Monday, August 31, 2009

The Nozzle Dance

Golfers that venture out on the course at the crack of dawn sometimes comment on wet conditions, soft spots, and mud on their balls. Obviously the superintendent has been over watering the course. If he/she would just turn down the water or shut off a couple of heads, the wet spots would disappear and the course would be firm, green, and uniform. I truly wish it was that simple.

I try to water as little as I can, just enough to keep the grass growing. I don't care if it is green, as long as the turf is playable and not wet, I'm happy. Well, I'm not happy, but I won't have to drink myself to sleep. I used to think it was as simple as turning down the water and letting things dry out. As the irrigation is tightened up, you'll begin to notice some areas dry much faster than others. Some, against everything that makes sense in this world, remain soft and on the damp side. Other spots absolutely roast and leave me wishing that I watered the night before because wet grass might be better than no grass.

So then you move on to fine tuning the system by adjusting the percentage of water each head (sprinkler) puts out on a nightly basis. Each head irrigates a slightly different microcosm with varying soils, slopes, grass species, wind, sun, and traffic. It takes a long while to dial things in and the adjustments always need to be made.

Then, if you still have a problem, perhaps the soil needs some work. Well, the soil here does need some work and we've been going at it with wetting agents, aerifiers, and subsurface drainage. These items helped, but the uniformity is still not what it should be.

So on to the Nozzle Dance. Our sprinkler heads are fairly advanced and they better be with a price tag of nearly $150. There are 3 nozzles in most of the heads: one large main, and two smaller back up nozzles. Some of the fairways have shown a uniformity issue, but I've been reluctant to start switching nozzles. I've gone down this road before and wound up returning the original nozzles after making a mess with every other arrangement. Hopefully, this time around will be different.

We recently installed some new secondary nozzles that seem to target the dry rings around our heads and to minimize the water that's delivered near the source. In the test plot we've had the wet areas around each head firm up without stressing out. The dry portions have greened up, but are still very firm. This is exactly what we are looking for, so the results have been positive.
Below are two photographs of a sprinkler head. The one on the left is spraying with the three original nozzles while the right is using the new configuration.

In both photos the main nozzle points to the right and the backups are spraying left. The new nozzles, in the photo to the right, are achieving a better spread and distributing the water evenly over the entire area. At least it looks that way now. That is why I call it a dance. Many times a new problem develops that will have you dancing around with a new configuration. The test plot has been monitored for over 3 weeks, so I think we can skip the dance and move straight to the after party. If this simple fix improves the fairways the way I think it will, we will all have something to celebrate.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rally for the Cure

Over 100 ladies took to the course to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and help in the fight against breast cancer. Participation was overwhelming in an event that is sure to become an annual tradition. The pink shirts, hats, ribbons and balloons that decorated the clubhouse and golf course were complimented by pink flags that were dyed by the maintenance department. Next year will include many other 'small details' that make a tournament a little more special. Congratulations to all of the golfers that took the time and effort to contribute to such a worthy cause. If you are interested in hosting an event of your own or donating to the foundation, more information can be found at:
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Home Lawns Part II: Five keys to a healthy lawn

Maintaining a home lawn can be relatively easy if the home owner consistently follows a few basic rules. I honestly put very little work into my lawn. After a full day at the golf course going home to mow is not that appealing. However, the lawn looks good because I consistently give it what it needs, no more, no less. I don't have to work too hard and I get a thick and full lawn with no weeds. Here are some checkpoints for your own lawn care. If you haven't been following the proceeding suggestions, implementing them will improve your lawn.

1. Always mow with a sharp blade

I cannot over emphasize the importance of a sharp blade when cutting turf on a golf course. Your lawn will also appreciate a clean cut when you give it a trim. Dull blades will tear the end of the grass leaving a frayed tip. This poor cut is an avenue for disease and for water loss. The leaf can also turn light brown, diminishing the aesthetics of your lawn. If you have never sharpened a mower blade, consult the Internet to find many tutorials that will lead you step by step. It is not very difficult and a fresh cutting surface will save you water and effort in your lawn chores.

2. Maintain the proper height for your species of grass

First step for this tip is to find out what type of grass is growing in your yard. The previous 'home lawn' post referenced a website hosted by the University of California: This is a good starting point to identify your species and its recommended growing height. Once you know the height that your lawn prefers, all you need to do is put in the work to keep it near that height. A basic rule is not to cut any more than 1/3 of the leaf. So if you are mowing at 2.5 inches, it is possible to wait to mow until your grass is 3.75 inches. Some grasses will tolerate infrequent mowing quite well. My lawn is a tall fescue blend and I only mow every three weeks at most. My strategy is not to fertilize any more than I need to and avoid fertilizer when the plant does not need it. That brings us to our next tip.

