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Darned if you don't
There is a right way and a wrong way to prepare your course for winter. Both ways can offer important lessons for superintendents.
Prepping the golf course for winter is contingent on many variables, from location, to timing, to experience, to outright guesswork. The one constant in such a fickle formula is that there is always a wrong way.
Superintendents throughout the country share the practice of winter prep. It's a matter of degrees, of course -- both in scope and Fahrenheit -- but turf management in North America has no absolute haven from getting the cold shoulder from Mother Nature.
"The attitude that, 'Everything will be all right; we hardly ever have a winter,' is one of the major wrongs many superintendents are guilty of concerning winter prep," says USGA agronomist Charles "Bud" White. "It's one of those things you have to deal with no matter where you are or what's historically normal."
Adds veteran superintendent Gerald Faubel, CGCS, a former GCSAA president who retired recently after four decades in the business: "The thing is, you try to make the right decisions, do everything right and you're still at the mercy of Mother Nature. That's the common denominator for all of us."
Indeed, that's the hard part. Winter knows no boundaries and plays by no set of rules. Often a superintendent's only recourse is to be safe instead of sorry, whether his or her venue is in Florida or Arizona or Montana.
Presented with the question of how not to winterize a golf course, both White and Ohio State University educator Karl Danneberger, Ph.D., offer superintendents an interesting couple of litanies heavy in negative verse.
Danneberger, professor of agronomy in turfgrass physiology, says his list of key no-nos is little more than common sense:
"There's no silver bullet out there," Danneberger says. "Stick with the basics -- that's the bottom line."
White, with the USGA's Mid-Continent Region, notes that cool- and warm-season grasses are, for the most part, similar in their winter prep needs, an important fact for those in milder climes to remember. He takes a different route to make a negative slant prove a point -- the point being "How to guarantee winter bermuda damage":
White says that the bermuda kill in many areas in the southern tier of states this past spring was a telltale sign of poor winter prep. Excessive rains and persistent cloud cover during the fall months, coupled with drainage problems in some cases, took a toll on the turf.
"Actually, it's the same for the new bentgrasses as well as the ultradwarfs: If superintendents aren't really on top of things with their aerification and topdressing program, serious problems will result. Those who didn't bother to get in that last aerification last fall paid for it."
Faubel, whose career in golf course management is defined by his 1990 GCSAA presidency and long stint at Saginaw Country Club off Saginaw Bay in east-central Michigan, says for many years he poured over the studies on winterkill by James B. Beard, Ph.D., when he was at Michigan State University.
"One of the main things I learned was drainage, drainage, drainage -- both on the surface and internally," says Faubel, who has been a member of the association for 38 years. "The freezing and thawing dilutes the plant's sugar and when the cells freeze that's that."
Faubel also cautions against fostering or managing Poa annua in areas prone to harsh winters because Poa has no dormancy and simply dies.
Manage for the abnormal
Bruce Hospes, CGCS at Old Overton Club in Vestavia Hills, Ala., just outside of Birmingham, has been aware of the "everything will be all right" syndrome for two decades as a superintendent, first in Tennessee and Louisiana before coming to the Old Overton Club when it was built almost 11 years ago. He's used to winters that generally feature sporadic freeze/thaw cycles, maybe occasional sleet or snow and temperatures that may dip into the mid to upper teens for a short time.
"Once every 10 years around here you might have weather bad enough to cause winterkill," Hospes says. "When that happens, there's not much you can do. You just hope you've done the right things beforehand."
The 17-year GCSAA member has managed bentgrass greens throughout his career in the Southeast and admits that since the bent/bermuda combo is becoming more and more commonplace in many parts of the region, it is easy for some to be lulled into a false security by the hardy cool-season turf and usually mild winters.
"The bottom line is, in our neck of the woods the bentgrass can be a chore in the summer, but we're not going to lose it to winterkill. It's not cold enough long enough to do any damage," says Hospes, who instead gives his 419 bermuda tees, fairways, roughs and surrounds the lion's share of his attention.
