Welcome to Super Secrets, a series on GOLF.com in which we select the brains of the game’s top superintendents. By illustrating how course maintenance crews ply their trades, we hope we can not only give you a deeper appreciation of the important and innovative work they do, but also provide maintenance tips you can apply to your little piece of paradise. Happy gardening!
Without water, there would be no life. Worse yet, there would be no golf. No wonder the industry is working so hard to save it. Kevin Breen is president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and the superintendent of La Rinconada Country Club, in Los Gatos, California. With drought plaguing his state and many others across the country, we asked Breen to share some simple tips: conservation methods of course, along with tips the rest of us can use at home.
1. Timing is everything
When applying water is essential. Early in the morning is usually better for a couple of reasons. Not only do you want to beat the heat of the day, when water is lost to evaporation, but you also want to get the job done before the winds pick up and alter your sprinkler patterns. Late in the day can also work. But watering after dark can increase the risk of fungus and other diseases, which appear when moisture stays on the lawn too long.
2. Look for leaks
Watching the lawn being watered is much more interesting than watching it grow. It’s also more productive, as you can look for gurgles, puddles, and other signs of leaks. Fixing those problems now will save you in the long run. A big way to waste water is to put it where you don’t want it to go.
3. Choose the right variety
Grass types are like people: some do better in the heat than others. Choose a variety that suits the climate where you live. Feel free to ask an expert for suggestions. The industry abounds with drought-tolerant grass varieties, and more are being developed all the time.
4. Avoid overwatering
Deep and infrequent is the way to go, just enough to get the water deep into the roots while giving the surface time to dry. How can you know if you’re doing it right? While superintendents have sophisticated tools to measure moisture levels—from soil probes to drones that take infrared images—less expensive methods exist. Most garden stores sell simple moisture meters that you can dip into your soil. You can also pull out a plug of soil and check the roots. The ground around it should be moist but not soggy. Potential signs of overwatering include a black coating and a “sewer” odor, which can indicate oxygen deprivation and organic rot. Aside from those measurements, you can also do a simple touch test: press your hand on the grass; the top of the soil should feel moist but not muddy.
5. Water stain
You’ve probably seen this at your local course: Instead of turning on your entire irrigation system, use a hose to target dry or stressed areas. Or, as Breen says, “Treat your turf like it’s the 18th green at the US Open.”
6. Take out the grass
Turf thinning is all the rage in golf. There’s no reason you can’t do the same at home. Keep only as much grass as you need, whether it’s for your kids, your pets, your lawn gnomes, or yourself.
7. Wetting agents
Available in liquid and granules, they are eco-friendly, easy to use and efficient, helping water soak into the soil and allowing you to do more with less.
8. Don’t frown on brown
Brown is the new green. For years, that’s been the industry mantra, but it hasn’t caught on with many golfers, who continue to be mesmerized by the lush emerald turf. So let’s try to put it another way: Just as green grass is not necessarily a healthy grass, brown grass is not necessarily unhealthy either. It’s okay to let the grass dry out a bit. It can even lead to a tougher lawn, as the grass roots will have to reach deeper to drink. The longer the roots, the stronger the grass. There are limits, of course. If the grass doesn’t bounce when you walk on it and footprints start to form easily, you may have pushed things too far. Overall, though, “you can put quite a bit of stress on your lawn,” says Breen, “and your lawn will actually be better off.”