Are you making the most of your green assets? Beyond the traditional green “golf” assets such as greens, tees, fairways, roughs and bunkers, are you maximizing the potential of your property when it comes to landscapes, habitat, horticulture and special-use areas? There are opportunities to increase the beauty, functionality and financial results of your operation by adding a little horticulture and creative thinking to your processes. There are six areas of focus that will help you maximize your green assets: mastering your craft, identifying areas of impact, creating a positive growing environment, design and plant selection, integrated pest/plant management, and specialty gardens and features.
Mastering your craft
I am often asked why I chose to pursue certifications in horticulture and arboriculture in addition to golf-specific credentials. The answer is simple. I wanted to master my craft and function as a high-level expert in multiple disciplines for our property. Regardless of your experience level as a golf course superintendent, you can add considerable value to your personal and professional worth by adding a few extra green skills and certifications to your résumé. Ultimately, these skills should have a visible impact on your property. The quality of the tree and landscape assets of your property make a statement about you and your operation. When you think of the Masters, you automatically think of Augusta National Golf Club and beautiful azaleas. The course is more than golf, and this is not an accident.
Your attention to detail and level of expertise in course accent areas should be consistently evolving and they should establish landscape-centric goals for you, your team and the property. For example, you could compete in an industry contest. The Professional Grounds Management Society, which was founded in 1911, offers an annual Green Star Contest, awarding Merit, Honor and Grand Awards in various categories of landscape excellence. PGMS also offers certification programs such as Certified Grounds Technician and Certified Grounds Manager. (I am Certified Grounds Manager #042.) If you are at a heavily wooded property or have high-value trees, you may consider an International Society of Arboriculture certification such as Certified Arborist or Board Certified Master Arborist to raise your level of management over your tree assets. The key is to be engaged and challenge yourself to become the local expert in these areas and commit to lifelong learning.
Identifying areas of impact
No matter how big or small your landscape budget is, you need to identify areas of impact and focus the best of your resources on these areas. In the old days, we referred to these as “Kodak” areas because guests/golfers were constantly taking pictures of these areas. In the time before cell phone cameras, Kodak was the king of cameras!
The first area of impact is always your primary entrance. This area establishes a sense of arrival and expectation. The plantings should be in good health, properly pruned and shaped, and generally should have a pop of seasonal color. It is also important to incorporate easy-to-read and appropriately-styled signage that is consistent throughout the property. You can also maximize your efforts by identifying areas of two-way traffic such as where two or more golf holes intersect. Take the time to see the course in both directions as this may influence your plant and design choices.
Do you have a courtyard or statue that is integral to your property? If so, this should receive a lot of your attention when it comes to landscape and hardscapes budgeting. Our property is built around a 9-foot-tall statue of Byron Nelson located between the first tee and the golf shop. It is a good idea to ask other managers, green committee members or any important stakeholders their thoughts on areas of impact and include these areas in you plans.
People love to see their suggestions literally in bloom. Taking the time to identify and prioritize areas of impact will also help you make budget decisions based on confirmed priorities.
Creating a positive growing environment
Once you have identified the areas that will serve as the focus of your beautification efforts, it is important that you create a positive growing environment. This area is where many golf course superintendents excel. They understand the need for quality soil, proper light requirements, supplemental irrigation and, of course, proper drainage. Soil sample tests and percolation tests of native soils will prove if amendments or other growing mediums are necessary and should be linked to design and plant selection. Be sure you are creating as many positives in these areas as possible. This includes the construction of retaining walls or other hardscapes that will ultimately impact the quality and longevity of the landscape.
Consider surface and sub-surface drainage. Also consider using the Sunseeker app to establish light requirements, remembering as trees and larger shrubs mature, they cast a larger shadow and may cause adjustments in plant selection as years go by.
By paying attention to the basic needs of plantings, you will save money on the maintenance of the area while maximizing the beauty — which is the highest aspiration of any professional horticulturalist.
These critical first steps will lead into the more formal design decisions and final plant selection process.
Design and plant selection
When you know that you have created a positive, well-constructed growing environment, you can proceed to the design and plant selection process. The processes often intertwine, but in terms of which comes first you can often choose plant material based on site specifics such as climate, sun exposure, height and width at maturity, water requirements, color, texture, and pest resistance or persistence.
