Prairie vegetation planted four years ago through a cooperative venture with the United States Golf Association, the Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center and Baylor University ecologists has thrived as a wildlife haven while also creating maintenance efficiencies for the Waco, Texas municipal course. While Course Superintendent J.D. Franz was concerned in the first years of the project, he now says things are “looking good,” as “each area [has] seemed to develop its own ecosystem.”
Buttercups, bluebonnets and buffalo grass typically thumb their noses at the Texas heat, which is why prairie vegetation planted four years ago at Cottonwood Creek Golf Course in Waco, Texas is surviving this year’s blast furnace, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported.
“Our natural grasses look great, better and better each year, during the springtime especially,” Course Superintendent J.D. Franz told the Tribune-Herald.
The city of Waco teamed with the United States Golf Association (USGA) to establish strands of prairie vegetation on about 30 acres of rough, the Tribune-Herald reported, and collaborated with the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and Baylor University ecologists to create a research site and a haven for wildlife.
“We have more than 30 species of plants,” said Franz, who has worked at Waco’s municipal course for 21 years.
The crew at Cottonwood enjoyed a streak of good fortune as the weather warmed during late spring and early summer, Franz told the Tribune-Herald. On-and-off rains had the greens looking sharp as golfers began flocking to the 174-acre course that occupies surplus land the Veterans Administration deeded to Waco in the 1980s.
Franz told the Tribune-Herald that he and his staff arrive at the property about 5 a.m. to begin watering. While Cottonwood has an irrigation system, hand-watering supplements the mechanical approach. A few sprinkler heads are not cutting-edge, Franz explained, “and if we have any wind at all, the coverage is lacking.”
Crews do not water the rough outside the playing areas, so the native grasses turn brown, creating a contrast with the dark green fairways that Franz finds aesthetically pleasing, the Tribune-Herald reported. And while that experiment is paying dividends, Franz also said that crews mow a targeted patch of prairie grass only once a year, or burn it off in a controlled setting supervised by the Waco Fire Department.
“We’re scheduled to burn this year, but we’ll probably put it off until next year to help out the Monarchs,” Franz said, explaining that milkweed plants growing in the prairie grass assist Monarch butterflies with reproduction.
“We’ll probably just mow it down this year, and burn next year,” he added.
The USGA committed $60,000 to pay for consulting from the wildflower center, which is part of the University of Texas system.
Jim Moore, former outreach and education director for the golf association, told the Tribune-Herald in 2013 that the Waco project would produce benefits.
“That’s the reason we’re supporting it,” said Moore. “We want to use Cottonwood as a case study or example for courses all over, not just in Texas. Basically, it’s a living laboratory for the USGA and Ladybird Wildflower Center.”
Matt O’Toole, Director of Ecological Research and Design at the wildlife center, told the Tribune-Herald that he and his staff chose heat-tolerant grasses for the Waco project, so he is not surprised they are holding up well.
“We were told they wanted to create a naturalized setting in the rough or out-of-play areas,” O’Toole said. “We looked at how much soil preparation was needed [and] the amount of water required to get the condition going and operating on its own. We seeded in June of that year, provided supplemental irrigation until October, and it really did not need watering after that.”
“Waco provided the site, man-hours and equipment, and the USGA provided supplies and paid the consulting fee,” O’Toole added. And following its initial consultation, “We kind of left management of the project to Cottonwood Creek and to J.D. [Franz].”
The wildflower center has provided its expertise to similar projects, including the Houston (Texas) Arboretum and Nature Center, The Gathering Place in Tulsa, Okla., and the Headwaters at the Comal in New Braunfels, Texas, O’Toole told the Herald-Tribune.
“The Waco project was more research-oriented, while these others are ‘installation’ projects in urban areas aimed at improving ecological conditions,” said O’Toole. “We typically have 10 to 15 projects going at any given time.”
Franz admitted to the Tribune-Herald that he nearly gave up hope in the early going that the Waco project would blossom as it has.
“The people with the Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center would come out to the course and be so excited,” he said. “I was disappointed, probably would have sprayed it or mowed it out.
“But after about three years, it was looking good, looking better,” he added. “Each area seemed to develop its own ecosystem.
“There are a couple of areas we’ll probably have to redo this next season,” Franz said. “One section is being overrun with Johnson grass. But overall, it looks pretty good.”