3. Fertilize with proper amounts at the proper time

A pet peeve of mine is the annual 'spring green-up' commercials that entice homeowners to kick start their lawn. You are being advised to hammer your lawn with fertilizer at a time when all of that nitrogen will go to leaf growth. Get ready to mow twice a week, because that is what you just paid for. A better time to spend that money is in the fall when turf is programmed to carb load that energy in the roots. This will build a stronger plant that can survive the harsh conditions of winter and be ready to grow in spring. The stored energy will release as temperatures rise and spring green-up fertilizer is not really necessary. I was taught to put down 2/3 of my nitrogen in the fall when dealing with cool season grasses like perennial rye, bluegrass, and fescue. Bermuda is a different animal and fertilizer should be applied during the warmer growing months of summer.

4. Return those clippings to your yard

If you bag your clippings, you are removing free nutrients that need to be replaced by store-bought fertilizer. Clippings are over 80% water and do not contribute to thatch. By recycling the clippings into the yard you will reduce the labor and cost of maintaining your lawn. To avoid clumps, always try to mow when the grass is dry.

5. Water wisely

These tips are not in order of importance so do not take this one lightly. As a Superintendent in warm Stockton, CA, water is the most important input I apply to the course. As a homeowner, water is also important, especially considering it is a domestic water supply and we are currently in a drought. Every morning when I leave for work at 4:15 am, I see water streaming down my neighbors' sidewalks and down into the gutter. I've turned off a valve before, but I felt bad when their lawn turned brown after a week without water. On the bright side, I bet their water bill was a little lower than the month before.
Lawns do not need to be watered every single day. Every other day should work fine in the middle of summer and every third day when it cools down. Please turn off your water when it is raining. I am amazed at how many home lawns, municipalities, and commercial properties still have their irrigation running during a rain event.
Irrigation timing is also very important. Never water in mid-day heat. This can damage your lawn by transferring the heat of the sun to the root system. Water is a great conductor and you don't want to boil your grass. Additionally, much of the water will be lost to evaporation when you water during the day. The best time to water is just before sunrise when the plant is covered with dew and about to be dried off by the morning sun. This limits leaf wetness to a handful of hours in the morning and decreases your chances for disease.

Does it seem odd that a Golf Course Superintendent is telling you to conserve water. After all, aren't golf courses the biggest wasters of water in the world? Actually, that is a very common misperception. The truth is golf courses are the most efficient irrigators of all. Systems normally do not leak any more than 2-3% which is unheard of compared to agricultural settings and city plumbing. Check out this article from New York Times about Golf Course Superintendents teaching their states how to water wisely.

If you actually made it all the way through this gigantic post, I congratulate you for sticking with it and apologize for assigning homework at the end. As always, thanks for reading.
Friday, August 14, 2009

Lake edge buffer strips

When you're the Superintendent of a golf course, much too often arises the opportunity to make a unpopular decision. Aerifying, topdressing, and deep flushing the greens are all examples of necessary practices that most golfers do not care for. Everything seems in good shape and I go and tear it up, or decrease playing conditions. Of course these practices are meant to maintain good conditions in the future, even if the course must take a step back for a day or two.

Lucky for me, the membership at Stockton Golf and Country Club is more understanding than the average membership. A prime example of this understanding is very easy to see growing next to the course ponds. I sometimes field the question, "When are you going to cut that down?" I try to be as honest as possible and respond, "never." We have grown up this buffer area for a number of good reasons which have all came to fruition this summer.

Tall grasses next to a pond will have a greater impact than you may think. Perhaps, most noticeable is the reduction in Canada Geese in all of the ponds with a buffer strip. Geese hate to be impeded when moving from water to their feeding source and a couple feet of unmowed turf is enough to do that.

The buffers not only discourage geese, they also filter out fertilizer and pesticides before they make it to the pond. From an environmental standpoint, this is the most important benefit of this practice. We haven't put down any pesticides near the lake edges, but we do fertilize in close proximity. The tall grasses slow down surface drainage toward the ponds and the massive root systems suck up any product they can reach.

Another related benefit is the reduction of algae. Fertilizer in the ponds will make a algae bloom within days if not hours. Besides fertilizer, grass clippings and leaves also contribute organic matter and nitrogen to a pond. Constant weed eating, which means more grass in the pond, will provide a food source for the algae as nitrogen is released from the decaying clippings. The algae, and chemical control costs, have been significantly reduced just by growing up the edge of the pond.

