Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. This can be said for a lot of cultural practices performed by golf course superintendents.
Aerating the greens is a short-term inconvenience, but necessary in order to maintain the health of the greens long-term.
Cultural practices are techniques employed by superintendents too not only improve the condition of the golf course, but are vital to ensure the health and survival of the turf. Contrary to popular belief the yearly, monthly and sometimes weekly practices are not done to get under the skin of golfers.
The most dreaded of these necessary tactics is core aeration. Core aeration is the act of pulling plugs of soil from the green leaving the playing surface bumpy, ugly and generally difficult to putt on. Unfortunately, for the golfer and superintendent alike, core aeration plays a vital role in turfgrass health. The purpose of aeration is to reduce compaction, remove thatch, release trapped gases, allow air and water to infiltrate into the green and essentially help the turf to breathe. Without aeration at least once per year, golf course putting greens will eventually suffocate and fail. The holes left by the aeration process allow the superintendent to apply fertilizers or other amendments right down to the roots.
Along with core aeration comes possibly the second most hated cultural practice, topdressing. Following the aeration process, the next step is to fill the holes with topdressing sand. The topdressing process will help bring the green surface back to an acceptable level of playability. Without re-filling the holes the roots of the turf that are exposed to the air will dry out and die. Enough topdressing material should be added to completely fill the holes.
Topdressing without core aeration is a practice that most superintendents strive to perform on a monthly basis if not more frequently. The purpose of this form of topdressing is to smooth the putting surface and breakdown the thatch layer that sits directly beneath the turf.
Thatch is defined as an intermingled organic layer of dead and living shoots, stems and roots, which develops between the zone of green vegetation and the soil surface. Too much thatch can inhibit fertilizers, water and other inputs needed from reaching the turfgrass root system. Thatch is where many disease spores and insects live.
The process of topdressing a green is simple. The first step is to load the topdressing spreader with topdressing material, usually sand or preferably the same mixture that the green is built with.
Secondly, the operator drives the unit onto the green applying the mix via a conveyor set at a predetermined rate. The sand is then left to dry, after which it must be dragged into the green surface. This is typically done using a golf cart pulling a series of brushes or a dragmat. Once the sand has finally been effectively dragged into the green it is ready to be mowed and is ready for play.
One of the biggest problems faced by superintendents when it comes to topdressing is timing. Most often a golf course is able to close for about a half day to allow for the process. Problems occur when the procedure is performed in the evening and the sun begins to set. The sand will not dry and cannot be dragged into the green effectively.
Often times when the topdressing process is performed in the morning the sand becomes wet from the dew on the greens. With paying customers waiting to tee off, the superintendent is forced to hurry the process and attempt to drag mat the greens when the sand is still wet. The wet sand will remain on the green surface causing issues with puttability.
Aeration and topdressing are just two of a multitude of cultural practices employed by superintendents. These ones just happen to raise the ire of golfers more than the others. By performing cultural practices on a regular scheduled basis the superintendent is able to not only keep the turf healthy for excellent playing conditions but is also able to keep the amount of inputs (water, fertilizers and pesticides) to a minimum.
If you think golfers and superintendents do not like topdressing, speak to a golf course mechanic about the damage it does to mowers.
Rick Munro, Assistant Superintendent at Fairwinds Golf Club
Rick blogs on a regular basis about golf course maintenance and construction. Check out his blog From the Green Side.
Aeration is scheduled for October 6 and 7 at Fairwinds.