Fescue to the Rescue

Well, March Was No Better Than January!

It is tradition that I start these reports by having a moan about the weather, but this time it is with a good amount of justification! February ended with a couple of glimmers that gave us hope of some early growth that we might be able to use to get ourselves ahead of the game, but those hopes were dashed almost immediately by the “beast from the east”. Because we luckily missed the snow, it could be argued that the beast actually did us a favour by drying the site up a bit, but easterly winds as ferocious as that always have a negative effect on air and soil temperatures. Easterlies have been a feature of the weather of late and because of this prolonged onslaught, the course still looks as if it is in the throes of winter. When we get conditions like this in March, we can easily be panicked into trying to rush the course into summer by cutting everything down to the heights we would ideally wish to implement rather than the sensible, carefully considered heights we actually should be implementing. We greenkeepers quite often moan about Augusta syndrome, a phrase historically used by people in our industry to describe a golfer’s lack of patience with the early season condition of the greens at their own club when they see how perfect everything is at the Masters. But I’m aware of how lucky I am in this regard not only to be tending a relatively dry and healthy course (which can be very playable all winter and will look pretty reasonable by the second week in April regardless of the weather), but also to be working with a group of members who appreciate that we are trying our best for them at all times and that we have their best interests at heart. Obviously, we will occasionally take short-term liberties to provide optimal playing conditions, but that attitude is always carefully considered against the detrimental effect it might have on long-term plant health.

The 10th green after a fresh cut on a freezing cold Monday in April.
The 10th green after a fresh cut on a freezing cold Monday in April.

So How is Plant Health at the Moment?

Considering the unseasonably cold weather and the subsequent lack of growth, we are quite pleased with the condition of the course in general at the moment. We have been doing a lot of patching, replacing worn-out areas of turf, and covering over rabbit damage. Craig and Gus have also been successfully waging war on moles. I’m not sure exactly how many they have trapped but I do know it has made a massive difference to the number of unsightly mounds of soil that blight the look of the golf course when these pests are up to their nonsense. I know John Rennie and Stewart MacMillan have trapped at least as many moles on the Machrihanish side of the fence, and I’m sure every landowner would commend the considerable effort that has been made by everyone involved in this initiative. The greens and tees at Machrihanish Dunes are being hand-mown regularly and we are constantly monitoring the speed and condition of the greens to ensure that we can maintain health during this period of colder-than-average weather while still providing decent conditions for golf. The greens are more consistent from site to site than they have ever been and they have a higher percentage of fescue going into the season than they have had during my time here. This is, of course, a shift in physical make-up that we want to encourage, because I believe there is a tipping point in terms of grass species composition where fescue becomes sufficiently dominant in the sward that we can tailor our maintenance regime to suit the desires of that grass rather than to suit the somewhat greedier needs of annual meadow grass and non-indigenous bentgrass.

For me, the nirvana in greenkeeping has always been to reach a point where everything works in harmony with nature to such an extent that all we have to do is go out and cut the grass. Golfer expectations have gotten the point now where reaching this goal is pretty unrealistic but designing our maintenance program to favour fescue gives us the opportunity to get closer to that idyll than if we were pandering to the needs of the other species I mentioned. There are many pros and cons to consider and to describe all of these in my usual flowery language would result in you, the reader, needing to take a week off work to read this report, so I’ve boiled it down to a few key points to think about:

Bentgrass/Annual Meadow Grass:
1) Both grasses require similar levels of nutrition, with the result that annual meadow grass will win a straight-up fight on our specific site for several reasons:

  • The alkalinity of the soil
  • The low levels of light and relatively high temperatures in late autumn and winter
  • The likelihood of fusarium patch disease when the relatively high nutrient inputs required by these species are added, and
  • The relatively high disturbance from aeration machines required to mechanically break down thatch caused by the more aggressive maintenance regime helps the annual meadow grass to prosper.Remember, meadow grass is the shallow-rooted vacuum grass that grows in your gutters, the gaps in pavements, and would probably grow happily on the soles of your shoes if you stood still for long enough. Because of this resilience and the fact that it can seed at such low heights of cut, it is going to win a battle for supremacy over bentgrass every time stress of any kind rears its head. Every bentgrass plant that withers and dies in a green for any reason provides space in the sward for an annual meadow grass plant to seed into.

2) Because inputs are higher in terms of nutrition, water, and the mechanical actions required to keep them in good health and to keep surfaces in optimum playing condition, these two grasses in a mixture are more expensive to look after.

3) Because more mechanical work is needed in order to keep these plants in good health and optimum playing condition when we need them the most, bentgrass/meadow grass surfaces need to be disrupted more often, and the type of disruption they need takes longer to recover from.

