Keep trees on course

Turf is usually the focus and primary objective on golf courses; trees often are a secondary issue. Yet, with a few noteworthy exceptions (the links of Scotland and Ireland, for example), trees make a vast contribution to the overall playability and beauty of golf courses. Commensurate with their impact, trees should be given a high priority before, during and after course construction.

Before construction

Existing tree vegetation can have a significant impact on the final appearance of the course design. Naturalistic designs are my preference. However, designing the golf hole layout to extract that naturalistic result requires a conscious effort. Knowing which trees to retain and where is important. Arbitrary reference to the existing trees is a weak solution.

If the site is heavily wooded, the question may be which trees to retain and which trees to remove. The age and type of forest also has a direct effect. A mature oak or maple forest, or a Douglas fir and cedar thicket call for different considerations than if the land is more or less open with only clusters of trees or single specimens rambling across a farm field or savannah-like environment. Birch or aspen provide a totally different sense of place and aesthetics from a mixed deciduous forest.

Choosing which existing trees to keep often is the golf architect's job. The design layout of the holes can benefit from using existing trees. The thicker the surrounding forest, the easier it is to clear and still obtain a nice backdrop of trees. However, when the existing surroundings offer sparse cover or random mature trees, you must direct more initial consideration to selecting and saving available trees. The golf-hole design must first deal with terrain conditions and golf play strategy. However, more harmonious long-term results can be derived from directly involving the position, size, health and appearance of the existing trees into the design process. Such is not always the case and, unfortunately, some magnificent specimen trees have been removed to gain a perfectly aligned golf hole when there actually were other good options that wouldn't require sacrificing the tree. Clearing of a dense forest should be a progressive, evaluative process, not a forced cut, as for a roadway.

On sites where existing trees are few and far between, all the more effort needs to be exerted to bring those trees into play. This is particularly true when the existing trees, though few, are of mature size, unique character or are all that exist on the site. Adapting the design solution to capture the real essence of a specimen tree adds great and lasting playing and aesthetic value to a hole or course.

Using existing trees can also involve discretionary and selective removal. Keep the best and sacrifice the weaker, less-vibrant, ill-formed or insect-damaged trees. Equipment is available to help transplant and relocate trees when the construction budget permits. Tree spades can efficiently relocate desirable specimens. Regulators may insist on the transplanting of a particular specimen or some number of mature trees as part of the environmental-approval process. At times, a specimen tree, presently in the wrong place, is worthy of transplanting and relocating to a strategic point on the course, even at great cost.

Environmental rules in some jurisdictions insist on extensive tree transplanting. Relocating trees to an interim nursery location and replanting a year or two later may be feasible.

During construction

Selective clearing of a site may also call for selective planting to complement the original forest. Not every golf site is a heavily wooded one. Frequently, the golf site is an open farm field or a previously harvested forest or merely brush land. New plantings are, therefore, essential to help add a surrounding frame to each individual golf hole.

  • If you're going to save it, save it

    As construction begins, take care to protect those trees that you elect to save (see “How to: protect trees from construction damage,” page 28). Too often, trees are “saved” only to be killed by careless activity on the construction site. Traffic within the drip line of a tree can cause serious compaction problems, frequently leading to tree death. Limit fencing provides physical protection from tractors or trucks. Dumping hydraulic fluid or diesel fuel under a tree to be saved — a common practice — also can damage trees.

    Changing the existing soil grade within a drip line of many species will cause a slow, but sure, death. Grading plans and earth moving must be considered in this light. There are preventive and remedial actions to deal with changes of grade in specific situations near the base of trees you intend to save.

  • Who makes the decisions?

    Adding trees as part of a golf course construction program is really not the same thing as placing trees in a commercial or residential landscape. Often, golf architects opt out of making specific tree varietal or placement decisions, leaving them to others. This should not be the case. The contractors or golf superintendent are not necessarily appropriate people to determine either tree variety or tree placement. Nor are landscape architects unfamiliar with golf-related matters well-suited to produce a golf course landscape plan.

    Golf course tree planting is really more landscape horticulture than landscape architecture. Pure landscape design objectives would often overlook golf play strategy, maintenance requirements and golfer safety factors. Given the huge visual scale of a golf course site, tree planting also requires a different aesthetic orientation than landscaping a home. For example, the size and distances of a golf site require a magnified massing to look good off the tee 400 yards away as well as close up.

