Turf & Rec

Features Agronomy
The ins and outs of hand watering


January 28, 2014
By Mike Jiggens


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Hand watering is a process which can effectively supplement regular golf course irrigation. It has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it’s a means to manually supplement areas in need. On the downside, it requires more manpower and therefore may not be the right fit for all golf courses.

Dean Baker, superintendent at the Burlington Golf & Country Club, spoke in November at Cutten Fields in Guelph about the benefits of hand watering and the process involved. He was one of three main speakers at a water management and irrigation auditing seminar staged by first-year turfgrass management diploma students at the University of Guelph.

Poor irrigation is perhaps the foremost reason for wanting to hand water, he said. Baker suggested catch cans be set out on a putting green to check an irrigation system’s coverage effectiveness. After watering the course at night, and armed with a trained eye and a moisture meter, a superintendent can easily detect which areas are receiving insufficient amounts of water and which areas are being overwatered.

A “good, lazy superintendent” who may not have the money for hoses and wants to use irrigation will water the driest areas with irrigation below the hole that he’s overwatering. It’s an ideal situation for hand watering.

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“If you really want to dial in the moisture on your greens, this is where the fun starts,” Baker said, noting the process is about supplementing areas in need.

Differences in soil texture is a situation which might be ideal for hand watering. Baker recalled his years when he was superintendent at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, noting it had USGA greens yet the entire surrounds were red clay. The greens initially went in without a liner between the collar, and the clay would wick moisture from the collars. He said he was constantly hand watering collars just to keep them going.

Realizing the wicking needed to be stopped, it was decided a physical barrier was needed which led to the survival of the collars.

Hand watering requires one person, a quick coupler, a hose and a good nozzle. The process begins with a moisture meter, but if a golf course cannot afford to purchase a higher-end instrument, a simple meter available from a garden centre can be utilized. Baker said that although the inexpensive meters are effective, they don’t last long and become disposable because of their propensity to break. They are not meant to be inserted into the ground hundreds of times during the course of a summer.

“Knowing what you’re trying to water is the most important thing,” he said, adding that if water is simply being added, it may actually contribute to the problem.

Baker said hand watering and syringing are practices many believe to be the same, but there is a difference. With hand watering, either a significant amount of water or perhaps just a little will be put down. When a quick nozzle is used, it is pointed downward because water is being put into the soil.

It’s not about the plant, but what’s below the plant. It is a supplemental form of irrigation which replenishes the soil moisture. If it’s an attempt to keep poa alive and if the roots are dry, hand watering keeps them wet.

Syringing, on the other hand, is an application of a small amount of water in which the nozzle is pointed upwards, allowing a cool mist to fall onto the plant, “and that’s all we want to do.” If the temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, there’s no need to water because it’s going nowhere, Baker said, adding the humidity is so high that the water in the ground isn’t going to move. He cautioned not to soak the ground when temperatures and humidity levels are so high because it will lead to nothing but grief.

“It’s just got to be cooled down.”

Baker said the membership at Burlington appreciates the effort his staff puts into caring for the course’s greens through hand watering and syringing.

“They especially appreciate the end result which is a beautiful putting surface.”

Irrigation can be used for brief intervals in between groups of golfers. If an explanation is needed to tell members why irrigation is being used instead of hand watering, the superintendent can simply say that everything needs to be watered in less than an hour, and it can’t be accomplished with only four staff members. Sprinklers can be turned on for three minutes—long enough to cool down the turf—and then turned back off.

Whether supplemental watering is done by hoses or by irrigation, the quality of the turf will tell the tale, Baker said. If the superintendent is lazy and is using sprinklers and putting down too much water on his greens, the turf will indicate as such when disease sets in and the “house of cards” begins to fall.

Burlington is the third golf course at which Baker has served as superintendent, and all three have employed different watering regimes. At Glen Abbey, with its USGA greens, strong populations of bentgrass and heavy red clay surrounds, a lot of hand watering was done.

At the Club at North Halton in Georgetown, Ont., greens barely needed to be touched during the afternoons. He said the course boasted great pushup greens, good soils which held fertility and moisture well, good native, perennial poa and bentgrass mixtures, and a good wetting agent program. Wetting agents were the key, he said, to keeping moisture where is was wanted.

The shallow root system of Burlington’s poa greens requires hand watering day and night. Until recently, the golf course had evolved into a park-like setting with a large array of trees which had overshaded the greens. Bentgrass doesn’t like excessive shade. A tree removal and re-planting program was launched last year to help reduce shade, increase air movement, reduce risk and add aesthetic value.

“We need to grow bentgrass,” he said. “Bentgrass doesn’t need as much water as poa.”

