The soiled thoughts of an aspiring superintendent

Just another weblog

Sustainable Management Tips for Golf Course Maintenance December 11, 2010

Filed under: Independent Study — Graham J. Wieja @ 12:21 am

Golf Course Fertility Effects and Environmental Sustainability

December 10th, 2010


This independent study began as a goal to learn certain things such as:

· the mobility of certain nutrients in the soil (Nitrogen and Phosphorous)

· effective and efficient management plans regarding providing proper fertility rates for C3 turfgrasses

· the effects the common forms of nitrogen and phosphorous used have on the environment

· the effects the pesticide products we commonly apply have on us and the environment

My goal was to develop a manual for sustainable golf course management, targeted towards lower budget courses, promoting ideas that are both environmentally and budget pleasing. This manual is to include cultural practice guidelines (irrigation, aeration, mowing) as well as integrated pest management strategies.

Throughout my research I have developed an underlying goal which is defining and promoting “sustainable golf”. In other words I am of the opinion that golf course superintendents will need to represent the image of steward of the land. They must accept responsibility for the property they manage. This includes not only the turfgrass, but the eco-system residing within and outside the acreage.

Advancing compatibility with the golf course and the environment is the true test. Superintendent’s responsibilities go well beyond that of the playing surface. I believe sustainability in terms of golf course management is committing to continual improvement of the property. This encompasses the planet, the people, and the profitability. A superintendent must assess the long term importance of all these in order to manage on a day – day basis.

Educating the public about the benefits and positive attributes a golf course can have on not only the economy but the environment will be imperative in this process. There is a negative perception of what golf course management involves. This has lead to government legislation regulating superintendent’s management practices. Superintendents must promote the idea that courses are valuable green spaces that provide entertainment as well as the opportunity to protect and enhance our resources for the future.

What is Sustainable Golf?

Environmental protection and sustainability is now more than ever an important issue in the golf course management industry. In Ontario provincial wide legislation has been laid out and strict enforcement is beginning to come into effect when it comes to pest management. Efforts are being made around the world by superintendents to promote a more ecologically friendly image. This is to promote their property and their passion as well. Focus is drawn on these factors:

· Water

· Energy & Resources

· Environmental Quality

· Landscape & Ecosystems

· People & Communities

Golf courses must be efficient and responsible consumers and conservers of water. This can involve practices such as evapotranspiration and deep and infrequent watering techniques. It is important to minimize water consumption and protect water quality.

Golf management practices will require economical management techniques and a transition to cleaner and cheaper energy to remain environmentally sustainable. Superintendents must enhance landscapes and ecosystems by sustaining and improving what people love about the game, the nature aspect.

Sustainable golf is only possible with the support of the public. Superintendents and golf professionals alike need to remove the negative perception the general public has about golf course management. This can be achieved through hosting open tours and educating them about the benefits and positive attributes a golf course has. This is a game of respect and integrity and superintendents must represent the image of steward of the land to better promote their profession. Sustainability is all-encompassing but it comes down to preservation and promotion of the land.

Nitrogen and Nitrogen Loss

· Nitrogen is the most deficient macro nutrient required for healthy turfgrass.

· It is responsible for color; growth, density, competition with weeds and overall stress tolerance to factors such as traffic and heat.

Nitrogen can be lost in the soil through these processes:

· Leaching

· Denitrification

· Volatilization

· Crop removal

· Soil erosion and runoff

The major concerns regarding golf course management are leaching and runoff.

· Nitrogen loss from the soil system is greatly affected by soil type and climate. Sandy California composition greens soils are most susceptible to leaching. Leaching is the downward movement of product to ground water

· Leaching is more likely to occur on older, established putting greens as opposed to new ones

· Research at Auburn University has indicated that for new greens, USGA compositions leach more than sand based

· Nitrogen added to the soil has multiple ways of transforming into plant availability

· Inaccurate and negligent applications of synthetic fertilizers, which golf courses often use, can affect the global nitrogen cycle

· Runoff is especially dangerous when Nitrogen enters lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans

· Nitrogen is a catalyst for eutrophication in salt water or in estuaries (where fresh water converges with salt water)

· Environmental fate of N suggests it is better to apply lower rates more frequently to reduce the risk of loss of N to the environment (spoon feeding)

· Water-soluble fertilizers leach more than slow-release because they dissolve quickly

· Slow release nitrogen applications are not ideal for greens. Generally members and customers do not want the “lull” in colour that occurs

The Human Aspect

Over application of Nitrogen can be detrimental to human health. Nitrogen in the form of nitrates, nitrites, or ammonium are especially susceptible because of their capabilities to leaching. Drinking water that is rich in nitrate can cause health issues. The most severe issue is Methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome. Methemoglobinemia occurs when nitrates in drinking water are ingested and converted into nitrites. These nitrites promote methemoglobin which is very adverse to oxygen. The infant’s tissues and organs are deprived of oxygen and they develop a bluish coloring. Long term effects include digestive and respiratory problems and can be fatal. Blue baby syndrome is most common in agricultural settings.


