There has never been more pressure on golf courses and golf course superintendents to produce year round top quality surface conditions. Normally most of the attention is directed towards the greens and tees. However, it is the quality of the fairways that can influence the type and quality of the shot played to the green and therefore the quality of the fairway has a significant impact on the overall game.
The fairway area is also the largest 'high' maintenance area on the course and will therefore influence the aesthetic appearance of the course. This may not be important to some 'experts' but when you are trying to encourage golfers (customers) to play at the course it is extremely important.
Most fairways are composed of indigenous soil with varying rates of drainage depending on the type of soil and drainage system present. I believe it is possible to achieve good surface conditions without the need for expensive re construction, work or 'sky high' maintenance costs, although ultimately the amount of play and the desired surface quality will influence the amount of maintenance and in particular drainage and aeration that is necessary.
Due to the fact that golf is played throughout the year it is essential that fairway areas are well drained (natural or artificial) in order to create the demanded good surface conditions from which to strike a golf ball.
Apart from the wealthiest clubs who can construct purpose built free draining rootzones the majority of golf courses rely on pipe drainage schemes or nothing at all. If the soil is naturally heavy (clay based) it is likely that some form of pipe drainage scheme will be required in order to produce reasonably good surface conditions. Pipe drainage schemes are normally designed in a 'herringbone' or 'grid' system depending on the most appropriate design for the site.
In order to further improve the drainage potential some pipe drainage schemes are supplemented by 'sand slits' or gravel bands. These slits are designed to 'link up' the drain runs and make the overall scheme much more efficient. They can be installed after the original pipe drainage system has been installed, although it is better if both are installed at the same time. Sand slits are normally spaced approximately 1 metre apart although this can be greater or less depending on the required drainage and the type of soil. Even where a good quality drainage scheme is in place the drainage of the fairway is still reliant upon the natural drainage characteristics of the root zone for water movement into the system. This is why regular and appropriate aeration work is needed.
Aeration - Compaction Relieve
Soil compaction is one of the most common problems found on the golf course. This is mainly due to the fact that golf is played 365 days of the year in both dry and wet conditions. When the soil is wet, compaction problems are exacerbated.
Compaction is also greatly influenced by the type of indigenous soil present; for example a clay-based soil is normally more prone to compaction than a sandy soil due to the nature of the soil particles (texture). If regular aeration work is not carried out, soil compaction will build up throughout the season. If this occurs the large pores within the soil structure (which influence the movement of water through the soil) are reduced or lost. If water cannot move through the soil, water logging of the surface will occur during rainfall. Other growth factors will also be affected such as beneficial bacterial activity, available oxygen and the uptake of nutrients. In this situation the grass sward will deteriorate quickly.
Type of Aeration
The most important principle is to make sure that the whole of the soil profile is aerated. This will allow water to move from the surface, through the soil profile and into the drainage system (once field capacity is reached) or to naturally filter away. However one of the biggest problems on fairways is deep compaction.
Over the last 15 years the most significant innovation in deep compaction relieve has been the introduction of the Verti Drain type machine. On golf course fairways (and most other turf areas on the course) this type of machine is widely used as part of the overall program to relieve compaction. Verti drain treatment is normally restricted to once a year or every two years, although some clubs use it more regularly (normally the ones that own their own machine).
There are no set guidelines for frequency or 'tine type' although turf managers normally prefer to use larger diameter tines in the autumn and the smaller tines in the spring, although number of treatments and timing depend on individual circumstances. It is also worth noting that the larger tine will cause more surface disruption, which might not be acceptable.
Verti draining will only be successful if it is backed up by regular Slit tine aeration. Slit tine aeration normally aerates the top 75mm - 200mm. There are various methods, which include 'chisel' or 'diamond', although the 'slit' tines are the most common. Apart from encouraging 'cracking' within the soil profile, the slitting action also produces a channel for water to run into.
The other benefit is that slitting will encourage deep rooting, either directly by allowing roots to move through the created cracks or indirectly by generally improving the root zone. Suitable implements are either self propelled or attached to tractor units.
Slitting can be over done! Research has shown that too much slitting can actually reduce grass cover. Every situation is different although slitting can be carried out approximately every three weeks from September to January, in good weather and ground conditions. However it is really a case of trying to get the balance right according to the surface conditions.
Other methods of aeration are available such as solid tining and hollow tining. Solid tining is useful for allowing air into the upper layer of the rootzone and therefore plays an important role within the aeration program. Solid tining does not relieve compaction (in clay dominated soils). Solid tining can be carried out through the year on a regular basis. Solid tining is particularly useful for sandy rootzone that do not need so much compaction relieve, for example breaking up sand that has 'crusted' together.
Hollow coring is used to remove accumulated fibre at the base of the turf sward. It is also sometimes used to allow exchange of a poor soil for a better one to be introduced through top dressing. It is also used for over sowing during renovation, although we would recommend the use of a specially designed over sowing machine rather that this method. Hollow coring does relieve compaction.
