While maintaining nativeareas on their golf courses might be second nature to many superintendents, it is anything but effortless.
Anyone can live by the words, “bloom where you’re planted.” However, no one thrives by happenstance. The same is true for native areas and other environmental elements on golf courses. Superintendents must nurture these features with proper attention and TLC, to fully reap the beneﬁts they can oﬀer.
Protecting the Natural Environment
The Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, Fla., was designed to protect its native environment and sensitive ecosystem. Surrounded by the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the golf course, which opened in 1992, was built around the large, established natural areas. “The developers worked closely with the city of Sanibel in protecting a lot of habitat throughout the golf course,” says Kyle Sweet, CGCS, who has been at the course for 22 years.
The Sanctuary, certiﬁed as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP), follows a strict regimen of maintenance practices to protect endangered species, wildlife habitats, migratory routes, nesting sites, and food sources.
The 100-acre property includes 80 acres of turf, 10 to 12 acres of lakes, and six to eight acres of native areas with large trees, varieties of understory, shrub-type plants, and certain ground covers. The terrain features cabbage palm trees; gumbo limbo trees; clusia shrubs; wild lime, a shrubby plant or small tree that is a good host plant for butterﬂies; and mastic trees.
In addition, areas on the property have been set aside for joewood, a rare shrub or small tree that only grows on upland coastal ridges.
“Over the years, we’ve maintained the property as it was originally designed, with buﬀers in place,” reports Sweet, a Florida master naturalist. The vegetation corridors also provide separation between the golf holes. “Most of them are in the middle between golf holes or right next to the golf course,” says Sweet. “Those areas were here before the golf course was built.”
“Maintenance of native areas has to be planned just as though it’s any other task on the golf course. If people don’t maintain them, they become a big mess.”
—Kyle Sweet, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent, The Sanctuary Golf Club
In addition to the natural areas that came with the place, The Sanctuary features zones that have been naturalized by the maintenance staﬀ . Scattered throughout the course, these areas include pink muhly grass, coontie, saw palmetto, fakahatchee, and dune sunﬂower. “We removed grass and added native or hardy plants. We tried to use good perennial plants and low-growing plants that don’t require a lot of irrigation,” explains Sweet.
“It’s about the setting we have on the island, which is very natural and forgiving,” he adds. “Everyone has to determine what a natural area means to them and how it can ﬁ t into the golf course.”
Another Florida property, The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest, an 18-hole course at The Moorings Yacht & Country Club in Vero Beach, Fla., was also designed to ﬁt the land’s natural look, which features abundant tall pine and oak trees along the fairways. The 200-acre property, which includes the golf course and a restaurant, was carved from a heavily wooded, natural sand ridge formation and boasts allnative flora and fauna.
“It is a native area, except where the golf holes are,” Golf Course Superintendent Craig Weyandt, who also is a Florida master naturalist, says of the ACSP-designated golf course. “Everything is maintained in its natural condition.” At Pottawatomie Golf Course, a ninehole course owned and operated by the St. Charles, Ill., Park District, three of its 36 acres are natural areas. The property is in the process of converting another acre to a naturalized area as well.
“We have an acre of area that is bluegrass turf that has flooded two of the last three years with a ‘100-year’ flood,” says Golf Course Superintendent Denise Gillett-Parchert. This area is adjacent to the Fox River, which comes into play on four of the nine holes, and Gillett-Parchert says the conversion, which began in September, will be a two- to three-year process. The area is being planted with sedge and rush ornamental grasses. “We’re using 20,000 to 25,000 native plugs,” Gillett-Parchert reports. “We want to make sure what we put in likes it there and can sustain a flood.”
Pottawatomie’s staff decided to install the additional native zone after the area flooded again in July. “After the flood, the only thing left was a plant that we had no idea what it was. We identified it as a rush,” says Gillett-Parchert. “We decided that if it can survive a flood for the second year in a row, then that’s what needs to be here.” At Newport National Golf Club in Middletown, R.I., natural areas are a dominant feature of the wide-open, flat 18-hole golf course, which has few trees.
