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Topdressing Athletic Fields

This publication discusses whether a topdressing program is the right path to take, how to incorporate a program through cultivation, general costs of topdressing, the importance of sand particle size and how much sand is needed when applied on the surface following aerification.



January 5, 2012

It is January 5 and it is 61 F in Ames, Iowa. For those of you not from here, that is very warm. In fact, we are likely to hit an all-time high for the day. This follows one of the driest falls that we have had for a while. We have also experienced some strong northwest winds in the last few days that are ideal for drying out greens.

While superintendents are worried about desiccation, golfers want to take advantage of the warm conditions and play some winter golf. This has been the primary question from golf course superintendents in the last few days. Should I open the course for play, or should we keep it closed?

While I have not done any specific research on the effects of winter play on greens, I have had some experience in this area. In the 1970’s, I was a superintendent in southern Colorado. In the area just east of the mountains, this weather is very common. Drying winds are also a problem. In that area, it is too cold to keep the water on. The soil also freezes, but day-time temperatures are often warm enough to play golf. We never closed. If someone wanted to play golf, we let them on. We had a special cup cutter with a large solid-steel ball on top of it. We would hit the ball with a sledge hammer to drive the cup cutter into the frozen soil on the greens. We had 5 positions on each green where we would rotate the cups during the dormant period of winter. Sometimes play was heavy and I remember a lot of wear around each cup setting by spring. I always worried that this would result in damage after spring greenup, but it never did. I was surprised at how well the greens recovered once the grass started to grow.

You do have to be careful during the few days of spring thaw. If the upper inch is wet and the soil just below is frozen, keep players off. But on frozen soil, you will see the effect of wear on the dormant turf, but it should recover well in the spring. You’re also keeping those few players who want to play happy and if you rely on greens fees, you can make a few dollars for the club.

If you covered greens, leave the covers down. The threat from desiccation this winter is high. Covers are good. If you let the golfers on, let them play to temporary flags ahead of the greens.

I also had a question yesterday from someone who had sand topdressed at the end of the season. The question that brings up is the concern that grinding the sand into the dormant grass with foot traffic may cause additional damage. I have not had experience with that, but I doubt that it will be a major problem unless play is high. If you can, have them play to temporary flags ahead of the greens, but if members insist on playing on the greens, I still think the greens will be fine.

I will want some feedback on this in the spring. The blog provides a permanent record and we can refer back to this in future years when we hit another weather pattern like this. I would also appreciate some feedback from you older superintendents who have lived through this before. Send me an e-mail with your opinion, and I will post it on the blog.

Some trials on winter topdressing are also going out today. Marcus Jones and Nick Dunlap got up early this morning to establish sand topdressing trials on Jewel Golf, north of Ames and in Ankeny south of Ames. We’ll keep you posted on that work during the spring.



January 2, 2012

While this mild winter has been great for holiday travel, it will probably not be good for golf course superintendents. Surprisingly, it is the hard winters that are generally good for the golf course. Snow cover and cold temperatures through mid to late winter protect the turf from desiccation and the golf course emerges in the spring in good condition. It is the open, mild winter with windy conditions like we are getting today that results in drying of the turf (especially bentgrass) and causes damage that can persist well into the spring and even to early summer.

The last few winters have been anything but mild. The white Christmas has been the standard for the last few years and heavy snow cover has been common in many areas of the Midwest. Winter desiccation has been rare and we tend to forget about it. Unless the weather changes soon, this will be one of those springs where severe desiccation is common. In my experience here in Iowa, it is the northwestern part of the state that gets the worst damage because that area lacks tree cover and is exposed to the northwest winds of winter.

So what can you do about it? Greens covers are part of the answer and those of you who covered your greens a few weeks ago should be fine. But, there are many uncovered golf courses in the state. Fairways and tees generally go uncovered and these areas can be badly damaged even on courses that cover greens. Winter watering can be useful if you can do it. When I worked in Colorado years ago, winter winds would kill bentgrass greens and tees if we did not get some water to them during mild winters. It was too cold to charge the irrigation system. The courses had water trucks and it was typical to spray water over the greens every couple of weeks to keep them hydrated.

Topdressing is another way of protecting greens. In the 80’s and 90’s we did some work on this. I will post some information from that work in the next few days. The last couple of weeks I have had some questions on whether it is too late to topdress in January and if it is not, how much topdressing should we apply. I don’t know the answer to those questions. If the mild weather continues, we will try to get a quick trial together at the research station to look at these issues. I’ll keep you informed about the work during the spring.

Winter desiccation on bentgrass.


Watering in the winter in Colorado.


The effect of simple topdressing on bentgrass.

Area that was protected by a cover during a mild winter.