Fact from Fiction: Native and Fescue Roughs

There has been much discussion regarding the deep roughs that we have traditionally called “natives” and “fescues”. There’s a reason why we have both, and there seems to be some misinformation out there regarding them, so I’ll attempt to create some clarity.

First, what is a Native?

Native grasses between 15 and 16

Natives are just letting the rough grow up. Whatever species of turf that is in that area grows to its maximum height. Our roughs are comprised of Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass, Fescue, Poa Annua and Bentgrass. Depending on the specific situation, the percentages of those varieties vary. When left to grow it its maximum length, this mixture of turf becomes extremely dense. So dense that you cannot see to the bottom of it.

In the picture below, the highlighted areas are currently left to grow to  “native” height

Currently, we have 13 acres of “natives”

The area between holes 4,7,8 is a different type, and unique, type of native. It was seeded to Little and Big Bluestem in 2008. This area is very wet (usually unmowable during the summer months) and the perfect area for these grasses to thrive. The grasses don’t reach full height until this time of year, and starting in August, they turn a wonderful golden-brown. The Big Bluestem, however, reaches almost 6′ tall so if you’ve ever hit your ball into this area, you know it’s a lost-cause searching for it. The grasses fit the environment, and the area rarely comes into play, making this area successful in its intent.

Little and Big Bluestem between 4/7/8

 

Second, why do we have Natives?

  • Several years ago, the club started at looking for ways to offset the increase cost of operating the club, not just the maintenance of the property. Specifically talking about the Turf Department, when I started in 2010, I adopted a budget that was reduced by 18%. This reduction was a blessing in disguise, as on day one, it forced me to look at every facet of our department and create a “lean” operation. I immediately looked at the property to identify areas where we could reduce maintenance costs, but not sacrifice the enjoyment of your round. This is where the majority of Natives were created.

The addition of native areas immediately created turf that didn’t need multiple weekly mowings. This created a reduction of labor, equipment fuel use, and wear/aging of equipment (each rough mower costs ~$90,000). It also created an environment that no longer needed fertility, water (and electricity to pump said water). In many areas of rough, we fertilize (and water) turf based on traffic. Traffic from mowers and golf carts receive more fertility to counteract the abuse. The native areas eliminate all of that input. The cost of maintaining the property goes up every year, especially commodities. As fuel, electricity, and fertility have risen by 2-6% each year, our budget line item for each has stayed very steady, ~1.4% increase over the past 6 years. The benefit of regular mowing is that it’s the best weed control. So as you stop mowing and create native areas, weeds survive, so there is maintenance to control them, but at a significantly reduced input demand. Some weeds, including Milkweed are a benefit to monarchs as it’s one of their primary food sources. We keep certain areas full of Milkweed as a habitat strictly for insects and birds. If you look at the map above, you can see that native areas are mainly around the perimeters of the property. Combine this with our wooded border, and you have corridors that create habitat for dozens of species of wildlife. Zoom out even further and Midland’s 160 acres of green space, surrounded by the city’s concrete and pavement, it’s even more important to sustaining a habitat for wildlife amongst recreation.

The entire East side of Walsh Lake is comprised of Milkweed and a habitat for Monarchs 

 

Third, what and why are the Fescue areas?

After creating several native areas, the Greens Committee heard a common complaint. The native areas are too penal, as balls are often lost, and lead to slow play. The Committee chose the location of native areas thinking that the majority of play wouldn’t reach them. However, some areas of natives were designed for strategy, for longer hitters, or extremely wayward shots. Regardless, they are very thick, especially when we have wet springs and summers, which seems to be the current norm. Click the video link below for an example of a ball going into a “native” front-right of the 18th tee. As many of you have experienced, trying to find a ball in a native is difficult, and the more you trample through the native, looking for a ball, the harder it gets for the next person to find their ball, as the grass gets matted down.

Oli can’t even find the ball as she watched me drop it!

IMG_0525

Below is a perfect example of how a native stand gets worse with foot traffic trampling it down

Starting in 2012, the Committee chose to keep the native boundaries the same , but decided to change the variety of turf within them to Fescue. Fescue is a native grass variety that thrives in areas that don’t receive traffic, water or fertility, grows to a much lower height at maturity, and is much, much thinner, so playability is vastly improved over the “native” areas.

