Forgive me for the brief break in these updates. It has been non-stop down here as we make our final push for recovery on our greens and start our golf course winterization protocols elsewhere. A condensed, yet extremely busy season is ending, but things will hardly slow down for us.
I will provide a separate update shortly to discuss winter projects and some large scale work we will be tackling this offseason. But I would like to use this update to discuss only the greens. A lot has changed in three months and since we last spoke. While the results on the surface are slow and steady, we have been hard at work doing everything we can to alter significant portions of the subsurface. A portion of 33% to be exact. Maybe grab a snack, or a drink, because we could be here for a while.
Comfortable? Great. What does 33% mean? Well, the last update highlighted some of the issues we have been battling with our soils. The organic matter build up, blue layering, thatch compaction, and lack of infiltration are some of the things that, in combination with one of the hottest summers to date, has made for exceedingly difficult grass growing on the greens. We talked traditional aerification vs drill and fill how we have utilized each practice to achieve different results for long term benefit. We base how we aerify off the standards provided by the International Sports Turf Research Center, which recommends 20% organic matter removal per season. We upped our numbers to 30%+ to build on that, and to reach sections under these greens that have not been touched in a long, long time. A MASSIVE number for one season, but drastic results come from drastic measures.
The cultivation schedule since August 1st has been intense, even extreme, but well worth it. All this punching and drilling has provided us with opportunities to replace much of the soil with fresh sand, plenty of oxygen, and to introduce new grasses that are more equipped to deal with the stresses of Blackstone National. It has resulted in far more consistent soils moisture wise, and it is no longer luck of the draw regarding how the greens react to heavy rains during heat stretches. Each green consistently hoovers around 20% moisture content since we started drilling, quite different from where we were at only a few months ago, when some greens struggled to stay above 10%, and some never dropped below 30%.
Why are we at this point? How did all this happen? Is this all that is necessary? Questions we have been asking ourselves since August and concerns I am sure we all share. While the greens were healing up from all the cultivation over the last few months, we shifted our focus to the more structural aspects of the drainage system of each green. Meaning pipes, water flow, and discharge from underneath the green. We built a device that allowed us to test each green drain line directly, utilizing the pressurized water in the irrigation system. We were able to bypass the soil profile of each green and flood the pipes underneath directly. In theory, every minute of water pumped into the pipes, should discharge from the pipe’s exit in reasonable time. The results of our drain line testing were very telling, and will keep us very busy this winter...
We found that on our best greens, greens that got slightly dinged up this summer but recovered nicely, saw immediate discharge from the drainage system. Our worst greens, and even some in between, saw almost no discharge if any, meaning any water that was applied to the greens by us or from mother nature, has been sitting underneath all season, and from many seasons prior. We can get by with this under normal weather conditions, but once the heat cranks up on us, it is a matter of time, and frankly out of our control, as to how the greens respond with failing drainage systems.
It all comes together as follows:
1. The pipe is pinched shut, crushed, or blocked with various debris
2. Water, gasses, and hot air are trapped in the lines. Instead of a smooth exit, they work themselves back into the green’s subsurface
3. Anything trapped in the pipes now fuels organic matter build up in the soil. Keeps the soil wet, and shortens the root systems
4. Organic content in the soil now acts as a sponge for anything we, or mother nature applies. Water, nutrients, and air are utilized by the organic compound, rather than the turf, and the turf starves
5. Greens stay wet, temperatures continue to rise, roots boil, and turf health rapidly declines
No disease present, no bad cuts, proper fertilization ensured.
The pressurized water test allowed us to pin point where the drainage problems are on each greens complex. We are already using a power snake to get inside each line to clear them out, or to determine where further excavation is needed. It will be no issue to complete this work on every complex during the early portions of the winter. I am of the belief that three months of aerifications, and upgraded drainage systems will put much of these issues behind us.
