Never too late

Features - Agronomics

Inadequate fall nutrition doesn’t mean a season of substandard grass. Learn ways to shift the odds in your favor this spring and start the season with stronger, healthier turf.

February 8, 2017

Applying the right nutrients in the proper amounts and intervals can help boost turf in the spring.
© Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club
Blue Ridge Trail (Pa.) Golf Club superintendent Duane Schell: “You can set your people up for success and empower them to be successful or for failure. It’s the same thing with your plant.”
© Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club

Preparation is the key to healthy, resilient turf, and that process ideally begins in the fall.

The first step in preparing for the spring is soil testing, says Dr. Chuck Darrah, a 35-year turf industry veteran and the owner and president of CLC Labs in Westerville Ohio, near Columbus. He is also a consulting agronomist and a champion for the cause of soil testing.

“(Superintendents) need to soil test to be sure they have adequate nutrient levels and the correct pH,” he says. “And in the North, if they didn’t soil test in the fall, they should soil test in early spring.”

If a superintendent is working in a warm climate and maintaining a warm-season grass, such as Bermuda, soil testing can reveal sodium buildup that may have occurred during the winter dry season, Darrah says.

“The other benefit of doing an early season soil test for the southern courses is to check sodium levels that may have built up during the winter dry season (which is typically dry season),” he says. “That’s when we see the most sodium buildup, when there’s a drier than normal dry season, which means there’s been a higher irrigation input. If the irrigation water has sodium in it, it’s really good to add that sodium test to your soil test so that you can get on top of it early in the spring.”

Dr. Alex Ellram advocates striking the right pH balance in the soil going into the winter, but adds a caveat.

“You definitely want to go into the winter with decent fertility levels,” says Ellram, a professor of animal and plant sciences at SUNY Cobelskill and a former golf course superintendent. “(But) be careful not to overfertilize with nitrogen because that does promote pink snow mold So you don’t want to put a lot of soluble stuff on toward the end of the growing season. You don’t want to force a lot of extra growth.”

Doing the right things in the fall pays off handsomely later on.

“You want to provide good nutrition to the plant so that the plant and soil and build carbohydrate reserves in the fall,” says Jack Higgins, an account manager for EarthWorks in Easton, Pa. “The plant will build carbohydrates in the spring as well, but you basically don’t want to start behind the eight ball. If you can start with a full tank of gas, meaning you have plenty of carbohydrates in reserve to break dormancy, then the plant won’t use all its carbohydrates.”

Your programs start in the fall, says Duane Schell, superintendent/general manager at Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club, a 27-hole daily-fee facility in Mountaintop, Pa., in the Poconos. Schell has worked in the golf industry since his early teens and has been a member of the GCSAA for more than two decades. His club hosts nearly 40,000 rounds each year despite the fact it’s closed during the winter.

“It’s setting your plants up for success,” he says. “Just like the people that you’re managing. You can set your people up for success and empower them to be successful or for failure. It’s the same thing with your plant.”

Setting up the plant for success may mean applying the right nutrients in the proper amounts and intervals. Darrah believes in fortifying the turf with potassium in the spring to combat the effects of leaching during the winter months, effects that can be exacerbated in winter weather.

“If there is a higher amount of rainfall or snowfall the potassium levels from the fall can be severely leached by the time we reach the spring,” he says. “Because potassium is a leachable nutrient, it should be applied two or three weeks before the anticipated green-up of the turf.”

Ellram, though, is not a big advocate for potassium. Instead, he believes potassium is being “overprescribed” by some turf professionals. However, Ellram is a proponent of other nutrients, specifically phosphorus and nitrogen.

“You’ve got to have adequate phosphorous,” he says, “which really is deficient in most of the soils in our area but that’s one of the most important macro ingredients for root growth and most of your root growth is going to be going on in fall, and then early spring.

“And without enough nitrogen, you’re not going to have enough carbohydrates either. So, obviously, nitrogen is important but you don’t want to overfertilize,” he adds.

It’s important to maintain appropriate levels of calcium and magnesium, as well, says Darrah. “I think most superintendents are very tuned in to the potassium levels,” he says. “But in certain parts of the country, they’re not that tuned in to calcium and magnesium levels. So, in order to get the turf off to a good start and get good root growth in the spring, they also need to pay attention to calcium and magnesium levels. Potassium, calcium, and magnesium are all leachable nutrients.”

It’s important to time the initial spring application properly to get maximum benefit and perhaps make up for any oversights the previous fall

“Real spring preparation happens in the fall,” Higgins says. “But you can get to the same spot if you can get your fertility out right when you’re starting to see a little bit of green tissue. Not any growth to speak of, but the slightest amount of green tissue, green color in the plant.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.