4) Typically, these two grass species are more prone to disease and at this time when governments are imposing ban after ban on the chemicals we have relied on for decades to fight these disease attacks, more and more often we are seeing diseases cause higher levels of damage to green surfaces.

5) I have found that these two species are far more suitable than fescue for use in poor-performing soils with a low humus content. They can be artificially maintained to grow on pretty much any medium, whether that be straight sand, a USGA greens mix, an agricultural soil, or even a clay soil. Because they require higher inputs to flourish and then mechanical actions to control their organic matter build-up, greens with poor structure populated with these grasses can be manipulated easily to provide a good surface. Once this aggressive strategy is implemented, though, fescue will inevitably go into decline as it is inevitable that the green will be cut at a height that suits the other two grasses better in order to provide the golfer with an acceptable playing surface. Once this decline has started, all the negatives noted above will have to be taken into account.

Fescue/Annual Meadow Grass:
1) If it is growing in a healthy medium suited to its general health, fescue can survive quite happily with far lower nutritional inputs, which obviously weakens the onslaught of the annual meadow grass. Although the two grasses grow happily side by side in our specific environment to provide a good putting surface, it is possible to use a low-nutrient, low-disruption maintenance program that will result in the preferred species dominating rather than being dominated. Fescue is also less susceptible than either bentgrass or annual meadow grass to the two diseases (fusarium patch and anthracnose) that most often affect our greens. It stands to reason then that the more fescue we can introduce into the sward, the less scarring there will be from disease and the less important it will be to us that the products we have come to rely far too much upon are being removed from the marketplace. As I said earlier, I have always believed that there is a tipping point where the percentage of fescue in the sward reaches a point where we can start to tailor everything to its needs, including using disease as a weapon to further weaken the weaker grass. I would never encourage incidences of disease, but I would be much slower to reach for the fungicide in the future if I knew that the results of a major outbreak were only going to impact on a small percentage of plants that I didn’t really want to favour in my greens anyway!

2) Because of the lower inputs and the resulting slower pace of growth, disruption from the more intrusive forms of aeration can be kept to a minimum as thatch growth will be far slower. Every soil needs to be aerated in order for plant roots to remain healthy, but it may be possible to use regular solid tining, spiking, and brushing instead of hollow coring and verticutting when using a low input program.

3) Because fescue and indigenous bents that also thrive under lower input maintenance regimes are true perennials, greens that are dominated by these species will perform well all year round and can provide good putting surfaces during all four seasons.

So How Do We Go About Creating a Healthy Medium?

It would seem from reading the previous section that, in an environment like ours, it is surely worth chasing the fescue dream. After all, the fairways are full of fescue, and it looks superb. Tight-knit, healthy, and really easy and cheap to look after! Surely, if we got the greens to look just like a closely cropped version of the fairway, they would not only be cheap and easy to look after but would also perform superbly, right?

Well yes, theoretically they would. That was kind of what I had at Machrie by the time I left Islay (although those greens were never cut short and were always quite slow. We didn’t have a roller to help us back then though), and it is what I have been hoping to achieve since I came to Machrihanish Dunes. To do this though, I knew that I had to make the rootzones more humus-rich and, therefore, a more suitable environment for fescues to healthily grow in. In other words, we have been looking to turn the rootzones under our greens into something that resembles the rootzones under that good grass that is in our fairways. So many people assume that links courses grow on sand but that is absolutely not true. Although, I will admit that the soils under our fairways do not contain much organic matter or a high concentration of nutrients, they are made up of a healthy, well aerated, friable soil teeming with bacterial and fungal life that is the perfect natural environment for fescue to grow without us ever having to pass over it with a sprayer or a fertiliser spreader. The delicate balance of many greens’ rootzones have been ruined by greenkeepers spreading salt-laden fertilisers containing sulphate of ammonia and sulphate of iron and liberally spraying chemicals which kill the indigenous bacteria and fungi that work constantly to keep the natural functions of the soil operating. Of course, we have been getting better at this over the last few decades, but there are still rootzones out there that will have had their bacterial populations decimated by greenkeepers utilising such extreme measures as spreading mercury powder on them to kill leatherjackets! Imagine you suggested spreading mercury on greens now…you would be strung up! Since that many of the products we have used as a crutch for years have been taken away from us by bureaucrats, we now have to consider soil health more of a priority than we have at any time during the last century.

The more that damaging products are taken off the market to protect our own health, the more we are going to have to rely on nature to look after the health of our soils!

