Summing It Up
•New varieties of genetically modified grasses may revolutionize turf maintenance.
Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures. After years of stubborn drought, developers in Australia announced plans this past October to build the world’s first synthetic golf course. While this might seem a bit drastic (not to mention career-threatening) to superintendents, it speaks to how erratic weather patterns and skyrocketing maintenance costs have prompted everyone through-out the world to take a closer look at new and better ways to establish and maintain golf course turfgrasses. In some cases, this has led to the introduction of entirely new species of grasses; in others, it’s renewed the drive to find ways to use seed varieties in climates where they were once thought to be incompatible.
Some suggest this is literally a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence; others argue it reflects how Mother Nature is demanding change, and the industry is getting more proactive about finding economically viable ways to respond. Regardless, as a new year begins, those involved with course management need to devote even more time to knowing what’s out there in the way of available seeds and grasses, and what might be involved in switching to a new variety.
Kevin Lashley has loved working at the Ocean Point Golf Links on Fripp Island off the coast of South Carolina for the past 17 years. But he’s certainly never loved the water he’s had to use. “We’re on a barrier island, so water quality has always been an issue,” he says.
Over the years, Lashley has been able to control the problems usually associated with high-saline irrigation, such as crusting soil and wilting grass, by using a variety of cultivating techniques and good, old-fashioned elbow grease. But eventually, the course started to visibly suffer from the irrigation shortcomings.
“There’s only so much you can do as a superintendent,” he notes. “It was getting to the point where we were spending more time combating the deficiencies than anything else.” And with club members growing frustrated after consecutive years of dues increases without noticeable improvement, something had to be done.
The prospect of building a new irrigation system or desalination plant was daunting in terms of both cost and effort. So Lashley looked elsewhere for a solution. He didn’t have to look far; in fact, he only had to look beneath his feet. “If we couldn’t fix the water we put on the grass, we’d have to fix the grass itself,” he reasoned.
|Peter Stormes, Superintendent, St. Kitts Golf Club|
Like many in the industry, Lashley had heard about a wonderful variety of salt-tolerant grass that was taking the South by storm. The species, paspalum vaginatum, was native to Africa, but also appeared naturally in coastal areas of the southern U.S. and Caribbean. Opportunistic turf specialists first recognized its salt-tolerant benefits in the 1970s and began breeding paspalum for commercial use in warm-season areas.
“We had seen ads about [paspalum] in magazines and heard other superintendents talk about it,” Lashley recalls. “Then we visited a course about an hour away that had switched to it.” For the veteran turf manager, that scouting mission sealed the deal: “The color really won me over.”
|Researchers at the University of Florida maintain a test plot of Aloha Seashore Paspalum at the West Florida Research and Education Center in Milton (in Florida`s Panhandle).|
In for the Kill
Approaching a Board or owners for permission to switch grasses can be daunting. Managers must not only ask for a significant chunk of money, but also to shut down the course for a number of months. A tough sell, to say the least.
Lashley was lucky: He had another 18-hole course at his resort to help offset the loss of revenue while making the switch. While this made it easier to convince the owners, he still had to contend with dues-paying club members who would lose access to one of their courses for a prolonged stretch. A compromise was worked out to move members’ tee times to the second 18-hole course, usually played by tourists. This had the added benefit of filling in the normal gaps from the off-season downturn in resort visits. “Our members fully supported the move and sacrificed tee times to accommodate the process,” Lashley says.
That process involved spraying a lot of herbicide to kill off existing bermudagrass. Lashley erected tents over the greens and gassed them, to ensure a more thorough kill. He then tilled the soil and added sprigs of the new paspalum.
When winter winds spread the loose dirt and plant material around neighboring home sites, Lashley overseeded with rye, to stabilize the soil. Even with the competition from the ryegrass, the hardy paspalum grew in remarkably fast. “We closed August 1st and opened again in March,” he says.
The new grass now thrives despite the saline water that irrigates it. And Lashley now uses environmentally sensitive weed-control measures. “We’re seeing some bermuda intrusion,” he reports, “but I can kill it with ocean water and not harm the paspalum.”
At the Watering Hole
Another superintendent singing the praises of paspalum is Peter Stormes, who has the enviable task of maintaining the Royal St. Kitts Golf Club operated by Marriott Golf. While it might sound like an idyllic situation, Stormes says water is a constant concern for Caribbean superintendents. “It’s by far our biggest expense,” he says, noting that water accounts for more than half his total budget.
Even without its expense, water’s availability is also a concern. Before he switched to paspalum, Stormes pushed his water budget to the limit. “We were watering greens every night for 20 minutes to a half-hour,” he says.
Prompted by advertised savings in both dollars and water used, Stormes switched to the paspalum three years ago, and is amazed at the results. “Now, I maybe water the greens once every three nights for 20 minutes,” he says.