The picture below highlights the converted Fescue areas

 

Currently we have 7 acres of Fescue, for a total of 20 acres of low-input deep rough areas. So of the 100 acres of rough on property, we’ve reduced that highly maintained rough by 20 acres, a 20% reduction in fuel, labor water, electricity and fertility! That is a significant reduction in the budget, allowing us to focus our funding and effort to short grass areas.

Here is the same test with Oli and the ball, but in a stand of Fescue!

https://youtu.be/fAWJ-QxlFXc

 

As you can see, the playability of the Fescue stands are much better than the natives. Not only does it provide a low-input stand of turf, but it also doesn’t halt play when searching for a ball. It’s important to know that Fescue stands take about 3-4 years to fully mature. At first, they seem thick, but over time, with no fertility or water, they thin. It’s also important to know that our irrigation system was designed to irrigate most of the property. When we change an area of native to Fescue, we have to move the sprinklers to the edges of those areas, to only water outside of them. This also takes time, as often, we have to move pipe, wires, and the sprinkler heads themselves. In the long-run, that’s the correct way to do it, to minimize inputs, and maximize playability.

A close up of the 3 varieties of Fescue that we use, creating a playable stand

Below is the newest area of native converted to Fescue. After seeding it last Fall and not surviving the winter, it was seeded again this summer. However, seeding large areas are difficult this time of year because of heavy rainfalls washing out the seed. Persistence and patience is key with the process.

Newest Fescue stand growing-in between 3 tee and 5 green

Several decades ago, it was common for golf courses, especially county clubs, to have the property mown “wall to wall.” Every blade of turf was cut. It takes a lot of labor to mow the grass, then complete additional necessary projects, hence another reason for reduction in turf varieties that require that much input. Simply put, all of the turf for the day has to be cut in the mornings before any projects can start. The turf grows in spite of us, and creates a situation where we need the necessary labor, equipment (and maintenance), fuel, water, electricity, fertility, etc., to maintain it. That cost of maintenance increases every year, and it increases at a higher rate of inflation than our overall maintenance budget has increased. I don’t think the Audit and Finance, Greens Committee, and Board of Directors gets enough credit at looking for creative ways to keep costs down, as a way of preventing constant large percentage dues increases. Not only have we been creative with controlling costs, we’ve put a priority on doing everything we can to NOT compromise the primary playing surfaces – greens, tees and fairways.

There is nothing natural about a stand of turf that is all the same height. Golf is played outdoors, in the environment, which naturally has layers and textures. When Classic Golf Course Architects, designed golf courses, they incorporated native areas to their designs. It’s evident studying black and white aerial photos from the 1930’s. The natives and Fescue areas create layers and texture to the property, creating visual interest on an aesthetic level. Today, there is a reason courses around the country are adding native and Fescue areas, as they not only save inputs, they create a more natural environment. A natural environment that creates buffers around our bodies of water, greatly reducing rain run-off from entering the ponds. The natives around the ponds filter water during rain events, preventing phosphorus from leaves and grass clippings from entering the bodies of water. This keeps the ponds cleaner, and needing less corrective aquatic herbicides to control algae blooms. Walsh Lake is a perfect example of a non-functioning body of water. The area from Cleveland Ave to Larpenter Ave to Highway 280, drains into curb and gutter, and ends up in Walsh Lake. Very little of that water is filtered first with native areas before reaching the storm drains, bringing massive amounts of nutrients, specifically phosphorus, with it.

Native areas around 16 pond helping filter run-off and creating wildlife habitat

Fourth, what is wrong with our Fescue areas? 

Weeds are very common when converting a native area to Fescue. The process of conversion involves mowing down the native to 2″ and raking up the material, applying Round-Up to the area twice, waiting for a few days, then seeding it with Fescue seed. We then topdress the seed with sand to get good seed-to-soil contact. However, when you have open, bare soil, with no actively growing turf on it, the scenario is perfect for weed seeds to germinate. This is normal and unavoidable. The Fescue seed take 7-14 days to germinate, and in that time, weeds can fill in quickly. However, applying herbicides to young Fescue seedlings will result in the seedlings perishing. It often can take up to a year of the Fescues maturing to use the proper herbicides to rid all of the annual weeds.

