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Don't let headlines mislead you

This article first appeared in On Course - Issue 25

"Reduce inputs of fertiliser and water thus encouraging finer grasses to grow and your greens will be more sustainable in the future." Those are the headlines we may have recently read, but it is a very dangerous message to take literally.

Anyone wishing to rise up the sustainability ladder must embrace the whole story not just the headlines. The story says that by reducing inputs of fertiliser and water you will certainly create the ideal environment to stress out annual meadow grass. But do the bents and fescues automatically take its place? Definitely not. It will be necessary to put a number of other factors in place before those grasses can be relied upon to properly establish.

One of the most important of these is to define your requirements for green speed and how cutting height will influence this. It has been said that fescues/bents should not be cut any shorter than 4mm. This, for many, will require a change of mindset from previous management regimes.

Many courses particularly those inland and on heavier soils have produced good putting surfaces for much of the playing season by successfully managing Poa Annua (a naturally self generating grass) to its optimum. Its "cause and effect" principles have served us well. Vigorous growth is obtained by adding nitrogen, drought is prevented by adding water, fusarium is treated by applying fungicide, dry patch is kept at bay with wetting agents, regular verticutting improves putting surface quality and height of cut (sometimes down to 3mm or lower) determines speed of the greens. This regime has, in the main, produced good playing surfaces, particularly in Summer and Autumn.

Even the odd blip in late Winter and Springwhen greens may not be at their best has normally been tolerated by players. It is also true to point out that managing Poa Annua in this way has proved to be a practice which most Course Managers have been able to identify with and carry out. This is probably because it is clearly defi ned as to how the various operations are implemented and when.

So why change? Well it has been shown that where the environment is suitable for growth of bents and/or fescues then a change to these grasses can produce putting surfaces which should not require such generous inputs of fertiliser and fungicide and also may well be more consistent all year round. Indeed we now have examples of courses where this transition has successfully been made.

There are however three key requirements when making this transition. The first is to ensure the conditions are right to support growth of fescues and bents. This entails severely minimising thatch, getting the drainage right and allowing plenty of light.

The second requirement is to liberally overseed with these grasses and the third is never to cut below 4mm.

Then, when the fi ner grasses have taken hold, only then can you risk stressing out Poa Annua by reducing inputs.

Management, both in its quality and quantity, is perhaps the key when comparing the Poa Annua regime with the fescue/bent regime. The Poa Annua method is an easier one to manage when you have all of the necessary resources, e.g. ample water, fertiliser and fungicide. For some, therefore, this could prove to be the most sustainable path to take. The fescue/bent way may offer greater long term rewards, but will require a high standard of management, particularly through what can be a difficult transition period. Once achieved, this too will need to be maintained for the long term. There will be pressures from Poa Annua to regain its dominance; for more receptive surfaces; and for faster greens for that special day (and hence reduced cutting height). It will be necessary to deal with these pressures and this will require a strong commitment. In addition,it is essential to read much more than just theheadlines, it is the full story which counts.

David Croxton, Chairman of English Golf Union's Golf Services Committee and Proprietor of Cold Ashby Golf Club. David also represents the EGU on the GTC Board of Directors.

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