Fertility program solves green's ills

Matt Foster has a degree in aviation from Louisiana Tech University (Ruston, La.), but you're more likely to find him down on his hands and knees, studying the turf on his golf-course greens.

Foster came to Timberton Golf Club (Hattiesburg, Miss.) as assistant superintendent in February 1997. (He was promoted to superintendent in January 1998.) Almost immediately, he detected a problem with the greens on the 18-hole public course.

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At the time, however, the course-maintenance staff was busy building a new 9-hole addition. During this time, the original 18 holes continued to worsen. Weather conditions didn't help. The weather was hot and dry into October 1997 and then turned cool almost overnight. The hybrid-bermuda greens looked sick, and the overseeded Poa trivialis (rough bluegrass) was thin and hardly growing. Some greens were nearly half bare, and algae started showing up in spots.

Ron Hickman, Timberton's director of golf, decided in October that the greens needed quick action. He consulted some outside sources who suspected a problem with the greens' soil pH. They pulled soil samples on each green and sent them for laboratory testing. The results showed a dramatic drop in pH levels since tests 6 months earlier. In addition, the greens mix was like beach sand with almost no calcium. Where calcium levels should have been in the 350 to 400 ppm range, one green had only 7 ppm. The best green tested at only 221 ppm. Where pH levels should have been around 6 to 6.5, most were in the mid-4 to -5 range.

The solution: An application of 120 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet, put down in four split applications at 30 pounds per treatment. Hickman ordered pelletized lime-for easier spreading-in micro-encapsulated, fast-acting form.

Crews put down the first lime application in November 1997, with following treatments every 2 to 3 weeks. "We put it on as fast as it would dissolve and soak in," Foster says. By May, soil samples showed calcium levels had increased to around 150 ppm, and pH levels were up above 5.5. Most importantly, the Tifdwarf hybrid bermudagrass was growing in and covering the greens again, improving both appearance and putting.

Along with the lime applications, Foster and his crew fertilized the overseeded greens with a foliar 15-0-0, 6-percent iron (Six Iron by Terra Industries) for faster grow-in and green-up of the Poa trivialis. During the spring transition period, they used a 16-4-8, granular, highly soluble greens-grade fertilizer (Terra's Country Club), which provided readily available nitrogen (N).

After the bermudagrass filled in, Foster changed fertilizer strategies and switched to a 17-2-17, granular, greens-grade fertilizer (Terra's Magic Carpet) with slow-release N (Nutralene).

By early summer, Timberton's greens looked more healthy than most area greens. "The grass was doing so well that we were able to change from a grow-in to a maintenance philosophy," Foster adds. "Now, we put on a granular nitrogen at about 0.75 pound per 1,000 square feet once a month and supplement that with the foliar [iron] and a liquid organic manure that helps stimulate soil microbial activity," Foster says. He continues to maintain and improve pH balance by putting down about 4 pounds of lime for each pound of N applied.

Foster knows the above-ground portion of turf is only as good as the root system below. He's now continually working to build up strong root growth. His goal is to enroll the Timberton courses in the Audubon Sanctuary Program. The Timberton grounds staff has planted native-grass buffer strips along all the waterways and around the lakes to minimize fertilizer and pesticide runoff, as well as to provide additional wildlife habitat.

Gary F. Burchfield is a freelance writer who specializes in grounds-maintenance topics. He writes from his home in Lincoln, Neb.

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