For the past several years, we have been testing a herbicide that removes all annual grassy weeds in the Fescues, along with several broadleaf weeds. It also has a pre-emergent control throughout most of the season, meaning we wouldn’t have to spot spray weeds by hand throughout the summer months, saving us labor, and product. Our test plots of the herbicide had shown us great results for 2 years. In September 2017 we made an application of that herbicide to all of our Fescue areas. However, we added in an additive product to the tank that we often use weekly; an anti-drift agent with a spreader/sticker. The anti-drift agent helps with drift, keeping the herbicide, Round-Up, growth regulator, plant protectant, wetting agent, etc., on the intended target area. It charges the water droplets coming out of the sprayer so they fall straight down. The spreader/sticker assists with helping the product get through the waxy surface of the turf or weed you are targeting. Unfortunately, this particular herbicide and the additive we added we’re not compatible. The spreader/sticker actually made the Fescue take in the herbicide too quickly, causing damage. Since our sprayers are not GPS controlled, wherever the sprayer over-lapped, it actually killed the Fescue. Overall, this was a tough lesson learned in chemistry. I’ve been asked several times why we don’t just re-seed the areas. I have, but the biggest downfall of the herbicide now, is that it has pre-emergent control, meaning nothing will germinate in those areas, including Fescue seed. The only new thing growing in these affected areas are perennial grassy and broadleaf weeds. According to the manufacture, based on the math of the application rate, our annual rainfall amount, and high/low temperature equations, we will be able to re-seed the Fescue areas mid-August. We have test plots of seeded Fescue, to determine when the pre-emergent control is over. Once that occurs, we will reseed the damaged areas and grow them back in. Do the areas of Fescue look unappealing? Yes, but the playability is just fine. Are we upset that they look like they do, after trying so hard to get them in the best condition possible? More than you know.

This area around the lower putting green did not receive the herbicide application and looks like we want it to

Below is an area that received overlap of the herbicide next to an area that received none

Its important to understand that natives and Fescue areas still need maintenance, especially weed control. If left unmanaged, they are overrun with undesirables, that affect the function of the area. The input demands are still significantly less than maintaining rough on a weekly basis. The end goal is to reduce overall maintenance, keep playability and pace of play up, and the added benefit of improved aesthetics/layering/texture, creating habitat and reducing run-off are all part of being more responsible in managing Midland Hills.

Mike Manthey




8 thoughts on “Fact from Fiction: Native and Fescue Roughs

  1. You have lots of folks to please in your position, Mike. You do an exceptional job of teaching us the “whys”&”how’s” of our course management
    You are a very talented writer as well.
    We are very appreciative
    ONWARD

    • Thanks for the kind comments Ellen, much appreciated. Although we’ll never make everyone happy every day, that’s our goal!

      Thanks,
      M

  2. Mike,

    I was at the meeting and still gained tremendous insight from your article (my generation this is an article not a blog). First, thank you for taking the time to put significant effort into this communication. I have been in corporate America for 40 years writing probably thousands of “memo’s”and I can see considerable editing to a fine finished product. The other aspect to this effort is ammunition for you and I as folks continue to ask questions. My new first response to greens questions will be to go to your blog and understand the issue, then come back to me with any questions. I was asked if I wanted to stay on the greens committee this year and I wouldn’t have missed it. I’m too old to square off in a fight anymore but am looking forward to this coming year with the final recommendations from Jim. I’m sure you have mixed feelings about what is to come, but I assure you, your managing this process, executing the final decisions and ultimately learning from the experience will have significant personal value. Appreciate your efforts!

    • Greg,
      Thanks for taking the time to respond, appreciate that. And thanks for recognizing the effort and time put into the “blog.” Well worth it if people are reading it. The best part of the blog is that anyone can go back and review any article I’ve created, the goal is to educate members at their leisure. At the end of the day, my goal is to make this golf course better than it was yesterday. Not everyone will agree with my decisions, so getting the facts out there are key to minimize the detrimental rumors. Regarding the MP recommendations, I’m hopeful people will at least keep an open mind, envision the improvements that will lift the enjoyment (and function) of the course for today’s and future generations of players, as well as truly care about the future success of Midland Hills.
      Your support is appreciated!
      M.

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