Those in the business of managing golf course turfgrass practice cultural controls at some level. It can’t be helped. Even those not intentionally setting out to control something culturally are doing so. It’s literally unavoidable.
But unintentionally practicing a few cultural controls is simply not cutting it anymore (no pun intended) in turfgrass management. Consideration, planning and execution are not only optimal – they are required.
Required, that is, if your desire is achieving a high-quality golf course.
My favorite explanation of cultural controls is rather simple: manipulation of the growing environment. Or, more specifically, manipulating the growing environment using a variety of management techniques.
Not only does this manipulation help you achieve higher quality turfgrass, but people like to hear about it from you. They like to know that you have some sort of plan in place, whatever it is. They’re glad you’re not just blowing up gophers with sticks of dynamite and spraying chemicals randomly into the air on the slightest whim. You’ve put some sort of educated, thoughtful consideration into doing what it is you do.
But you need to ask yourself, are you intentionally or unintentionally practicing most of your cultural controls? And are you doing enough of them? Timing them correctly? Keeping up with the latest and the greatest? Are you making all the right choices?
Maybe it’s a good time to revisit the cultural controls you are most likely doing on your golf course – that manipulation of the growing environment.
LET’S CALL THESE THE BIG FIVE.
1. Aeration – The backbone of any cultural control program on a golf course. The question is not whether or not to aerify, but how much (turf) and how often.
We all know the basics: Aeration relieves soil compaction, improves oxygen availability in the root zone, increases the ability of rain and irrigation water to reach the roots, improves fertilizer uptake and reduces disease pressure.
An added benefit to aeration that just might be my favorite reason to punch holes is the increased turf density that results. More plants per square foot equals a better stand of turfgrass.
Aerification shouldn’t be limited to spring and fall, nor should it be limited to only greens and tees. Fairways need to be hit twice a year, and primary rough and surrounds at least once.
On the greens, a midsummer application with some smaller tines – even if you’re not pulling a core – has become common in the maintenance of high-quality cool-season greens.
2. Topdressing – Topdressing greens is another control you better be doing, and not just in conjunction with your aerification program. Light topdressing of greens is done on most high-quality cool-season greens, either weekly or every other week.
Beyond the most obvious benefit of smoothing the playing surface is the ability of topdressing to dilute organic matter as it is produced.
3. Verticutting – The two main functions of verticutting greens are reducing thatch and increasing density. Every other week throughout the growing season is the norm. Marrying your bimonthly verticutting program with your bimonthly topdressing program makes all the sense in the world.
One other cultural control I wanted to mention that goes along with the principal of verticutting is a deeper thatch removal on the greens once a year. A dethatcher that can go deep. We use a verticutter on our greens once a year and slice to a depth of 5/8 inch in two directions. The amount of material that is removed by this and similar machines can be staggering.
Dethatching should not be limited to just the greens. If you have the resources and ability, a tee and fairway program should be implemented as well.
4. Water management – With just a little thoughtful planning, the management of water on the golf course can certainly be considered a cultural control.
For example, watering less frequently and more deeply encourages root growth deeper into the soil, rather than near the surface where those sad little roots help form thatch. Deeper roots allow plants to withstand dry conditions better.
In the same respect, overwatering results in shallow roots, which increases the potential for soilborne diseases to crop up and encourages waterlogging. Excessive watering also stimulates weeds in the taller heights of cut, like the fairways and rough.
In this age of ever-increasing watering regulations and water shortages, there is no excusable reason to overwater your rough. If you need clarification on this, please note this year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst and the watering “philosophies” they have adopted.
Syringing greens during stressful periods in the heat of summer is another control method used successfully in the industry.
5. Increasing heights of cut – Seems simple enough, but this little trick can do more to combat diseases and other stresses than almost anything else you can do.
Localized dry spots, thatch diseases, moss and algae outbreaks, cleanup pass wear. One of the first things you might want to try for any of these common golf course ailments is to raise the height of cut. Had too many rounds of play the last couple months, but the powers that be aren’t allowing you to aerify? Raise the height of cut!
Is this not the epitome of a cultural control?
Raising the height of cut doesn’t just pertain to your greens. Don’t cut your rough too low if you don’t have to. A higher height of cut has been proven to increase the vigor of both leaf and root growth.
In addition, try and only remove one-third of the leaf blade each time you mow. Moderate trimming is the key. If for no other reason, you don’t want to reduce the leaf size for the sake of photosynthesis.
Moderate trimming, although it sounds good, isn’t always possible. The month of May in western Washington can be a scary time for turfgrass growth. Keeping up is challenging.
In addition to the Big Five, there are a few other cultural controls that should be noted for achieving a quality golf course management program.
One of these is planting stress-tolerant cultivars in the first place. Or, if you have to, replanting so you have the right plants in place. Having species that are ultimately going to allow you to have more of a chance to combat the stresses for your area and your climate is a huge factor.
Another thing that could be considered a cultural control is the monitoring you and your staff do for plant health and pest populations.
A simplistic example of this would be that you may have the means to culturally control an infestation of tent caterpillars on your cherry trees, but without knowing where the nests are, your ability to control them would be meaningless. Have people trained and in place to help you monitor.
A quick word on rolling, which some (not me) might consider a cultural control itself. I’ve had it suggested to me that rolling greens is a form of cultural control. I get the concept, but I don’t agree. To me, a cultural control should be something done that physically improves the health of the turfgrass.
Rolling does not benefit health. It benefits playability, at least in the short term. This is where the fine line between improving your greens for the sake of their health and improving your greens for the sake of the golfer become a little muddled. I guess the same could be said for height of cut. No one in their right mind would cut their bentgrass at 0.1 inch if it wasn’t going to be putted on.
I’m not knocking the concept of rolling. We roll once a week. Like I said, it improves the playability of the greens. But I can’t get myself to consider it a cultural control, even when being done in place of a mow. Mowing, in my experience, is less stressful on golf course greens than rolling is.
One final control method I wanted to mention – follow me on this one – is actually the alteration of your current cultural controls.Simply changing things up can be a form of control in and of itself.
Just as we juggle modes of action within our fungicide programs, cultural controls can be even more successful if rotated and played with. Of course, we do this without even thinking about it. But try consciously choosing a different control method than you had planned on or that you have relied on time after time in the past.
Part of the trick of running a stellar maintenance program is having the ability to improvise and try new things – not always relying on the same old tools in the toolbox, as it were.
An open, innovative mind can be as valuable as your greens aerifier or topdresser.