Still awake? Ready for another drink? To recap, we have solid tined all season, traditionally aerified the greens in an extremely aggressive manner, drilled down to disrupt 12” of soil compaction and layering, planted new grasses, filled the greens with new sand, and are now getting to work on the pipes. We are looking at new drainage functions and a 33% upgraded subsurface that we will only build upon as we gear up for next season.
That’s just the greens. Theres tree removal, dormant seedings, brush clean up, shop work, and many other things to check off our list before we are teeing it up in 2021. More to come on that later. As always, come see us, come find the drain snake and excavator getting to work on these drain lines, and get a peek at all we have planned for 2021.
Until next time,
Jake Ronchi, GCS
Blackstone National Golf Club
What is going on with the greens?
Well, they are thin, off color, wet, yet oddly dry at the same time. How does that make any sense? You just cored them out, doesn’t that dry greens out? Isn't it early to be aerifying? And how were they progressively improving, even throughout the heat of the summer, just to see immediate decline as we move out of the summer? Let's break it down and see what we know and what we can do to improve.
First things first: Are we watering enough? Are we watering too much? Is the water any good?
Yes, yes, and yes. For better or worse, you have seen us out with hoses on the greens throughout the season. We may have caused you to wait a few minutes on a tee box, we may have accidentally gotten your ball wet, or we may have gotten YOU wet (only upon request). But chances are you have seen us out early in the morning, and again late in the day checking moisture levels and prepping greens for the day at the appropriate times. We aim to keep the root zone between 10-20% in order to support both playing conditions and growing conditions. All of our irrigation supply inputs: our well systems, our supplemental pump behind #16 green, and the irrigation pond has been tested by various sources this season. Our water sources are very clean and contain almost no harmful salts or bacteria. There have been days this summer that we have watered aggressively in order to protect the turf against extreme temperatures, however, we have learned that some greens just won't let that water go, and it winds up “cooking” the root zone. It has led us to be more conservative with our hoses, which results in other areas not getting enough water.
All that sounds about as clear as mud. Throughout the season we have sent samples of various greens to both UMass and URI turf/soil testing labs to help us determine how to water, and to see if anything fishy is going on under the surface. There hasn’t been one spec of disease on the greens and our roots are very clean to the eye, but it is always good to have a lab-trained professional go through things with a microscope.
Neither lab found any soil born disease, they agree that the root systems are progressing in a healthy manner, and there are no nematodes or other insects in the root zone causing these problems. What they did find, is something we are going to have to work very hard to combat moving forward:
This is a cup-cutter plug, showing a 7” soil profile on #1 green. At a glance, with a soil probe, or our electric moisture meter, all indicators would say that this plug is wet. At the time this picture was taken, our moisture meter provided a reading of 25% VMC (Volumetric Moisture Content). There are no loose soil particles, the root zone holds together nicely, and the top portion is very soft. You would not want to water this area based on what the soil is showing you, no matter the color of the turf.
But sometimes our eyes and our electric readings don’t tell the whole story. Working from the top down: The blue thatch layer in the top 1-2" is collecting and holding almost all of our irrigation, rainfall, fertilizer, etc. It is made of fully organic compounds that are composed of: anything applied to the soil that has not quite broken down, old grass clippings, or anything that has been mashed into the turf from mowers or foot traffic. These organic compounds suck water away from the roots and soil particles that fuel our turf, but still shows as wet soil. So, when we probe by hand or with our electric meter, it appears that there is FAR more than 20% moisture in our soil. However, its being held by thatch and organic matter and not being used by the turf.
Even below the thatch layer, there are many black blotches or strips in the soil that are hurting us in similar fashion. The moisture holding organic matter and the surrounding soils of each spot are filled with moisture, while in between are almost bone dry. Again, applied water will sit in the organic areas, but result in hydrophobic sections in between.