When the golf course was built in 2001, about 50 of its 200 acres were seeded with fine fescue varieties to create naturalized zones in out-of-play areas. A five-mile walking path around the perimeter of the property is buffered with natural vegetation as well. Newport National plans to start construction of an additional nine holes late this year or in early 2019, and naturalized areas will be part of that layout as well.
“We’re investigating the proper seed mixture, to see what we can do to keep invasive plants out,” says Golf Course Superintendent Scott Roche.
‘As Maintenance-Intensive as You Want’
Whether native vegetation appears courtesy of Mother Nature or through plantings by a golf course maintenance crew, the areas still must be maintained.
“Maintenance of native areas has to be planned just as though it’s any other task on the golf course,” says Sweet. “If people don’t maintain them, they become a big mess.” Sweet factors the cost of maintaining native areas into his maintenance budget, but The Sanctuary’s maintenance staff still tries to have little effect on the land. Irrigation of the native areas is minimized, and while the grounds crew practices exotic plant control by treating any plants that don’t belong in the areas, the areas are also fertilized and sprayed as little as possible.
In addition, Sweet reports, “We do some trimming, edging, and managing of those areas along the edge of the golf course, to maintain [its] integrity.” The Sanctuary staff plants wildflower seeds every year, but other than handpulling weeds, little other maintenance is performed. However, notes Sweet, a grounds crew cannot plant ornamental grasses and not expect to maintain them.
“They don’t require no maintenance,” Sweet says of native areas, “but they require maintenance at intervals.” Sweet relies on a consistent level of maintenance for native areas, rather than a set schedule. To stay on top of the upkeep before it becomes overwhelming, he frequently conducts visual inspections of the areas, especially in the summer when plants grow quickly.
Weyandt, who has been at The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest since February, took advantage of a golf course closure this summer to tend to the 40-acre preserve in the middle of the course. The golf course closed June 1 to regrass the tees and fairways, and the property carried out a prescribed burn of the 40 acres while the course was shut down.
Half of the prescribed burn was completed by September, and Weyandt expected to complete the burn on the remaining 20 acres by the time the golf course was scheduled to reopen on October 1. The burn reduces the risk of wildfires, clears out the understory, and improves habitat for animals such as the gopher tortoise.
“The gopher tortoise thrives on fire. If vegetation gets too thick, it has a hard time foraging,” Weyandt explains.The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest also has sand pine trees, Florida scrub oak, and serotinous trees, which rely on fire to release its seeds. Weyandt plans to do a burn every two to five years. “Each year you would judge the re-growth,” he says. “By definition, a plant out of place is a weed.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to work with nature and not against it. In Florida, 99 times out of 100, a native plant is going to do so much better than anything else. It has adapted to the heat.”
— Craig Weyandt, Golf Course Superintendent, The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest
To maintain the natural areas, The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest grounds crew members use pre-emergent weed controls or pull out weeds by hand. Weyandt tries to avoid spraying that would hurt native grasses. If necessary, The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest uses pesticides to maintain the native areas. First, however, Weyandt will try to take care of a problem naturally.
For instance, he might try to wash away a fungus by hosing it off before turning to a chemical solution. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to work with nature and not against it.,” Weyandt says. “In Florida, 99 times out of 100, a native plant is going to do so much better than anything else. It has adapted to the heat.” Gillett-Parchert agrees. “It’s really important to make sure you have the right plant in the right area,” she says.
“There’s no point in trying to fight Mother Nature.” Pottawatomie GC, an ACSP-certified property since 1997, uses minimal chemical control to remove invasive plants from the native areas. The property also uses less water and less fertilizer in the native areas. “Natives have deeper roots than grass plants,” reports Gillett-Parchert.
