Tall Grass Rough…Or Natural Rough?

By R.A. (Bob) Brame, director, North-Central Region
June 5, 2012

While establishing areas that are predominantly out-of-play to natural rough can be beneficial environmentally and help the budget, it will take good communication skills to win approval.

It has become very common to see golf courses throughout the North Central Region allowing areas of the rough that are predominantly out of play to grow tall. This is sometimes called “no mow” rough, although one knockdown mowing in the fall or spring is normally performed to control the growth of volunteer trees and brush. The big question that has been discussed on numerous Turf Advisory Service visits this spring is should these areas be clean grass growth or truly natural rough? 

Allowing areas that are predominantly out of play to grow tall provides enhanced definition, along with potential budget savings and elevated environmental friendliness. Often, the objective that initiates the establishment of tall rough is the perceived cost savings. However, utilizing herbicide applications to control all plant growth other than grass can actually be more costly than simply mowing the area when maintained as primary rough. On the other hand, if the predominantly out-of-play rough is designated as a truly natural rough there can be a significant cost savings and environmental friendliness is taken to a higher level. Golf facilities should carefully define the objectives that are right for them so that a sustainable plan may be established. A plan is recommended because it has been common to see golf courses convert areas of predominantly out-of-play rough to tall grass rough only to struggle with subsequent management. 

The first step to successfully implement this program is to be certain the selected areas seldom come into play. Even though players may occasionally hit into the tall growth, its coverage should not be so expansive throughout the course that it slows the overall pace of play. Establishing tall rough, even in predominantly out-of-play areas, will almost certainly generate some negative feedback from those players that tend to spray their shots. These players will argue that no area of the course is out-of-play for them. Effective communication of the many benefits of the program will help, as will providing assurances that adjustments to the mowing lines will be made if necessary. 

The maintenance of tall grass roughs will likely include spot applications of selective herbicides to remove undesirable plants. Also, since it is not uncommon for weed encroachment to increase over time herbicide input may increase. Some golf courses in the North Central Region make multiple complete herbicide applications to keep the tall grass rough a monostand of grass. While such programs result in excellent definition, budget efficiency and the environmental benefits falloff quickly as herbicide applications are increased. 

Conversely, declaring the predominantly out-of-play tall grass rough to be natural rough eliminates all herbicide applications. How? It is because there are no weeds. By definition, a weed is a plant out of place. In a truly natural rough, however, no plants are out of place and thus no weeds!. One knockdown mowing annually eliminates trees and bushes and beyond that the door is open for plant growth. While it is very important prior to implementation and once established to communicate the benefits of predominantly out-of-play tall grass rough, even more communication is needed when the objective is natural rough. Whereas it is more difficult to gain acceptance for truly natural rough, it offers the greatest environmental benefits and budget savings. 

The management of predominantly out-of-play areas of the rough is an excellent topic to review with your agronomist during a Turf Advisory Service visit. Converting to tall grass or natural rough can be a very good addition to the maintenance package, as long as course officials agree on the objectives and clearly understand the pros and cons. 

Beyond the discussion of how to best manage predominantly out-of-play rough, most courses visited in recent weeks are entering summer in much better condition than 2010 or 2011. Nonetheless, keep your guard up and always structure the maintenance program to maximize dependability during the worst case scenario for cool-season turfgrasses, i.e., prolonged periods of hot and wet conditions. In other words, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Call or email anytime if we can assist in any way.


Source:  Bob Brame, bobbrame@usga.org or 859-356-3272
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