Doing What Comes Naturally

By | August 17th, 2017

Mossy Oak Golf Club, West Point, Miss.

While native areas on golf courses can help properties save costs and decrease their environmental footprints, that is no call for superintendents to get complacent. The areas require patience and TLC to take root—and once established, they are still not maintenance-free.

Golf can be a frustrating game, but one of its greatest attractions is that it offers people a chance to get outside and enjoy nature—and that includes more than the feel of manicured turf beneath one’s spikes. Increasingly, properties are expanding native areas in out-of-play parts of their golf courses, to save costs and lessen their environmental footprints.

However, once naturalized areas have been established—typically with native grasses and plants—golf course superintendents cannot simply abdicate their responsibilities for these zones. They must still maintain the native areas to keep out invasive weeds and woody vegetation, and keep a diligent eye on how the areas evolve and appear.

SUMMING IT UP

• Establishing native areas on golf courses can take two to three years before the grasses and plants are fully mature.
• While native areas reduce maintenance costs, they are not necessarily maintenance-free; they still require inputs to keep out invasive weeds and woody vegetation.
• In addition to cost savings, naturalized areas offer benefits that include aesthetic appeal, framing and shaping of golf holes, and improved golf course conditions, because maintenance staffs can concentrate their efforts on areas that are in play.

‘Nature’s Golf’
Mossy Oak Golf Club in West Point, Miss., which opened in September 2016, has about 40 acres of native areas on the golf course near the tee boxes, in between holes and along the sides of fairways. The course’s creators—which included Mossy Oak, an outdoor lifestyle company that preserves natural habitats across the country, along with the George and Marcia Bryan family and the Gil Hanse Design Group—sought to create an experience that would bring golfers closer to nature. The native areas on the course include a variety of plants and vegetation such as little bluestem, broomsedge, and side oats.

“Mr. Bryan’s vision to deliver a truly special golf experience in the South is what prompted us to plant these native areas,” says Director of Golf Chris Jester. “Mr. Bryan, along with Toxey Haas, founder of Mossy Oak, envisioned an experience known as ‘nature’s golf,’ which completely immerses players in the peaceful, natural surroundings of the Mississippi Black Prairie and delivers a full sensory experience. The native areas help to deliver this experience and accentuate the beauty and natural habitat of the region.”

Designed with a light footprint on the land, the 18-hole public golf course follows the natural contours of the rolling prairie and oak tree stands and preserves the local habitat of the Mississippi Black Prairie. Native grasses, wildlife and creeks integrate with fairways and bunkers on every hole on the property, which once was a dairy farm with flowing hills and ponds. During construction, the goal was to restore the natural areas, which are not irrigated, to prairie grasses in a walkable format.

Chris Jester, Director of Golf, Mossy Oak Golf Club

The native areas at Mossy Oak are still developing throughout the golf course. According to Jester, it will be a three-year process before the native areas are fully established.

“We started out by removing all non-native grasses from the native areas,” he explains. “When this was complete, all areas were seeded with a mix of the grasses. A six-foot drill seeder was used to apply seed.”

Native areas have always been a part of Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., which opened its original nine holes in 1937 and its second nine in 1957. Of the 200 acres on the golf course, notes Golf Course Superintendent Jim Campbell, 140 are naturalized areas.

“The golf course wanders through the sand dunes. The fairways are built between the dunes, and the dunes are full of native grasses,” Campbell says. “Most of the holes have native areas on each edge.”

Naturalized areas at Prairie Dunes include a mix of native grasses such as big and little bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, side oats, and sand lovegrass.

Mossy Oak Golf Club, West Point, Miss.

Native by Need
Other properties have added or increased naturalized areas in recent years to become more environmentally sustainable. The 1960s-era Los Robles Greens Golf Course in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for example, has removed more than 30 acres of irrigated turf and integrated 3,500 naturally drought- and pest-resistant native plants into its 100 acres of golf course terrain.

The $1.8 million project, which was completed in March 2016, was conducted at the request of the city of Thousand Oaks, in response to the severe drought conditions in California in recent years. The project also included the elimination of water features and a redesign of the irrigation system, to water the remaining grass more efficiently.