· Phosphorous is important for plants because it stimulates early plant growth(germination of new seedlings, establishing new sod)

· Phosphorous promotes plant growth and is generally widely available in the soil

· It is not mobile in the soil

· Fine particles found on or around putting greens are most susceptible to be lost carrying phosphorous from soils and transported via surface runoff

· Loss is greatest (run-offs) in summer during thunderstorms

· Seeding can be dangerous because there is no plant cover combined with loose soils and immobile phosphorous available

· Phosphorous can pose a threat to water quality as it enters through storm drains and sub-surface runoff

· Eutrophication occurs and blooms or flourishes of algae grow rapidly when freshwater lakes and rivers are polluted with phosphorous

· High levels of algae decays and a lack of oxygen results. A reduction in water quality occurs.

Eutrophication promotes excessive plant growth in plants such as algae and plankton. It favours simple life forms as opposed to complex organisms and fish pools. Lack of available oxygen (anoxia) is the cause. In freshwater situations excessive phosphorous that enters the water causes eutrophication. Saltwater eutrophication occurs due to excessive nitrogen. This problem is amplified by residing very close to sea level or near an estuary.

Sustainable Management Strategies

My management plan is broken down into the topics: cultural practices, irrigation, fertility, Integrated Pest Management, and communication/education. It is not a step by step guide but an educational tool. Applying the management principles outlined below should promote a very sustainable golf course through optimizing equipment and management principles and minimizing environmental impact. Promotion of wildlife and re-establishing native species is also a fundamental principle.

Cultural practices touch on thatch control methods and topdressing. Thatch is one of the most difficult management problems superintendents will face. It is such an issue because it increases the instances of issues like: suppression of insects/weeds/diseases, scalping, localized dry spot, soil percolation rates, and pesticide effectiveness. Thatch is a layer between the canopy and the roots. It is the living and dead: stems, crowns, stolons or rhizomes, and leaves of turf.

The proper management of thatch is essential to your turfgrass health as well as your budget. A lot of surface runoff and the contamination that comes with it is directly attributable to thatch issues. The cost of golf course management is going up and superintendents are going to be relied on to cut back on chemical and fertility applications. It is unlikely that members/customers will accept a decrease in playability conditions no matter what the budget is and therefore cultural practices are an ever increasing issue.

Cultural Practices

· Controlling Thatch
• Core cultivation (pull cores)
• Solid tine aeration to relieve compaction
• Verti-cut to reduce thatch in two forms Deep and Shallow
• Deep (dethatching)
• Shallow (grooming)
• Topdressing to stimulate microbial activity in light and frequent intervals
• Proper fertilization rates according to plant need (soil test analysis)
• Controlling traffic to reduce compaction and stress
• Proper irrigation according to plant need (through the use of evapotranspiration / Weather stations

· Core Cultivation should be done in the Spring and in the Fall because it allows for recovery time not during your peak season
• Physical removal of thatch affects approximately 3-5% of the turf depending on tine size and spacing. Topdress afterwards to fill holes
• This process introduces oxygen into soil as well as stimulating microbes
• Proper water management (increased infiltration rate)
• Relieves compaction , provides a healthy condition allowing turfgrass to compete against the suppression of insects and weeds and certain diseases.

· Solid Tine – Venting
• Introduces oxygen
• Increased microbes
• Shoves organic matter into soil (breaks it up)
• Relieves surface compaction

· Verticutting (vertical blades which slice through turf)

Shallow grooming- tickles the turf
Deep dethatching- rough, physical removal. The greens will look beat up for a few days.

• Breaks up stolons
• Improves cut
• Physical removal
• Introduces topdressing


· Topdressing is done to firm and smooth the surface

· Light and frequent applications should be applied to match the current soil profile

· Matting the sand in promotes recovery and promotes microbial activity

· Topdressing protects the crown

· Creates pore spaces (water holding capacity)


· Calibrate the nozzles on your heads to achieve consistency. Replace if necessary.

· Have irrigation performance test completed. Make necessary changes

· Computerized systems are so much more efficient

· Throughout a droughty period consider syringing (a light mist) to cool the plant down

· Select drought resistant turfgrass cultivars to overseed with

· Deep and infrequent irrigation will promote deep roots and a healthier turf

· Creating wetlands, watersheds, and catch basins to retain water


· Provide enough mineral nutrients for optimal growth

· Optimal growth is when the plant has photosynthetic capabilities to re-cooperate before being mowed again

· Optimal Growth is finding balance between recovery and excessive growth

· Spoon feeding is a good way to achieve this optimal growth

· Find a combination of granular and foliar applications through growing period

· Feed the roots and the shoots

· This process mimics slow release without the “lull” in colour

· Spoon feeding gives you more control

· Spoon feeding minimizes burn potential

· You should see less loss to environment through this process because there is more plant uptake


