Beating The Winter Blues

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The end is nigh!

Winter is coming to an end and the pollen is already forcing some of us to reach for the antihistamines but for turf managers in the Otago/Southland region, it’s not quite time to get the soil thermometers out just yet.

It’s now August and upon reflection it might seem surprising to summarise the winter of 2018 as indeed a dry one. From a personal perspective using my place of work here at Island Park Golf Club in Dunedin, without a doubt my soil moisture levels have been the driest in winter for years. That said, we finally had a decent summer which meant moisture levels were already very low heading into winter.

However, in the last fortnight things have started to mirror that of a normal Dunedin winter with surface water starting to appear and remain for more than a couple of days after only a few mls. Had this been May then you begin thinking about a long winter and how the hell we’re going to get through.

Winter management might only be for 3-4 months but I see it as a critical part of setting yourself up for decent growing season especially in the deep south where on any given day we face frosts, rain and snow. I’ll be going into my 11th growing season at Island Park as the sole charge turf manager and slowly starting to get a grip on managing turf on hardy clay wasteland soils and the silty estuarine sand belt that is home to the 3rd and 4th holes.

It’s common knowledge that most golfers are oblivious what some of us on poorer performing soils deal with from season to season due to what’s underneath. They judge a golf course on what they see on top and sometimes how wet their feet are after a round. Unfortunately, not all golf courses are built to spec with PGA standard drainage and desired turf species.

So how do you go about managing your venue in Winter?  I’ve learnt there’s a fine line between keeping things tidy and in good nick, to just bunkering down and letting the place winter so to speak.

So everyone loves a top 10 list right?

Top 10 tips for winter management for small clubs on limited budgets and not always the best free draining soils.

  1. Course closure thresholds can vary

So how do you know it’s time to close your course? Is it when a certain green becomes waterlogged or maybe you’re coming off a tournament that’s cut the place to bits and rainfall is expected? Either way, during your career you’re likely to hear “oh it’s been wetter and we’ve been open”, whether it’s from a third party or a confrontation with club staff or members. Take note of rainfall and photos upon closure just as a backup for when your decision is questioned.

Also take in to account the month – I’ve found I’m more inclined to draw a strict line in early winter to help ensure the course will get through. Come August/September I won’t enforce course closure as strictly knowing the growing period isn’t far away. It’s important members know this and get on the same page.

  1. Ropes are a greenkeepers best friend

Let’s face it, we are all sheep, we follow one another and take the shortest routes to get to our destination. It appears not even a pile of mud will stop thoroughfare for some so putting ropes out is an important part of keeping high traffic areas mud free. Just remember to move them regularly as you will have 2 worn areas either side of the rope especially on fairways.

  1. Iron applications are important

Most of you will already do this but it’s amazing how many clubs or grounds don’t use iron. It really does help not only in disease management and moss suppression but also colours those yellow areas up whether it’s tees or fairways. Green applications are mandatory but also rate using it on tees and the odd troublesome fairway that is battling for supremacy with a strong moss presence.

  1. Modify your course

If your course has low lying areas prone to surface water that haven’t had drainage installed which forces closure, then why not have some fun and change the course set up for a Saturday. Sure members won’t be able to put a card in for handicapping but it’s got to be better than being closed if the rest of the course is reasonably ok. It’s an excuse to open bar and keep morale up which is probably needed for those who feel the need to play 7 days a week during course closure periods.

  1. Aerify greens regularly

If you’re lucky enough to own some sort of spiker or vertidrain then great. If not then maybe drop a box of Speights into your local engineer and a design to fit on the back of a small tractor. I was lucky enough to inherit an old Norwest spiker which fits nicely on the back of my small Kubota. I regularly run this in 2 directions across my greens once a month through winter which leaves 6 inch slits 6 inches deep. I firmly believe this does as good a job as a vertidrain without leaving the holes. It’s a lighter option and versatile enough that I can do tees and fairways at speed without making a mess.

  1. Mole plough both sides of winter

For best results I believe spring works best here in Otago just before things dry out fully. 4 years ago, I got the timing spot on. With a dry summer that followed, the mole lines opened to the point they nearly swallowed a golf ball. If all else fails, an autumn ploughing can still help improve things in troublesome areas but you don’t generally get the bake that keeps them open longer. Where possible utilise ditches and open cut drains for your entry and exit – just make sure you know the depth of your mole and the drains you might be intercepting or there’s every chance you’ll catch some old shallow coil somewhere.

  1. Communicate and Educate members

I’m fortunate at Island Park to have wonderful members and committee who ultimately leave course closures up to myself. I think it’s important to talk to members when you can and explain things without losing your lid. Sometimes courses close themselves but if members know about drying periods then they can make educated guesses without hounding the greenkeeper as to when a course will be open. Social media is important part of keeping people in the loop. Clubs need to not only post when things are closed but why?

  1. Mow what you can when you can
    Remember presentation is everything and while producing a venue in top condition isn’t always possible, never let the dust settle on the machinery over winter. Often there will be periods where parts of a course are mow-able and could do a with a trim. Even if you can’t do the whole place, maintaining tees and surrounds should still be priority as well as the odd fairway. Don’t be afraid to use a smaller utility mower on the fairways even if it’s simply mowing in some definition so your members know whether they’re on the fairway for clean and places purposes.
  1. Use wetting agents

For some this idea might seem ludicrous given your soil is already saturated but this is more for dew removal as well as conditioning your soil for when the early signs on dry patch appear in spring. Combining some wetting agent in an iron brew is ideal for minimising the risk of disease and also saves a job on the dew whip or rope if you’re that way inclined.

  1. Take time off

The most important of all is rejuvenating before the season ahead. Some times winter can be draining on the soul and these days there’s more awareness around mental health within the work place. So why not plan ahead and schedule that holiday to Queensland and escape the cold in July to enjoy temperatures in the high teens to early 20’s. As we all know it’s not always possibly to take days off during the growing season especially if you’re sole charge or part of a small team with low voluntary labour.