Establishing native areas has become an increasingly popular project at many golf courses because these areas can reduce inputs, create habitat for wildlife, and add aesthetic and strategic value.
Reducing the cost of rough maintenance is often a driving force behind adding native areas because mowing is only required a few times a year. Reducing water use is another important consideration, especially in areas where water is scarce. Most native areas only require irrigation during establishment and then the water is typically shut off. This can lead to significant water savings when compared to irrigated rough.
Determining locations that are suitable for native area conversion typically involves collaboration between the superintendent, facility decision-makers and sometimes a golf course architect. They work together to identify areas that can offer the most aesthetic, environmental and cost benefits without having a significant impact on playability. Out-of-play areas along the perimeter of the course and around tees are often good opportunities for native area conversion.
There are several approaches to converting maintained rough to a native area. One option is to suspend weekly mowing and either reduce or eliminate irrigation to the site. This approach is simple, effective, and allows maintenance resources to be immediately shifted to other areas of the course. However, allowing the existing rough to grow and turning off the water will not necessarily produce the thin, wispy appearance some golfers desire.
Golf courses may instead choose to eradicate the existing rough to establish native plants and grasses that are more suitable for native areas in their specific region. This method can produce great results, but consideration must be given to the fact that it takes a few years for newly planted native areas to reach maturity. The soil and climate will influence performance, and a significant investment in time and resources is required to manage density and weeds in the early years.
Expectations must be clearly defined when native areas are established. Appearance and playability will vary depending on whether native areas are established to reduce inputs, create habitat for wildlife or add architectural value. It is important to recognize that each approach can add value to a golf course even if the finished product looks different than some might expect.
Managing density and weeds are common challenges when maintaining native areas. It is not unusual for a variety of plants that some may consider weeds to encroach. However, what some people consider a weed can also attract wildlife and provide valuable habitat. For example, monarch butterflies are attracted to native areas where milkweed is present because these plants are where they lay their eggs and milkweed is an important food source for both adult butterflies and monarch caterpillars. In recent years, largely because of milkweed eradication, monarch butterfly populations have decreased significantly. In response, Audubon International developed the program Monarchs in the Rough to assist golf courses with planting milkweed and establishing habitat to support these butterflies.
Similar to the monarch butterfly, other pollinators will also be attracted to native areas if sources of nectar and pollen are available. Allowing native areas to include plants that require insect pollination will increase the pollinator population. However, including these plants may impact playability, which is why locating native areas carefully is critical to success. Creating a native area to support monarch butterflies or attract pollinators may not produce the aesthetics that some might envision, but the importance of being a good environmental steward cannot be overstated.