A Notable Exception

By Bob Vavrek, senior agronomist, North-Central Region
February 18, 2013

Those in the golf industry tend to have short memories when it comes to unpleasant situations, such as severe winterkill. Recent winters have been relatively kind to courses throughout the North-Central Region, but it wasn’t that long ago that rapid drops in temperature to water-saturated turf caused widespread injury to Poa annua playing surfaces. Be prepared to apply irrigation to damaged turf early in spring to prevent moisture stress that slows turf recovery.

Turf managers tend to be very stingy with irrigation to fairways during spring. There is a universal belief that cool-season turf is more or less bulletproof until summer heat and humidity arrive and that spring is the time to limit irrigation and encourage turfgrass roots to search for moisture deep in the soil profile. The belief being that moisture stressed turf will develop a deep, healthy root system and those that water during March, April and May will struggle with weak, shallow rooted turf for the rest of the season. Fact or fiction?  

This update is not intended to debate the science or philosophy of suspending springtime irrigation to condition turf for summer stress. On one hand, there are undeniable economic and environmental benefits of reducing the amount of water applied to a golf course, not to mention improving the overall playability of the turf. Furthermore, it is encouraging that an increasing number of turf managers are integrating objective soil moisture data into their water management decisions. No doubt, the ability to instantly measure soil moisture at various depths with handheld devices, such as TDR probes, has made many superintendents more comfortable reducing irrigation throughout the season. 

On the other hand, there is one notable exception where keeping the course extra dry during spring may not be in the best interest of the golf facility. Inadequate soil moisture will delay the recovery of turf suffering from winter injury. Moisture stress may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when turf, already weakened by thaw/freeze cycles and/or desiccation, begins to break winter dormancy. A modest amount of early irrigation during a dry spring may tip the scales in favor of turf survival versus turf death to localized areas of the golf course after a tough winter. 

Supplemental irrigation during a dry spring is also needed if damaged areas need to be seeded or sodded. It is easy to blame low soil temperatures for the inability of spring seeding efforts to be fruitful, but inadequate moisture may be hindering seedling establishment as much, or more, than chilly weather and hard frost. 

There is usually adequate soil moisture during spring from snow melt or rain to supply the needs of both weak and healthy turf, but exceptions do occur. Overwatering is counterproductive when just a small amount of timely irrigation is all that is needed to accelerate turf recovery from winter injury. Again, the use of soil moisture meters can assist in all water management decisions. 

Several significant thaw/freeze events have already occurred this winter that affected numerous golf courses throughout the north central tier of states. It is too early to tell if these events damaged turf and winter is far from over in spite of our memories of the 80+ degree weather experienced last March. Taking a few samples of turf indoors to determine plant health during February and early March is well worth the effort. Make plans to fire up the irrigation system earlier than usual if your samples fail to green up under a grow light. You may not need the supplemental irrigation, but it is always good to have the system up and running early if you do. It is sage advice to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  

Source:  Bob Vavrek, rvavrek@usga.org  or 262-797-8743.

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