Sustainable design in golf course landscapes
With careful planning, you can make the course fit the land and golfers' demands.
John C. Fech and Steven N. Rodie
Golfers want attractive recreational green spaces, while others, wildlife and the general public, require that golf courses be environmentally responsible. Sustainable approaches to golf course landscape design allow golf course managers to "have their cake and eat it too" -- in this case, attractive and functional golf courses that are environmentally friendly.
Simply defined, sustainable landscapes reflect a high level of self-sufficiency. Once established, these landscapes should mature and flourish virtually on their own, as if designed by nature. The resulting benefits can include enhanced aesthetics, lower maintenance costs, more effective use of water and chemical resources, enhanced open space, amenity value and heightened wildlife habitat value.
Sustainable design goes a step beyond traditional design principles to focus on maximizing ecological structure and function within a landscape, while maintaining or enhancing local biodiversity of plants and animals. This approach allows the creation of landscapes and outdoor spaces that effectively blend aesthetics, function and maintenance considerations with existing site and environmental considerations.
Sustainable landscape design is much more than the finished landscape. It's a framework for solving landscape problems. This framework ensures that site amenities won't be forgotten. It facilitates input from course users, managers and owners at critical times. Sustainable golf course landscape design is highly complex. The goal is a synthesis of course character and function with environmental sensitivities and decision makers' desires.
Thus, landscape design isn't about picking favorite plants and planting them hither and yon over the course. In fact, plant selection is one of the last steps in design.
Base map: Well-done design projects start with an accurate base map that provides all necessary information regarding the area's permanent features. The map should include property lines, easements, accurate building "footprints," utility location and access, existing plants and topographical contours.
An absolute must for a base map is a north arrow and an accurate graphic or written scale. If a graphic scale and north arrow are present on the original, the dimensions and orientation remain intact when the map is reduced or enlarged.
Design concept: The overall design concept defines the main underlying theme of the design. It is generated from interviews with the decision makers and site users involved with the course. Basic philosophical and functional issues are addressed. The concept addresses variables such as degree of color, level of maintenance and use of water and other resources. It's an initial framework created early in the design process so that everyone involved -- from designer to owner to superintendent -- agrees on basic precepts.
Program components: These are listed as wants and desires of the project's stakeholders. Program components are more specific than the design concept, but not refined to the point of plant choices or hardscape specifications. A typical program statement may call for such things as minimized maintenance through turf reduction; the introduction of adapted plants; and the enhancement of golf course aesthetics including features such as clubhouse entrances or golf car path turnarounds; the enhanced use of refreshment stands and provisions for sun or wind protection in tee box waiting areas.
Site inventory and analysis: For this critical step, the designer should walk the course, gathering information and gaining a "sense of place" in the landscape space. Using a clipboard and tracing paper overlayed onto the base map, the designer should identify both the opportunities and constraints of the area.
The site inventory should record in sketch and by photographs the features that make the site unique. Analysis calls for an evaluation of the importance of the features and conditions. Existing soils, topography, hydrology, existing vegetation, microclimate, prevailing winds, existing buildings, views and neighboring sites are all considerations that may have an impact on the success or failure of a sustainable landscape design. These factors need to be inventoried and analyzed appropriately. Design development and installation: The development and installation should flow from the previous four activities. On tracing paper overlayed onto the base map, a drawing sequence begins. The site analysis information forms an important context for the process and is best represented on a separate base map overlay.
The sequence starts with a bubble diagram, developed on the site analysis, where each part of the area is diagramed according to function. Traffic flow, car paths, tees, landing areas and other human interactions with the site are identified with symbols on the tracing paper. Next, concept drawings synthesize the program considerations with the site analysis information and original design concept.
Concept drawings are presented to owners, golf pros and green committees for review. Reviewers consider whether the design is based on the developed concept, program and site analysis, and whether it addresses goals and objectives. Approved concept plans may be directly implemented, or they may be further refined and developed into a construction documents package. As the design is implemented, review and monitoring ensure that inevitable adjustments don't significantly modify the design concept.
There are few buildings on a typical golf course. However, the clubhouse, refreshment stands, restrooms and maintenance facilities are important to the overall look and function of the course. Access and entrances might be accented with unique or strongly colored plants or landscape elements. In addition, building corners should be planted with rounded forms to visually connect the buildings with the landscape.
The overall design should frame important views such as fairway vistas or shots over water bodies. This can be accomplished with wall plantings between fairways or backdrop plantings behind greens. Incorporate large shrubs and small trees in front of taller ones, smaller shrubs and hedges in front of the small trees, and groundcovers and perennials in front of the small shrubs. Then, the space takes on a more interesting "layered" appearance that is also more biodiverse.
Define spaces clearly and simply. Berms and existing landforms such as rock outcroppings and stream banks can define spaces. Space definition may occur with plantings and human-made structures as well.
One of the strongest aesthetic factors in sustainable golf course landscape design is mass-void interaction. When relatively large ornamental beds are installed next to turf expanses, the ornamentals become the mass, and the turf the void. Mass plants not only avoid a "lonely look" of solitary shrubs or flowers, but also reduce tedious mowing or maintenance between plants. Within smaller masses, odd numbers of plants will appear naturally balanced.
Northern and eastern exposures, especially if shaded, create entirely different growing conditions for plant materials from western and southern exposures. Consider the number of hours of direct sunlight received, density of the overhead canopy, prevailing winds and soil drainage of the microclimate.
The sustainable design strives to group plants according to similar needs. Ornamental plants placed in the middle of turf swards are usually overfertilized and overwatered. Similarly, strips of turf alongside ornamental beds are difficult to mow and irrigate, and tend to receive less care than they require. Design beds for efficient machine use and place plants within beds whenever possible, minimizing scattered elements.
Drainage is a priority in a sustainable design. Note drainage problems in the site inventory. Poor drainage can be addressed with soil amendment and drain tile installation or by planting water-tolerant cultivars.
The right plant
Plant-selection criteria are complex. Near in-play areas, avoid plants with large leaves, or fruits or seed pods that will disrupt play, conceal balls or reduce green speed. Genetic resistance to fungi and insects is just as important for ornamental plants as it is for turf cultivars. Plants that are naturally resistant to pests require much less maintenance than susceptible ones in terms of staff time and the costs of control agents.
Sustainable golf course design requires golf course managers to consider many factors. When the opportunity arises, wise superintendents take the time and make an effort to be informed participants in the landscape design process, striving to implement sustainable principles wherever possible.
John C. Fech is an Extension horticulture educator for Douglas County, Neb., which includes Omaha. Steven N. Rodie is assistant professor and landscape horticulture specialist in the University of Nebraska, Omaha, pre-horticulture program.