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Surviving a winter of discontent


March 10, 2014
By Mike Jiggens


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It's mid-February. Winter’s embrace is far from over. While some Ontario golfers escape the cold—with a Florida fairway fix—sleepless nights for greenkeepers still occur as they try to anticipate and plan for Mother Nature’s next move. Will she deliver a series of freeze/thaw cycles or bless us with a gradual thaw?

Following the Twitter feeds of superintendents gives insight into some of these winter maintenance practices. Photos show greenkeepers using skid steers to blow snow off their greens. The objective: reduce the amount of accumulation to hopefully shorten the spring melt.

With snow drifts eye-high in places on Cutten Fields in Guelph, Ont., superintendent David Kuypers created ice roads to reach his greens this winter; then, he took off some of the snow burden with a skid steer, leaving an ice layer between a quarter of an inch to two inches thick.  

Like most superintendents, Kuypers’ game plan heading out of winter and into spring is to shorten the melt. He tarps half of his greens—the ones that are in high wind areas and bad growing environments. The greenkeeper says the biggest worry usually coming out of winter is the presence of poa. With the length of ice cover this winter, snow mould could be an issue, but Kuypers took preventative action against that.

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Further north, Jeff Alexander, superintendent at Parry Sound Golf & Country Club, watched the pictures on Twitter of industry colleagues blowing snow off their greens; it didn’t prompt him to act. It’s been a normal winter in his area with a lot of accumulation, so the turf is nicely insulated.

“I usually wait until March to clear off the snow,” he says. “We can have -25 degree nights in March, so it’s a real timing thing. Sometimes it’s better to keep the ice on. If you have long-range warm weather forecasted and there will be a gradual thaw, then it’s great. We are usually two or three weeks behind the guys in southern Ontario.”

Asking Rob Ackermann how he helps make sure the course winters well, he laughs, and then says: “that’s a silver bullet question!”
The ice storm in the GTA in December, followed by a brief warm spell in mid-January, followed by another deep freeze that created a thick layer of ice, added to the superintendent at Weston Golf & Country Club’s stress level this winter.  

“There are so many different types of ice we can get and the one we fear the most is clear, solid ice … that’s what’s there,” Ackermann explains. “We fear it because that’s the one that is totally impermeable; there is no exchange of any kind of gas with that kind of solid ice layer. We are worried about methane gas and carbon dioxide building up underneath the ice and killing the plants.”

Ackermann puts down impermeable tarps on most of his greens before the first snow fall to prevent that worry. A pair of greens that are fully exposed to the sun and don’t surface drain get a permeable cover. “It’s no guarantee, but I have a little more insurance because I don’t have the intimate contact of that ice and my turf,” he adds.

What superintendents are most concerned with are the duration of the ice cover and more significantly what lies ahead for the spring melt scenario. A long extended melt increases the opportunity for repeated freeze/thaw cycles on the plant, which can cause crown hydration injury. The best case scenario for golf courses is once it gets warm, it stays warm. Until then, Ackermann takes sample plugs from his greens and grows these specimens on a shelf in the shop to monitor the health of the turf below the tarps. Constant communication with Weston’s members is also essential. Ackermann helps speed up the melt by blowing air underneath the tarps every two to three weeks throughout the winter, to start cracking the ice.

“The quicker I can get that ice off when it’s time, the better,” he says.

Hamilton Golf & Country Club also had a good layer of snow and ice on the course. Superintendent Rhod Trainor and his skeleton crew were running two large snow blowers in mid-February to keep the accumulation to a minimum.

“Experience shows when there is a large load of snow the winter thaws will just convert it to ice and not get rid of it completely,” he comments.

To help break up the ice layer, let some of the toxic gasses escape, and prepare it to melt faster, Trainor also aerates with their verti-drain and regular aerator outfitted with solid tines. To manage member expectations, the veteran superintendent was set to communicate with members in March—outlying the possibility of ice damage heading into spring.

Thanks to planning, preparation, and not panicking, all of these unsung heroes of the golf industry handled this winter of discontent with optimism. With Mother Nature in charge, however, even a superintendent’s best laid plans are no guarantee for a stress-free spring; they still need Mother Nature to cooperate a bit.

“Fighting the weather is like pushing against the ocean,” laughs Kuypers. 

 
Chinook not welcomed by Calgary superintendent

Darren Reddekopp is used to harsh winters; before moving to Bearspaw Country Club, a private course just outside Calgary, Alta., he worked at Greywolf Golf Course, situated in the rocky mountains of British Columbia.

When Reddekopp and I chat in mid winter, his region has received a fair bit of snow to insulate the turf; there is not a lot of ice buildup and the course is in good shape. His biggest winter concerns are poa annua starting to grow if wind gets under the tarps and dries out the plant, along with ice damage.

“What scares us, especially in southern Alberta, are the freeze/thaw cycles,” he explains.

What general maintenance practices does Reddekopp subscribe to to lessen the likelihood of winter damage? He waits and he watches, letting Mother Nature dictate his next move. He clears some of his greens of snow only when the weather is warming up for good. Reddekopp also uses black sand to speed up the melt.

“We spread that around to attract some radiant heat from the sun,” he explains. “It’s amazing what it will do in terms of melting the snow and ice. Then, it’s taking off the tarps, looking at things, and, knock on wood, everything comes out in good shape.”

Bearspaw uses two types of tarps: non-permeable, which act as an ice shield and are used in areas that are exposed more to the sun or have severe slopes, and permeable tarps (double-layered) that are used on the rest of the greens to protect them from desiccation and keep the wind out.

While most love a mid-winter warm up, the Calgary-area Chinooks that bring this rapid rise in temperature is not welcomed by superintendents.

“Everyone gets excited when we move out of the -20 and -30 range and experience a Chinook with four or five days of plus 5, but I hate that!” Reddekopp concludes.

David McPherson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and communications consultant. He started golfing at Kitchener's Westmount Golf & Country Club as a kid. A love of words soon followed. As a golf writer for the past 14 years, his work has appeared in a variety of publications. As president of McPherson Communications, David helps a wide range of corporate clients. Besides golfing, David enjoys playing tennis, listening to music, travel, and spending time with his wife and two young children. Follow him on Twitter @mcphersoncomm .