Superintendents resort to what works. Again. And again. And a few more times after that.
Incentives to alter a successful program on short-cut playing surfaces are often avoided, overlooked or ignored. When a new product reaches the market, superintendents demonstrate unyielding patience. Keep using what makes turf tidy. Let a more daring colleague try the new stuff.
Tim Huber and Kevin Banks are among the superintendents performing colleagues a service on the disease management front this season. The pair of turf leaders are implementing SePRO’s Zio Fungicide into agronomic programs for contrasting reasons.
Huber is the director of agronomy at The Club at Carlton Woods, a renowned 36-hole private club in The Woodlands Texas, a growing community north of Houston. Banks is the superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club, one of four golf courses in the breezy seascape Massachusetts community of Martha’s Vineyard.
Huber and Banks have never met. Like many in their chosen field, they are curious about how superintendents elsewhere manage a crew, disease, customer expectations and myriad other daily dilemmas. When told a superintendent in Martha’s Vineyard is also participating in this story, Huber enthusiastically said, “there’s somebody who needs more tools.”
A traditional pesticide has never been applied on the Vineyard’s turf. The private club exists because its founders agreed to a local ordinance restricting pesticide use on new development. Fascination and skepticism greeted the course’s 2002 opening. Would a membership adopt long-term support for a course with potential turf blemishes because of an unproven, all-organic management approach?
The club’s first superintendent, Jeff Carlson, magnificently ushered the Vineyard Golf Club through its first 13 years. For his closing act, Carlson helped Banks adjust to his first season as superintendent in 2016. Banks can somewhat relate to Huber. It wasn’t too long ago he worked at a course with access to conventional products. “We still want to produce a really good product,” Banks says, “even with our limitations.”
The availability of Zio, which is currently registered in 47 states, including Massachusetts, excites Banks. SePRO hand-selected Zio from a library of 60,000-plus microbes to protect turf from multiple diseases, including brown patch, Pythium and anthracnose. Zio is an Organic Materials Review Institute-listed product, making it certified for organic use.
The Vineyard underwent a Gil Hanse-led renovation that concluded in 2015, Carlson’s final season as superintendent. Carlson offered guidance as Banks and his team worked vigorously to maintain the vitality of new sod in 2016. The staff attempts to promote bentgrass greens, but the spread of Poa annua is inevitable. A diligent thatch removal program since the renovation has helped the greens endure a pair of tricky summers without access to fungicides developed to help turf withstand humidity-induced pressures. The pre-Zio treatment program included a tank mix of an OMRI-listed plant protectant, seaweed, ferrous sulfate and manganese sulfate.
“We’re excited about Zio,” Banks says. “Our product list is so short. When you see a product like Zio come out on the market and you see the preliminary research and meet the team from SePRO and really talk about it, it’s great for us.”
While Banks plans to use Zio at the Vineyard out of necessity, Huber is exploring it out of curiosity. Huber and his team have their pick of nearly every product registered for use on golf turf. But if there’s a potentially better way of solving a problem — in this case controlling disease — Huber feels it’s his duty to work it into at least part of The Club at Carlton Woods’ extensive program.
“We have the resources and we have the facilities, and if I’m not trying new things, then I feel like I’m letting my membership down and I’m letting my peers down,” he says. “The membership expects me to be on the cutting edge of what’s coming out, because if I’m not in tune with what’s on the market, how can I really decide what’s best for the golf course? I get asked all the time, ‘Have I heard of this or have I heard of that?’ I always feel terrible if I say, ‘No, I haven’t heard of that.’ I like to at least know what’s out there. And if I can get hands-on experience with it, then, by all means, we will try it.”
Huber learned of Zio in a discussion with a SePRO representative at a turf event last year in San Antonio. The concept of building beneficial bacteria in the soil while offering protection against root diseases on 20-year-old TifEagle Bermudagrass greens on the club’s Nicklaus Course intrigued him. The combination of a heavy organic layer associated with aging greens and frequent, intense winter rains makes Pythium control a challenge on the Nicklaus Course. Multiple fungicides are used in the winter rotation and preventative sprays typically occur from September through late March. Huber plans to work Zio into the rotation as early as the later stages of this spring.
“You obviously have to see results, but I’m definitely willing to give it a try because these root diseases are very, very difficult to control,” he says. “Once you have them, it’s nearly impossible to do anything about it other than prevent further spread. You end up getting into these situations that are really tough to get out of, so preventative is the only way, in my opinion, to get through it. If Zio gives us that little bump in control, or a little bit of an advantage, I’d love to give it a try.”
Huber admits he’s in a fortuitous position to try an OMRI-listed product such as Zio because Carlton Woods has two distinct courses: the Fazio Course opened in 2005, four years after the Nicklaus Course debuted. The successful integration of Zio into a program at a facility such as The Club at Carlton Woods could lead to other superintendents rethinking their disease control philosophies.
“Who wouldn’t spray non-chemical products?” Huber says. “If you can do it and it works, then everybody would prefer that. It’s interesting, it’s new. There’s some data at the university level. But it’s only as good as seeing it in the field and superintendents are the people who are going to put it to the test. They will know if it works or if it doesn’t work. I’m looking forward to seeing what it does.”
The past two summers, which included numerous dew point readings approaching Houston-like levels, have demonstrated an increase in turf stresses at the Vineyard, raising the urgency for a product such as Zio. The club’s decision to invest in turf fans is one step to improving growing environments; Zio represents the next step in limiting disease outbreaks. Of the diseases Zio is labeled to control, brown patch causes the most problems at the Vineyard. Any sod used to replace weakened turf undergoes a one-year acclimation period under the organic treatment program on an expansive nursery green with the same mowing heights as regulation greens.
Banks anticipates the 2020 spray program to begin in April, with the frequency ramping up to weekly applications by mid-May. Zio will be applied beginning in May on all 18 regulation greens and the practice putting green. Three practice chipping greens will be maintained without Zio. Banks learned of Zio during a 2018 conversation with a local distributor representative. Two years later, he’s eager to see how it performs.
“Zio can be huge to our future success and current success,” Banks says. “I have been here long enough to know how the greens react in severe weather and different moisture thresholds. If we see a dramatic drop in brown patch or anthracnose, I’m going to have a really good idea of how it’s working, because the only thing different this year is Zio on a weekly program.”
Martha’s Vineyard represents a haven for East Coast residents seeking summer escapes from the demands of living and working within congested population centers. Members view a few hours meandering the Vineyard as an enhancement to that escape. High private club expectations are tempered a bit when members learn how an all-organic program affects the course. Despite the restrictions, Banks strives to produce outstanding playing conditions. He’s no different than Huber or thousands of other superintendents.
“I tell our team we’re constantly making the impossible possible,” he says. “We have a staff that’s not only good, but they’re committed to making this work. My entire career, even when I was an assistant, I was forcing myself to learn the classifications of pesticides because when it was time to move on, I wanted to be ready to make an immediate impact on whatever superintendent job I landed. When I came here, I saw that you really have to think outside the box. My day to day is similar to other superintendents. It’s just almost to a different extreme. Our perfection is different … but at the same time, it’s the same as everybody else’s.”