Turf conditions in December are usually dictated by the amounts of rainfall and sunshine. During the last decade, there have been 3 very wet Decembers; 2000, 2002 and 2006 and all being generally milder than the long term average.
This month is often interspersed with early morning frosts, but it is over 20 years since the UK experienced prolonged sub-zero temperatures in December. As such, playing conditions can vary considerably, with those courses on open and free draining sites faring much better than those on heavier soils and shaded environments.
The levels of light are at their lowest at this time of year, the grass plant is largely relying on its energy reserves, therefore any additional stress imposed on the plant is unwelcome. Playability is the key requirement at this time of year and disease control, traffic control measures, light sanding and aeration will play a major part in most, if not all, maintenance programmes.
With average UK temperatures in December of 3.8 Celsius, growth will be largely dormant except for odd days when temperatures remain mild. As in the previous month, the key requirement is to maintain a dry, firm and open surface as best as possible. The risk of Fusarium disease remains at a peak this month, therefore all measures within an IPM strategy need to be implemented.
Mowing is likely to be a weekly requirement, preferably with walk mowers to avoid any turf stress, but staffing levels may dictate that this is not feasible. The use of smooth rollers and care with turning is essential, and mowing height is likely to be around 5mm, higher on any fescue dominated surfaces. Regular aeration at varying depths is the ideal, but should only be contemplated when ground conditions are suitable.
A mix of solid and deep tining with 12mm tines are the most common type of aeration, but other types such as a rotary decompactor can be used depending on the objectives being sought. Following any aeration, light rolling and a moderate sand dressing of about 5 to 8 tons per 18 greens can help 'settle' the surface, but care must be taken not to smother the surface when there is an absence of growth.
With low light intensity, algae and moss may also present themselves where the growing environment has been compromised, eg shade, surface drainage, low fertility, low mowing height etc. If this is the case, then seek to remove the problem as well as applying the appropriate treatment, otherwise any improvement in turf quality will be short lived. If nutrient levels are constantly leached through the root zone following heavy rain, then applying a very small amount of nitrogen and a higher amount of Potassium will help to give strength to the plant, but too much then the risk of Fusarium attack becomes greater.
Maintaining the right balance is the key. A useful practice at this time of year, especially over the holiday period is to apply a dew dispersant to help maintain drier surfaces. Any fungicide should be applied a few days in advance otherwise the active ingredients within the fungicide will be less effective at controlling the pathogen in its parasitic mode of attack. A useful ploy, but correct timing is essential. Ensure that hole positions are spread throughout the green and, again, a good practice is to cut two holes per green, thus ensuring that pin placement can be changed if surfaces remain temporarily frozen. More about winter play next month.
The main challenge with all teeing surfaces in December is to maintain a firm, dry and level surface as best as possible. The ideal is to use separate but designated tees constructed with a sand base. This should be the long term objective if not already in place. Newer and larger courses will generally have this facility in place but, for many, it is a case of making the best of what is available. Many courses suffer from restricted space and, therefore, may have to rely on artificial turf, especially on par 3 holes.
Whatever the outcome, maintaining surfaces free of leaves, divots or other debris is paramount, followed by regular sanding of the surface. Where aeration can be carried out, then it should be done so as often as deemed possible. Any worm control should have been completed prior to this month but, in severe cases, a repeat application may be necessary.
Attention also needs to be given to banks and nearby walkways to ensure an adequate surface. Mowing may only be required every fortnight, and preferably above 12mm in order to give the grass as much protection as possible. Where levels are inconsistent, the turf can be stripped clear, the surface re-levelled and then replaced within a relatively short period of time. This and possible tee extensions should form part of the overall course development plan.
Requirements this month should be a continuation from that before, with the emphasis of installing traffic control measures by greens and possible tees to alleviate any potential wear patterns. This aspect was covered in sufficient detail last month.
The other main priority is to sand dress key walk-off areas to maintain a firm and improved draining and playing surface. Aeration and worm control are other aspects of this planned programme which is very much an on-going requirement.
Each hole on each course will have its own potential 'pinch-points' and wear patterns, therefore it is in these areas where such measures need to be targeted. The aims should be twofold; namely to provide adequate playing quality and to limit any turf damage prior to the new season. Achieving both will allow the course to be presented in better condition in spring.
Once any leaf clearing is complete, the only real maintenance requirement is for aeration in the form of deep slitting or tining when ground conditions are suitable. Again, the use of a rotary decompactor may prove effective to remove water from areas between drainage laterals or into suitable outlets. Mowing is more likely to be a periodic requirement and nearer to 17mm in height.
It is unlikely that any mowing will be required after November, but there are always exceptions. Where areas of out of play, deeper rough is present, this work can still be contemplated during settled dry and windy conditions. Any cut down, deep rough should be collected and removed using either a 'hired' machine or one that is purchased for this type of work which should be part of the overall environmental plan.
Areas near trees or adjacent woodland will inevitably have a final leaf clearing requirement, but this work should be completed well before the end of the year.