Stormes’ positive experience is even more extraordinary when his water source is taken into consideration: a mix of desalinated water, ocean water and wastewater from the St. Kitts Resort & Casino across the street. “It’s not the best mixture, but this grass can take it,” Stormes attests.
Adding to paspalum’s growing prestige is the fact it can be used from tee to green. Stacey Zinn, a Florida-based breeder, points out the obvious benefit of this all-purpose quality. “Superintendents need to develop only one maintenance program,” she says, “instead of many different ones for a variety of species.” With the ever-present dema
nd for faster or slower green speeds (depending on the nature of a course’s players), those changes can also be made more readily, without sacrificing quality.
Golfers themselves can also enjoy benefits from paspalum, adds Zinn: “The grass’s upright nature makes a ball seem to sit up, as if on a tee.” PGA Golf Instructor Mike Calbot feels golfers actually play better on a paspalum course. “It has a truer putting surface, and fairway shots are just inherently easier,” he says.
A New Breed
Up north, where turf breeding used to focus primarily on aesthetics like color and texture, Kentucky-based agronomist Steve Reid says cool-season breeders are now concentrating on disease tolerance. “Northern winters have always been tough on turf,” he notes. “But now, hotter, drier summers are increasing the instances of disease. It means grass needs to be as hearty as possible all year round.”
The cool-season market demands grass that recovers quickly in the spring, resists typical cool-season diseases like brown patch and rust, and also survives droughtlike conditions, which are becoming increasingly pervasive. Once a beneficial characteristic has been identified in a particular variety of grass (mainly bluegrasses and fescues), successive generations will begin to exhibit stronger and stronger manifestations of the advantage. The process of building a marketable “cultivar” takes four to six years, Reid says.
Here too, though, superintendents who switch to a new cool-season turfgrass will have to sacrifice tee times. Their only option is to choose whether it happens in spring, or fall. Grass planted or sodded in the spring will establish fast and allow for play in a matter of months, but the plant won’t have a chance to establish a deep root system and hearty leaf structure before the taxing summer months arrive. This renders the juvenile grass more vulnerable to hot weather or droughts.
Alternately, planting new grass in the fall lets it establish without the rigors of play. But the young grass often suffers during the harsh winter, creating headaches come spring.
With more warm-season courses choosing to overseed with cool-season grasses during wintertime, Reid also sees a lot of emphasis on making traditionally “northern” turf varieties more suitable for southern climes. “We’re seeing more grasses that are salt- and heat-tolerant,” he says, “as well as ones that won’t compete with the native grass when it comes out of dormancy.” With water getting ever more scarce in many areas where winterized overseeding grasses are used, research is also creating more efficient hybrids.
Where Mother Nature or accountants aren’t demanding change, those who play on the courses often do. “Golfers continue to drive turf innovation,” says Zinn. “When they play courses that have switched to new grasses, many go back to their own clubs and start asking questions.”
Whether that change takes the form of traditional hybrids, bio-engineered supergrasses (see box, pg. 42) or even synthetic turf remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: You may never look at the grass beneath your feet in the same way again.
Weird Science: Cutting-Edge Turfgrass
Turfgrass isn’t usually the stuff of science fiction. But in 2006, a genetically modified strain of creeping bentgrass grown in an Oregon lab escaped and was found growing miles away in the wild. The hardy plant contained a bacterial gene that rendered it impervious to glyphosate, the active ingredient in many traditional weed killers. If approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the new variety would let superintendents apply chemicals liberally, without fear of killing the turf.
Critics of biotechnology point to events like this as precursors to doomsday scenarios, conjuring up images of cities overrun with lush, green turf. But to Jim King, an industry expert in Ohio, the convergence of cutting-edge science and old-school agronomy will ultimately be beneficial to society. “[The] goal is to create turfgrass that requires less mowing, less water and less chemical influence,” he explains.
The science behind the engineered grass is a mix of ultra-high-tech and brute force. Technicians use a “gene gun” to literally blast the bacteria gene CP4 EPSPS into cells of traditional creeping bentgrass. The genes that strike the nucleus of the grass cells add important new DNA instructions, including the tolerance to glyphosate.
King has faith that the USDA’s stringent approval process will ensure any potential hazards associated with bio-engineered grass are eliminated. “The USDA is being extremely thorough and asking all the difficult questions,” he says. “The public should expect nothing less.”
Most experts feel the genetically modified grass will ultimately be approved. “There is significant interest being expressed in the golf industry,” says King, who notes that the grass associated with the petition now under review by the USDA will be for use by turf professionals only. Rising maintenance costs and sky-high expectations from the golfing public necessitate a change of pace that traditional breeding techniques can’t meet. “There is a demand for grass that doesn’t grow as fast, needs less water, is more disease-tolerant and recovers from injury faster,” says King. If Mother Nature can’t supply this, it appears that human ingenuity will. —KD
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