Preparing for Winter
GCM Autumn 2003

So what kind of winter are we likely to get now? Being British means that the weather will be the wrong kind - even this magnificent summer has left many fuming with greenkeepers looking anxiously for rain even at this late stage. But winter is not too far away, what should we be doing to get ready for it?
"Well it's an ideal time to release staff for training on either block or day release." Commented Ollie Flanagan who has a wealth of experience as a greenkeeper and is currently 'growing in' golf courses for constructors Contour Golf Ltd. He continued, "There is loads to be getting on with, don't get me wrong, but it is not half as busy as the major playing season and with a bit of planning a head greenkeeper ought to be able to schedule some provision for formal training."
More reactive though is the opportunity for a thorough health check on vehiclesd and machinery that has undoubtedly been pushed to the limits following this long and hard season. Add to this the lack of time available for proper servicing coupled with the lack of a qualified mechanic at most golf courses and it is often a wonder that the machines work at all.
It is testimony to the mechanical advancements of the last couple of decades that the machines function so well and a further feather in the cap of greenkeepers that they manage to keep them going all season long - look at how many machines are in the shed; aerators of all shapes and sizes, spraying units, maybe seeders and the utility vehicles. Not forgetting tractors and, naturally the mowers - out front rotaries, triplexes, pedestrian walk behinds, fairway cutting units…
Replacement costs run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds; with good maintenance and repair regimes these machines might last a decade, without maybe only two or three years. "Nowadays I'm out on site working to a strict contract deadline," explained Ollie Flanagan, "If a machine goes down it can be very expensive. It is a fact of life that it will happen but unforgiveable if the problem was caused by poor maintenance."
Quite; moreover the quality of the machinery on a golf course has a direct effect on the quality of the golf course - poor mowers? Poor greens - fact.
Given all these facts it is perhaps surprising that most clubs rely on greenkeeping staff to adjust, serviuce and repair machinery. Major repairs (when the damage has already been done) are the first time a specialist dealer is called in. With the extent and quality of the machinery on offer today it might make sense for the committee or management of a golf club to spend some time this autumn reviewing staffing levels and working out how a dedicated mechanic might be brought onto the team.
The immediate response to such a suggestion is often that "He'll be sat on his backside best part of the time!" Untrue. He will, if he is worth his salt, be forever working, adjusting, fine tuning and cleaning. A simple rule - if it is not being used clean it. If it is not dirty, oil it. If it doesn't need cleaning or oiling do you really need it? A professional mechanic has the time to keep a sound record of actual costs of individual items and thus make a decision on the cost effectiveness of each item of equipment.
By putting a qualified mechanic onto the staff, time savings and improvements are often dramatic - think of it yourself, if your car breaks down you might, after several hours, remedy the fault. A mechanic could do it in minutes. On a golf course, that time saving will mean less money wasted and more time spent on the green stuff improving the quality of the course for your members and guests.
Out on the course proper, the greenkeeper in Autumn will be doubly focused on recovery from summer stresses and preparations for winter survival. The extended drought (with occasional water restrictions) and high disease incidence this summer have dramatically increased the need for regrassing and turf recovery work. It is likely that alternative agronomic strategies, flexible plans, and good communication with all involved will be needed to accomplish crucial chores.
Where water restrictions are still in place, efforts should focus on putting green surface recovery since weak turf is more susceptible to winter injury. It might be prudent to fertilise more often or at higher rates to increase density and strengthen plants - plan a heavy application for late Autumn. Aeration and overseeding will be needed to recover turf quality but a decrease in aeration tine size may well be appropriate at this time. Communicate these limitations to members and prepare them for an aggressive spring aeration schedule…
Overseeding of greens must be done this Autumn to regain density and putting quality. Frequently done in conjunction with Autumn aeration, overseeding can proceed as a stand-alone practice. Proper seed placement (approximately a half-inch deep), seed to soil contact and post-seeding maintenance will be especially critical. Light sand topdressing and brooming will help to work seed into the holes. Reducing the frequency of cutting, light and frequent hand watering with hoses and bi-weekly applications of starter fertiliser will all enhance seed establishment. If you must regrass bare spots, try plugging (cup cutter, hex plugger, etc.) instead of turfing. Plugs stand a better chance of survival because of the inherent root depth that is transplanted.
Putting any recovery efforts toward fairways, especially landing areas, should come second to greens. If water use is severely restricted, consider spot aeration and overseeding. Wholesale fairway aeration can be delayed until late Autumn or, at a push, the following spring. Alternatively, solid tine aeration, deep tine aeration or slicing later in the season will effectively cultivate soils with minimal moisture loss. Schedule a late Autumn fertilisation to improve winter hardiness.
Much of this will be common sense to most greenkeepers - but if one thing ought to be taken at face value then listen to Ollie XXX of Contour; "I have yet to visit a golf club that has a qualified mechanic on the staff and regrets it, a good mechanic is worth his (or her) weight in golf."