By Mike Jiggens
For the past several years, the St. Thomas Golf & Country Club had been fighting an uphill battle to keep several of its greens alive and healthy. The problem: an overgrowth of trees which starved seven greens of life-sustaining sunlight and blocked the much-needed airflow the putting surfaces’ plants required for transpiration.
Superintendent Wade Beaudoin spoke about his recent struggles with problem trees at February’s Greater London Association of Golf Superintendents (GLAGS) winter education seminar day at Westhaven Golf & Country Club.
A five-year program is now underway to address the tree issue at the Union, Ont. private golf course, but it wasn’t easy to launch, Beaudoin admitted.
“There had been a lot of years of overgrowth, and it’s been very difficult to get the ball rolling on this program.”
The program’s beginnings date back to 2005 when St. Thomas experienced a bad agronomic year with large amounts of turf loss. Michigan State University plant pathologist Dr. Joe Vargas was called in that year by then superintendent Ryan Beauchamp to assess the situation. Vargas immediately recognized that several overgrown trees played a large role in the turf’s struggle to survive.
While action was taken at the time to begin a process aimed at addressing the problem, Beauchamp had moved on to another golf course shortly afterward. Meanwhile, the club hired a new general manager who did not favour any tree removal. A policy had been enacted in which any tree recommended for removal had to be marked while the club’s membership was given 90 days to provide feedback on the fate of those trees.
“It just basically stopped the entire process,” Beaudoin said.
Comments Beaudoin fielded from a number of his members suggested the trees had always been there and couldn’t be the problem. He also frequently heard that it was the trees which made the golf course. Several of the trees in question were planted after the golf course was constructed. An aerial photograph from the mid-1940s that Beaudoin presented depicted a wide-open golf course with plenty of allowance for sunlight penetration and airflow to the greens.
By the turn of the millennium, however, it became clear that those same younger and smaller trees planted more than a half-century earlier had significantly grown in height and density to the point where several adjacent greens were being deprived of sufficient sunlight and airflow. Beaudoin said a number of club members failed to understand that the turf needs sunlight for photosynthesis and airflow for transpiration and to remove moisture from the leaf surface.
“We had to train people that this was the issue.”
The tipping point finally came in 2012. That season proved to be tough for seven of St. Thomas’ greens, all of which were sheltered from sunlight and air movement. The USGA’s Dave Oatis concurred with Vargas’ earlier assessment upon visiting the golf course that year.
“At this point in time, members were fed up with dealing with things like this (substandard health of the putting greens).”
Every three to five years, one issue or another would arise at St. Thomas, whether it was ice damage or turf dying under stress conditions. The turf simply wasn’t resilient enough and couldn’t handle any stresses, Beaudoin said.
It was clear grass didn’t have what it needed to survive, he added. Five greens are aided by fans to move air, and the turf on those putting surfaces directly under the fans is “absolutely perfect. As we got outside of those fan corridors, the turf quality really began to suffer.”
Beaudoin said that told him that air movement was just as important—if not more so—as sunlight.
Present for Oatis’ 2012 visit were St. Thomas’ greens committee chairman and board president. While inspecting the 14th green, Oatis made note of a large sycamore tree situated about 25 feet from the edge of the green which had been a longstanding focal point of the hole. Not only did Oatis recommend removal of the tree, but the entire contingent of neighbouring trees situated on the same hilled bank.
The looks on the faces of the club’s two executive members was “priceless” following Oatis’ recommendation, Beaudoin said.
“That set the stage for the entire visit. We would go through our seven worst greens, and it would just repeat itself over and over again.”
It wasn’t the first time the 14th hole sycamore had been identified as a problem. It was singled out on several occasions in agronomic reports dating back to 1993. Teri Yamada, who was then an agronomist with the Royal Canadian Golf Association, initially recommended the tree’s removal. Three years later, noted arborist Scott Robinson made the same recommendation. A USGA visit in 2001 resulted in the same suggestion. Vargas, who visited St. Thomas four times over the past 20 years, has repeatedly called for the tree’s removal. Architect Ian Andrew has made the suggestion twice, in 1995 and 2008, and Oatis has been the latest to call for its demise.
“There’s quite a history with that one particular tree, but it still stood,” Beaudoin said.
Once the club’s board of directors finally conceded it was time to heed Oatis’ recommendation, Beaudoin was directed to get the process started. The timely arrival in 2012 of a new general manager, who was involved in a similar project while at Woodstock’s Craigowan Golf & Country Club, helped to jump start the process.
“He was a supporter of this project and helped get the wheels in motion on this, and it was nice to have a general manager who supported the work that needed to be done rather than undermine it.”