Various other methods of aeration/compaction relieve are available. Machines such as vibrating mole ploughs are useful if there are isolated wet areas, although the channels created by the machine must be cut into a positive outlet so that the water can move away. Probes that penetrate deep into the soil profile and release compressed air are sometimes used to 're structure' soil profiles (e.g. Robin Dagger). High pressure water jets on machines such as the Toro Hydro jet have also been successfully used for compaction relieve and are also useful for re wetting soils affected by Dry Patch. Drilling machines are also becoming more common for specialised compaction relief and soil exchange.
The amount of nutritional input will depend on many factors. These include: soil type, grass type, required surfaces quality, management resources, irrigation, desired level of presentation etc.
The amount of fertiliser applied may depend on soil analysis results, a typical N.P.K. fertiliser analysis will be: 28.5.5, 9.7.7, 12.0.9 or similar. Remember that a low soil nutritional status can encourage a weak grass sward, which may be susceptible to excess wear and disease problems.
Some clubs find that a controlled release fertiliser gives all the necessary nutrient that the turf needs throughout the spring, summer, autumn and winter with just one or two applications. Coated fertilizer slowly releases nutrient through this period as and when the grass needs it.
Worm Cast Control
At any time of year worm casts can become problematic, although autumn, winter and early spring are the main problem times. Casts smear on the surface after cutting etc. clogging up mowers and making open soil areas for weeds seeds to germinate.
Scotts Turfclear is a tried and tested worm cast deterrent. Apply the product after the turf has been cut and preferably after aeration work. This will help the product penetrate the surface of the pitch where it is needed. Application before light rain is imminent is also recommended as this also helps the product to move through the surface layers.
It may be worth carrying out a soil analysis to check the soil pH. A high pH can sometimes encourage worm activity. Acidifying products such as sulphate of iron can help to acidify the surface - always take advice before using this approach to control worm activity.
Warm, moist weather conditions can encourage turf disease attack. The most common turf disease is still Fusarium patch (Microdochium nivale), although there seems to be more and more unusual diseases cropping up now days.
Try to keep the surface as dry as possible. Regular aeration work will help in this regard (see earlier). Occasional brushing or harrowing will also help to remove moisture and create an upright sward. If nutrient levels are too high this can encourage lush, soft growth which is susceptible to disease attack. However, it is also worth remembering that low soil nutrient levels can also encourage turf disease such as Red Thread.
If the disease gets to the stage where it needs chemical treatment Scotts have three powerful fungicides that can control most major turf grass diseases. If the turf is still actively growing use Turfclear which has a systemic action. When grass growth has slowed used Daconil turf with its contact action. Scotts Greenshield contains the active ingredients of both the above products and can be useful during changeable weather conditions.
Brushing or light harrowing should be carried out occasionally to restore even surface conditions and to help create an upright grass sward. Be careful not to over do treatments as this can reduce grass cover during poor growing periods.
Top dressing is an important part of the maintenance program on fairways and is intrinsically linked with the aeration program, however, the cost of this exercise may be prohibitive. Sand top dressings help to produce a firm/open surface, maintaining a drainage link with the surface and the soil structure. It also helps to control the build up of fibre.
It is also advisable to carry out some form of aeration prior to top dressing in order to incorporate the material into the root zone. This operation is normally carried out in the late spring, when grass growth is most active, this allows the material to be rapidly worked into the sward. Treatments can also be carried out in the early autumn in conjunction with overseeding or renovation programs. Cost may restrict to only partial or problem areas treated.
The correct choice of sand top dressing is vital in order to avoid 'interpacking' within the soil structure. A narrow particle distribution should be chosen in the medium range - approximately 0.5 - 0.125-mm diameter particles. Ask the supplier for a physical analysis breakdown.
Sand top dressing is also vitally important for maintaining sand slits in good condition. If sand slits are present they must be kept open by regular top dressing treatments. It also helps them to remain level with the rest of the surface.
Many golf courses now have 'wall to wall' irrigation although can be a costly exercise. It is also worth noting that may be possible to restrict treatments to areas prone to drying out such as slopes etc. Aeration work and wetting agent can help to prevent drying out in these difficult to manage areas.
Aeration (and drainage work) is just one part of the necessary over all maintenance program, although is arguably the most important part as it directly influences the soils ability to supply the grass plant with essential nutrients, air, moisture and stability.
The type of soil, number of rounds and quality of surface required will influence the type and intensity of treatments required. Now days there are various suitable implements available to buy. For smaller clubs it is not always possible to buy the necessary equipment, in this situation it is wiser to hire or borrow!
The best advice is to try to carry out as much aeration as necessary or possible, and stick to a regular program, even when compaction problems are under control. It is far easier controlling compaction than curing it. The benefits will eventually outweigh any surface disruption problems that initially occur.