Keeping a golf course’s pond in a pristine and presentable state can often be challenging and a lot of work. Bank erosion, suspended sediment, nutrient runoff, wind-blown trash, and hordes of potentially destructive geese can easily turn a waterbody into a muddy, green, slimy, stinky mess. In contrast, when you see a beautiful pond or lake in a natural setting, a healthy ecosystem is working to balance out all of these potentially destructive influences. Controlling all of these problems artificially may require multiple herbicide treatments, labor intensive cleanup, and expensive repairs. Why do so much work yourself, when the plants that want to be there are willing to do so much of it for you?
Many pond and lake issues start on land. Surface runoff from rain and melting snow causes bank erosion and transports sediment and nutrients into the water. Excess nutrients and sediment lead to pond algae, weeds and turbidity. Geese graze on terrestrial plants, sometimes causing turf damage, and then transfer those nutrients to the water in their droppings. Allowing the shoreline area to develop a community of taller, diverse native plant species can help to protect your waterbody from these harmful influences. These plants slow runoff to prevent erosion while absorbing nutrients. This band of vegetation around any waterbody–a pond, lake, or even a stream–is called a buffer zone. And, it is the single most effective means of protecting your course’s ponds from surface runoff.
There isn’t a golfer who likes to navigate around geese droppings. And likewise, the damage they do while feeding on the turf creates major headaches for course managers. While Canada geese seem to be able to adapt to almost any habitat within their range, they also have a strong aversion to walking through tall vegetation. This little quirk on their part gives the vegetative buffer additional value as a goose deterrent, discouraging them from wading in and out of the water to graze on land. In addition to dissuading these undesirable birds, buffers serve as habitat for all manner of desirable wildlife, including songbirds, pollinating insects, and amphibians. It also serves as a windbreak to catch any paper and plastic that may otherwise blow into the water, keeping litter on dry land where the maintenance crew can more easily remove it.
The simplest way to establish a terrestrial buffer is simply to stop mowing in the area where you want it to grow. As the grass grows higher, other plant species will begin to colonize the area. If you want things to progress a little bit faster, a number of seed mixes are available which include a blend of native plants that are both ecologically beneficial and aesthetically desirable. Rushes and wildflowers are excellent buffer plants that are typically tolerant of heat and reduced rainfall. Planting established seedlings will speed things along even more. The suggested planting time is in the spring season, giving new plants time to get established before the heat of the summer can stress them. As the buffer develops, selective treatment of any invasive or woody plants will preserve its beneficial value. Black Willow seedlings can be particularly troublesome species along shorelines. This species can easily out compete surrounding plants and create erosion issues along the shoreline. There are many other woody species that you would want to control and keep out of your buffer as well.
As valuable as a terrestrial buffer is, there are some scenarios where they just are not appropriate. Ponds with a fairway that leads right up to the water’s edge, for instance, do not allow for the establishment of tall vegetation on the shore. Unfortunately, these ponds are also the most visible, and thus are the water features where you may most want to utilize the ecosystem services provided by a vegetative buffer. In a situation like this, a buffer can be established within the confines of the pond itself. Emergent vegetation, plants that root beneath shallow water and grow above the surface, can be established in the shallow water along the pond’s border. The resulting aquatic buffer provides some of the same benefits of a terrestrial buffer, but does not take up any space on land.
Emergent plants do not provide as much protection against bank erosion as their roots are under the water, but they do slow down runoff as it reaches the pond and encourage the sediment to settle out more quickly. Additionally, these plants draw their nutrients from the sediment and water column of the pond itself, and therefore provide the benefit of directly absorbing nutrients that would otherwise be available for algae growth. For this reason, aquatic buffers bring additional value when used in conjunction with a terrestrial buffer.
Many native plant nurseries propagate beneficial emergent plants. Plants like Arrow Arum, Pickerelweed, Three-Square Rush, and Lizard’s Tail are all good choices and are available as 2” plugs. Most of these plants will spread both by seed and by rhizomes, so initial plantings can be relatively sparse and still develop a functional buffer over just a few growing seasons. Just keep in mind that not every plant you install will survive. Because these plants are protected from heat by being partially immersed in water, they can be planted throughout the summer. Plants that have time to establish their root structure before going dormant for winter will have a higher chance of surviving and spreading.
Though less susceptible to invasion than terrestrial areas, there are some species like cattails and Phragmites that may show up in an aquatic buffer zone, so regular treatment of any undesirable plants is still an important step in maintaining vegetative buffers. Selective treatment with an appropriate aquatic herbicide or manual removal can be employed to control such unwanted plants. One reason to use plants native to your area is that they tend to be able to take care of themselves, but replanting in areas damaged by animals or other disturbances may be occasionally necessary.
Establishing buffers will not solve every problem in your course’s ponds, but they are a valuable mitigation tool. Well planned buffer zones can be aesthetically pleasing and highly functional. Nutrient removal, animal mitigation, and bank stabilization are increased with buffers. Buffer establishment and maintenance can easily be achieved by working through your regional lake and pond professionals. Though not appropriate for every setting, they do provide aesthetic and ecological benefits that greatly outweigh the costs of buffer establishment and maintenance. Maintaining your ponds properly can be a lot of work, so consult qualified lake and pond management professionals and allow them to assist you in developing an integrated management strategy for your water resources.
Gavin Ferris an Ecologist with SOLitude Lake Management. SOLitude Lake Management is committed to providing full service lake, pond and fisheries management services that improve water quality, preserve natural resources, and reduce our environmental footprint. Learn more at www.solitudelakemanagement.com.