Experience has taught Hospes to develop a winter prep program with the possibility of the Birmingham area having its first hard frost around mid-November. He wants everything grown up a couple of weeks ahead of that target and typically he raises mowing heights, backs off on irrigation and cultural practices and works diligently to alleviate traffic wear.
Hospes, who overseeds minimally at most, says one of his favored practices to achieve healthy turf coming out of the winter months is scalping the dead leaf tissue to help the bermuda green up quicker. The timing, however, is critical.
"I've made the mistake of doing that too early and, guess what, winter's not over. I think that's the biggest thing -- don't get in a hurry in the spring. As long as there is a realistic chance of a hard freeze, don't do anything foolish."
Living on the edge
Improper turf selection can pose a serious dilemma in wintertime, Danneberger says. The wrong grass in the wrong place is yet another invitation for winterkill. Tedd Evans, CGCS, longtime golf course manager at Brookings (S.D.) Country Club, will second that.
"Our weather has no mercy," the 19-year GCSAA member says. "In the last three years we've learned without a doubt that ryegrass is not meant for our climate out here on the plains."
Basically, a superintendent in Evans' shoes must be as adept as one can be at playing a guessing game with Mother Nature. Brookings, about 40 miles from the Minnesota border, can get clobbered by winter storms in October or soothed by warm weather well into November, often both in the same 60-day span. It plays heck with timing a winter prep regimen.
Evans says, for instance, that a fall fertilizer application done too early can be the victim of one of those extended warm spells. The resulting lush turf leads to tardy fungicide applications and eventual snow mold and other winter hardiness problems. In other words, don't fertilize until dormancy, he says.
Evans, who has been at Brookings CC for 24 years, was also outguessed by Mother Nature once when he waited too long to blow out the irrigation system. The plan was to do it in the first week in November. A late-October storm nixed that for some time. Nowadays, Evans blows the pipes in late October and hauls water to the greens thereafter for however long it's needed.
Evans learned another lesson just last fall -- he applied herbicide later than ever and had great results. So, you never know.
"These things kind of tell you that no matter how much we'd like to rush to get everything done and put our courses to bed for the winter, there is no hurrying Mother Nature. A superintendent needs to be flexible in his timing going into winter."
The revenue factor
Evans' point that delaying course closure for the winter is problematic in several ways isn't lost on other superintendents in similar situations. Today more and more winter prep falls victim to revenue needs as golf operations managers see every window of mild late-fall weather as another day in the sun on the golf course.
"Too many courses try to stay open too long these days," says Wilf Peters, superintendent at The Links at Quarry Oaks in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. The native Canadian notes that the winter of 2002-03 was typical there -- cold, little snow cover and persistent wind chills of 45 below. It's tough on golf course turf, especially turf that's not winterized in a timely fashion.
"Just this year we had a lot of guys who didn't get a chance to properly topdress because by the time they got around to it their sand piles were frozen solid," Peters says. "It's a two-way street. You want the income for as long as possible, but you've got to put your course to bed properly."
Peters has spent most of his 13-year career at Quarry Oaks, which is located south of Winnipeg and just north of the confluence of the Canada, North Dakota and Minnesota borders. Heavy sand topdressing to protect the plant crown is one important way to cope with the constant threat of winter desiccation there. Another ploy is to use snow fences to hold snow on the greens. He's also tried flax straw to insulate his greens, but says the work to remove it and clean up the debris in the spring is almost too much of a negative.
"If you're in the places where a tough winter is normal yet unpredictable, the key goes back to not taking chances," says Peters, a member of GCSAA for more than a dozen years. "You see irrigation systems in pieces because they weren't blown out soon enough, or bad cases of snow mold because the snow came before guys got their fungicide down."
Sometimes even the best strategies aren't good enough. Peters remembers 1997, when Quarry Oaks was beset by 180 days of snow cover on unfrozen turf. That's too long for snow mold protection to continue to be effective and the results were pretty devastating.
"Still, winter prep is a matter of getting things done on time," he says. "Sure, we've all had a couple of weeks or so of nice weather in the late fall, but you can't count on that and if you do you'll be in trouble more times than not."