In addition to the turfgrass that provides top-notch playing conditions, golf course superintendents have seen regular tree care take root as an important part of their maintenance strategies and routines.
Golf course superintendents have many duties in their day-to-day jobs, and some of those tasks are more conventional than others. First and foremost, of course, they are responsible for managing the turf on their properties to create the best possible playing conditions. However, routine tree management has also become standard procedure.
Regardless of the wide range of opinions on the question of whether or not trees even belong on golf courses, superintendents nevertheless must tend to them to keep them healthy—as well as the turf around them. Turfgrass that is shaded by trees, and particularly greens, can struggle to survive, so its conditioning is closely intertwined with the placement, condition and maintenance of trees on a golf course property. The number and type of trees on a property, as well as their location, can all wield influence on superintendents’ tree-management strategies.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Trees should be removed from golf course properties when they are dead, have reached the end of their natural life cycles, cause safety risks to people or structures, or adversely affect the quality of surrounding turfgrass.
• New trees should be planted when they have the best opportunity to establish themselves, and properties should plant native species that will thrive in their climates.
• While it is virtually impossible to protect trees from storms, regular pruning and preventive maintenance can lessen any potential damage or safety issues.
As a result, the health, safety, and aesthetics of trees have become an important aspect of golf course maintenance at all properties, because trees—or their absence—bring distinctive features to every course.
“A lot of golf courses are framed by trees,” says Brian Benedict, Director of Grounds at Seawane Golf & Country Club in Hewlett Harbor, N.Y. “It’s more of a design question. If you take down too many trees, you lose the frame. It’s like having a picture with no frame.
“Trees can frame a hole without impacting the hole itself, unless they are on a corner of a dogleg,” he adds. “There are certain places where trees are important, and there are other styles of golf courses where trees don’t belong.”
Seeing the Forest…
The private, 18-hole San Jose (Calif.) Country Club has more than 2,000 trees on its property, including many stone pines that have a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years. Many of the trees are along a property line or near infrastructure. Because of the drought conditions that California has faced in recent years, however, 20 to 25 trees at San Jose CC have died in each of the last three years.
“Non-native species like redwoods that were planted here are struggling, because they are seeing drought conditions they have never seen before,” explains Golf Course Superintendent Pete Bachman.
The club’s maintenance staff removes the dead trees in the fall during aerification. Whether or not San Jose CC replaces a tree that has been removed, however, depends on the location.
“We have a tree nursery on the property where we have ten to twelve valley oaks ready to transplant,” reports Bachman. “We won’t plant any tree unless it’s native to this area and fits in with the native palette [of the region].”
Bachman indexes the trees on the San Jose golf course each fall and compiles the information into a turf presentation for the club’s greens committee. He is also in the process of developing a master tree plan, through which the property will remove invasive species that are located in inopportune places and plant more desirable native trees such as valley, cork, and live oaks.
An Academic Approach
At Furman University Golf Course in Greenville, S.C., trees are an integral part of the design and the way the parkland course plays. The campus has thousands of trees, reports Superintendent Paul Brandenburg, CGCS, and hundreds of them are on the golf course. Some of the holes have about 150 trees along the fairways.
“A lot of them were planted here,” Brandenburg says. “When Furman’s campus moved here in the ’50s, a lot of this was farmland.”
While many of the trees on the 60-year-old Furman course were planted in the 1950s and ’60s, more continued to be added during the next three decades as well.
With a lot of students and visitors on campus, the university has an extensive tree-maintenance program. Brandenburg shares tree-management resources with the school, which has a significant budget for the 700-acre campus. Still, Brandenburg adds, tree management on the course must take place over time, because of the expense involved.
Weathering the Storms
While they can perform as much preventive maintenance as possible, superintendents agree that there is little they can do to prepare trees for inclement weather. “Nature is going to do what nature is going to do,” says Pete Bachman, Golf Course Superintendent of San Jose (Calif.) Country Club.
During the winter, however, the San Jose CC maintenance staff makes sure that its safety gear is in order and that its chainsaws are sharp.
