Icy Situations

By Adam Moeller, agronomist, Northeast Region
January 23, 2014

This putting green was damaged from ice covering the surface for six weeks. Creeping bentgrass was unaffected by the ice while Poa annua did not survive. However, it is important to realize that creeping bentgrass can still be killed from ice coverage, and this has been particularly problematic in parts of Ontario and Quebec.

Unless you enjoy skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing, the thought of snow and winter weather can be depressing. Meteorological winter is officially half over. For avid golfers, this is an exciting thought. However, there is a long road ahead for golf course superintendents in the Northeast region. Many golf facilities in the region have discovered a thick ice layer on their putting greens, which is cause for concern. Ice on putting greens is not always damaging, but it can be lethal in the right circumstances. For instance, annual bluegrass (Poa annua) putting greens are more susceptible to ice damage than creeping bentgrass putting greens. Next, shaded putting greens are inherently more susceptible to ice damage because annual bluegrass usually becomes the dominant species in low-light microclimates and ice is more likely to form and persist in colder microclimates.

One of the most frustrating aspects of ice-covered putting greens is that the length of time turf can survive beneath ice can vary significantly, depending upon turf health prior to ice coverage, type of ice (clear or cloudy) and the presence of insulating snow. Ultimately, we’ve seen turf killed from being under ice for as little as a few weeks and also seen turf survive after five weeks or more beneath ice. 

If you have an ice layer on your putting greens, the best course of action is to inspect the ice and make a plan for action immediately. The first part of the plan should begin with documenting when and where the ice formed and the type and thickness. Communicate this information with course officials so everyone is aware of the situation. After two to three weeks of ice coverage, using drills, saws, etc., cut several three- to four-inch holes through the ice and remove a few plugs of turf. (For a great step-by-step video please see Sampling Greens for Winterkill.) Once removed, turf plugs should be brought inside and placed in a sunny window, under a grow light or in a greenhouse. After several days, assess the amount of healthy turf present in the plug. If the turf never greens up, there could be major problems ahead. It may already be too late, but physically removing the ice as soon as possible should be discussed in hopes of saving as much turf as possible. If the turf does green up, it is not a guarantee everything will be perfect in the spring but it provides positive information. Repeat this process every week to help determine the best course of action.

Physical removal of ice may also be warranted if a foul smell, often called the “smell of death” is discovered. However, turf is susceptible to physical damage from this removal and/or direct low temperature kill if it is uncovered and exposed to cold temperatures, especially if it was encased in ice for a few weeks. With plenty of cold temperatures ahead, removal of ice now is a difficult decision. The complexity of dealing with ice on putting greens cannot be overstated. Please feel free to contact us if questions arise about the presence of ice on your golf course. The Green Section Record article Winter Damage provides more detailed information on why turf can be damaged from ice and how to minimize the risk for turf loss.

Source: Adam Moeller (amoeller@usga.org)

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