Generally speaking, in the UK, golf green swards are dominated by three main grass surface types: Poa Annua, Bent/Fescue and Creeping Bent Grass. Admittedly, there are often any number of combinations of the four named species but, usually, Course Manager are aiming to maintain their greens with a dominant sward made up of one of the three types listed.
The decision on which of these three types a club wishes to pursue is the most important decision they will make. So, has your club, or are you, making the right choice on which to mow?
When a golf club calls in a golf course advisory consultant it is normally because they are looking for a second, third, may even be tenth opinion! Often, they are at a crossroads of thinking which has developed out of any number of greens maintenance proposals - all of which are believed to be for the best of the club and its membership. It is vital that the consultative process takes full account of all the extenuating factors before arriving at the advisory solution. You may feel that I have just stated the obvious. However, it is not always happening.
For example the club's officials believe in a highly promoted, species conversion as the way forward, the membership is not convinced. The Course Manager is passionate about a traditional maintenance route but his committee want an expert opinion first. The club do not want any disruption to their fantastic 'green' surfaces, but the CM and Greens Chairman have other ideas. The management committee want a species conversion but the CM is happier maintaining what they have got, in the way they always have. The political, theoretical and emotional elements of these scenarios are complex. A good consultant should carefully consider all of them before recommending a way forward to the client.
I do not believe in 'blue prints' for golf green maintenance. There are far too many differing environmental, political, financial, practical, and theoretical factors out there within our 3,000 golf clubs, to shoehorn in 'one way' thinking and practice. A uniform agronomic 'across the organisation mantra', applied to every golf club scenario, is destined to failure at some clubs. The clubs who are the subjects of this failure haven't only wasted their money on consultancy fees, they can also lose membership and other golf related income. It is a consultant's duty to carefully evaluate each of the factors listed above before providing answers.
Consulting - You try it
By way of a demonstration, let us all be consultants for the next five minutes and take a look at this scenario. We have been asked into Meadowland Park G.C. by the Greens Committee Chairman to make recommendations for the maintenance of the greens for the next five years. Having spent a day at the club on a fact-finding mission we have gathered the following information:
The club is a private members' club that is eighty years old. It is located in a commuter suburb of a major city conurbation. They have a full membership of 650 members, a small waiting list, and are a popular venue for society and corporate days that they accept twice a week. The club is very competitive across all of its sections at county and national levels. There are six other clubs within thirty miles and there is a lot of local rivalry over who has the best course and, in particular, the best greens. This rivalry turns into who can produce the fastest greens in the summer, when they all play in the county club team knock out competition.
The course is 6,456 yards long, situated on old parkland that used to be part of a larger private estate. The topsoil is humus rich overlying a heavy clay. The greens are built on pushed up local soils supporting a healthy sward of Poa annua containing less than 5% colonial bents. The Poa is a mainly long established reptans type.
The fairways and roughs are also dominated by Poa annua but contain more of the, freely seeding, true annual type Meadow Grass. The course has many old stands of oak and beech with magnificent individual specimens that also include walnut and chestnut, many with TPOs (tree preservation orders).
The Course Manager has twenty years experience as a greenkeeper working at parkland clubs in the county, with the last five years spent at Meadowland Park. As the club is well established, and doing well financially, he has good machinery and staff resources operating an annual budget of £350,000 including wages. He is doing a good job, "knows his Poa", but has problems with disease in the autumn and winter, and compaction in the rootzones causing root break.
The Greens Chairman, and what appears to be an older section of the club, play a fair bit of golf on the coast in the summer and think that the greens at Meadowland should be more like the 'links' greens. They have read a fair bit about 'sustainable' turf for golf greens and want to explore the possibilities of species conversion so that they have links style greens that are more cost effective to maintain.
So, what are you going to advise them is the best route for a stable future? Of course, that is a rhetorical question but it might give you some time for quiet reflection while in the depths of winter. Firstly though, notice that I used the word 'stable' in relation to future, and not sustainable.
Besides being fed up with the over used 'S' word, I am using the word stable, as I believe that stability, particularly in financial terms, is far more important than the sustainability that many consultants are pushing.
As a consultant you get paid to give sound stable advice so, although I am not getting paid by MPGC, I will tell you what my report would contain.
The thrust of my advice would be to maintain the best Poa annua greens that can be grown. Every factor is weighted towards this route. The expectations of a stable membership and the external customer base, the local environmental conditions, the skill set of the course manager, the size of the budget at his disposal and, not least, the current wider financial situation.
Any sort of species conversion programme or maintenance regime that selects for colonial bents, let alone fescues, is going to destabilise the club. There is no getting away from the fact that, even when well managed, there is a very difficult transition period during a conversion away from a predominantly Poa sward. This causes adverse reaction from the membership, especially a competitive one that, in turn, causes management stress.
If MPGC were going to take a species conversion route they would need a new course manager for starters because, one way or the other, he would almost certainly be on his way two years into the programme.
Also, if a club does not have a CM who is conversant with, and fully committed to, maintaining bent/fescue, then failure is also a certainty. Failure is not an option in any club, whether run for profit or not.
It is only now, after all these non-turf specific factors have been considered, that good consultants provide their agronomic management advice.
