WE’RE GROWING GRASS FOR FUN NOW!
After all my whining in previous reports about the slow start to the season, we have recently been graced with some decent temperatures and a good mixture of weather. Although we saw some days of heavy rain over the last month that has kept the water table unseasonably high, the fine turf areas on the course actually dried out considerably during June, and the greens and tees required an average level of additional irrigation. The work we undertook earlier in the season to plant a mixture of fescues containing creeping red and hard varieties into our tees has proved worthwhile in many areas, with the new mix competing well within the established turf and helping to increase overall drought resistance and maintain grass cover. The tees at Machrihanish Dunes have light, sandy bases and are always going to be prone to drying out, so while we are waiting for natural processes to conspire over time to build us a more drought resistant and organically rich rootzone, what we are aiming to do is to integrate the fine-leaved grasses that require the very least inputs from fertiliser and water into the sward. It would be nice to think that in years to come all we will have to do to maintain a dry and grippy surface of indestructible and visually appealing fine grass on our tees is to go out a few times a week and cut the grass. That`s the nirvana we are always working towards!
ALL ABOUT WETTING AGENTS
The greens have been quite predictable and relatively easy to manage during June despite the inconsistent nature of the weather, and I have chalked that up to a change in our wetting agent program. Greenkeepers use wetting agents to control water movement in the soil, ensuring that deposits from fungi and deposits of organic materials cannot turn sand particles hydrophobic (thereby inhibiting water from entering the rootzone and making it very difficult to re-wet the surface evenly). If a rootzone is allowed to become hydrophobic, it will be as difficult for us to re-wet it as it would be for you to wash the grease off a plate without the help of washing-up liquid. Historically we have had two types of wetting agent to choose from, penetrants and matrix agents. If we apply a penetrant, water under the power of gravity will travel easily through the rootzone but will keep going right through to the subsoil and beyond. While this is very useful if you are trying to flush salt or undesirable minerals from your soil, it also flushes every other mineral to a depth beyond where it can be utilised by roots and can cause rootzones to dry out scarily quickly. Matrix wetting agents have been formulated to allow water to penetrate into the rootzone and then to be held there, ensuring water and nutrients cannot escape to the subsoil where the plant cannot utilise them. The downside to these products is that surfaces can become easily waterlogged and airflow can become inhibited to the point where roots die off and beneficial soil bacteria start to get out-competed by anaerobic bacteria and disease pathogens. The wetting agent we have been using this year on the greens at Machrihanish Dunes has been specifically developed to form a very thin bond with individual soil and sand particles rather than forming a bond with the rootzone as a whole, which means that water is still held in suspension as it would be by a standard matrix, but does not sit in the pockets which would otherwise have been filled with air. The results we have been seeing while using this product are encouraging. We have found that the greens have dried out quicker than they did when using a standard matrix wetting agent, but we have also noted that during periods of relatively wet weather we can produce a dry, relatively fast surface much more easily and we have definitely seen more days when we could provide optimum playing conditions than we ever have before. We are also noting a positive benefit from extra root development beneath the sward, which we are putting down to the roots being made to work harder to find available water and those roots having enough oxygen to allow them to develop and retain optimum health. Longer and better established roots will increase drought resistance and allow better uptake of available nutrients, which will in turn limit the need to apply additional water and fertiliser. This will decrease incidences of turf disease and promote better grass coverage from a sward that is better prepared to promote the health of the fine perennial grasses that will be cheaper and less stressful for us to manage, as well as provide a faster and more uniform year-round surface for you to play golf on. This makes the wetting agent appear to be one of those catch-22 products that can make or break a greenkeeping program, a simple addition to our arsenal that can tip the balance back in our favour and allow us to allow nature to do the job of maturing our young greens for us rather than trying and inevitably failing to fight a force that we will never get the better of.
It is still early in the season. Time will tell whether we have enough water at our disposal to use this product throughout a prolonged hot, dry spell, but I would imagine that the longer we use it and the deeper and more developed our root systems become, the less dependant we will be on artificial irrigation anyway. An annual greenkeeping program is all a big balancing act, really!
Many of you will have played in our annual Campbeltown Open on the 27th June, and I hope you all played well and enjoyed the competition. I was asked recently how long we would make specific preparations for before a date when we would host an event like that, which is an interesting and pretty open-ended question. In reality, I suppose we always tailor our program in the hope that we can have the course playing at its very best when our “majors” roll around, so the truth is we are always preparing for them in some way. Even when we are turfing in mid-winter, we hope that the tee or bunker we’re working on at that time will be fully integrated into the course by the time next year`s Campbeltown Open is played! Although the weather and other vagaries will keep us on our toes during the weeks before the event and force us to make spur of the moment decisions on things like cutting heights and fertiliser applications in the weeks and even days leading up to the competition, we will use our experiences from previous years to develop a base template from which to plan our cultural practises to attempt to produce optimum playing conditions at that time. Obviously, we would avoid topdressing or aerating the greens in the immediate run-up to the weekend preceding at tournament, but we would also hope to time our nutrient and chemical applications perfectly in order to ensure that our surfaces were healthy but relatively lean. As always, we have to be careful not to push things a little too far, as it is so easy to tip the health of the greens over the edge, which can lead to sudden outbreaks of disease or a quick scorch on a hot day.
Trying to get the balance right can be pretty frustrating – this year the greens were relatively dry right up until a couple of days before the tournament and then we had a lot of rain which released some stored nutrients and slowed the greens right up. Although this ensured that we would definitely not suffer any residual damage from our increased mechanical inputs, it did lead to us having to make a snap decision to lower the cutting heights, factor in extra cuts and bring out the roller in order to produce a speed anywhere close to what we would have hoped to provide. Of course, having the necessary machinery and manpower at our disposal to enable us to be able to do this at the last minute is a massive bonus for us and this did allow us to get somewhere near the mark, although we would have preferred the course to have been as fiery as it had been earlier in the week.
while desperately trying to hold a straight line!!
Hopefully by next year, the wetting agent will have helped us to develop our young root systems to the point where nutrient applications will have been reduced further so that there will be no flush after heavy rain and we can run the greens leaner and drier all the time, meaning preparations for competitions as well as daily play will be a more predictable science. When you`re dealing with nature on a daily basis, every single thing you do is connected!
Pin placements are carefully planned in advance for events like the Campbeltown Open. Most authorities suggest you should try to have 6 easy ones, 6 of medium difficulty and 6 that really make golfers think. But how do you do that on a course like Machrihanish Dunes, where the severity of the contours make the links so much fun to play but also mean that a pin can be pretty easy or brutally hard depending on where a golfer hits his or her ball?! The general consensus was that there were at least 18 hard positions at this year`s Open…but this one at the back left of the 11th doesn`t look too bad to me. I wouldn`t want to be chipping back to it, though!
We hope you enjoy your golf during July, and look forward to seeing you out there!