During a second visit by the USGA, sun angles on the greens were studied. Through this process, it was determined the club’s tree project would be tackled over the course of five years. For its geographic area, the sun rises at 56 degrees on June 21 which is the longest day of the year. On the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, the sun rises at an angle of 122 degrees. Respective sunset angles for those two days are 304 degrees and 238 degrees.
“This is important for us because we want to try to get as much sunlight on the greens as possible.”
The more sunlight available to the plant and the better the air movement, the more resilient the plant will be and the better it will be able to withstand stress for longer periods of time.
Oatis recommended the first item of business needed to be the removal of hazard trees which presented a potential danger to both Beaudoin’s staff and golfers. About 20 such trees were identified, all of which were silver maples that had been planted in the mid-1940s. Wildlife such as raccoons and mice were living within the trees’ cavities.
Beaudoin said he began the overall problem tree removal process by meeting with Elgin County’s tree commissioner who suggested a registered forester be hired to conduct the work.
“it was a good piece of advice for me,” he said. “Number one, it got me his entire list of contacts.”
From the list, Beaudoin was able to get the names of virtually every logger in Ontario as well as every sawmill in the province. This allowed the golf course to find a means to market the harvested trees. The forester assigned to the project identified some good quality timber he figured could be marketed which gave the golf course an opportunity to make some money from the process rather than simply hauling away the felled trees.
Beaudoin said the loggers hired to do the work look at woodlot management rather than sunlight angles for putting greens. Their goal is to make the woodlot as healthy as possible and increase its value for future years.
The forester marked the trees according to Beaudoin’s reports, taking two days to designate those slated for removal in year one of the project. Along with the previously identified hazard trees, about 700 trees were marked for year one.
“This allowed us to go out and contact loggers and have them come in. We gave them a list of what we had and they could express interest in the job.”
Beaudoin said one of the challenges he faced was getting the loggers to alter their usual practice of working in straight lines. The golf course setting demanded they not drive any vehicles on the greens or tees and instead strictly adhere to work routes.
A logging firm from Lucan was hired to do the work.
“They removed an astronomical amount of wood in a day.”
Because the cart paths at St. Thomas weren’t designed to withstand the loggers’ heavy machinery, alternative routes were designed to help get the logs out.
A 50-50 arrangement for ownership of the cleared timber was made with the logging company. Beaudoin redirected the club’s half of the money back into the project to fund such cleanup work as stump grinding. The money allowed for a break even point.
Although conspicuous by its absence, the felled sycamore tree next to the 14th green resulted in a significant improvement in the health of the putting surface.
Following completion of the logging work in 2012-2013, a number of sawmills in southwestern Ontario were approached in an effort to get the most money as possible for the product.
There was no demand for any of the softwood felled. It was hauled off site, cut into six and eight-foot lengths, loaded onto a trailer and taken to a burn pit.
It was up to the club’s turf maintenance staff to clean up after the logger, removing all brush and scrub left behind.
Throughout the process, Beaudoin said there were two items of concern: one, if the work that was started didn’t get completed, it would simply aggravate the club’s membership; and two, would enough work be done in certain areas to make a difference?
“So we do all of the work and if they don’t see any improvement, the process is going to be doomed to fail. We always had that in the back of our minds as we were moving forward.”
Members were curious to see for themselves precisely what was happening, Beaudoin said, adding several hadn’t yet been won over. To accommodate their interest, three site tours were scheduled over three consecutive Saturdays during which members not only saw the work that had been done, but were told exactly why the work was necessary.
About 25 per cent of the membership attended the site tours.
“Those people are now believers in the project and they’re sending the word through the membership. It’s worked out exceptionally well for us.”
Once the snow had finally melted in 2013 and the major work was done, Beaudoin’s crew was left with the monumental task of cleaning down the slopes. Several layers of leaf litter had built up over the years which needed to be raked down to the soil. Some undesirable species of vegetation, including sumac, came up during the raking process which required an ample amount of spraying.
The process allowed the establishment of a good four-acre soil base which was then hydroseeded with fescue. The absence of trees on the sloped banks has significantly opened up previously affected greens to sunlight and airflow.
Beaudoin said two of his previous worst greens are now two of his best.
In hindsight, he said having a plan to tackle such an issue is imperative. When spending good money to bring in such authorities as Vargas and Oatis, it is important to heed their suggestions.
“They’re coming for a reason. They’re trying to help us out. Let’s take advantage of it and use it to help us get things done.”
It’s also vital, he said, to get the message through to the membership because they’re going to want to know why such work is being done.
“Take them out and show them and let them understand the reasons why we’re doing this work.”