Creating a more sustainable golf course

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Jayne Leyland

Are you committed to creating a golf course which offers a more sustainable golfing environment?

Continuing developments in grass seed breeding means there are innovative solutions available through new cultivars and unique species. Desirable characteristics such as drought and disease tolerance, combined with pioneering applications of well established species, offer an excellent opportunity to combine an eco-friendly approach with an enhanced playing quality experience.

Careful consideration needs to be given to the future maintenance capabilities available to the golf course and how this will affect the subsequent performance and species composition of the sward. Mowing height, aeration, nutrient and irrigation inputs are the maintenance practices that have the most significant effect on the health and species composition of the sward. Combine this with environmental stresses such as wear or disease pressure and the sward composition can change very rapidly.

Different species perform at their optimum under different maintenance regimes, but successful synergy can be achieved through careful cultivar and mixture selection. The capability of selected cultivars to withstand closer mowing heights and disease pressure is critical. The current high profile of sustainable species for golf greens advocates the use of red fescues (festuca rubra spp.) but it must not be assumed that any red fescue will do.

Cultivars of both slender creeping red fescue (festuca rubra trichophylla) and Chewings fescue (festuca rubra commutata) exhibit big differences in their ability to tolerate mowing heights of 5mm, and to withstand diseases such as fusarium patch (michrodochium nivale) and dollar spot (sclerotinia homeocarpa).

Selected cultivars also have better wear tolerance and winter colour. You will find that red fescues grass seed mixtures contain both slender creeping red and Chewings fescues. This is because slender creeping red fescue has better colour during summer, autumn and early winter, whereas Chewings fescue has better colour during late winter, spring and early summer. Combining the two sub-species provides better colour for longer. Consider which characteristics are your priority; ask your grass seed breeder if you have a specific requirement and choose carefully.

Slender creeping red fescue has far superior salt tolerance to Chewings fescue. It is also rhizomatous for good recovery and has far better wear tolerance than strong creeping red fescue (festuca rubra rubra). In addition to red fescues, there are two other species you could also consider for use from tee to green, provided mowing heights remain at 5mm or above – crested hairgrass and hard fescue. Remember, the closer the mowing height, the greater the stress and the higher the inputs. It is highly possible to achieve fast, firm, true putting surfaces with predominantly fescue surfaces at mowing heights above 5mm.

Crested hairgrass (koeleria macrantha) thrives under low water and nitrogen regimes and tolerates regular close mowing at 5mm. It also has good salt tolerance and has already been successfully used on golf greens where the irrigation source is treated effluent water. Mixed with slender creeping red fescue, it offers the ultimate in low maintenance and an excellent putting surface.

Hard fescue (festuca ovina duriuscula) is traditionally used for fairways and roughs. However, new cultivars can be mown down to 6mm. It has very high shoot density and outstanding recovery after combined heat and drought stress. It is a species which has been sadly overlooked and could become very important for the future as increasing pressure is placed upon water usage.

A third species to consider for every area except greens is tall fescue (festuca arundinacea). It is a rather broad-leafed species, but this is more than compensated for by its remarkable characteristics. It can tolerate both waterlogging and drought through its amazing rooting depth capability. A new, unique rhizomatous tall fescue (RTF) is now available for superb tensile strength and even greater recovery. It also has excellent salt tolerance.

Mixture synergy is extremely important; the cultivar characteristics should influence the percentage of each species used in a mixture and must be carefully formulated to provide optimum germination and establishment potential. Whether for construction, renovation or a species exchange programme, the innovative use of unique species and new cultivars can significantly contribute to the overall sustainability of the entire golf course. Just ask the breeders!

Jayne Leyland is with turf supplier Barenbrug UK.

This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.