Trees and turf were never meant to share resources. Medieval Scots understood this implicitly. Modern course developers less so. Many private club members not at all.
So, it is left to the golf course superintendent to manage the difficult détente between trees and turf. See here are five common sense tree-care strategies that don’t involve that blunt instrument of last resort, the chainsaw.
1. Whether or not superintendents want to deal with problem trees — be they diseased, unduly shade-making or strategically impractical — it remains their responsibility to conduct ongoing needs assessments. Even if they’re farming out actual care to third-party tree companies, superintendents and their staffs must determine a tree’s immediate needs and whether it requires repair, proactive care, removal or replacement.
“Always do a tree inventory when you arrive,” says Tony Hahn, an ISA certified arborist with Swingle-SaveATree in Colorado. “You’ve got to know what you’re working with. You can’t do much without that, to start. Go and see what you have, how old they are, the species — then begin to develop a plan after you have that inventory.”
Tree experts also agree that every course maintenance operation needs a tree scout, someone whose responsibility it is to monitor all the trees on property — even if the actual preventive or restorative actions will ultimately be outsourced. Many superintendents perform this function themselves, but too few understand this function can be effectively delegated to an assistant or crew member.
2. The emerald ash borer has become a major scourge across the country, but an increasing number of superintendents are effectively combatting EAB-related issues with TREE-äge, a product from tree care specialists Arborjet. Caleb Swanson at Briarwood Golf Club in Ankeny, Iowa, looks after 1,100 trees on course, 800 of them ash.
“We’re not gonna save every tree. We picked 200 that were high visibility or priority and we’re going to treat those until it no longer makes sense to do so,” he says. “We have a management plan, use the Arborjet product, and have a comprehensive pruning regimen.”
The ability to delegate proved a big selling point for TREE-äge, according to Swanson, who arrived in suburban Des Moines from Bryn Mawr Country Club in Chicago, where the issue had broader ramifications (the City of Chicago treats some 30,000 ash for EAB, with TREE-äge, annually).
“Here we looked at a couple systems, including some drench products, but went with the QUIK-jet [Arborjet’s proprietary injection system] in part because we can have a single crew member pump the tree full of juice in 15 minutes,” Swanson says. “We did 100 trees this year and we’ll do 100 the next. We’re spending $2,500 a year on tree treatments, 25 bucks a tree. Seemed to me like a no-brainer.”
3. Jesse Trcka at Wyzata Country Club outside Minneapolis invested a while back in a high-pressure tree sprayer and he’s glad he did. “We can spray 60 feet in the air,” he says. “We treat our Austrian pine for needle cast every spring. They’re in a tough location; they basically looked dead at one point, but we brought them back to life.”
In the sprayer, Trcka and his team used a combination of Banner Maxx (propiconazole) and Junction, one of the active ingredients in Junction being mancozeb, an old-school fungicide and also the active ingredient in Fore. “My understanding on the needle cast is that a lot of it is brought on by excessive moisture,” Trcka says. “With our irrigation systems, we take for granted that sprinklers hit trees as well. But these pine were getting more in the canopy than they needed.”
Count Trcka as another Midwestern super among those in the TREE-äge camp, because emerald ash borer is a huge issue in the Twin Cities, as well. “We’ve been treating our ash trees preventatively using Arborjet for last four years,” he says. “It gives us more longevity. The drenches we’d have to do every year. I find the TREE-äge is good for two years … One thing we learned was timing the injections when trees reach full canopy — we try to hit it right then. You get max water uptake and pull. I would say we can do four to five trees in an hour with the QUICK-jet AIR, when it’s taking it up good. So, we’re talking two mornings at the most. Then we move on with our day.”
4. If chainsaws are indeed off the table, Master Greenkeeper Terry Buchen, president of Golf Agronomy International, notes there are several more subtle, sophisticated technologies a superintendent can deploy. “Shade is the biggest problem by far, on a year-round basis, in trying to grow quality turfgrass,” he says. “It’s been my experience that superintendents like to remove evergreen trees because they obviously cause lots of shade — especially during the winter months, when the sun angle and sun arc are greatly reduced along with shorter daylight hours. The Sun Seeker App for smartphones shows how much shade there will be on a green so that selective tree removal and/or tree trimming can occur.”
Buchen also suggests superintendents explore the purchase of used tree-company boom trucks, which provide an in-house crew far more capability when it comes to selective, surgical tree trimming. Buchen points out these vehicles need not be licensed for highway use, “because they do not leave the property.” (If a boom truck, even a used one, is a budget item too far, there is Shortstop, another Arborjet product that performs as a plant growth regulator for trees; by reducing the organism’s production of gibberellic acid, it also reduces drought stress and improves tree vigor). Buchen further suggests more traditional PGR deployment around tree trunks, at ground level, where string-line trimmers routinely inflict damage on trees and exposed root systems. “Superintendents are using growth retardants to curtail the turf growth around them or they’re installing mulch around the tree trunks to eliminate turf trimming altogether,” Buchen says.
5. According Hahn, the arborist with Swingle-SaveATree, superintendents generally do not act soon enough in a tree’s life cycle. “The biggest mistake I see is that people fail to do best for a tree when it’s young," he says. "If you start out taking good care of it when it’s young, you’ll have fewer problems later on. For example, most trees are transplanted with limited root systems so right off the bat they’re struggling. Anything you can do to augment development of roots is a good idea — like a biostimulant. The kelp formulations are real good, but it’s the mycorrhizae in those formulations that interact with the root and improve function.”
A mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant, specifically in the rhizosphere, the root system. Hahn recommends fertilizing with organics (like CytoGro, from Ecologel Solutions, guaranteed to deliver a cytokinin load of at least 50 PPM).
Generally, Hahn says, the organics tend to promote mycorrhizae, and the practical virtues of treating trees when they’re young extend to pruning. “It creates a more established structure for the tree as it grows,” he adds. “We’re talking about basics: eliminating crossing and interfering branches. A lot of this boils down to selecting the correct tree before planting, but if you’re stuck with something in the ground, just basic pruning — eliminating crossing, interfering branches and diseased branches — helps that tree in the long run. You also want to eliminate co-dominant leaders, meaning you have a fork. That will result in a narrow branch angle, which is not a good way for a tree to start out life. If you don’t deal with that in a young tree, it will always be subject to just coming apart.”
Hal Phillips is a Maine-based freelance writer, managing director of Mandarin Media, Inc., and former editor-in-chief of Golf Course News.