chemical application on golf course

Nurturing Nature's Carpet: A Guide to Cutting Chemicals in Turfgrass Management

Turf is often an overlooked surface despite being the green canvas that is literally underfoot in vast public parks, precision-stitched on beloved golf courses, and proudly manicured in suburban lawns. However, what happens on the ground is of paramount importance, and for too long now, the story has been one of over-reliance on chemical interventions. It’s our mission, as passionate stewards of the green under our care, to transform the narrative from one of pesticide dependence to one of sustainable nourishment and cultivation.

The Current in Chemicals: Why Change is Vital

The omnipresent drive for the greenest grass has, regrettably, been marked by an overuse of chemical treatments. This route, laden with the unintended consequences of soil degradation and even contamination of essential water resources, paints a bleak picture for the environment and the health of the communities that interact with our turfgrasses.

Advanced breeding techniques have led to the development of improved turfgrass varieties over the years.  Improvements in disease resistance, heat, drought, cold, and traffic tolerance, as well as the creation of dwarf varieties that require less frequent mowing all have allowed turfgrass managers to select varieties that provide quality turf with less maintenance and inputs.  With new varieties showing resistance to Brown Patch, Dollar Spot, Gray Leaf Spot, and more; if you’re finding yourself fighting one or more of these diseases year after year, you may consider introducing one of these new varieties with resistance.  The introduction of Rhizomatous Tall Fescue, Regenerating Perennial Ryegrass and major improvements in Kentucky Bluegrass with HGT have given homeowners and turf managers a wide range of varieties that will be successful in the north and throughout the transition zone with superior drought, heat, and traffic tolerance.  These new varieties require fewer nutrients, fewer chemicals, and less water. 

The Landscape of Less:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM is our philosophical pivot, a pivot to a holistic approach that considers every aspect of turf health and disease. By integrating biological, cultural, and mechanical methods, we can significantly reduce the need for chemical interventions. This involves regular scouting and using historical data to predict and preempt potential pest problems, signaling a change from reactive to proactive measures.

Every turfgrass professional should establish an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. A pest can be defined as anything that takes away from the aesthetic and/or functional use of turfgrass. This could be a weed, disease, or insect, but could also include rodents, birds, or other animals such as pets. Every area of turfgrass will have pests, and as a turfgrass manager, we need to determine to what level we will tolerate those pests and at what point the damage becomes intolerable and needs to be controlled. A good IPM program requires planning, vigilance, and knowledge of turfgrass and pests. 

There are five steps to creating a solid IPM program: 
  1. Assessing the site
  2. Surveying the site
  3. Setting Pest Response Levels
  4. Monitoring and Record-keeping
  5. Decision-making

When conducting a site assessment, take note of all the characteristics of the area. Are there areas of dense shade, are there restrictions to airflow, poor drainage, or areas of soil compaction?  There may be simple ways to improve turf quality and reduce pests by decreasing shade, improving airflow or adding drainage.  It is also important to get a soil test and establish nutrient and possible soil amendment needs. Survey the pest populations to identify the types and quantities of pests. The best way to do this is by using a map of the site, taking pictures and notes.  Next, you will want to determine your pest threshold level for the site. Depending on the use of the site, this threshold level may vary from site to site. A homeowner may tolerate a certain pest more than the local golf course. Monitor and keep records of cultural practices, weather, pest populations and nutrient and chemical use. Finally, using the information that you have obtained and thresholds that you have developed, you should be able to create a plan and make decisions on pest control. 

Cultural Practices

Cultural practices may feel mundane, but their effect is anything but ordinary when it comes to turf health. Proper watering, mowing at the right height, and strategic fertilization, for example, influence a landscape of reduction without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. It's about nurturing a balance that so often can prevent the need for chemical crisis management.

Adapting your cultural practices will have another great impact on your chemical use. Depending on site use, you could modify your mowing practices and allow the turf to be taller, around 4 inches, this will help reduce weed pressure which requires fewer herbicides. Frequent aerification and vertical mowing practices help reduce thatch and compaction. Thatch and compaction can both affect the way water gets to the soil causing stress and could result in disease and a thinning canopy allowing weeds to grow.  Certain diseases thrive within the thatch layer and around the crown of the plant, so ensuring proper airflow through the thatch by thinning it and topdressing with sand helps reduce the chance of disease. One of the greatest contributors to turf issues is moisture management and irrigation practices. Irrigating should be calculated based on the needs of the plant and timed properly.  Watering during the day can lead to turf damage so irrigation cycles should take place in the morning before the heat of the day.  Cycles should usually be deep and infrequent; watering too frequently can result in shallow roots.

There are many factors and approaches to reducing chemical use. Determining the site use, conducting a site survey, and planning based on your needs is a great way to start. Once a plan is established, you can make modifications to the site, to your cultural practices, and introduce newer varieties that require fewer inputs. 


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