Regular maintenance plays a role in protecting trees during storms as well.
“That’s where pruning and fertilization come in,” says Paul Brandenburg, CGCS, Superintendent of the Furman University Golf Course in Greenville, S.C. “We try to keep trees healthy, and we have used cabling for lightning protection.”
The real work begins after a storm, when cleanup gets underway. Because of the effects of Hurricane Irma this September, the Furman campus lost about 50 trees, and 10 to 12 trees came down on the golf course. The staff took care of the handwork after the storm by picking up branches, leaves and other debris.
At Seawane Golf & Country Club in Hewlett Harbor, N.Y., Director of Grounds Brian Benedict says it is impossible to protect trees from storms, because of the number of them on the property. “We can wrap the shrubs around the clubhouse, board up windows, and take the equipment to higher ground,” he says. “Afterwards, we can come out and assess the damage. Most of it is reactive. It’s not really proactive.”
Seawane had firsthand experience with large-scale damage after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on its tree population in 2012.
“We lost a significant number of trees because of salt spray, flooding and uprooting,” says Benedict. “After the storm we had to replace a lot of trees along the property borders.”
The property has planted primarily oak trees since the storm, because of their greater salt tolerance. “We have planted at least 250 trees in increments, to propagate for the future,” Benedict says.
Planting trees a truckload (15 to 20 trees) at a time, the property incurs expenses ranging from labor costs for having the staff plant the trees, to the cost of the trees themselves (at $250 to $300 apiece). Five years after the storm, the process is still ongoing, and Seawane planted another 25 trees this fall. Benedict does not know how long it will take to replace all of the trees that were lost or damaged from the 2012 storm.
“Some of the trees still have growth,” he reports. “Sandy is like the gift that keeps on giving.”
Salt spray from the storm burned the trees and leaves, and some of the damage did not show up until three or four years later. “In the areas that flooded, the soil was inundated with salt, which damaged the trees,” Benedict notes. “The top growth started to decline from the saltwater incurred during the storm.”
Seawane contracts out the removal of large-scale trees. However, the grounds crew can perform a number of tree-maintenance tasks. “After the storm, a lot of the stuff was already on the ground, so it’s a cleanup effort,” Benedict says.
The property also rented a large chipper for about two months after Sandy struck. Only Benedict and his three assistants are certified to use chainsaws, and they wear all of the required safety gear when using one. The rest of the club’s 14 grounds-crew members are put to work hauling off the brush.
“Big, mature trees that are important to the design and aesthetics of the holes on the golf course are managed,” he says. “They’re pruned, fertilized and mulched.”
Brandenburg also keeps an informal tree inventory. He has a list of the top five or 10 trees on each hole, so he can keep track of which ones need to be pruned, fertilized or treated for disease control.
Most of the trees on the Furman golf course are native oaks, hardwoods and pines. However, a lot of the pines and oaks that were planted are now being removed, because they have reached the end of their useful life cycle. “A lot of them are being replaced now, but not with the same exact kind of tree,” Brandenburg says. “You can’t replace a 50-year-old oak tree that’s 80 feet tall.”
In addition, notes Brandenburg, the property removed more than 300 trees in the fall and winter of 2007 and the spring of 2008, which was also the year when the Furman golf course rebuilt its greens.
A Challenging Environment
Seawane G&CC, a private, 18-hole facility, has only about a dozen specimen, stand-alone oak trees on its links-style golf course beside Hewlett Bay. However, with thousands of oaks, maples and pines around the clubhouse and along the border the property shares with the surrounding neighborhood, tree management is still an important part of the golf course maintenance staff’s responsibilities.
Seawane removes trees when they are dead or when branches are in danger of falling off, and the property is planting new varieties to replace trees around the clubhouse and on property lines.
“We have to coordinate planting with the weather when the trees have the best opportunity to establish themselves,” explains Benedict. “We plant in the spring and fall.”
In addition, the property plants new trees that will thrive in the area.
“Oak trees are more salt-tolerant,” Benedict says. “We have some that are 50 to 70 feet tall now. They have established and propagated over the years and acclimated to the climate. We have some sycamores that are 60 years old, but only 35 feet high. They don’t like the ocean climate, but seven or eight miles inland, the sycamore trees are 75 feet tall.”