There is a significant cost associated with hand watering to keep poa alive.

The process of hand watering begins with the health of the plant.

“If you don’t have a healthy plant, there’s no sense of even hand watering at all.”

A strong grass plant will survive stressful periods, will be drought-tolerant, will be better equipped to fight off disease and will be less dependent on chemicals. Both spring and fall root growth are critical.

“If it’s healthy as a horse, it can take on the world. If it’s sick and doesn’t have the things it needs to stay healthy, that’s when the problems start.”

Good soil, sunlight, water and air are the four essential necessities for growing healthy turf. Soil structure is food for the plant, Baker said, adding that the more clay-based it is, the greater it is for retaining moisture and nutrients, but it’s also more prone to compaction. A sandy soil will compact less, but must be carefully managed because moisture and nutrients will go through it “like there’s no tomorrow.”

Sunlight is essential for turf to survive and thrive, but too often the turf is literally overshadowed.

“Trees are the greatest enemy of grass,” Baker said, noting the plant is already under stressful conditions when mowed so short and subjected to significant traffic. “You can’t tell me that plant is not under stress. It needs 14 hours a day of solid sunlight. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.”

When extreme heat is added to the equation, it can be particulary detrimental.

When problem trees are removed, the result is better air circulation. The absence of trees also helps to cool the plant more, and morning dew is less of a problem. There must also be ample air below the ground for the benefit of the roots.
For about the past 10 years, Burlington has benefited from the wisdom of the USGA green section’s Dave Oatis who stresses the importance of good maintenance and cultural practices to provide healthy growing conditions. Deferring any of these maintenance or cultural practices contributes to weak links in the growing conditions.

For example, a superintendent cannot afford to choose not to aerify simply because his members don’t like the disruption. If he puts the practice off for a year, he’ll experience compaction and other problems which cause the turf to suffer.

“Under stressful times, these weak links will break, the plant starts to suffer and disasters happen.”

Baker said Oatis refers to this as the “agronomic house of cards.” In good weather, marked by a cool season and plenty of rain, there will hardly be a problem. It’s when the bad weather sets in that the cracks occur and the house of cards begins to fall.

“Bad weather is what we always grow to.”

The idea is to get the plant as strong as possible in the spring because it’s bound to go through a hot, humid and dry summer. Afterwards, the plant goes through a cold, miserable winter, making the fall a vital time to revive its health.
Baker said that even he tends to overwater. If greens are well maintained and a wetting agent is used, 15 to 30 per cent less water will be required on the greens than the surrounds. The situation may be that the green is watered, but the bluegrass surrounding it dies. There may not be sufficient manpower to go out and water the bluegrass, especially around bunkers, yet the goal is to keep the bluegrass alive. The bluegrass is consequently watered, but the green gets too much water and problems begin to happen.

He said greens must be managed with the water targeted accordingly with the understanding there will be collateral damage to the outside of the greens. Hand watering in such a circumstance is helpful if the manpower is available. Fortunately, Baker said, he has the luxury of being able to provide the necessary manpower, and his putting surfaces are ideal.

Water management on greens directly relates to plant root health, he said. The objective in the summer is to keep roots as healthy as possible, forcing them to alway be looking for water.

If an irrigation system malfunctions and can’t be repaired immediately, a superintendent will have a window of 24 hours in which grass can survive without water. The watering technique traditionally adopted is heavy and infrequent. Baker said the goal is to water enough to simulate a heavy rain, shut it off, let the water go through the soil profile, and let the roots look for the water. This depends on where the golf course is geographically located and the type of plant.

The poa greens at Burlington produce roots of a quarter-inch to a half-inch in length during the summer. Baker said his idea of heavy and infrequent is “water, water, and come back in an hour and water again.”

For courses with good bentgrass and good root systems, the technique may be “water, water and shut if off for a couple of days.”

In the summer, roots tend to shut down and don’t like the top being cut at a tenth of an inch and stressed by traffic.
Baker refers to the afternoon period as “the witching hour” because that’s when grass tends to be lost, especially between the hours of 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“The reason things happen then is because usually by noon we’re starting to shut down, and by 3 o’clock most of us have gone home.”

The hours between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. tend to be the hottest time. That’s the witching hour for weak poa, he said.
Baker said integrated pest management is not merely about pests, but the health of the plant. At Burlington, scouts monitor the course not only for insects and disease, but they’re probing for roots to determine how bad they might be, checking for moisture and hot spots. Such information is helpful in looking for compacted areas and to know where hand watering is required.

“Basically what you’re doing is keeping your golf course alive.”

Hand watering, he said, is akin to “babysitting” the turf and it keeps members happy. If the superintendent has weak turf, he must ensure it remains alive.