  • Play considerations

    Tree planting on the golf course must account for the impact on the play of the game. You must consider both the immediate impact and the impact that evolves as the tree grows. Strategic tree placement will directly influence how a particular hole or a particular shot on a given hole will affect play. A poorly placed tree often is unceremoniously removed early on. As a tree grows and matures, it may gradually impact the golf shot and be accepted by players who slowly adjust from one playing requirement to another as the tree increases in size. Tree growth does alter the design intent over time (often, for the worse) if not countered by periodic tree maintenance.

  • Maintenance considerations

    When you select trees for planting on the golf course, you must give clear attention to the impact of the trees on long-term maintenance. Most golf courses do not allocate enough funds within their ongoing maintenance budget for adequate maintenance or care of the trees. Therefore, planting trees that have a tendency to become problems with age is only asking for unattractive specimens and expensive maintenance down the road.

    Understanding a tree's long-term growth habit is important when considering species for planting, whether on a new course or a mature one. For example, selecting king or Washingtonia robusta palms as a tree planting statement has far less long-term maintenance impact than red maples, white oaks or tulip trees. Trees that spread in width and become denser with age can directly affect play or cause increasing shade problems for turf. In new plantings, therefore, take a long-term view as you try to anticipate the density and spread of the planting. The need for instant gratification can lead to significant tree removal later on. Plant selection must address sun and shade exposure, seasonal shade and heat retention at time of planting, even if that impact may not emerge for some years.

    The use of colorful flowering species, those with dramatic leaf color or those presenting spectacular autumn foliage bring great benefit to the course. However, unlike in a residential landscape, a single specimen may be totally inadequate. Because of the large spaces being dealt with, massing and grouping of these accent trees on golf courses is important. One or two specimens sitting lonely in the distance is a waste of effort to present the desired color or foliage feature.

  • Screening

    Planting on a new course or adding trees at an existing course to screen unsightly or distracting views off site is important. Planting trees to buffer or lesson adjacent distractive noise only helps enhance the enjoyment of the course.

    One caution about screening: Selecting rapidly growing species for “instant trees” can be a problem on golf courses. Many fast-growing species are short-lived and shallow-rooted. Shallow-rooted trees are subject to blowdown. Having to replace trees 10 or 20 years down the road as the trees decline is not helpful to efficient maintenance or golf course beauty.

    Also avoid trees with dense branching; these tend to be messy, dropping weak, brittle branches that require continuous cleanup. Willows are a classic example of trees that are shallow-rooted, brittle and messy.

    Scrupulously avoid trees with prominent surface roots. Surface roots often are the result of inadequate irrigation or soil compaction. But some species are naturally more prone to surface rooting. Broken mowers and bruised wrists can result from surface or near surface roots. Broken cart paths are also a result of surface-rooted trees. Poplars are notorious for sending surface or near surface roots great distances, seeking moisture, even into putting green seedbeds. Try cutting a cup into a spot where a two-inch root is growing a few inches below the surface of the green. Poplars are noted for weak branches and litter, too. If you have a choice do not plant such trees. If such trees already are present on your course, regular preventative root pruning can help. Using a trencher or even installing a vertical root barrier may be necessary to cut off or help regulate surface rooting.

  • Getting enough trees

    It is often difficult to plant a new course with enough trees to appear mature on opening day. Often, by the time tree planting comes around, the original landscape budget has been cut or spent on other items. The allocation of trees may provide only a sparse presence in the landscape. A way to reduce this problem is with phased planting additions over time, in coordination with the golf architect's original landscape planting plan. Occasionally, the owner wants denser plantings and will direct the placement of large numbers of small container trees, for example 5- or 15-gallon size, or volumes of bare root saplings. This rush to produce instant tree cover often leads to maintenance problems later. Crowding, excessive shade, loss of turf, slower play and even unsightly masses of greenery are a result.

    If the project requires a large number of trees and will extend over several years, it can be cost-efficient to establish an onsite nursery. Smaller, less expensive trees or seasonal bare rootstock can be planted and upsized in containers. Larger trees at lower cost are the result. The golf architect can coordinate tree selection with the project landscape architects. Trees for clubhouse and residential areas can also be efficiently produced in this manner.

    Tree removal or tree thinning to retain an existing forest should strive for a naturalistic, informal and harmonious planting. Non-linear clearing or thinning avoids the rigid appearance of insensitive thinning. Providing “windows” to morning sun through a dense forest helps improve turf growth. New plantings should be complimentary to existing trees. Fewer numbers of species are generally better than a hodgepodge of varieties. Introducing “alien” species or those not really compatible with pre-existing trees can lead to visual distraction. Planting the least expensive trees available yields a cluttered result lacking in aesthetic appeal. All trees have their place, but not every tree is appropriate for golf courses.