In addition, he reports, “Most of our trees provide screening for property borders, so we need to replenish our stock of trees. Trees have a lifespan. When you plant for the future, you’re planning ahead for the next generation.”
Golf courses prune their trees on a regular basis for aesthetic reasons, as well as for their health and the health of the turf. “Trees always rob nutrients and water from the turf,” notes Bachman.
At San Jose CC, Bachman also prunes trees to increase the functionality of the irrigation system.
“The sprinkler arc reaches 20 to 25 feet in the air, and if it hits tree branches, that water is not getting distributed properly,” he explains. “Areas where we’ve reduced irrigation have put added stress on trees, but the trees we’re seeing struggle are trees that don’t naturally exist in this environment.”
Many properties planted a lot of trees during the 1950s and the 1960s, Bachman notes. “They became arboretums that had golf courses running through them, rather than golf courses that had well-placed trees,” he says.
However, trees that were planted too close to greens or to buildings eventually became problematic. “Small trees become big trees,” states Bachman. “Root systems in bunkers can cause damage. It gets expensive when trees hurt infrastructure.”
At the Furman University golf course, taking care of the large, mature trees is a priority. Of course, so is the turf.
“Most of our grass is Bermudagrass, and Bermudagrass doesn’t like shade at all,” says Brandenburg. “At a campus where everyone is very proud of the trees, we try to take care of them in the best way possible. There is a place for trees and a place [not to have them], such as where we’re trying to grow grass.”
The few trees on the Seawane G&CC golf course have no effect on the quality of the turf, says Benedict. “The handful of trees we have on the golf course are for aesthetics,” he says. “They’re out of the way.”
Golf courses prune and remove trees for safety reasons as well.
When trees are removed at San Jose CC, they typically have obvious issues, such as a split in the middle. If a tree poses a danger of injuring a person or damaging a structure, then it comes down.
“If the trees are unhealthy or represent a safety concern, they’re relatively easy to take out,” says Bachman. The club’s greens committee, he adds, “usually is supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
San Jose CC contracts out the work to take down large trees, but the maintenance staff handles the removal of small trees of six to eight inches in diameter.
“Only a couple of guys on the staff are allowed to fell trees,” Bachman reports, “and they go through a rigorous training program to use a chainsaw.”
They also are required to wear boots, chainsaw chaps, safety glasses, a helmet and ear protection. Utility carts are the only other equipment necessary. San Jose CC does not keep a chopper truck or a crane, which are needed to remove large trees, on site.
The trees that have been taken down at the club are recycled into mulch for the golf course. “Ninety percent of the chips from the trees stay on the property,” notes Bachman. Larger trees are hauled off and can be used for firewood, and redwoods can be taken for lumber.
The Furman University golf course contracts out its tree-removal services because of insurance and liability issues, Brandenburg reports. The golf course staff also communicates with golfers on its website about its tree removal plans, so there are no surprises.
“In general, people understand why the trees are removed,” says Brandenburg. “Nine times out of ten, the trees are in poor condition, and they can see the broken, split, or dead branches.”
The campus reuses big logs from felled trees, but most of the trees that come down on the golf course are mulched.
“About 90% of the big stuff goes through the chipper and is reused on the golf course or on campus in mulch beds or traffic areas,” says Brandenburg. “It saves a lot of money.”
Every winter, the staff at Seawane G&CC prunes trees for safety purposes around the clubhouse, parking lots, and pool, where some trees provide shade in one area during the summer.
“We bring in a tree company to safety-prune and deadwood-prune, both for safety reasons and for the health of the trees,” Benedict says.
Benedict, who has been at Seawane for 17 years, reports to the club’s greens committee about the property’s tree-management tactics, and he says the committee members have faith and trust in him.
“It’s never an issue,” he states. “Most of what we do now is new planting or pruning our existing inventory, and that’s done for their safety. Preventive maintenance is safety-pruning, so that’s an easy sell.”