Playability and consistency are the two main requirements at this time of year, and this will largely depend on the effectiveness of drainage and removal of water. Since December is usually a wet month, the bunker's ability to deal with excess water is paramount.
Apart from ensuring that sand is distributed evenly throughout the bunker, including any faces, the checking of any drainage outlets will depend largely on whether or not any water is remaining. During periods of heavy rain, much time and labour may be spent moving sand and removing loose debris.
Renovation work, which is likely on most courses to some degree, should be in full swing by December with the aim of completing as much of the turfing work as possible. The earlier that faces can be re-turfed the better, thus giving maximum time for recovery. Where this work is carried out, it is essential to dig out all excess sand and replace with a good quality soil or compost mix in order to give the turf maximum chance of establishment.
On steep slopes ensure that the turf is 'pegged down', and that any gaps that subsequently appear due to slippage are filled with compost dressing.
Lakes/Ponds/Ditches: Apart from general tidying, the only routine maintenance will be to ensure that ditches are free from debris and that all overflow and exit pipes are running freely.
Paths: As per last month, it is largely a case of ensuring that paths are free of pot holes and that they are maintained in satisfactory condition. Where holes appear, fill with a suitable base gravel and consolidate with a roller or wacker plate. Path ends in key areas may need to be sand dressed if the exit point is on heavy soil or that where drainage is insufficient. This may be a regular requirement for some courses and may also require additional traffic control measures.
Trees: The clearing of leaves should be at an end by the middle of the month, but general trimming of trees and branches can be on-going. Major scrub clearance or raising of canopies, especially near greens and tees is often best left for times when other course work is less favourable due to ground conditions being either too wet or frozen. If tree planting is being considered and December is a key month, then remember 5 key aspects.
These include size and width when the tree is mature, shade effects, roots and their effect on mowing, likely life span and, lastly, does it fit within the natural environment? Too often trees are planted without much forward planning, so best to ensure that future problems will not arise.
Renovation Projects: These are likely to consist of drainage, ditch work, bunker renovation, tee levelling/extension, irrigation upgrades, path installation, landscaping and so on. Whatever the project, these need to be planned, costed and approved well in advance with a proposed start and finish date. Good communication is essential and the use of digital photos of the work in progress will help to keep members or customers informed. It also serves as a record of such work carried out.
Disease: During December, disease pressure from Fusarium in particular is likely to remain high for many inland courses. Much has already been written in previous articles regarding conditions favouring this disease and the cultural practices recommended to limit any damage. The key with all disease control is to avoid putting the turf under stress from both an environmental and management aspect.
As soil temperatures fall then the mode of action from chemical control needs to be one of curative as opposed to systemic, as well as preventing further attacks. Select a product that is appropriate for this time of year, such as ones that contain active ingredients such as Chlorothalonil and Iprodione.
Pests: Earthworms are by far the most common pest to affect turf quality at this time of year. It is not the earthworm that causes the damage, but the cast which is brought to the surface that causes all sorts of problems which have been listed previously. Recent updated studies reveal no real progress on their control other than the use of Carbendazim. Regular sand dressings will help to reduce numbers, but that is a long term process and one that only yields a reduction in activity. The use of Carbendazim remains under threat from the EU and, to date, there is no suitable alternative.
Leatherjackets, or rather the grubs, are the next most common pest than can afflict damage on turfgrass whereby emerging larvae feed on the roots of turf. See previous article for more information regarding their control.
Turf Disorders: Both Algae and Black Layer continue to be the most likely turf disorder at this time of year, and both have been mentioned in detail in previous articles. Both are a symptom of poor growing conditions caused by poor drainage and a lack of oxygen in the soil. Both can be treated chemically, but it is the condition in which they exist that needs to be changed.
Servicing, repair and overhaul of equipment should now be in full swing as many items are now no longer in use, bar from the occasional need for mowing. As such, thorough cleaning of equipment and possible repainting of some parts should take place once all major work is completed. Maintaining machinery in good order is essential since replacement costs in terms of capital requirement can be expensive.
Therefore, it is essential that each item receives a full and regular service. Most items of equipment should last well beyond 3000 hrs which is akin to around 135,000 miles in a 2 litre car. A well maintained fairway mower, for example, should last for 3,500 hrs giving an approximate life expectancy of around 7 to 8 years if annual usage is around 500 hrs.
This, of course, is only a guide but, nevertheless, gives an indication of what can be expected and allows for future planning of capital expenditure.
The aim should be to end the year with a tidy and well organised compound, free of all debris and clutter, especially around loading bays and wash down areas. This work may include a partial re-surfacing of the yard area if gravel is the main constituent. It should also be the time of year when supplies of sand and gravel are replenished since this is the main season when both products are likely to be required. An end of season stock take should also be undertaken and key products and materials replaced along with the necessary spare parts for equipment servicing.
Laurence Pithie MG
Turf Master One Ltd