Keeping it Green

Audubon International Sign

“Over ten acres of ponds and 10,000 linear feet of shoreline were created to provide habitat and water sources for migratory waterfowl and the diverse, native population of wildlife found at the course as well as providing added challenge and beauty for the golfer “

Tierra Verde means “green land” in Spanish; the definition also serves as an accurate description of Tierra Verde Golf Club. Tierra Verde began with the end in mind of creating a sustainable, eco friendly golf club. The City of Arlington had land available for a new course in the far southern reaches of town and the decision was made to develop a sustainable golf club. Gary Stephenson with Graham and Panks International worked in conjunction with the parks golf division, Audubon International and local groups to create the first Audubon Signature course in Texas, and the first municipal course Signature certified by Audubon International.

The Audubon Signature Program is designed to assist landowners in following sustainable resource management principles in planning, constructing and operating the facility. Before construction ever began on the golf course or sports center, a Natural Resource Management Plan was devised to ensure that all site information and proposed methods of operation met Audubon International’s guidelines. In addition, the plan is considered a “living document” which ensures that short and long-term operational requirements are followed according to the original plan and is updated as needed. The primary areas of environmental focus of the program are wildlife conservation and habitat enhancement, water conservation and water quality protection, chemical use reduction and safety through integrated pest management, waste reduction and management, and energy conservation. Tierra Verde Golf Club encompasses a total of roughly 260 acres. The 18-hole golf course, three practice holes, driving range, and structures comprise only about 95 acres of the site. An additional 165 acres including creeks, bottomland hardwoods, native grasslands and vegetation have been preserved. Corridors and vegetative buffers exist between every hole of the golf course. Wildlife species are able to travel from one end of the park site to the other without having to traverse maintained turf areas. The added benefit is that golfers get the feel of “having the place to themselves” as you only are able to see other holes from a few vantage points on the course. Over ten acres of ponds and 10,000 linear feet of shoreline were created to provide habitat and water sources for migratory waterfowl and the diverse, native population of wildlife found at the course as well as providing added challenge and beauty for the golfer. The structures on the property also utilize many energy saving features: the clubhouse uses geothermal heating and air conditioning to maximize efficiency.

The golf division in Arlington is part of an “enterprise program” meaning that the users – not the tax payers – foot the bill for the operation of the four Arlington municipal courses, even paying for the design and construction of Tierra Verde. The efficient design allows the maintenance practices to be performed by a staff of seven including the superintendent, assistant and mechanic, adding only two part timers in peak season.

Related: Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses: More Relevant than Ever

Bob Best CGCS was hired to complete the grow-in at Tierra Verde Golf Club in 1998, and was quickly followed by assistant Tami Busby. Evonne Sandas CGCS is the Director of Golf for Arlington and oversaw the primary construction, while also overseeing the other three Arlington facilities. Bob and Tami fought the finish out, the drought and the mulch pile fires to open Tierra Verde in November 1998. The construction company actually preserved much of the existing landscape only disturbing a few acres not being used for golf today. The preservation of large trees and native spaces allowed the course to open with a mature look and feel. I was employed at the time at nearby Riverside Golf Club in Grand Prairie, coming over often to enjoy the new competition in the area. I really enjoyed the concept and layout of the facility.

I began my career in the green industry like almost everyone else: mowing lawns and picking up range balls at the local golf course. My first formal internship was working at Barton Creek Golf Club in Austin, Texas for Superintendent Dale Miller. Barton Creek was in innovator in utilizing eco friendly practices to placate a concerned citizenship in Austin and to protect Barton Springs. I didn’t fully understand at the time how much the practices I learned there would stay with me this far into my career. After leaving Texas Tech to go get my golf course management degree at Western Texas College, I moved to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area to be with my future bride and began working at a large landscape company. I managed many large corporate campuses including JC Penny’s world campus and the property across the street which was the national headquarters of Frito Lay. Frito Lay used an all-organic approach when hardly anyone in the business had attempted to have a high-profile landscape managed organically. We used vinegar for weed control and the main source of fertilizer was bat guano – awesome on a hot summer day! The landscape company I was working for sold out to a larger company and changed philosophy, so I decided it was time to get back to golf. I started at Riverside Golf Club taking a major step down as an irrigation technician while completing my bachelor degree at The University of North Texas. Within a little more than a year, I become the Superintendent at Riverside. Growing Bentgrass in the north Texas heat on a course that had been flooded countless times was a trial by fire. I made it 3 years at Riverside without losing any grass and had some of the best times of my life learning how to become a superintendent on the job.

The Director of Agronomy for American Golf was now Dale Miller from my time at Barton Creek and he asked me to move out to Woodstock, Georgia to work at a course called The Golf Club at Bradshaw Farm. The course had 9 new holes that really weren’t ready to be open and were recovering from a misapplication of Round-Up on 10 of the other greens of the 27 hole facility. The course was a great challenge and developed a fantastic staff. I really liked the golf course and the people and members there were great, but after several years there I knew we needed to be back in Texas. My wife and I made a short list of courses that I would apply for if the opportunity became available back home. Tierra Verde was near the top of that list. In 2003, Bob Best moved on to his dream job in Colorado and I applied for the job. Many Divine interventions later, I became the Superintendent at Tierra Verde, probably in no small part to my experience at Frito Lay-the bat guano paid off.

I started at Tierra Verde in February of 2004 and dragged the family back to Texas from Georgia. The Bermuda came out of dormancy that year with the worst Dollar Spot you could possibly imagine on the greens. I was asked to try to heal the disease using no fungicide or other chemicals. I have to admit I was pretty skeptical that anything would heal those greens. I first tried cornmeal from a local recommendation followed by hydrogen peroxide and that seemed to halt the progress of the disease. We spread a powdered corn gluten meal across the Tifeagle greens and they healed up. I first suspected that it was the nitrogen alone that healed the disease and matched the amount of nitrogen put out on the recovered greens with synthetic fertilizer. The greens responded but ghosts of the Dollar Spot remained on the greens which were fertilized synthetically for weeks. I knew that there was something different about the organic approach but wasn’t ready to be covered by bat guano again in the summertime. We have utilized organic fertilizers and amendments for the past 5 years on the greens and have not had to use a synthetic fungicide or pesticide.

Related: Doctor Turfgrass aka Dr. Richard Hurley, Does it Again

The other Arlington courses; Meadowbrook, Lake Arlington and Ditto Golf Course and I have experimented in some way with almost every organic or natural product on the market. It seems like every year something new is available as more people tinker with organics. We fertilize with a poultry manure product on the fairways, tees and roughs and have had great success. To match the same amount of nitrogen in tissue tests using synthetic fertilizers on our practice holes we have found that we typically have to use 60-70% more input. Compost and other organic amendments are put on our high traffic areas and divots and we have seen excellent turf recovery. We still use seven synthetic herbicides on the turf as part of our natural resource management plan. There are simply too few cost-effective alternatives to synthetic pre-emergent and no replacements yet for some commonly used herbicides. I know that as this market expands there will be more opportunities to replace even those few chemistries we use. To do a program like this it really helps to have everyone on board like we do here in Arlington from my assistant superintendent Tami Busby and the experienced staff here at Tierra Verde Golf Club, I have been really blessed. My fellow superintendents Gary Archer, James Burnett and Brick Scott have done the hard work and shown the patience that makes the same program work at their facilities.

I also thank the Golf Course Trades for allowing me to share a little about myself and what we do here.

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