We are finally entering a point in the season where overwatering greens can actually be a benefit in order to fill the hydrophobic voids. It is a HUGE gamble however, if we were having this discussion two weeks ago. See #4, #5, and #17, where a 1” rain storm filled our hydrophobic gaps, but cooked the root zone on a 90-degree day following the rainstorm, resulting in immediate wet wilt decline.
The answer to these issues doesn’t fall in the spray program or mowing schedules. It is all cultural practice related. The goal for aerifications is to remove 20% organic matter per season. We need to exceed that. We have vented aggressively all season and have gotten good results, so that will need to continue. But anything we can pull out from under these greens, and fill with a sand channel, will enhance the subsurface functions immensely and will aid in our ability to bank on our water working for us rather than against us. Routine ½" core aerifications need to be done regularly, and also working in some deep tining or “drill and fill” practices yearly will ensure the water applied to the turf can work its way through the entire root zone.
You’ve all heard me ramble in preceding updates about how dry is better, and that in general the problems these greens have suffered from in the past are from wet soil conditions. My beliefs have not necessarily changed on that. But through University sampling, a full summer under our belts, and further evaluation of greens drainage would indicate that the initial plans were just simply not enough. More air, more sand, more penetration is how we get rid of that blue layer. It is how we eliminate water holding particles, and let our roots do the work for us. When roots are breathing and utilizing water, they are happy. And we all will be too.
Well, the dog days of summer are upon us. It seems like yesterday that we had hats and gloves on and were waiting for the grass to start growing. Now the thought of putting a sweatshirt on makes me nauseous. It seems as though across the country over the last decade, we have seen less and less of a spring, and a drastic transition from winter to summer right around Memorial Day. This year certainly supported that model.
Dealing with the stresses of the summer is the most important aspect of the maintenance department. Everything we have done up to this point, even going back to winter projects, was/is to prepare for this next two month stretch. Our goals for the spring were to dry down the golf course in a controlled manner. If we saturate the soils with water early in the season, it becomes very difficult to add moisture when needed without causing serious turf problems in the summer. Now, did we need a record setting June regarding lack of rainfall and humidity? Absolutely not.
We water the golf course with consideration for playing conditions first and foremost. It is very easy to overwater the golf course when looking for a quick green up. However, when under drought conditions like we have been since early spring, irrigation cycles very rarely provide the rebound that we are all looking for. Light, frequent irrigation will build up over time, and once the weather breaks the golf course will snap out of this dry spell. Although nothing will green up dry turf quite like a slow half inch of rain.
Another issue that superintendents deal with when watering in the summer is disease management. The nighttime temperatures, or daily lows, are the indicators of how much water we can put out at a given time. A rule of thumb to go by: if the combined daily high and daily low = 150 or higher, chances are we will water ourselves into a disease problem. We would much rather the turf dry out a bit than create soil born disease issues that we cannot solve immediately.
As a staff it is time that we switch gears a bit both for turf health and playing conditions. The growth curve of cool season grasses (the bluegrass, bentgrass, and poa that we have at Blackstone) will begin to slow down as high and low temperatures begin to rise. We can very easily mow too much grass off the playing surfaces and wear them out in heat stretches. Picking the right days to use the right equipment on greens, tees, and fairways is critical to keeping up with consistent playing surfaces. Venting (those little holes you may have already noticed on the greens), and topdressing are also very common practices that we will need to increase through the summer.
But now that we have the grasses where we want them, it is time to broaden our priorities a bit. Over the next few weeks, we will be getting back in the bunkers to do some serious work tracing drainage, removing surfacing debris, and adding sand. This process will start in the greenside bunkers and expand from there. This is a very labor intensive, and at times loud process, so please bear with us.
Oh yeah, did I mention the 30+ trees that came down during that 45-minute storm a few Saturdays ago? #9 green is really excited about it. The rest were removed from the golf course, or deposited in a way that we could ensure golf carts and our equipment had safe access to all features of the property. The
clean-up process is far from complete, but I am very proud of the staff’s efforts in dealing with the debris removal while still keeping up with the daily work of maintaining the golf course.