“They do a better job of filtering chemicals and fertilizer from the soil prior to getting to water. “Nothing is maintenance-free, whether it’s an annual or perennial or native bed,” she adds. “But by getting the right plant in the right area, you have fewer weeds and invasive plants, because the plant itself is healthy.” Golf course playability drives the maintenance of the native areas at Newport National, an ACSP-certified property.
For instance, Roche explains, the edge of a fairway where a ball might land is a higher priority than an area around a tee box. “We want to maintain an acceptable playing surface. We’re not trying to achieve full eradication,” he says. To maintain its native areas, Newport National mows the areas at the end of the season each fall with a large rough mower.
The maintenance staff also mechanically removes invasive plants from the areas, uses pre-emergents, and makes spot chemical applications. Newport National’s staff does not fertilize or irrigate native areas, other than during grow-in, to save costs and prevent overgrowth. “You really want a thinner stand; you don’t want a lush, thick area,” Roche says.
To keep naturalized areas from getting too thick on the new nine holes, he adds, the property plans to install partial-circle irrigation heads around tee boxes, rather than the full-circle heads it has on the 18-hole course.
Roche has found that native areas at Newport National have done best in gravelly, porous subsoils, and says that his budget dictates the amount of maintenance these areas receive. “Native areas are labor-intensive,” Roche states. “They’re not low-maintenance areas; they’re high-maintenance areas. They are as maintenance-intensive as you want to make them. They can be a little more difficult to maintain than they’re perceived to be.”
Creating Naturalized Areas
Just like maintaining native areas, establishing naturalized zones requires thoughtful planning as well.
Sweet finds that the fall is the best time of year to native areas. “We can’t create a lot of disturbance during the golf season in the winter, and it’s too hot and dry in the summer,” he explains.
The Sanctuary recently installed bocce courts at the back of its clubhouse, and the maintenance staff relocated the plants from that location to naturalized areas. When the property built a new fitness center two years ago, it relocated plants from that site to natural areas as well.
During an irrigation project in 2008-09, The Sanctuary also established naturalized areas in places where it no longer wanted or needed grass.
However, cautions Sweet, superintendents need to evaluate the golf course design and determine where naturalized areas can be located most effectively.
“You need to see how the golf course plays. You don’t want to establish native areas where they will become a hazard or swallow up lost balls,” he says. “The native areas become a host for plants that need to be relocated.”
He makes sure not to overplant the naturalized areas as well. “When you create these areas, try to keep in mind how big these plants get. Sometimes people want instant gratification,” says Sweet.
The best time to establish native areas, depending on the location of a golf course, is late August to October, Roche reports, when nights are cooler and rainfall is more plentiful.
Sweet also cautions that superintendents shouldn’t go it alone when trying to establish naturalized zones. He researches plant materials and has several parties such as contractors, city officials, and native-plant nursery workers review his plans.
“A superintendent is not an island,” Sweet says. “A good superintendent seeks out an enormous amount of resources. A lot of things need to come together to do the job.”
The Sanctuary also works closely with the city of Sanibel to provide habitat for the gopher tortoise. In addition, the property combines efforts with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, a land trust that is dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva islands and in the surrounding watershed.
“There is a lot more to the job than most people anticipate or realize,” Sweet says. “Golf course superintendents have to be an expert on a lot of things, and that’s a challenge.”
Weyandt relies on other professionals for their expertise as well. He has contacts at the University of Florida, the state Forest Service, the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach, and St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, which preserves open grassy forests of longleaf pine that once were commonplace throughout Florida. He also has an arborist that he uses for tree work.
“I’m not an expert. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. But I happen to know a lot of masters,” Weyandt says.
Gillett-Parchert often turns to the county extension agent and park district members for their knowledge and expertise. As for the best time to schedule native vegetation plantings, she says, “Native plants aren’t available until the end of April or the first part of May. As long as they have time to root, you can plant them any time.”
The Sanctuary has a golf course landscape manager and a clubhouse landscape manager on the 20-member Green and Grounds Maintenance Staff, and they work hand-in-hand with Sweet.
