Friday, 17 August 2018

Heatwave over?

As we approach the third week of August, it's worth reflecting on the summer of 2018. It was dry. Very very dry. In fact, it was the hottest summer since 1976. I'm guessing that a fair few of our members were either a) not born then or b) were too young to really remember/care about it!

It's safe to say that as greenkeepers, it's been challenging. I would go further than that and say that it was a struggle. I don't mind working hard at all. But struggling is a whole new ball park and not one I'm keen to revisit anytime soon.

I took the photo above, of the 10th tee, at the end of May and by then, we'd already had a dry spell of weather. I was, at the time of this photo, applying some wetting agent to our tees. The way wetting agents work is that they assist to retain moisture in the soil, thereby maximising soil moisture. They also help water to penetrate the surface more readily. But they are not some "miracle cure" in a bottle.

Water, be it irrigation or rain, is still needed to ensure the efficacy of wetting agents. The thing was, between the start of May and the end of July, we had 7 days of rainfall of 5mm or more. Of those 7 days of rain, 4 gave us 10mm or more of rain. So essentially, we had 4 meaningful days of rain in 3 months. No wonder my back garden didn't grow and turned biscuit brown. No wonder the golf course didn't grow either.

Grass growth occurs with soil moisture and soil fertility. The grass roots take up moisture and nutrients from the soil. But if there is no moisture in the soil, the grass won't grow - at all. That was the scenario we faced for 3 long months. Any irrigation water that was applied to greens or tees was, for the most part, negating the incredible evaporation and moisture loss from hot, sunny days that never seemed to end. Does anyone remember struggling to sleep at night due to the heat? Imagine being a golf green or golf tee exposed to heat all day and all night with no respite - and repeat - and repeat etc etc

Hence, our turf just stopped growing. The tees had a nice application of fertiliser at the end of April which, in theory, should have provided growth for 3-4 months. But the amount of water needed to mitigate the effects of the summer was just impossible to apply. We have no tees irrigation and that is the compromise we face during a hot spell. So, if the rate of wear (divots from golfers) exceeds the rate of growth and recovery (requiring soil fertility and soil moisture), the result is going to be tees that get battered.

The greens have also been through the mill this summer. For the majority of May, June and July, I spent every morning from 6.00-10.30 am hand watering our greens. Sprinklers, in that consistency of heat, simply do not deliver the necessary irrigation water that the grass needs. In fact, they get nowhere near the requirement. Sprinklers just mist the surface in reality, providing more of a cooling effect. I remember back to my days working in North Carolina in 1998/99. During the summer months, even with the most sophisticated irrigation systems, we needed to hand water greens in the early morning and then the rest of the day, we would spend time 'syringing' greens - applying a light misting of water via a hose to cool the turf. This would counter the effects of evaporation from the grass plant. It has just been an exceptional summer and I am glad it is over.

Interestingly (or not - you decide!) our greens have taken both a pummelling but also not. The above photo demonstrates the 2 types of grasses that we are dealing with; Bent (darker green) and Poa (the sickly looking one). Bent grass needs very little water, little fertiliser, produces a lovely putting surface and as above, didn't even look like it had been affected by the hot weather. The Poa, by comparison, needs tons of water, tons of fertiliser, tons of fungicide and tons of attention just to keep it alive.

Poa is an annual species. It grows, produces a seed, drops the seed (for next year's crop) and dies in one year. Hence the term annual. Look at it like a bedding plant - no matter how hard you try to keep a pansy or a marigold alive in a hanging basket, it won't matter because it will die.

The issue we currently face, with our golf greens, is trying to convert them to a predominantly bent grass surface at the expense of poa. The overseeding with bent is working but the process is not an overnight one. We still have to manage poa through the transition.

Remember the other issue with poa? Ah yes, the white seed heads that, as golfers, you have to putt over. Then you curse when the ball bobbles. Poa produces a seed head because it is under stress and it is a natural reaction from the plant because it thinks it is going to die. So, with the heat of the summer, all of our greens hand watering has mainly been done to keep something alive that will die anyway. This is the major frustration of this grass species. It generally dominates golf greens that are soft, moist and have lacked aeration + topdressing. Poa is shallow rooted and exploits a gap in the turf where it grows - and produces endless seeds.

We now have firmer, drier golf greens and the bent grass coverage is increasing. Now, we have to ensure that continues. This will form part of the summer maintenance program. Next week, we will aerate, top dress, verti-cut, vertical drain and overseed the greens in preparation for the autumn and winter months. A granular fertiliser was applied this week to kick start growth before maintenance week. Hopefully, the recovery should be good as we are still in August.

This week, we have brought in Tim to do some hedge cutting work with his tractor & flailing arm. We have taken back a lot of growth along holes 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 where the understory was just getting out of control. The results are really positive but we need to do this work every year in order to keep on top of it. Doing it 5 years ago and then leaving it until this year is simply not enough. Sure, it costs a few quid to do but doing it little and often is much better than having to go mental at it every 5 years.

Thanks to all the volunteer assistance this week. Len, John, Tom have all helped with the clear up. John Buffel has kindly assisted with some path work, edging them and removing weeds. Well done John - they look really good.

Hopefully, with the cooler and wetter conditions of the last week or so, we will see the golf course revert back to something more green and one indicative of a parkland course. There will be a few areas that are still recovering from the summer but they should, in time, start to recover. A few tees are being eased back to normality. We will try to baby them through this period until we see the seeded areas recover.

Let's now look forward to the autumn and winter. This should be an exciting period, with greens 8 and 9 being reconstructed at the end of November. We have James Edwards, golf course architect, producing the designs and overseeing the project. His initial design sketches have been approved thus far and we are now awaiting further detailed drawings that will soon be presented in the clubhouse for members to view. Watch this space for more!

Have a great weekend, a great August bank holiday and enjoy your golf!