2018 started with the Beast from the East covering the course in an unprecedented amount of snow (certainly during my time in the industry). But then came the thaw.
In March we released a video asking for patience whilst courses all over the country dealt with the aftermath.
Once the course dried out and the frosts had stopped, we had roughly 4 weeks of good growing conditions up to the middle of May, to get the surfaces ready for what I thought would be a typical season. In actual fact, it was preparation for an unprecedented summer in terms of drought conditions and heat stress. And greenkeeper stress.
The above picture highlights the low Average Air Temp (°C) leading up to May, as well as the small amount of Total Rainfall (mm) from May to July. It is a snapshot of the year’s weather at Alnwick Castle Golf Club and explains why the year was so difficult. And why Turfs up was ‘put on the shelf’ for 9 months.
This blog is about the recovery.
At Alnwick we have no irrigation system. We rely on two 1000 litre water containers loaded onto a tractor and trailer. Using two 3 h.p. petrol pumps, we fill these containers at our 2500 litre water tank, which is supplied by mains water. Using the same pumps, we apply the water through hoses and hand watering guns.
This process takes an hour if applying both 1000L containers to one green and is the equivalent of roughly 3mm rainfall. If applying 1000L each to 2 greens, this takes 1.5 hours and is equivalent of roughly 1.5mm rainfall to each green. Or as I like to call it, pissing in the wind.
If we ignore how wildly inefficient this set up is, we can focus on how severely limited, and therefore important, our water supply is. With this in mind, it’s my aim to get every drop of water that’s applied to the course working to its full potential. To maximise this, I run a strict wetting agent program alongside a tailored aeration program. Both of which went out the window at the end of April.
The application of wetting agent requires watering in afterwards, to both improve its effectiveness and reduce the risk of scorching the grass plant. Between May and July there was no forecast opportunity to apply a wetting agent and it would have taken two people 5 days to hand water in.
The poor growing conditions during spring also meant a reserved approach to aeration, as surface performance was the main aim. In my defence, I had no idea of the summer we were heading into. Once we entered May I couldn’t maintain a moisture content in the greens that would allow them to recover from anything more than a sarrel roll (25mm depth).
If all of the above is the cause, then the effect is death. The death of hard fought plant rooting that disintegrated through lack of moisture. Death of grass coverage through heat stress. And the death of my social life, other than romantic nights hand watering with the Mrs (to be).
The above picture was taken on the 13th July, following a week of reduced staffing levels (coincidentally the same week Google Earth was updated!).
And the picture below shows how effective our totally inefficient process of hand watering can actually be.
In case you hadn’t noticed, at Alnwick we run with limited staff and resources. Therefore working out the biggest bang for our investment is of the utmost importance to me. I don’t have the budget to overseed with bentgrass. Nor do I like the return it would give me for my investment, on a site with no irrigation, less than perfect organic matter levels, a nutrient deficiency to rectify and a backlog of cultural practices to catch up on.
So for me the recovery started at the foundation and the soil.
A lack of moisture for prolonged periods can cause hydrophobic (water repellent) conditions which are commonly called dry patch. Once hydrophobic conditions are created, water alone will not cure this. A penetrative wetting agent is needed to lower the surface tension of water and enable it to break down hydrophobic soils.
From the above comparison picture you can see a pretty uniformed recovery, meaning there is little to no dry patch present at the surface (a small positive). The problem is a little further down.
Because irrigation applied during the summer was minimal, and often during the heat of the day, water either evaporated from the surface or was used up by the grass plant and shallow roots. This meant below the top 20-30mm was where the death remained, once the surfaces recovered.
My recovery wetting agent program was as follows.
Firstly I applied a penetrant wetting agent to ensure water passed through the top 30mm as quickly as possible, to where it was needed. Then, once a more consistent rainfall was forecast, I used a penetrant/curative wetting agent. This can emulsify and cure hydrophobic conditions, but comes with an increased risk of scorching the grass plant. Therefore increased rainfall is required to ensure it’s fully washed in. Once flushed with rainfall, this area is now returned to healthy soil that will provide root space and nutrients.
I repeated this application of penetrant/curative wetting agent twice, to maximise the available space for rebuilding the grass plant rooting. Sarrel rolling was continued to further prevent surface water runoff, alongside monthly 6mm micro solid tinning to a depth of 100mm.
This created the correct environment for new grass plants to thrive.
Drought conditions and extreme high temperatures both cause stress to the grass plant. To combat this the grass plant will shut down until conditions improve. If conditions do not improve, it will use the resources it has available to it at the point of shutting down, until it dies. This puts the strain onto rooting that is dying through lack of moisture. For me, this means that helping the plant by applying nutrients is not only tricky, but with the wrong product selection, is potentially damaging.
My fertility plan was as follows; small amounts of methylene urea and ammonium sulphate when conditions allowed. This resulted in long periods of no nitrogen being applied. On July 31st my nitrogen input for 2018 was 26.3 kg for the greens. This compares to 49.5 kg for the same time in 2017. Alongside this I also applied products such as seaweed and fulvic acid, that help to relieve grass plant stress and promote root development.
Finally to make sure I had given the greens every opportunity to recover on some of the worse effected areas I hand prepared and seeded with ultra fine Rye grass.
…and the Life
This picture was taken on the 16th August and shows how well the greens recovered. This was true for 95% of the putting surfaces, the remaining 5% were areas of total grass loss that needed seeding. Although I prepared and seeded some areas, I believe my approach to this and lack of budgets towards the best practices, meant I received limited results. Something I will look into for next time… God help us!
This season has been one for learning, adapting and “risk vs reward” management techniques. At times I’ve hated it. But for the most part I’ve loved it and if offered the choice, would have the same again next year.
I must finish by thanking my members for helping with hand watering, their overall support, but most importantly, their patience and trust.
Secondly, one question that has came up during this season that I don’t yet know the answer to is: What is the optimal organic matter percentage for a golf green in the U.K. that doesn’t have an irrigation supply?
Any help with that would be greatly appreciated.