“California was in a serious, serious drought, and this area is still in drought status,” says Golf Course Superintendent Ron Kerley.

Mossy Oak Golf Club, West Point, Miss.

Los Robles Greens added the native areas to comply with the Metropolitan Water District’s SoCal WaterSmart Rebate Program. Under the program, which is no longer in effect because funds have been exhausted, properties received a rebate of $2 per square foot for the first 3,000 sq. ft. of removed turf and $1 for each additional square foot of removed turf. Funding for the SoCal WaterSmart program was provided through a partnership between the water district and its 26 member agencies throughout Southern California.

In the converted turf, California native grasses were mixed with native plants. The vegetation includes fescue, rhus ovata, California melic grass, and varieties of salvia. “Some of the plants are really small; they were plugs that were started from a tray,” notes Kerley.

Los Robles Greens also worked with the city and local companies to accumulate tree waste and debris that could be used to create mulch for the naturalized areas.

Prairie Dunes Country Club, Hutchinson, Kan.

The naturalized zones are spread throughout the golf course, and their locations were based on ball flight, to remove turf from areas that have low impact for golfers. To establish the native areas and their locations, the Los Robles Greens staff worked with both a golf course architect and a landscape architect. The golf course architect considered the play lines and the traffic on each hole, explains Kerley, and the landscape architect laid his plan over the golf course designer’s plan. “We wanted it to flow through the whole golf course,” he notes.

Under the renovation project, which was patterned in part after the 2011 renovation of Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Los Robles Greens now has a total of 40 acres of naturalized turf. “We already had 10 acres of areas under oak trees that can’t get watered,” notes Kerley. “The 10 previous acres were not part of the project, because they had no turf or irrigation.”

Because Los Robles Greens was the last golf course in the area to take advantage of the state rebate program, Kerley notes, he had the opportunity to pick the brains and benefit from the experience of other local superintendents.

To help maintain the natural features from which the club takes its name, the course maintenance staff at Prairie Dunes CC uses controlled burns and other means to stem the growth of non-flowering dogwood and locust trees, as well as Eastern red cedars, that can obscure the view of the dunes.

“Some people overplanted native areas and had to take them out because they got so big,” he reports about that research. “We’re going to plant strategically and not overplant, so it’s easier for golfers to see their balls.”

Maintaining Native Character
While it takes time to establish native areas, golf course grounds staffs must still devote a certain number of manhours to the maintenance of those areas as well. For the grounds crew at Prairie Dunes, maintenance means keeping the native areas native.

“It’s a constant fight; there are always some invasive species of grass that are trying to get in,” Campbell says. “When birds are moving around the golf course, they are going to spread things.”

Prairie Dunes is also covered with non-flowering dogwood and locust trees, as well as Eastern red cedars, that the grounds staff is constantly trying to keep at bay through controlled burns and other means. The dunes can’t be seen when they are covered with trees, notes Campbell.

“Trees are always encroaching more and more,” he reports. “The trees can get so thick that they stop air flow from getting to the golf greens. We have made a big push to get rid of the trees by mowing them down with big mowers or by spraying them down. Once we remove the trees, we can get the grass in there.”

Indian grass

The property also conducts controlled burns annually in the spring, to keep out cool-season grasses and weeds. “When we burn, that can be dangerous,” Campbell acknowledges; so to help conduct them safely, personnel from the local fire-science school in Hutchinson come to the property.

“The tree removal has been a 20-year process,” says Campbell. “If you burn at the right time, it keeps the cool-season grasses from going into the native grasses, and keeps out the small trees that try and come back.”

Prairie Dunes’ maintenance staff uses hydraulic blade shears to get rid of the cedars. According to Campbell, the cedar trees can use 40 gallons of water a day in the summer. Grounds crew members spray the locusts, and mow, then spray, the dogwoods. They also spray invasive grasses with herbicide and apply a pre-emergent twice a year in the spring, to control field sandburs.

“We try not to use any more chemicals than we have to, but it’s way too much to do with just labor,” explains Campbell.

The property also has cottonwood trees in low spots in certain areas of the golf course, but the grounds crew does not try to remove these native trees, Campbell notes.

Little bluestem

While the Prairie Dunes grounds staff has planted native grass seeds to help establish those areas, Campbell admits they haven’t done it without help. “The good Lord did it originally,” he says.