That was long winded and excessive, but I can talk turf and weather patterns all day long. If I bring up Pythium or disease management to my fiancé one more time over dinner, she is going to throw me out. So, I appreciate you letting me vent. Hope you are all enjoying the golf course. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE wear a hat, keep sunscreen with you, and drink plenty of water. The sun is clearly not messing around.
Finally, after all we have been through as golfers and as BNGC staff, it is starting to feel somewhat normal out on the golf course again. Having all of you out has been great. The familiar faces and many new ones have made the start to this season really fun to work and everyone has been very welcoming to our new staff. We are extremely happy with the turf performance thus far, and are starting to develop a very smooth operation. We are not without our hiccups, but we progress in one way or another daily.
As I'm sure many of you have noticed, we have started to take on a leaner, dryer look on the short grass. This is very natural for this time of year. There are varying philosophies regarding irrigation and soil moisture both in the short and long term. Based on what we’ve seen in our short time here, and the winter and wet spring we had, we found it incredibly important to dry things out ahead of the summer months. This time of year, dry soils will force the roots to look for moisture by diving deeper. This process provides us with deeper roots and a really strong backbone to take on the stresses of the summer months. High areas on greens, collars, and fairways will show the effects of this first by losing some of their color and rigidity. These off-color spots are not dead grass. They will be back in no time as rains and light irrigation will even them out.
Now, shall we address the lime green, 100 blade per square inch producing, 1000-pound gorilla that is sitting in the room and on our greens? That’s a loaded question. First of all, what is it? The lime green blotches on the greens is not a disease, not an insect problem, and not (depending who you ask) a weed. It is the Poa Annua, or Annual Bluegrass, natural grass that wants to grow at putting green height in the Northeast and many sections of the country. Many of the oldest clubs, some that are still regular PGA Tour stops, feature exclusively poa putting greens. Our greens are not poa greens by design, but 20-year-old greens, on a shaded property with high play levels, will naturally develop strands of poa depending on growing conditions green to green. There are many ways to eliminate it, but to do it effectively while still providing good putting surfaces will take time. From my seat, it is far more of an aesthetical issue than a playability issue.
Lastly, the care and respect for the golf course that 99% of golfers so far have shown is fantastic. Your attention to ball mark repair, divot replacement, and cart management really shows on the golf course. We have admittedly not been raking bunkers daily, as we are unable to provide rakes on the golf course per Covid guidelines, so please remember to be mindful of groups behind you and do your best to smooth out your footprints.
Its been a late, but great start for Blackstone National!
Well, not much has changed since we last spoke in regards to the opening of our golf course. Both on the golf course and out in the real world, it's been another month of adhering to restrictions and doing everything we can to keep each other safe. Our staff has been working diligently to complete our tasks on schedule on the golf course, but just as diligently to be as sanitary as possible with our work areas, equipment, and golf course items.
The aerification that was completed in April is rapidly showing its effects. Aerification allowed us to infiltrate the greens surface with sand and necessary nutrients in order to firm up the surfaces, improve drainage, and create a favorable growing environment for the greens. While April was unseasonably cold and saw 20+ days of rainfall, I am still very pleased with the recovery we have seen on the greens and the extension of roots below the surface.
To continue to take advantage of the work space on the golf course, we elected to verticut the greens as they showed continued recovery. A verticut is a vertical mowing of the putting surfaces that disrupts lateral growth, removes unwanted thatch and above ground stems, and thins out each blade of grass. The firmness of the greens post-verticut is immediately noticeable, and will aid in making the grass on the greens more receptive to cultural practices, fertilization, and irrigation.