  • Plant it right

    When adding new trees, follow the old tried and true dictate: dig a $10 hole for your $5 tree. Further, be sure to provide the best possible aftercare, which will go a long way towards getting a mature look sooner from your trees. If necessary, install a temporary drip irrigation system. Or, if the budget permits, install bubbler sprinkler heads around each new tree.

    In some situations, drainage may be so poor that you'll have to install some sort of drain system. Good drainage is as important as adequate irrigation. If the ground is so rocky that you have trouble finding a suitable planting spot, try pines, juniper or birch to grow in these rocky areas. Make what planting hole you can and provide supplemental watering while the tree fights to become established.

After construction

A major safety factor impacting courses today is how much farther balls are flying. Pros are now often driving more than 300 yards. Average daily fee or municipal players hit the ball farther, too. The problem is with accuracy — miss-hit shots are going farther and farther off line.

Landscape planting for new courses must consider the potential safety risks of longer drives and longer off-line shots, and how to protect against them. The golf architect must consider safety risks from the original design onward. As landscape-planting plans are formulated, using trees as physical barriers for miss-hit shots is an important design objective, both for areas within and adjacent to the course. Residences constructed along a course ten years ago may now be in range of miss-hit shots, though they were not originally.

Even on established long-yardage courses, new tree plantings may become necessary to show due concern and reasonable attention to emerging safety hazard potentials. Removal of a dying or dead tree may open a “window” where balls can now fly to create a new risk.

Remember, these hazards were different or did not exist five or so years ago. Planting new trees to minimize an emerging safety risk is feasible and reasonable. Let an experienced golf course architect help assess the risk potential and the countermeasures.

Safety risks can arise among adjacent holes and green and tee relationships, too. As the balls fly farther, the risk area increases. Where is the clubhouse now relative to longer miss-hit shots? Adding new tree plantings to help protect against that longer wayward shot may help minimize personal injuries, broken windows or worse. Proactive actions to reduce potential safety hazards, injuries and damage due to longer golf shots are the first line of legal defense for the course.

• Don't let up on maintenance

Established courses depend on trees for the beauty, shelter, strategy and seclusion they provide. This enveloping tree cover often is taken for granted. However, maturing trees on any course require periodic care and attention.

It is obvious to me that many superintendents focus primarily on the quality of the golf turf. How the trees are managed and cared for often takes a back seat or is almost ignored. Significant budgeting for annual tree care is not common. This lack of awareness of the importance of existing trees on mature courses is a serious problem. The inattention will eventually result in a “critical mass” of tree-related problems requiring extensive and costly tree work.

The “tree creep” effect is almost unseen by those regularly familiar with the course. Tree creep is the companion to green creep, wherein sizes, shapes and forms of the putting greens evolve over time almost unnoticed. Regular visitors to the course, longtime employees and particularly the superintendent, often do not notice the inch-by-inch, year-by-year progression. These changes distinctly alter a course if not actively addressed.

Few golf superintendents provide supplemental fertilization for existing trees along fairways and in roughs. Turf fertilization does not significantly benefit the trees. Broadcast spreading a complete N:P:K fertilizer with micronutrients can do wonders for tree appearance. Micronutrients alone can green up some trees. Providing supplemental fertilization to a stand of trees, or to a few solitary specimens is inexpensive relative to the enhanced appearance that can be realized.

Periodic deep watering of ornamental trees around a course during dry summer seasons will pay visual dividends. Often the trees on the course receive only natural rainfall, which may be insufficient for optimal tree growth and appearance.

Tree thinning, shaping and other pruning chores should not be the work of a woodcutter. Trees around a golf course have great value. A professional tree surgeon providing careful and knowledgeable pruning or thinning skills is important. Hedging the ends of limbs only creates unsightly boxes. Random removal of limbs destroys symmetry and balance. An absence of thinning or removal of dead limbs leads to “witches brooms” or “rats nests” of ugly stems and branches. Ignoring mistletoe grow can lead to tree death and considerable aesthetic loss.

Trees are critical to most golf courses. Do not take them for granted. Just try to imagine your course with few or no trees. Ignoring problems and neglecting proper maintenance is shortsighted. In the long run, it will be cost effective to select trees carefully, plant them correctly and provide them with due respect and care as they enhance the golf course and add irreplaceable value.

Ronald W. Fream is a principle of GOLFPLAN — Fream & Dale, founded in 1972 and based in Santa Rosa, Calif. Fream has been directly involved in golf course design, construction, remodeling and turfgrass management matters in 60 countries.

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