Dealing With Wet Winters
Submitted by Craig Loving
It seems like every year there are areas on each course that remain wet throughout the winter months. Whether it’s an approach shot that doesn’t quite make it onto the green or losing a few yards off of your drive, these areas have an impact on the playability of the golf course. The following paragraphs will explain why this happens, what measures we’ve taken to minimize this, as well as future projects to eliminate some of these wet areas. We will briefly explain our winter irrigation adjustments, the effects of winter rain events, and how we deal with these conditions.
During the winter months (November through March), we cut back our watering based on the needs of the plant. As the turf goes into winter dormancy, the plant shuts down and water and nutrient uptake is reduced substantially. We schedule our irrigation cycles based on evapotranspiration rates, which are reduced during cooler temperatures. For example: in mid-summer months (ET of .26) we would need to water an area for 15-18 minutes to replace the moisture lost from both water evaporation and plant transpiration (evapotranspiration). In the winter (ET of .06) we could water the same area for 2-3 minutes for the same effect.
A majority of our focus in the winter is maintaining optimum root moisture to the greens. We check moisture levels on a daily basis, then hand water or run irrigation cycles accordingly. Fairways, tees, green surrounds, and rough irrigation are reduced as well, generally dependent on rainfall totals.
Rainfall is the primary advocate for wet conditions on the course during the winter months, mostly due to its unpredictability. We can control every individual irrigation head on our course in regards to the direction, irrigation time, and irrigation amount for over 1,000 heads per course. However, if we get a 2” rain event in December all we can do is wait for it to dry. In some cases, this could take several days.
There are two key factors behind why the drying process is prolonged during the winter. The more obvious factor is that cooler temperatures reduce evaporation rates. The lesser-known factor deals with a dormant plant’s inability to uptake water. Therefore, most (if not all) of the turf drying comes from a reduced evaporation rate. So when a 1” rain event happens in the middle of summer with high temperatures (and an active plant), it would take much less time to have playable conditions than when the same amount of rain occurs in the middle of winter.
Protecting the Turf
After a winter rain event, we generally play it as safe as possible to ensure the health of the turf on our courses. When grass becomes dormant, it loses its ability to recover from cart traffic ruts in wet areas like it would during the growing season. This is the reasoning behind extended cart path only days, which is unfavorable for every golfer. We have fairways on each course that may be 90% dry after a rain event that are cart path only, but are deemed so because the lower wet areas are too large to rope off for 1-2 days. Some of our current worn areas in fairways and rough are due to high cart traffic in the winter months, and possibly due to a lapse in judgment by allowing carts in those areas at the wrong time of year (after rainfall). We plan to be sterner in the future in this regard, and although it might not be a popular tactic, we believe it will help us with long-term turf health.
We plan to attack some of these lower wet areas with supplemental drainage to shorten the length of “cart path only” time. These projects are ideal for winter months when our focus is on special projects and not on maintaining turf height. With a trencher attachment to our skid steer, this process should be much faster than in years past. Cowan Creek remains the course that needs the most supplemental drainage, as well as original drainage improvement. We’ve seen dramatic improvements in areas that we’ve previously added drainage, and we hope to soon eliminate all of these long-term wet areas.