“It’s really necessary for us because of the amount of landscaping at the facility and the amount of plant material on the golf course,” says Sweet.
The golf course landscape manager does a lot of physical work and supervises the day labor staff that the property uses for special projects, while the clubhouse landscape manager does the more formal landscaping at the clubhouse, fitness center, and a foodservice building.
Pottawatomie has a part-time naturalist and a volunteer who work at the golf course every Wednesday to help maintain the native areas.
The superintendents also take the time to explain to members why they do what they do. Sweet communicates to the clientele that it takes time to do the right thing the right way, and Weyandt conducts wildlife tours three to five times a year for members. “I try to get them to step back and look at the little things and appreciate the beauty,” he says.
Pottawatomie also tries to educate golfers about naturalized areas to encourage them to plant native vegetation at their homes. With each new plant installed, the property posts nameplates that identify the plants by their common and scientific names.
“It’s important to show the community that we’re good stewards of the environment and good stewards of the property that they have entrusted to us,” says Gillett-Parchert. “We need to preserve the land for future generations.”
The planting of native areas on the golf course has been a learning process for Gillett-Parchert as well.
“With a turf degree, I’m used to working with grass that’s two-and-a-half inches and shorter,” she says. “But several years ago, the park district decided to try to go more native, so we have tried to incorporate natives wherever we can. They use less water and less fertilizer, and they’re good pollinators for insects. It has been an education for me dealing with a whole new set of plants.”
Environmental management requires more than tending to natural areas on golf courses. Superintendents need to take care of water features as well.
At The Sanctuary, its seven manmade lakes are part of the property’s stormwater system. Sweet provides water samples to Sanibel officials to give them an annual water-quality report card. Officials from the city’s natural resources department also come to the property each year to inspect the lakes and review record keeping and fertilizer reporting.
Sweet says maintenance staff members are careful with fertilizer applications and lake inputs so they don’t impair the water quality. Ornamental grasses are planted around the lakes, and the grounds crew also follows Florida best- management practices. Outside contractors perform aquatic weed control and lake management.
“We’re providing a service, a product,” notes Sweet. “It’s important to provide that product and be confident that you’re not affecting the land or water around what you’re maintaining. We don’t want our practices to have any negative effects on the island beyond the golf course.”
The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest has four onsite ponds that capture runoff, which goes to the lowest pond and then to the irrigation pond.
“If we don’t get enough rainfall or runoff, then we use county effluent water,” Weyandt says. “We have a third water source—a horizontal well right underneath the surface.”
Under a consumptive-use permit, however, the property first must use the lowest-quality water.
Earlier this year, Pottawatomie planted a small shoreline area by the seventh hole. “It was all weeds and unattractive, so we decided to clean it out,” Gillett-Parchert says. “It’s an inlet, and we’re using that area as a test to see what works and doesn’t work.”
The Newport National grounds crew maintains a 100-foot buffer on either side of a creek that runs through the middle of the property and buffer zones around its small irrigation pond.
Environmental management spills over into other maintenance practices as well.
The Sanctuary has soft, sandy shell cart paths in waste areas instead of concrete paths. The grounds crew edges and rakes the paths, which are made of locally mined sand and shell mix, to loosen material so the paths drain properly.
The Moorings at Hawk’s Nest has a closed-loop wash cycle to clean equipment and a holistic recycling program.
“The entire club is trying to be greener,” reports Weyandt. “We have no plastic straws any more. If anyone wants a straw, they have to ask for it and they get a paper straw.”
The property also recycles paper, plastic, scrap metal, and cardboard, and each maintenance staff member has a reusable stainless-steel tumbler for water.
“It’s our responsibility to polish the pearl. We’re just guests or tenants here. We don’t own the land, so we have to take care of it,” Weyandt says. “Superintendents are lucky that our members entrust us with their properties. We share a love of nature and the outdoors.”