While grasses can re-establish themselves quickly, Campbell adds, it can take some time to create the native areas initially. “It takes a couple of years to really get established,” he explains. “You have to mow it to help establish it.”

The Prairie Dunes maintenance staff primarily uses a big bush hog on an old tractor to mow the native areas, and total maintenance expenses for the naturalized areas can run up to $20,000 annually, Campbell reports.

“If you just leave it alone and let it grow, it does a great job on its own,” he says. “The golf course is 85 to 90 percent native grass now.”

However, he adds, because of changing weather conditions and other factors, maintaining native areas is an ever-evolving process. “The problem with Mother Nature is that what works one year doesn’t always work the next year,” he says.

At Mossy Oak, says Jester, the native areas have required very little maintenance. “We do, however, use a controlled burn as needed once a year,” he explains. “It takes time for these native areas to grow in and to establish—but once this happens, they are relatively maintenance-free. Our native areas are still growing in, and we will work to continue to make these areas aesthetically appealing as they continue to develop.”

Sand love grass

Letting Nature Do the Work
The maintenance staff at Los Robles Greens watered the course’s native areas three times a day while they were being established. However, inputs to maintain the daily-fee golf course have since been reduced, because of the turf-removal project, Kerley reports. For example, the maintenance staff no longer maintains the areas underneath the property’s signature oak trees, letting the leaves that fall re-energize the mulch.

The mulch layer in the native areas helps to control weeds, and the staff applies a pre-emergent to the areas each spring to eradicate weeds. “Once the plants are established, they’re pretty self-sufficient,” says Kerley.

The new native areas, which are divided into individual sections, are maintained as needed. During the season the staff spot-sprays the areas and removes growth mechanically with sod cutters, pick axes, and hoes. “It’s still really new,” Kerley reports. “We’re still evolving, and still learning.”

Los Robles Greens also has its own nursery to propagate native plants and grasses, watering them once or twice a week. “We’re still propagating those plants and putting them in strategic places,” says Kerley.

Side oats

The California course plans to continue the project for the next three or four years. “We have the plant stock to continuously plant,” Kerley explains. “In the summer we’ll continue to grow what’s in stock.”

The property is also in the process of putting up an automated greenhouse, which should be fully operational by the end of the summer. “The greenhouse will be more beneficial in October, when we have shorter days and lower temperatures,” Kerley states.

Aesthetic Appeal
In addition to the benefits that native areas offer for reducing maintenance inputs and costs for labor, fuel and water, they also provide a better habitat for wildlife. And at Mossy Oak GC, the native areas also help to shape and frame the holes of the golf course.

“Native areas save money in maintenance costs because we do not mow or use irrigation in those areas,” reports Jester. “The ability to use less water throughout the native areas of the course provides significant cost savings for Mossy Oak. It also allows our maintenance crew more time to focus on fairways and greens.”

Campbell agrees. “The cost of maintaining [a native area] is considerably cheaper than if you tried to mow it,” he says.

Switchgrass

Native areas are aesthetically appealing as well. “In the fall, after we get a killing freeze, the little bluestem grass turns reddish brown, and the ryegrass fairways are dark green,” says Campbell. “Seeing the wind blow through the grass is really pretty.”

Los Robles Greens added native areas to reduce its carbon footprint, create an environmentally friendly golf course, and combat the high cost of water. As a result, the property has drastically reduced its costs and use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.

“We have taken those areas and reallocated those water and fertilizer funds to areas that are in the playing field,” says Kerley. “The golf course is in better shape because we’ve upgraded the irrigation to become more water-efficient.”

Once its new landscape matures, the Los Robles Greens property is expected to use 20 to 25 percent less water annually. “Even though the drought is over, the price of water will continue to rise,” says Kerley. “We’re trying to reduce our usage so our bill will still be around the same cost, because water prices keep going up.”

Even with reduced maintenance inputs, the redesigned Los Robles Greens course can still meet golfers’ expectations, and it’s the same for Mossy Oak. “Golfers have responded very well to the native areas on the course,” Jester reports. “We anticipate even more feedback as the native areas continue to grow in as the course matures.”

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