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Greens groomers/conditioners

Golf courses that don't groom their greens on a consistent basis might still look presentable--

much like the person who occasionally doesn't brush his or her teeth--but, eventually, your lack of grooming habits will catch up with you. Granted, a lack of greens grooming might not result in anything as serious as a filling or a root canal, but course members' complaints are likely to become more common as green speeds become more erratic.

Grooming your greens is important because the process keeps greens smooth and quick. It reduces grain and removes excess top growth. But, as mentioned, you must be consistent about grooming. If you aren't, the benefits you receive can be gone in less than a week's time.

Over the last 10 or so years, the steps that many considered necessary for proper grooming have changed as technology has changed. For example, in the late '70s and early '80s, most turf experts suggested following these steps to groom turf:

* Mow properly. Properly meant that you checked your mower regularly, making sure it was set at the appropriate height and ensuring that blades were very sharp with each mowing. (Of course, this is still good advice today, as is much of the following.)

* Lower cutting height. James Snow, in the September/October 1979 USGA Green Section Record, wrote that, "Although a low cutting height is now essential for producing a well-groomed surface, other methods for reducing thatch and grain buildup will have to be followed more often on greens cut at 1/4 inch or higher." He recommended that superintendents set triplex mowers about 1/16 inch lower than single-unit mowers to produce the same effective cutting height.

* Mow frequently. This meant mowing five to seven times per week. Experts suggested that mowing less often allowed grass leaves to grow too long, which caused them to lie over, making a clean cut difficult to achieve.

* Verticut often. Snow wrote that regular verticutting is "perhaps the most effective means of grooming the putting surface." He suggested that you set blades shallowly so the unit just nicks the turf's surface. To gain the most advantage from vertical mowing, Snow wrote that you should perform this procedure a couple of times each month, especially in spring and fall. Even weekly verticutting was considered beneficial, depending on your course's individual circumstances.

* Topdress regularly. Applying light dressings regularly forced turfgrass to grow more upright. This allowed your mowing units to more cleanly cut the turfgrass blades, reducing the leafiness mentioned earlier. This also reduced grain. An added benefit from topdressing applications was the use of dragmats. By pulling the dragmats across your green, you lifted up stolons. Of course, you also gained the other expected agronomic benefits from topdressing, such as thatch control and encouraging surface uniformity.

While many today still consider the aforementioned to be the main methods of turf grooming, others contend that these methods also stress the turfgrass, limiting the advantages gained. While greens rollers and brushes were available in these earlier years to aid in the grooming process, they were only a part of the program mentioned above. Today, however, the use of greens conditioners (or groomers) are the primary method for controlling turf grain and increasing green speed. We can credit their use to Larry Lloyd, a former superintendent at Rancho Canada Country Club (Carmel, Calif.) who set out in the mid-1980s to design a device to control turf grain, improve ball speed and increase the consistency of bentgrass greens.

Lloyd, now deceased, wanted to enhance the health of fragile, short-cut turf on his course's greens and tees. He eventually designed a front roller with beveled edges that promoted vertical turfgrass growth. Lloyd's device, thus, encouraged the turfgrass blades to remain upright so that a mowers' blades could cut them cleanly before they laid down. And he accomplished it without the techniques--of lowering the height of cut, verticutting or topdressing--that stress turf plants and increase their risk of disease or death.

Today's turf groomers Devices like Lloyd's are commonplace today. The grooved rollers attach to the front of your greensmower in the place of more traditional, solid rollers. Their regular use helps eliminate grain, smoothes irregularities and makes turfgrass stand erect for more consistent putting.

By allowing you to cut your turf at a higher height, the use of conditioners also helps promote healthier turf. According to a January 1990 Grounds Maintenance article on grooming, "some superintendents...noticed no appreciable loss of speed when they went from cutting greens below 1/8-inch high without the conditioner up to 3/16-inch high with it."

Cutting turf at a higher height has many important benefits. Turf has greater density and leaf surface, which encourages photosynthesis. This, in turn, promotes deeper, stronger root systems.

Determining proper grooming Because no two greens are alike, no two greens need the same amount of grooming. To determine the appropriate amount of grooming at your course, perform some tests. In an inconspicuous area, perform some test runs with your groomer and the blades set at various levels. First set the blades at bedknife level and make some passes. Then gradually lower the groomer's height setting until you achieve the cut you desire, checking the results each time you lower the blades.

Wait a few days and check the turf again. After determining which height you prefer, you then should test the groomer under other site conditions. Only then can you be prepared to use a groomer on a regular basis. Grooming two to three times a week is the usual recommendation.

When you first begin regular conditioning treatments, you will notice an increase in the amount of clippings you collect. This is because the mower picks up more leaf blades as well as stem material and sand from uneven spots on your greens. (As a result, you'll likely need to backlap or sharpen your blades more often.) As your grooming program continues, however, you'll notice the amount of clippings decreases and, thus, you'll have less need for backlapping and sharpening.

After you reach the level of turf quality you desire, you won't need to groom your turf as often. Because turf characteristics change with seasonal traffic and other stresses, it's a good idea to periodically check that your grooming height is adequate for the surface consistency you want to achieve. Most superintendents eventually set their height of cut between the bedknife setting and 1/16 of an inch lower. Use the bedknife setting as your starting point, and lower the grooming height until you reach the height that's best for your needs.

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