part of the greater ecosystem that embraces us all.

About the Author

Katherine Holden

Journalist Katherine Holden is a frequent contributor to environmental journals.