Stanley Zontek is the director of the USGA Green Section's Mid-Atlantic region and is one of the most experienced and respected turfgrass specialists in the world. Zontek is also the longest-tenured employee of the USGA, working for this organization for the past 38 years. So when Stanley Zontek has something to say about turfgrass maintenance, I listen, and he has just written a superb article for the Green Section Record, which I think it is worthwhile to discuss here. The article is entitled When the Going Gets Tough, Go Back to Basics, and is summarized in a five word declarative: Basic turfgrass management costs less.
Zontek writes that "basics cost less and probably will, in the end, help you grow better grass for the golfers to enjoy." I agree completely, and am baffled at times by the complicated and costly maintenance practices that are sometimes employed on golf courses with questionable effect on the playing conditions of the turfgrass. Zontek goes on to outline the five most important basics, as he sees them.
Sunlight: Grass requires light for photosynthesis. Anything that blocks the light, whether it be cloud cover or trees or other sources of shade, will cause a reduction in photosynthesis and reduced plant vigor. Zontek says that "Huge amounts of money can be spent and all sorts of different products, programs, and techniques can be tried, but there is no substitute for sunlight. If sunlight is limited, you have a problem." So remove the source of shade, if you can. If it is clouds that are blocking the sun, then I suggest pre-conditioning the grass for low light conditions by increasing the mowing height, applying trinexapac-ethyl, and reducing the nitrogen application rate.
Water: Of course grass needs water, but Zontek says that "too much water kills grass faster than too little water, and playing conditions suffer." And he also notes that "water and the electricity needed to pump it are expensive." Water management of golf courses can always be improved, and minimizing the amount of water that is applied to a golf course should be the goal. I have seen too many irrigation systems being operated when the soils are already wet and when the sky is cloudy and even when rain is falling. Application of water in those situations is nothing more than a waste of money -- don't apply too much water, ever!
Nitrogen: Don't be confused by complicated expositions of plant nutrition and biostimulants. Most golf courses could save a LOT of money by more careful attention to their fertilizer applications. Zontek asks "What fertilizer nutrient really is the most important? Where should you spend your fertilizer dollars? The answer is very simple . . . absolutely the most important is nitrogen . . . Nitrogen is the nutrient the grass plant needs the most." I can assure you that if other required nutrients (such as phosphorus or potassium) are at sufficient levels in the soil, then application of nitrogen only will be sufficient to produce the desired playing surfaces. Grass leaves contain (on a dry weight basis) about 4% nitrogen, 0.5% phosphorus, and 2% potassium. When there is already enough phosphorus and potassium in the soil, don't add more -- it will not give any benefit beyond application of a nitrogen-only product. If phosphorus and potassium are at low levels in the soil, then do add more, keeping in mind that the nutrients are in the grass leaves in a 8:1:4 ratio, and an annual fertilization plan with approximately that ratio of nutrients will produce healthy turfgrass plants. Fertilization really is that simple.
pH: If fertilization is really that simple, there is another simple soil chemical property to be aware of, and that is pH. Zontek says that "grass grows best in soils with the proper pH. It's just that simple . . . get your pH right. It allows the soil to take care of itself." What pH should the soil be at for optimum turfgrass growth? The pH should ideally be at more than 5.5. (at a pH of 5.5 or below, soluble aluminum increases and can be toxic to turfgrass roots). And if the pH is much above 7, the availability of some micronutrients can be decreased. For the most vigorous growth, maintain the soil pH in a range between 5.5 to about 7.5. Do you know the pH of your greens? Of your fairways? You should.
Set Priorities: Zontek asks "What is necessary for your golf course to survive? Remember, the beauty of the game is that every golf course is different. It is imperative to determine what is important for your facility and the golfers who play there." So think about what the priorities should be at your facility, and how to create the best-conditioned golf course that you can possibly have.
Those are Zontek's five most important basics: sunlight, water, nitrogen, soil pH, and setting priorities. Note that three of those basics (water, nitrogen, and soil pH) all have something to do with the soil conditions. The reason grass quality declines when too much water is applied is because the soils become soft and air in the soil decreases, causing a shortening of the root system. Nitrogen is ultimately taken up primarily by roots in the soil. And the pH is obviously a soil property. So the soil conditions are very important, but I want to add one more "basic" that I think all turfgrass managers should remember, one that is related to the turfgrass surface.
Mowing: That basic is mowing, which is something that is done almost every day. Care must be taken to always mow with sharp mower blades at the appropriate mowing height. And I would encourage every golf club to consider the mowing patterns used at their facility. Mowing the grass in a pattern can enhance the appearance of the course and additionally a simpler mowing pattern may save 20% or even 30% in time and operating costs compared to a more complicated pattern. Mowing is perhaps the most important maintenance activity we do to the grass, and doing the mowing right will enhance the appearance and health of the turfgrass stand.
What are the most important basics of turfgrass management for you? Do you have other tips? I would love to hear them.