That forecast might sound a bit gloomy, like the removal of tried and tested products is leading us down a path towards inferior surfaces blighted by disease or insect infestations. But do we see these symptoms affecting the healthy fescue in the fairways that we have already mentioned, the fescue that we would love to see provide strong, easy-to-manage surfaces that could provide fantastic playing conditions at a much lower cost? No, we do not!

One thing we have re-implemented this year is a biological program starting with the construction of a compost tea brewer. My predecessor regularly used compost teas to introduce bacterial populations into our rootzones, and I hope we can replicate what Kevin did with even more success now that we have spent the last 4 years building up a good layer of humus-rich growing material in the rootzone of our greens. I have seen us successfully seed fescue into our greens over the last two autumns and have watched it survive there long-term, which indicates to me that we are now in a position where we can maintain these greens to favour that grass species. Using biological techniques such as compost tea brewing, while simultaneously avoiding using products that have a negative effect on the bacterial populations that should flourish in the more humus-rich rootzones should only encourage the spread of fescue even more and will hopefully result in:

  • greens in the future that are more consistent from site to site
  • have considerably better root development
  • are less prone to disease attacks
  • need less intrusive mechanical disruption (not that we currently have had to do too much of that anyway), and
  • are cheaper and less volatile to run

Obviously, everything has to be balanced against providing optimum playing conditions and ensuring that we balance our maintenance program so as to promote long-term health rather than just a quick experiment. But if we work with the general mindset that we constantly want to improve rather than destroy the healthy infrastructure of our soil, then maybe we will get to the point where we find we didn’t actually need to pour all those chemicals and salt-based fertilisers onto our greens in the first place. Just as we didn’t need to pour them onto those perfect, natural fairways!


These two plugs were extracted just a few feet apart. The one on the left is from the 3rd fairway and is in an area that has never, to my knowledge, been disturbed by an excavator. The one on the right is from the 3rd green, which was artificially built during the construction of the course. When I started working at Machrihanish Dunes four years ago, the profile of the plug from the green would have been almost entirely made up of the sand you can see in the lower section of the plug, whereas now, it has a humus rich upper layer that almost replicates what naturally occurs in the fairway. Now we have reached this point, we are finding that it is far easier to maintain these greens using a low-input approach than it was before, and far easier to get fescue to germinate and mature in our rootzones. Hopefully, we can promote this development still further by continuing to use humus-rich fertilisers and sensible topdressings, continuing to aerate the soil regularly using a variety of solid tines set at varying depths, and by implementing new ideas such as compost tea brewing that are designed to augment the actions of nature. Using a low-input approach means thinking carefully about everything we artificially apply in order to ensure that we don’t put ourselves on the back foot. Even something as simple as spraying mains water onto a green can have a negative effect on bacterial populations and soil health, as mains water deemed “fit for human consumption” is full of chlorine. When I see what damage these simple issues that we take for granted have on the health of our soils, it does make me wonder what kind of damage we are doing to our own bodies!


Our compost tea brewer. It is basically just a 1000-litre plastic IBC tank with a mains-operated pump running a submerged aerifier…a bit like a giant fish tank. The green outlet hose feeds straight into our tractor mounted sprayer. The idea is that, once the water has stood for at least 24 hours to let the chlorine gas dissipate into the air, a specially blended dried compost containing many different types of beneficial bacteria and fungi is suspended in a permeable sock in the tank and an activator is added along with some concentrated seaweed. Once the mixture becomes wet and is constantly aerated for a period of time, the bacteria and fungi present in the compost multiply extremely rapidly and a massive number of them populate the water. After 24 hours, the mixture is ready to be decanted into the sprayer and applied to the greens, where the bacteria will hopefully develop a liking for our humus-rich rootzone where they will live happily, naturally fighting off disease pathogens, breaking down nutrients, devouring organic matter which they will turn into plant food, all as part of their daily existence. The more we can rely on natural processes such as these, the less we should have to spray chemicals and apply fertilisers, which will, in turn, allow us to maintain our greens in a way that favours the growth of fescue. The end result of this, as I discussed earlier, is a set of bulletproof greens that are consistent from site to site, require very little mechanical disruption and are as good to putt on in December as they are in July.

What’s Next for Machrihanish Dunes?

By the time you read this, the Kintyre Club Charity Am-Am will have been played, but it is only a few weeks until the Kintyre Team Championship, which is played over two days at Dunaverty and Machrihanish Dunes. If you have not already entered for that event and would like to play, you should phone Lorna at the Golf House on 01586810058 or fill out this form as soon as possible because the tee sheet is already pretty full.

Whether you play in competitions or not, we hope to see you out on the course over the next few weeks and hope you enjoy your golf. If you have any questions for us about the golf course, please do just come over and ask!