· Increased budgets for disease control

· Curatively spray upon first sight through the use of scouting and monitoring

· OMAFRA weekly podcasts on disease and insect suppression during growing season

· Big issue is leaf wetness

· Whip tees, fairways and greens minimizing canopy wetness in morning

· Instituting storm water management strategies to reduce or eliminate soil erosion, water pollution, and siltation

· Instituting buffer zones near water systems to avoid pollution and runoff

· Know your water entrants points, know your water exit points

· Be aware of the water quality coming in and the water quality coming out

· Continually checking reels mowers for proper contact and height ensuring good plant health

· Small discrepancies in height settings can stress and scalp the turf weakening the plant and promoting the onset of disease or infestation

· Mow once and then roll instead of double cutting to reduce plant stress

· Continually sharpen bedknives, blades, reels of all mowers even rotary mowers reducing damage and promoting a clean sharp cut as opposed to tearing

· Roll occasionally instead of mowing reducing stress

Education and Communication

· Change the perception that golf must be played on green grass, accept dormant grass

· Embrace golf’s roots of links style golf (un-kept areas, fescues) as opposed to the “Augusta state of mind” where everything is lush and mowed

· Educate about the benefits (positive attributes), change the attitudes of general public

· Push local, provincial, federal legislation for incentives to put more efficient ferti-gation systems in

· Walk path around golf course for public with educational signage about environmental stewardship

· Networking with industry professionals and turf scientists on latest developments

· Promote the idea a course shouldn’t play the same way every day. However, a hole should play the same as the next seventeen on that specific day.

Sustainability Ideas

· Eliminate alternate tee boxes ( reduction in resource consumption if possible)

· Out of play areas converted into natural habitat with native species established

· Increase wildlife by increasing habitat

· Individual tests on individual holes. Soil test several greens. No two holes are the same are they?

· Save clippings for both fertilization and soil generation

· Clippings have some nutritional content, collecting all of them in a manure spreader and then dispersing them throughout the rough is a cheap and effective way to fertilize an area that otherwise wouldn’t see any nutrients.

· Clippings can also be mixed with sand and after being turned over once per day with a loader will yield an excellent pile of topsoil


Through my studies of the fate of our fertilizer and pesticides and sustainable management ideas I have learned many things. Firstly the dangers involved with applying common pesticides used in our industry can be found on the product labels and I did not go any further than that. I have learned the ways in which our synthetic fertilizers end up in the environment. There are several processes that cause this pollution on golf courses. I feel a lot of them are by misapplying fertility products and poor turfgrass management.

Thatch is almost impossible to remove once it has set in but discouraging the growth of more or excessive thatch is a very effective principle. This will improve water percolation and infiltration to the soil. This will improve pesticide and fertilizer efficacy and limit waste. There are several cultural management practices superintendents can use to reduce the amount of thatch a stand of turf has. These practices can be used in conjunction with an integrated pest management plan and sound irrigation techniques promoting the optimal growth of turf.

Golf course management is steering sharply towards environmental and economical sustainability. Future golf management practices will require economical management techniques, while being environmentally sustainable. Water conservation/ quality and pesticide management are at the forefront of the scrutiny golf courses receive. Superintendents must educate the public about what exactly is going on within this property. This involves dismissing the common misconceptions about our chemical use, but also informing them of environmental protection and promotion. Sustainability means committing to continual improvement


Turfgrass information file ( ) via University of Guelph Library Sign in:

I. , Nutrient and pesticide runoff from golf course fairways caused by simulated and natural rainfall, Bell, Gregory E. 2007. 2007 Turfgrass and Environmental Research Summary. p. 45. , TGIF # 132589

II. , Surface and subsurface nutrient transport from a golf course watershed, King, K. W.; Balogh, J. C. 2006. USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online. March. 5(6): p. [1-14]. , TGIF # 110193

III. , Phosphorus, Urban Runoff & Aquatic Weeds, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. 200X. Washington, DC: Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. 22 pp., TGIF # 106456

IV. , Long-term monitoring of nutrient loss in golf course runoff, Starrett, S.; Su, Y.; Heier, T.; Klein, J.; Holste, J.; Paloma, M. 2009. Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. March/April. 11(2): p. 52-55., TGIF # 146207

V. , Nitrate leaching in bentgrass putting greens , Guertal, E. A. 2008. USGA Turfgrass and Environmental Research Online. March 15. 7(6): p. [1-6]., TGIF # 134410

VI. , Limit Leaching, Kerkhoff, Karen L. 2006. Grounds Maintenance. February. 41(2): p. 4., TGIF # 135441

VII. , [The economy, course construction, maintenance, and sustainability], Isaac, Steve. 2009. International Turfgrass Bulletin. April. 244: p. 16. TGIF # 148585

World Wide Web:

I.–What-we-ve-got-and-what-we-need-/ , The USGA’s Environmental Strategies: What we’ve got and what we need

II. , Proper use of fertilizers minimizes environmental effects, Thomas L. Watschke

III. , Bahía Beach Resort & Golf Club Honored With Environmental Heritage Award, Jun 16, 2009 – RALEIGH, N.C. – Miles M. (Bud) Smart, Ph.D.,





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s