Winter elk and wild flowers in the mountains

Winter elk
In the winter, our day-to-day focus is to monitor our elk herds amongst many other things. As many as 3,500 to 4,000 elk are found in our surrounding area. Several hundred of these elk choose to overwinter on our course. The local division of wildlife spokesman likened the elk on the golf course to teenagers given a choice between a health food store or an ice cream parlor. Most of the teens will go for ice cream. To prepare for their arrival and to protect our trees, greens, and tees, a tremendous amount of preparation work begins in early fall.

We begin with fencing every tree that has been planted on the course and the surrounding landscape. This equates to approximately 3000 trees. The fences are put in as a deterrent to the elk that like to use the buds of the trees as a food source as well as a spot to rub their antlers on. However, elk aren’t cerebrally challenged. We spend many hours during the winter fixing tree fences that the bull elk have managed to hook their antlers on and tear off the fences in order to have their way with a young Aspen tree or Austrian pine.

In order to protect our greens and tees from the damaging effects of hoof prints and urine stains, we install fence posts and rope to discourage the animals from meandering into these areas. Imagine a ball mark x10; that is a hoof print from an elk. Perhaps even worse is a urine stain. Elk have a high concentration of nitrogen in their urine. Because of this higher nitrogen content, the turf is “burned” and dies out. These areas must be cut out and replaced with turf that is grown in our nursery. This becomes not only unsightly, but also is an extremely timely process. This year we will install over 950 fence posts and will have strung approximately 11 miles of rope. We spend the winter months checking on the posts and rope to ensure that they remain tight and fix any that may have been broken or are loose.

There is a reality to all of this. The real reality is that the elk will go wherever they want to and whenever they want to. We will have spent 500 man hours fencing. This past spring we spent 1,223 man hours cleaning up. All we are really trying to do is lessen their destructive tendencies.

Summer flowers
Late fall is also the time of year that we do our wildflower planting. We do this at this time so that the seed has a chance to “harden off” from the cold temperatures. This process is an excellent way to accelerate seed germination in the spring. Here is our method based on our seed supplier’s recommendations, Beauty Beyond Belief (

Preparing a site
Select a site with good drainage, free of weeds or choking grasses. If any exist, remove by pulling, tilling, or use of an herbicide like Round Up, carefully following the labeled
instructions. Loosen soil by tilling to a depth of 4inches, then rake smooth. Avoid fertilizing: his only encourages weed growth and will produce excess leaf growth at the expense of blooms.

Planting rate
A good rule of thumb is to plant one ounce of seed for 125 square feet. Do not exceed this rate. You will get too many annuals the first year, and they will shade out the perennials underneath which need sunlight to emerge and develop.

Method of application
Mix clean, dry sand with the seed … sand adds volume and helps in even distribution. Use four or five parts sand to one part seed. For small areas, broadcast seeds by hand. On larger areas, use a cyclone-type fertilizer spreader. Rake lightly, covering seeds to a depth of one-eighth inch. For areas larger than one acre, pull a section of chain-link fence behind a small tractor. This will cover the seed and save valuable time.

When to plant
Wildflowers can be planted either in spring or in the fall. For spring planting, gently water the area for the first month or so (unless spring rains do it for you) to enhance germination. For fall planting, simply rake seed into soil, mulch the area lightly, water once and forget. Nature will chill the seeds and they will sprout the following spring. Make sure you plant late enough in the fall that germination will not occur. If you plant in the spring, wait until one month prior to the last hard frost. The local soil conservation service should be able to tell you when that date is.

Care of your wildflowers
Once established, taking care of your wildflower areas is a must. This means you should evaluate the site once a year (usually late summer) and determine if your expectations are being met. You should understand the first year will produce a dazzling display probably not repeated in the years to follow. This is true because the flush of annuals in the mix tend to initially dominate the perennials. Most perennials do not flower the first year, instead expanding their deep root system to ensure longevity.

For these reasons, every succeeding year will produce different results, unless “managed.” If you choose, you may reseed annuals into the garden annually. However, this might crowd out the perennials. A successful wildflower garden is a long-range project, so be patient. The truth is, most wildflower gardens need thinning of some dominant species to ensure variety.

Control of weeds
Weeds will choke out wildflowers unless removed. If possible, spray weeds on, and near, the site you have chosen for wildflowers BEFORE you seed. Follow the labeled instructions. After the wildflowers have germinated, it can be very difficult to distinguish flowers from weeds. For this reason, it’s best to wait until blooms appear, then simply pull up the unwanted weeds. This means waiting eight to 10 weeks. If you DO recognize a weed in the meantime, obviously get rid of it.

Supplemental water
Some wildflowers do better than others under “dry” conditions. However, none will grow if seeds do not germinate, so keep the seedbed moist at least until the plants emerge. After that, depending upon how much natural rain occurs, you may need to water up to one-half inch per week to keep flowers at their peak. Remember: some wildflowers need less moisture once established. Plant them in a spot with good drainage and full sun.

Little, if any, fertilizer is needed the first year. If the soil is sandy, or poor in nutrients, add some aged compost, working it into the soil. In the years to follow, apply only bone meal, or fertilizer high in phosphorous and potassium (they induce flowering). A good formulation would be 5-15-10.

Mowing in the fall
It’s a good idea to take off the top of wildflower plants to enable the seeds to fall into the ground below. Set your mower at the highest setting possible and mulch plant material evenly. The best time to do this is after plants have turned brown from hard frosts. String trimmers will also work well here.

Eric is the superintendent at the Ironbridge Golf Club located at Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

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