Designing a beautiful landscape is a mix of art and science. There are many books and online resources available to assist in this area and you can always develop a network of proven local horticulturalists. I have been a certified master gardener since 1995 and gardening associations or extension programs are great resources. Consider the synergy of elements in design and plant selection.
Plants can often accent hardscapes such as using Trailing Vinca (Catharanthus roseus) flowers to hang over a stacked brick retaining wall with 2-foot-tall upright Dragon wing begonia (Begonia hybrid “Dragon Wings”) in the middle section and a classic 4-foot shrub of Purple Loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense “Purple diamond”) in the upper bed space. Blending form, function and flowering (color) will add interest and value to any area of the course.
Finding quality plant material is critical to success. Partnering with a local nursery or grower is a great way to ensure you get high quality plant material that meets specific site requirements. Always inspect new arriving plant materials for overall health, pests and diseases before allowing them onto the property. This will ensure you are getting full value for all plant materials as well as protecting your existing green assets. Once they are planted, there’s a need for integrated pest/plant management, which is one of the best ways to protect your green assets and add value to the property.
Integrated pest/plant management
Integrated pest/plant management is an important part of any landscape. Minimizing inputs and maximizing beauty is the ultimate goal. We know how important it is to choose the right plant for the right location, but we must also be aware of any pests that may threaten our impact crops.
Everything from phytophthora to aphids could negatively impact the landscape. Set realistic thresholds for common pests. Keep accurate data of populations and the timing of their reproduction and historic season of threat. Mix methods of control from physical, biological, cultural and, lastly, chemical controls to give you the most effective control within all means available.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so be sure to incorporate things like tool sanitation between tasks such as sterilizing pruning tools after each plant group to reduce the risk of spreading plant diseases on your tools as you move from planting to planting. Manage mulches and leaf debris carefully to not create a place for pathogens to develop. Manage your water resources carefully. Do not overwater!
Your IPM programs and documentation should be a living document that grows in scope and detail each year. The key is to learn the rhythm of your landscape, noting the last date of historic frost before planting summer annuals. Learn when Japanese beetles start showing up on crape myrtles at the entrances and take the necessary actions. These basic skills will give you an advantage in every phase of beautification from budgeting to stunning accent beds.
Specialty gardens and features
Once you have mastered the basics of landscape aesthetics and beatification, you can take your operation to the next level by creating specialty gardens and other unique landscape features. These include things like xeric (low-water use) gardens and habitat/pollinator (milkweed for monarch butterflies, native grasses or wildflowers for local wildlife) gardens.
There are many ways to accomplish this type of specialty work and together they often create synergy. You can start small with pots and containers, especially in courtyards and high-traffic areas. Those provide an affordable way to add color and contrast. This is also a great idea if you have soil issues.
Water features are also popular. They could be small, such as a bubbler in a pond or pot, or a huge recirculating water feature. The sound of moving water along with the calming effect that water adds is a natural extension of any landscape.
Also consider creative special-use areas. We added a wedding lawn and quarter-mile jogging trail and both have added huge value to our property and operation. You can go back to our agronomic roots and partner with the culinary staff and establish an organic garden to support the food and beverage operation. We started our organic garden in 2017 and it has been hugely successful generating tons of public relations (we added it to our environmental tour of the property), having been featured in several magazines. The harvest has been amazing. We now grow more than 30 varieties of vegetables and herbs in our garden. If you have a love for growing things and construction, this is your chance to really make an impact, be creative and see how things develop.
Horticulture was my connection into the golf course management industry and at every property I have served I took great pride in the quality of all our green assets. I came to realize the true value that these skills bring to light, that the landscape truly is the first thing people see when they arrive at the property. I hope I have given you some insights, tools and motivation to make your landscape an integral asset that generates value beyond its beauty by also making a financial impact. I believe there should be a harmony that exists between your golf assets (greens, tees, fairways, roughs, bunkers) and your other green assets (lakes, native areas, trees, landscape flower beds). The best and most renowned golf properties achieve this as part of their lore. Each spring we have a chance to start a new season and I hope this year you will maximize your green assets and take advantage of the horticultural and financial opportunities at your property.