Velvet revolution?

By Simon Taylor

Until someone comes up with a more preferable option, initial specifications for environmentally friendly golf greens will continue to be a fescue/bent mix. However, word is spreading that there's another option which ticks all the boxes and it all comes down to horses for courses! Architect Jonathan Gaunt explained his process when specifying for new greens: "You're looking for a fine, dense sward that's drought tolerant, disease resistant and hard wearing. Habitually I look towards a fescue but the local environment, maintenance budget and the specific rootzone structure all influence the final selection." Bear in mind that the initial seed specification for golf greens is critical in terms of immediate cash outlay and ongoing maintenance costs. A master greenkeeper who wished to remain anonymous maintains that a spec for fescue greens on an inland course is a recipe for pure poa annua within five years! While such an outcome is likely to be a result of overwatering and over-feeding as anything else, the inference is clear; each specific location has very specific requirements and with increased criteria in terms of environmental impact, seed specification is becoming an even more vital and critical science.

Gaunt has recently been introduced to the possibilities of velvet bents as an initial species on a green – again mixed with a fescue – having used it as an overseeding species. "I have been very successful overseeding with velvet bent.

The seed is so tiny that it settles in well and gives great results. But I'm now taking the idea of a velvet bent mixed with a fescue – maybe even a new slender red creeping fescue – very seriously indeed. If these new cultivars are as drought tolerant and disease resistant as they claim then to see them on one of my golf courses makes more sense now than perhaps it did before. Of course their fineness, density and mowing tolerance needs to be right too." And it would appear that Gaunt is not alone; environmental issues of water conservation and lower fertiliser applications have caused a lot of heads to be turned by the new options that have been developed in a direct response to the ecological questions raised by golf course developments around the globe.

The end user of the golf greens – the golfer – needs to be convinced that a hungry, drier green is both a better playing surface as well as an environmentally responsible one.

Without this acceptance by the golfer, the greenkeeper will always be fighting battles with members and committees who have come to expect a soft green full of what they perceive to be bents but are more often poa. The question of ecologicallysound maintenance is not only one of reduced consumption but also one of education. Most greenkeepers are professionals and are aware that reducing water is good practice both agronomically and environmentally. The trouble is that the average golf club member does not understand how golf courses are maintained, but they do know that the courses on the TV seem to look better than their own. The main task of the greenkeeper in the future will be to educate and communicate with the golfer in order to be able to do his job effectively and responsibly.

If this can be achieved, the greenkeeper of tomorrow will almost certainly be looking very closely at velvet bents. In fact they will be looking at it from above the handles of their mowers. Velvet bents are a good environmental choice because they have the lowest nutrient requirements of any commercial bent grass species. The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada recommends velvet bent because of its low environmental impact and extreme resistance to disease.While fescues are a traditional low input choice, we are back to horses for courses again and with velvets we have a second horse to back.

It is interesting to consider that the original soil-based golf greens were designed to retain water in times of no irrigation and that modern USGA spec greens are now the norm in times of widespread irrigation. The ongoing concerns over water usage could mean amendments to green construction in the future. So what does this mean for the seed specification? Velvet bents are a good bet for the future – whatever it might hold – due to their performance on both traditional UK soil-based greens and sandy USGA root zones. This is not to say that they're the only option; coastal links courses are often more than capable of supporting a traditional fescue sward and might be tempted down that route. Ultra wealthy resort courses with a large, natural water supply and a budget to match can comfortably maintain their creeping bents, there are no environmental laws prohibiting such a course. Traditional browntops such as AberRoyal are the most widely used bent grass with attributes which are ideal for UK greens and current maintenance regimes.

However, there's no need to greatly adapt those regimes in order to successfully manage velvets, so perhaps it just needs more people to step outside their comfort zone and reap the rewards. The fact is though that while each horse has its favoured course, a quality thoroughbred can succeed almost anywhere. As Jonathan Gaunt and countless others are coming to realise, velvet bents tick boxes on the clipboards of golfers, greenkeepers and environmentalists.

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