Managing Premier Golf Courses Without Chemicals

Golf course management is notoriously chemically intensive. What else would you expect with a monoculture grown on nutrient deficient sand? A single-species, nitrogen-packed carpet that must remain forever green. It is hard not to feel concerned about golf course staff working amidst a stream of toxins. It is similarly disturbing to watch the early bird golfers plucking dripping balls from greens that were drenched in chemicals minutes earlier. These chemicals absorb through the skin as surely as if you had put them in your mouth and the finger lickers get a double dose.

Increasingly, premier courses involve a residential component and the pressure is building from those that live beside the links for a reduction in this toxic influence. But the fact is, golf courses can be easily managed without the chemicals. There are now hundreds of courses around the world that have successfully switched from chemical to biological turf management. However, many superintendents have been indoctrinated with the belief that chemicals are an inescapable part of their chosen career and they have yet to discover that there is a viable alternative. During a recent visit to Asia I spoke with two talented superintendents that are well on the way to mastering Nutrition Turf Management.

Jack Transforms The Royal Selangor

The Royal Selangor is an iconic golf club occupying 340 acres of prime real estate in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. The Superintendent is a dynamic, innovator named Jack Cheong. Jack attended an NTS 1-day course in Malaysia three years ago and he decided that the “unlikely but intriguing” concepts warranted further investigation. He then attended the NTS four-day Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture in Queensland to try to determine the validity of these new ideas. In our recent meeting, Jack confessed that he returned home thinking that it was probably “too good to be true”. However, as he applied the principles and grew to understand nutrition dynamics he began to realise that it was possible to approach turf management in a more scientific fashion by working with Nature rather than against her.

Beating the Nematodes Without the Poisons

Root knot nematodes are a major problem on many golf courses around the world. These destructive blind roundworms move so easily through the friable, lightweight soils of golf greens and the fragile, nitrate-loaded turf roots are prime tucker for their kind. The nematicides used to manage these pests are the most destructive of all chemicals. They are extremely harsh on other beneficial soil life and, ironically, they are self-selecting. Research has demonstrated that the use of nematicides becomes more and more frequent because you have actually selected for the very pest you are trying to manage. Here is how it happens – the chemicals actually remove the three beneficial microbes that naturally control root knot nematodes. These include another group of nematodes that love to feed upon their root knot cousins, called predatory nematodes. The second victim of the nematicides is a group of organisms called nematode trapping fungi (or nematophagous fungi). These creatures set traps to capture and devour root knot nematodes. The third example of this collateral damage is mycorrhizal fungi. This is ironic because a turf root with an established mycorrhizal association does not have problems with root knot nematodes. In the absence of this natural control trio, the root knot nematodes are actually the first guys back after the potency of the chemicals wane, and now they have no competition. Nematicides are required more and more often with less and less results.

Jack confirmed this problem at The Royal Selangor. He described his nematode plague when he and his 100-man team first began managing the 42 holes and 7 grass tennis courts at this course: “Nematodes were everywhere and the chemicals were simply not working. Constant testing for nematodes is an expensive waste of time”. After completing the four-day course, Jack decided to apply some of the principles he had just discovered. He began using a nematode program involving inoculums of nematode-trapping fungi combined with kelp, humic acid and emulsified neem oil. The neem oil is applied at the rate of 2 litres per hectare as a standalone and then reapplied two days later with the other components of this program. This program is used successfully in several European countries, usually once or twice a season, but in this instance, Jack uses it every month. He reports the best nematode control he has ever achieved and he states, “I can vouch for this program as a real winner. It is not perfect but it is pretty close”.

Managing fungal pathogens without chemicals, Jack had seen major damage with the overuse of copper fungicides. Upon returning from the seminar in Australia he had made the decision to achieve the best with what he had. He used large amounts of lime and dolomite to lift the calcium and magnesium levels in the soil and plant. He actually used as much as 10 kg of lime every 100 square metres and repeated that regularly to lift the tissue calcium to desirable levels. He also used liquid, micronised diatomaceous earth (Dia-Life Organic™) as the second component in his cell-strengthening program.

Now with a physical barrier established (cell strength), he set about using his newfound skills to develop a viable alternative to chemical fungicides. He is a big fan of Nutri-Life 4/20™. He brews (multiplies) it in an inexpensive microbe brewer, with LMF™ (Liquid Microbe Food) and Dominate-B™. He applies the brew at 100 litres per hectare to build biodiversity. He combines Trichoderma (Tricho-Shield™) with the brewed 4/20™ and tosses in some humic acid as a lunchbox for these beneficial fungi.

“Bermuda Grass Decline” a Cop-out

Jack becomes passionate when we discuss a common turf grass problem called “Bermuda grass decline”. He proclaims, “if there is one thing I now know for sure, it is that Bermuda grass decline is a cop-out. They claim certain pathogens are involved, but many things become involved when nutrition is missing”. Jack has demonstrated that nutrition, involving minerals and the microbes that deliver those minerals, is the real key to this problem. He claims, “it is about balance. If you get the trace minerals right and the plant health maximised there is simply no issue.”

Jack describes a course that was in a sorry state when he took the helm: “In 2008, when I took over, the stratification was terrible. I tried countless chemicals before I did your course and they simply did not work. The average length of the turf roots was just over an inch. When I woke up to the importance of nutrition and biology, that changed. The average length of the roots now is 4 inches and this is Tif Eagle Bermuda that is not known for deep roots.”

Jack’s experience mirrors the stories of a growing number of enlightened superintendents around the globe.

If you are a Golf Course Superintendent or a consultant in this field, I strongly urge you to invest in the NTS four-day Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture. I suspect that, like these Malaysian trail blazers, you too will find it life-changing!

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