Our staff has been up and running in full in order to have the golf course in its best condition possible prior to your arrival. If you have been around Blackstone recently, you’ve seen many new faces around the golf course. The staff has done an excellent job keeping the golf course on track, their fellow employees safe, and learning the ins and outs of the property. I am very proud of where we are at as a staff, where we are at in the learning curve of Agronomic maintenance, and the culture we have developed early this season.
Keep an eye out for updates as I'm sure you have been. We’ll be ready!
Hope everyone is staying safe and sane in these trying times. It is certainly uncharted waters for the golf business, golfers in general, and growers of the grass. It feels strange to comment on the golf course and what we have been up to, when we all have much greater concerns.
Blackstone and the Grounds department have coincided with Governor Baker and the Sutton Board of Health’s guidelines for minimal maintenance over the last two weeks and for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a temporary layoff of most of our staff in an effort to keep all employees, patrons, and Sutton residents out of harm's way. Selfishly, it is a frustrating time. We had developed a great momentum as a staff as the golf and growing season has started. The weather has slowed down a bit, which has been in our favor, so there has been no issues with keeping up with the turf over this period.
We have decided to take advantage of this closed period to aerify the greens the week of April 6th. This process will be done with minimal personnel, but the end results will not be sacrificed. We have a solid, extensive plan in place that will set us up for a season full of agronomic success. Best of all, by the time you are back on the golf course, the greens will be nearing full recovery and only improving from there.
For everyone who came out last month for our first opening weekends: Thank you for doing such a great job adhering to cart path restrictions. The golf course handled you all very well with minimal damage. It is our goal to make the golf course as accessible as possible as soon as possible, and with your cooperation, we will get there in no time.
We hope you and your families are all doing well and keeping positive. One thing I realized right away and know for sure is that our Blackstone community is as strong as they come and tough as nails. We will get through this and have a great season, I’m sure of it. For now, any good books, movies, etc., send them our way!
That was it? That was the big bad New England winter you have all been warning me about? With under 5 feet of snow since November and more sun-filled days than not, we are very pleased with where we are at in prep for the 2020 golf season. While we are not out of the woods yet, all signs are pointing towards a quick green up this spring. However, with how gentle mother nature has been on us, you just know there is a foot of snow waiting for us in April.
I am half joking and fully optimistic. We should be good to go for golf by the middle of the month. Full cart access to follow shortly after. At this point, it is difficult to judge just how accessible the golf course will be for the first weeks of the season. There is still some, although considerably small amounts of frost in the ground. With fluctuations in temperature and sunlight from day to day, freezing and thawing is still occurring in the soil. Thawing, in combination with early spring rains, can result in a very wet golf course throughout March and April. We want you to access each part of the golf course as efficiently as possible, but we also want to conserve as much turf as we can to start the season. It can also result in frost delays of varying times. I know how annoying that can be to plan a tee time around, but please bear with us.
This time of year, the most important thing we can do is watch the weather. Until we are able to bank on consistent weather patterns, or “Grass Growing Weather”, we will be extremely specific in how we maintain the golf course. Throughout all of March and most of April, our maintenance practices are geared toward turf health. Focusing on the health of the plants now is critical to their success in the stressful summer months. Foliar spray applications, granular applications, irrigation cycles, and mowing repetitions will all be completed with considerations of many factors. Weather, available sunlight, soil moisture, and growth rate are critical indicators. Starting the season too aggressively can damage the agronomic functions of the golf course, and limit turf potential later in the season.
Once the turf is consistently growing, we will shift to a more playability-based approach. Rollers will follow greens mowers to increase speeds and firmness. Pins will be rotated daily to provide strategic variety and turf relief. Mowing heights will drop to influence more ball roll and to take advantage of the natural land movement of the golf course. The golf course will open in broader sense and we will manage traffic more specifically.
Our long-term projects are still in place and will continue. We are still trying to create every opportunity for greens to succeed through drainage and sunlight. Our staff has been set with great people and all are eager to get started. Lets just hope that foot of snow in April misses us...
GCS Blackstone National