While most of us are enjoying the midsummer warmth, winter is still top-of-mind for the grounds team at the North Oaks Golf Club.

A perfect storm of ice, snow, freezing rain and extreme temperatures from October 2018 into May of this year wreaked havoc on many golf courses throughout the region, leaving acres of dead grass in its path. The Club’s turf was hit particularly hard. When spring arrived, winterkill had claimed significant portions of their greens and fairways.

It required the best efforts of an exceptional grounds staff to allow golfers to return to the course by mid-June—the latest start in Club history. Now that play has resumed, Club leadership is implementing plans to prevent such widespread winter damage in the future.

 

A tale of two grasses

A brief lesson in turfgrass management is helpful in recognizing what happened and in understanding the steps the Club is taking to reduce the chances of widespread winterkill.

One of two grass varieties vie for surface area on the greens of most Minnesota golf courses: poa annua (also called annual bluegrass) and bentgrass. Poa annua grows best in shade. Bentgrass prefers more sunlight. Poa annua is less tolerant of subzero temperatures and its preference for moisture leaves it more susceptible to disease such as snow mold. Bentgrass is hardier in cold climates and thrives in dryer soil, reducing exposure to potential turf disease. Severe conditions decimated poa annua across the Midwest this past winter, while bentgrass thrived.

When the Club first opened in 1951, relatively few trees were present on the course. Primarily for perceived aesthetic reasons, trees were periodically added to the landscape and grew over decades. Poa annua moved in beneath their expanding canopy while the bentgrass retreated to more open spaces. This inadvertent promotion of the spread of annual bluegrass lead to the eventual devastation that occurred earlier this year.

 

A thoughtful response

“As we consider steps to maintain our golf course to the high standard that people have come to expect, we never lose sight of our commitment to being good stewards of this community and the environment,” said Phil Anderson, general manager. The North Oaks Golf Club resides on 167 acres which was once part of the James J. Hill preserve and was founded on a commitment to protect the natural land, water and wildlife here for generations to come. 

Anderson and grounds superintendent Brian Boll connected with colleagues at area courses to compare damage reports and assess options. They gathered input from turfgrass experts, including course architects at the Lehman Design Group. Then they lead discussions with community leaders, including the Club Board of Directors and its Greens Committee. The outcome is a thoughtful plan to accelerate near-term turf recovery, while implementing measures to ensure the health and vitality of the entire ecosystem over the long term.

 

Restoring balance

Essential to the Club’s plan to reverse the spread of poa annua and prevent future instances of winterkill will be selective tree removal and the aggressive reseeding of affected areas with bentgrass.

Tree removal efforts have raised more than a few inquiries from concerned North Oaks residents and Club members. Boll offers a reminder that the vast majority of the trees being removed did not sprout naturally where they currently stand. “They were planted by members who love trees and wanted to beautify the course. But decades ago, they lacked the understanding of how this might ultimately impact other plant life,” commented Boll. “We believe our efforts will help eventually tip the balance of these grasslands back toward where they were over 75 years ago, when Stanley Thompson shaped this golf course to fit the natural landscape.”

Through a careful selection process, the Club will remove trees that inhibit the growth of bentgrass, while taking care to preserve many of the city’s namesake oaks. Cultivating bentgrass throughout the course will also reap environmental benefits. Bentgrass requires significantly less watering and reduces the need for chemical protectants by as much as half.

 

—Joe Zeigler with the North Oaks Golf Club

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