Evolution of Aeration

At one time or another, we, as golf course superintendents, have probably been guilty of performing a cultural practice on our course because it is something we’ve always done. The practice shouldn’t necessarily be deemed unnecessary, but it’s quite possible that it could be optimized to better suit your intended goal.

During my first couple of seasons as superintendent at Northland Country Club, I know I was guilty of performing practices the way I had always done them. You know what? As a new superintendent finding his footing it was probably a-okay to do some things I was comfortable with, just because they were comfortable. However, as time went on and I learned the course, the weather, and the membership, I begin to find the cultural practices we were doing, “because it was the way we had always done it,” did not allow us to take full advantage of our time and efforts. Not only were these practices upsetting our membership, but I began to feel they were not providing us with the greatest agronomic advantage possible.

One example of an area we have optimized a cultural practice is our putting surfaces. The aeration of these surfaces provides a wonderful example of how we have evolved our practices to suit both the demands of our membership and our desired manner of turfgrass and golf course management.

During my first season in 2007, we cored the putting surfaces twice … once in the spring and once in the fall. Why? Quite honestly, as a new superintendent I did it because that was what I thought putting surface aeration to be. As an assistant this was not the manner in which we aerated, but I knew when I became a superintendent, it was the way I was going to do it. At my first opportunity to aerate the putting surfaces, we used five-eighth-inch cores, dodged awful weather, and waited and waited for the greens to heal. As a staff we hated it, and even worse the membership hated it. However, we went on to do this process three more times. Finally, in the fall of 2008 things got ugly when our post-aeration weather was awful and the last 45 days of the golf season were played on greens that never healed. Despite the condition of the golf course as a whole being very good, the membership was left with a bad taste in their mouth due to the condition of the putting surfaces. Fortunately, I had an entire winter to think about how we might do things differently the next season.

As superintendents, we have the goal of providing our membership, patrons or clients with the very best product. At one time or another, in order to achieve those goals, we have probably all said, “damn the torpedoes,” we are going to do what we have to do and our membership is just going to have to understand.

During the following winter, we took a good hard look at our putting surface aeration process. The current process was angering our membership and when we broke it down, the coring process was not helping us in our goal of increasing bentgrass populations. A fellow superintendent and good friend was raving about his recent switch to only solid-tine aerating and how much his membership was enjoying the results. Turns out his switch was coupled with a move toward promotion of bentgrass … a win-win scenario.

Since the spring of 2009, our putting surface aeration has been 100 percent solid-tines. The methods and timing have been altered over the past three seasons, but we have now settled on a putting surface aeration program based on the three principles below.

1. Reduce the affect aeration has on golf by minimizing surface disruption.

The healing process from core aeration was too long and required more fertility post-aeration than we wanted to apply to our turf. A typical coring saw a healing time of anywhere from two to four weeks. Subtract that time, spring and fall from our already short golf season, and we were losing anywhere from four to eight weeks of good golfing weather to aeration recovery. By moving away from core aeration and replacing it with solid-tine aeration, our healing time has been reduced to almost nothing. The biggest advantage coring has over solid-tining is the physical removal of thatch. Most, if not all, of our cultural practices are aimed at the physical breakdown of thatch. Couple this with the fact that our practices are no longer a net producer thatch and we are able to sustain healthy turf with solid-tining alone.

The reduction of surface disruption also goes a long way in our efforts to increase bentgrass populations.

2. Aerate our surfaces at points in the season, which best take advantage of the way our turf grows.

Return on investment (ROI) has always been important to how we manage the golf course. Whether it be labor, equipment purchases or aeration, we are trying to achieve the highest ROI possible with any of our practices. In order to achieve the greatest benefit from aeration, the practice needs to be completed during periods of the season generally considered as good golfing weather. The reduced healing time has allowed us to perform aeration at times of the growing season which give us our best ROI.

3. Aerate our surfaces in a manner that best matches our management practices.

Our management practices at Northland are focused on depth. Deep roots and deep irrigation, the deeper in the soil we can force our plants to gather their water and nutrients, the better our turf will be and the better the playing conditions. Our aeration practices of the past couple of years have focused on depth. Greens are aerated at a depth of 12 inches or more, tees 9-10 inches, and this year we will begin the process of increasing the depth of aeration on our fairways.

No single part of our aeration program is earth-shattering or ground-breaking. These practices take place on golf courses all over the world. I do hope our story of aeration evolution can help other courses analyze their programs; seeing if they can achieve a win-win scenario. If your membership is unhappy with aeration, take a good look and see if some small changes can quiet your membership while helping you achieve the greatest agronomic advantages for your turf.

Contact Chris at
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