Another consistent problem in all of the ponds on the course is the erosion of the edges. Since the banks were always weedeated extremely low to the ground, there were no roots to hold the soil together. The roots of a grass plant are directly related to the height of a plant; longer grass, deeper roots. This might explain why it is so difficult to manage a putting green that is cut lower than an 1/8 of an inch. Now that the grasses have been allowed to mature, their root systems have done the same and stabilized the pond's edge.

The final benefit is the reduction in labor. Weed eating the ponds requires four people to work eight hours each. To really stay on top of it, this should be done at least every two weeks and more frequently before tournaments so the ponds are not filled with clippings. Then comes the increased labor and chemical costs to clean up the water that's been fertilized with grass clippings. This year we have spent less on labor than any year after 2002-2003. Many courses are facing the same type of budget cuts that we have endured. Some areas are easy to cut from the labor expense, such as pond edges, which are much better off regardless of the financial impact.

So thank you for your understanding of this course-friendly maintenance practice. Hopefully, the long list of benefits will outweigh any loss in aesthetics or loss of golf balls.
Friday, August 7, 2009

Bermuda Encroachment

In this photo, Richard Rivera is using a Mataway seeder to verticut the 1/2 inch collar and cut some of the bermudagrass stolons. Over the next 3 months, we will perform this practice regularly in an effort to damage the common bermudagrass and discourage its movement into the greens. In mid-late September, we will also use some chemical applications to kill the bermuda that is actively growing inside the green.

Our two-collar system is designed as a buffer between the bentgrass greens and the common bermudagrass that makes up our green surrounds. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to reason with bermuda that is enjoying a triple digit heat wave. Our previous efforts have led us back to the drawing board more than once and we are still experimenting with a useful solution. There is little you can do in the middle of summer because bermuda is bulletproof when it gets this hot. However, as cool temperatures approach, the bermuda begins to store reserves for the winter and becomes susceptible to damage. Chemical sprays and invasive practices, like verticutting, will weaken the plant, making it less likely to survive the winter months. When the heat returns, the bermuda does not. This sounds very similar to overseeding in the fall. All of the bermuda is weakened and some of it will not be alive in the spring. That is the price you pay when you want green fairways for a few months in the winter, but more on that later.

As we work on decreasing the bermuda population on the collars, we will also seed in our desired grasses. The inner 1/4" collar will be seeded with Alpha bentgrass and the 1/2", outer collar will be seeded with perennial rye. We will repeat this process frequently until we have a very dense and uniform stand of turf. Next spring, we will evaluate the results of this program and adjust accordingly.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Home Lawns Part I: Resources

It is not important if you know the answer as long as you know where to find it. I have always been good at finding answers because I'm never afraid to ask a question. It often feels like I have unlimited resources when it comes to golf course maintenance. I have the phone numbers and emails of countless superintendents, salespeople, and consultants. The solution to a turf problem is just around the corner because I know somebody who has dealt with this before.

Turf is my profession so it should work this way. When it comes to fixing my truck, I am completely lost. There are some numbers in the phone book, but I don't know any of those people. I don't trust people I haven't met, especially when they hand me a bill.

When I graduated from Purdue University, my professor made the class stand up and take an oath. He said we had knowledge that others do not. Most people don't even know there is such a thing as a Turf Science degree. He told us it was our duty to provide our friends, family, neighbors, and course members with advice to improve their home lawn. I am not making this up. We actually stood up and raised our right hand. I've taken that oath seriously and I'm always happy to give advice on home lawns and landscapes.

So please allow me to be your number one resource for your landscape. I am happy to answer questions over the phone, email, or in person. I have even stopped by a few houses to see things first hand. I am not trying to sell anything and I do not take side jobs. I made a promise to my wife and myself to focus on one job only. However, I do have some wonderful contacts that I can put you in touch with. Whether it's gardening, irrigation, tree work, or general lawn care, I know people that do great work at a great price.

This post is getting long, so let me sum up some resources:

1. Me. Yes the number 1 resource is me. I know it sounds cocky, but it's true.

2. A website hosted by the University of California. I just found this recently and it's pretty slick. Tips on turf selection, fertilizing, watering, pests, renovation, and many more focused on different California climates.

3. Your local nursery or landscape supply dealer. Specialized stores tend to hire knowledgeable people that can provide good information. My local favorites are Ewing Irrigation and Horizon.

Part II in the Home Lawn series will highlight five key points for having the best lawn on the block.

Until next time, may your lawn grow thick and green and may your neighbors become ripe with envy.