Maintaining the best quality Poa annua greens - this is a policy
I cannot emphasise this first point enough. After careful consideration of the options, if all parties are agreed that maintaining quality Poa annua greens is the route to take then, just like maintaining any other greens surface grass type(s), it should be written into the Course Management Policy document. With the subsequent resources and skills required to attain this policy put into place.
Where so many golf clubs and their managements go wrong is that they do not have a clear policy for the maintenance of Poa annua. Course managers, especially, confuse their programmes. We are trying to grow the finest possible 'greens type' Poa annua ssp. reptans, not encouraging the coarse, prolific, seeding, true annual type.
Adaptive Agronomic History
MPGC has a number of fine reptans types adapted, not only to growing-in greens but, specifically, their established greens. Old push up, soil-dominated rootzones, subjected to higher traffic levels over the past forty years than they were built for. These types have been there for thirty years or more, and this is an important consideration, they are the finest types most adapted to their situation.
They have developed under close mowing regimes in slow draining rootzones, often in shady locations. We are not trying to throw away thirty years or more of cultural development, we are trying to progress it on further.
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a direct correlation between the types of Poa you have and the maintenance regimes you carry out. Typically, true Poa annua plants have been in a green less than five years, but are constantly setting new seed into the established sward, aided by the practices of the CM. Poa annua is driven to dominate the sward by any means, seed production or vegetative adaptive, it is the latter that we must concentrate on.
Height of Cut
Pace matters to this club and a height of cut of 3mm or less is the summer norm. The biggest factor in the loss of bent/fescue in our green swards of the past thirty years is due to height of cut. Poa annua's adaptive growth habit has allowed it to produce greater amounts of photosynthetic tissue at lower mowing heights than bents and fescues. Other than in occasional drought stress conditions, there is no point in cutting Poa annua ssp.reptans at higher heights of cut. Remember, we are selecting for these types, not looking for competition against them that will only come from annual type Poa anyway.
Plant growth regulators are a useful tool in the reduction of mowing frequency and help in reducing operational traffic. This said, as many of the 'selected for' reptans Poas do not produce a great deal of vertical growth (far less than any of the bents), there is an argument for not needing PGRs for growth control in 100% Poa annua ssp. reptants dominated swards. PGRs are also used to reduce seedhead production in annual meadow grass (AMG), again the reptans types invest in vegetative production rather than flowering, so their use would again be reduced.
Remember, we are aiming to encourage the reptans types by vegetative growth rather than seed production. As a general rule do not over cultivate Poa.
While any deep-seated compaction problems in the rootzone would have to be dealt with first, minimal summer disturbance should be the norm. What is this, disturbance theory for Poa annua? Actually, yes it is, for the same reasons as if you are selecting for bent/fescue, the more seed bed you offer the more annual Poa you will have, and you don't want any.
So, no aeration at the times of seed production, opening and thinning the sward will allow any Poa annua seed in the soil seed bank to geminate. During the playing season use shallow aeration with star tines, or a sarrel roller, to provide surface air only.
To maintain true surfaces and dilute any thatch production, frequent light, sandy dressings during the playing season are best. As a guide apply between 150 and 200 tonnes per annum.
This is the real balancing act for the healthy conditioning of 'greens type' Poa annua. Regular nitrogen feeding is the main nutritional requirement during the season, with rates of between 170 and 250kg/Ha required. This will depend on many interrelated factors, such as irrigation levels, rootzone, permeability, and evapotransporation rates. This is no different to any other grass type for greens, except that it is probably more critical in its timing and rate of application.
Urea is often described as food for Meadow Grass and there is good reason for this. However, this does not necessarily mean that our reptans types will do better on urea based forms.
What is more important with fine Poa is the style of nutrient application. Liquid feeding seems to have a better response and control rate on Poa than granular - no matter how fine the granules, we often see dark green spotty surfaces after solid material applications. This cannot just be put down to poor application or badly manufactured material, as I have seen it at many Poa dominated courses using different materials. The finer leaf, higher shoot density and greater requirement for N in Poa annua ssp. reptans all have something to do with this.
One side effect of fining down Poa in this way is the formation of clumps or 'puffy' colonies. Due to shallow rooting depth these can be plucked from the sward between finger and thumb. This growth habit is not thatch related and is, again, more to do with high shoot density, which is induced by too higher rate of nitrogen while low mowing.
As you move into the late summer months, at times of stress, nitrogen should also be used to stave off Anthracnose. Into the autumn the rates of nitrogen should be lowered and used in combination with higher rates of potassium, magnesium and iron to strengthen the plant against disease attack. Just like humans, if you want it to live longer don't make it fat or stressed, but then that applies to any other grass in your greens anyway.
Ask a Fescue grower what to do, and do the opposite! Basically, all the rules of not over-watering apply, we are not trying to drown any of our grasses. However, frequent light irrigation is required due to the shallow rooting habit of the reptans type composition
Get a budget. There is no denying that you will be applying more fungicide than if you had pure fescue greens. But, remember this, MPGC is not Festuca-on-Sea GC. You will apply less fungicide to a green dominated by reptans type Poa than you would if you are dealing with the true type Poa annua. Ironically, many are applying more fungicide due to the stress being placed on the AMG as they try to manage a route away from it.
Poa annua is the easiest grass to establish in your greens, the down side is that to consistently produce the finest quality AMG takes the highest level of greenkeeping skill.
KMgc - Kevin Munt Golf Consultants
Telephone: 07810 473623