Ken Gentile, owner of Executive Putting Greens and the STI licensed dealer in Stamford, Connecticut recently shared with us his thoughts and expertise about what goes into the upkeep and maintenance of a natural putting green, along with a few benefits for a synthetic putting green from Synthetic Turf International.
The first thing to consider about golf green turf maintenance is that you are moving away from the low to medium maintenance level to a much higher maintenance level.
What does this mean?
Well, most home lawns are kept at a height of 2 to 3 inches, which means most lawns are cut no more than once a week. And they are able to survive without fertilizer, pesticides or other cultural practices. That level of maintenance would be on the low end of the maintenance spectrum.
Then there are those who fertilize, apply pesticides and perhaps aerate or overseed. This is more of a medium maintenance level.
Now, if you want to maintain a natural putting green, you will need to get into the high maintenance level. Before I scare you away from the idea, high maintenance is not necessarily more work than medium maintenance.
What you need to move up to this level is more of a dedication to follow a strict golf course turf maintenance program and closely monitor what the turf requires. For example, you may well put down less fertilizer than some of your neighbors, but you will be moving to a more expensive type of fertilizer, or you will be fertilizing extremely small quantities every two weeks.
At this level, golf course turf maintenance costs more money and requires more labor and dedication to the turf.
The most important things that affect turf health are sunlight, air movement, irrigation and drainage. Keeping in mind that the grasses used for putting greens are plants that need full light, you need to make sure the green location will have a minimum of 6 hours of full sunlight every day; and that the most important sunlight is morning sunlight.
Also, keep in mind that during the year the hours and angles of sunlight per day change significantly, but you can get a good average by observing the light on the first day of spring or fall.
A simple way to determine the hours of sunlight is to take pictures of your site every hour from sunrise to sunset. Finally, even if you do have enough light presently, consider the potential future conditions of the site, such as young trees that may block sunlight in the future.
After light, wind is the next crucial ingredient.
Air movement is very important, particularly during hot summer days when the turf’s only methods of cooling itself is by evaporating water from its leaves which is known as evapotranspiration.You don’t need a gale force wind. Enough of a breeze to move the flag on the pin is adequate.
Sometimes the reason for a lack of air movement is the surrounding terrain such as greens built in protected valleys, or at the bottom of severe slopes. The most common reason, however, is that there are too many trees too close to the green.
A typical part of a golf green management program is monitoring the growth of trees over years to be sure they do not block good light and air movement.
Once you have determined that your site is suitable, you have to consider the most important element the turf needs for its survival. No, it’s not fertilizer, but water. And to paraphrase an old superintendent’s proverb, “it is as important to be able to put water on the green quickly as it is to get it off.”
A good golf green management program will always have a good watering system that will give good, even coverage throughout the green. Then, when Mother Nature sends you too much water, you need a way of removing it.
This is done through drainage, using either good surface movement or subsurface drainage pipes.
Finally, the last thing your green management program needs is a good agronomic plan.
Fertilizer needs should be based on soil test results. Aerating and topdressing are two other important practices. A home green will usually get less wear and tear than a green at a golf course, so these methods are your principle ways of controlling the natural organic layer that will develop (better known as thatch).
Oh, and don’t forget to cut the turf on a daily basis, which requires sharpening the blades of your $20,000 mower on a weekly basis.
Probably the next most important part of golf course turf maintenance is cutting. Greens really should be cut at least 5 times a week. The main reason for this is that the less leaf blade we remove from the turf each cut, the less we stress the turf. A rule of thumb is that we should never cut the turf down by more than ⅓ of its height.
You can get away with cutting less often, but in the growing season it will be mostly the playability of the surface that will suffer first. The advantage of all this cutting is that we have very few weed problems as most weeds become much weaker under this type of regime.
Of course not any old mower will work. At this height you need to cut with a reel mower.
Greens: from 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch (3 to 3.5mm)
Another aspect to consider is irrigation.
There is no golf green turf maintenance program that doesn’t call for at least some supplemental irrigation as needed. At short heights of cut the turf is much more vulnerable and needs the right amount of water to remain healthy.
It is essential to have supplemental irrigation around a green and it’s recommended to use separate heads for lawn areas.
The irrigation can be a simple as a hose nearby that is used to water the green by hand when needed. While that may be inexpensive, you will need to be there when the turf needs irrigating, and it is preferable to do it just before sunrise to minimize disease pressures during hot humid weather.
On the other end of the spectrum would be a fully automatic, programmable irrigation system with weather station to monitor evapotranspiration. On average, turf needs 1 inch (25mm) of water a week during summer, which includes any water received through rainfall. It’s important to keep in mind that too much irrigation is just as dangerous as too little.
Now we get into the things that golf courses do that makes all the difference.
One of the most important aspects of golf green turf maintenance is aeration. By forcing the turf to grow through regular fertilization, you start to build up organic matter at the surface which becomes thatch. This is an ideal place for disease to grow.
The best way to deal with thatch is to physically remove it through core aeration. Golfers hate this practice, but it is absolutely essential twice a year. This reduces compaction and promotes better root growth.
Another practice is sand topdressing. This dilutes the organic matter at the surface, creates a firmer surface, keeps the surface true and rolling nicely and may even help to modify the upper rootzone.
Verticutting is the practice of vertically cutting the turf, which also removes thatch, promotes better turf vigor and give a better ball roll across the surface.
Finally, rolling is a good way to get a smoother surface, and more importantly, to create faster green speeds and a truer ball roll.
However, too much rolling creates compaction problems and poor rooting, so rolling should be limited to once or twice per week and never when the surface is very wet.
These are the general practices needed in a golf green turf maintenance program, there may be other things you need to do, and the frequency will change depending on climactic conditions where you live.
Notice I haven’t mentioned pesticide applications, in many instances you may not need to apply any pesticides if your growing conditions are perfect for turf.
In other areas you may need only fungicides when diseases start to appear. In difficult areas you may find a need to apply fungicides or insecticides on a regular basis because you know you will encounter certain problems.
Having a person on the property that can manage these types of conditions is extremely important. Hand water when needed, spray pesticides at moment’s notice, identify when disease conditions maybe at a high and choose the correct product and apply it at the correct rate.
Being an ex-golf course superintendent with over twenty five years in the industry, I highly recommend against natural greens and would truly consider synthetic green surfaces. Being in the synthetic turf industry for the past twelve years and distributor for Synthetic Turf International, I have yet to come across a turf product that compares STI.
STI offers several different putting green options, from sand filled to nylon greens. We also offer options for which type of infill product to use so that you can replicate the speed of your favorite course.
Our nylon products roll at a speed of 11.5 on the Stimp Meter without infill.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a putting green in your back yard that didn’t require all the maintenance and cost of a natural green, but performed and looked like one 365 days?