By Henry Bechelet, Technical Manager, ICL
Imagine that this was written in 2030 and by someone else.
In the early 2020’s we all knew what we needed to achieve with our golf course management. We had accepted that sustainable and responsible golf course management required the management of biodiversity as well as the protection and connection of habitats. We agreed that the keys to resource conservation were the effective utilisation of inputs and “cutting less grass”. But we couldn’t find a way to manage the greens in a way that made them more self-sustaining…and it bothered us.
The problem was that for the previous 15 years (since the last sustainability debate) we had all been focused on optimising the greens playing qualities and course performance as our primary means of achieving commercial sustainability. In particular, we had improved greens drainage, ameliorated their upper soil profile with sand and kept the thatch within our well-defined targets to achieve year-round playability. We also knew how to perfect the surfaces with intensive maintenance and so we looked no further.
But in 2022 we were still talking about the continual battle against diseases such as anthracnose and microdochium patch disease as well as vulnerability to stress. If you listen to the “On the horizon” podcast episodes from that time you will hear Glenn and Henry talk about integrated strategies marrying the use of different technologies with good cultural practice to layer up the protection. But they were steering clear of the obvious. That having better grass types in the greens would be the biggest agronomic help if we wanted a greater level of in-built robustness. It was clear that a change away from annual meadow grass dominance was still not really in the game at that time.
But what we would soon come to realise would really help us to change the nature of our greens. We would understand that we had already done the hard work and that the next step towards the better grasses was only a small one. We saw that the work to improve year-round playing qualities – the drainage, those sandy soil profiles and the organic matter reduction - was actually the perfect foundation for achieving a sward species composition change. Phase 1 of the sward transition process had been completed by focusing on playing quality, but we needed to keep going. We just had to remind ourselves to move on to phase 2, which was to overseed in earnest and create an environment more conducive to the desired species.
This was the time that we decided that the desired species (at least initially) should be creeping bentgrass for parkland settings. The newer varieties at that time seemed to be better able to establish and were more suited to the ways in which the surfaces would be prepared. We just needed to make some subtle changes in our move over to phase 2 management to give the newly establishing grasses a better chance to develop.
During this next phase we began to allow the establishing creeping bentgrass a chance to compete and that meant not being so harsh with our surface preparations. For a time, we needed to employ slightly raised heights of cut and work to prepare super-smooth surfaces with light top dressings, brushing and turf ironing and not letting too much stress enter the game. Ultimately, we just eased back a touch and committed to our overseeing.
This didn’t mean a drop in playing qualities because the slight easing-up actually helped things. The ball roll was as good as ever and there was less disease and turf stress as we moved away from the edge. We also committed to our seeding methods (choosing the right seed and placement methods, using nutrition and plant growth regulators properly and repeating as often as possible) but that wasn’t a huge issue because it wasn’t overly disruptive.
And so the revolution proceeded unnoticed. The greens continued to perform while they transitioned toward the better grasses – it just took time. We morphed into phase 2 maintenance by easing off a touch and overseeding more while still prioritising playing qualities. The breakthrough for our greens was that the better grass types had become an underlying objective. The pressure was off, and we never looked back.