Have you ever met a salesman that recommends fine fescue (Festuca rubra species) for your course? Scarcely if ever! Why? The reasons seem clear to me. This species of grass demands far less maintenance, lower volumes of fertilisers and a negligible amount of fungicides in relation to other species of grass. These facts were confirmed when the world’s leading experts on fescue greens from Scandinavia, Germany, France, UK and the USA gathered in Copenhagen in October 2012. The myths that fescue is unable to deliver a wonderful putting surface or tolerate hard wear and stress were categorically rejected by 20 experienced greenkeepers. On location at three different types of courses it was clear that fescue suits the demands of both low budget and top end quality courses.
The greenkeepers at this conference were specially invited purely because of their skill and knowledge in the art of growing and grooming fescue. The intention was to exchange ideas and collate information on how best to maintain fescue. The resulting recommendations can be found on the STERF website.
Before the conference started a questionnaire was sent out to gather information and data on the varying maintenance measures from each of the courses to be represented. Using this and after much discussion, we felt it reasonable to draw on a series of conclusions which will be summarised as follows.
1. An excellent surface with fescue
Fescue is a species of grass that creates a lesser amount of thatch. This organic matter is also of a differing nature and character to thatch produced by other grasses. It is as a rule more porous and contains strong fibres resulting in a firm surface. Fescue is a species that seldom suffers from fungal diseases, and if disease does occur the resulting attack on the leaf is often negligible. There is, therefore, a high and stable quality to the surface during the whole season. In addition, there is good ball roll before the onset of growth in the spring and cutting below 4.5 mm is totally unnecessary in achieving fast greens.
Golfers never complain when fairways are dominated by fescue. However, regrowth is slow and it can be necessary to oversow divots on courses with high volumes of traffic.
2. Assumptions, and conditions for success
A wide range of golf courses were represented in Copenhagen, varying from the sand based ideal, to courses built on clay. The pH levels varied from 5.8 to 7.6, whilst yearly precipitation deviated from 450 to 1500 mm. All delegates agreed that it was possible to succeed with fescue. However, and in no uncertain terms, the emphasis for success depends on good drainage. On wet areas, or where the water table is high, fescue loses its durability and the inevitable consequence is that Poa annua takes over. Fescue will always have a great advantage in open areas with lots of sunlight and wind. One only has to look at open seaside areas were fescue dominates the environment. The greenkeepers that had greens consisting of fescue and browntop bent (Agrostis tenuis) observed that browntop bent often became dominant where shade was an issue in heavily wooded areas.“
The golden rule that applies to fescue is “if in doubt, do nothing”.
The overriding prerequisite for success in the growing and maintenance of fescue is that the greenkeeper should have ample academic integrity and patience. Fescue is in its comfort zone when left to its own devices. In a nutshell this is what makes this species a blessing for courses with a low budget.
3. TLC (tender loving care)
Only one of the greenkeepers had scarified his greens, and this was on a course also sown with browntop bent. Otherwise the most brutal form of maintenance consisted of cutting and grooming. The average cutting height was 5 mm, and no more than 3 to 4 times a week. This was found to be more than ample especially if the greens were rolled regularly.
Aeration is also important for fescue. On average thin solid tines were used twice a month and on some courses hollow tines were used in the process of overseeding. All the courses oversowed with fescue once or several times during the season, with autumn being the most usual time for this procedure.
On average the amount of top dressing was 7 mm depth a year. This is no less than what is normal for bent and Poa. A few of our fescue greenkeeers thought perhaps they used too much sand, as the surface appeared to lose its stability. Indeed, there has to be good root development, and a modicum of thatch, to achieve a firm and durable surface!
Dressing with good compost in the sand was undertaken by many, which raised an eyebrow for those who practiced dressing with pure sand! Excellent compost products are called for here. The compost supplier in the audience noted that an annual dressing of 7 mm sand mixed with compost is the equivalent of 30-40 kg N per hectare. Compost encourages the organic life in the soil to flourish, which helps nutrient recycling from the organic material deposited by the fescue.
4. Moderate amounts of fertiliser and water
It was generally agreed that a sparse amount of fertiliser was the best way to feed fescue. However that is where the agreement ended. The timing of fertilisation, type of fertiliser, and dosage varied greatly, with the annual nitrogen rate ranging from 40 to 100 kg /ha. The median value was 60. The course which was down to 40 kg N dressed with pure sand, and applied small doses of leaf fertiliser through the whole growing season. Most of the other courses used similar fertilisers throughout the season.
Fescue requires sparse amounts of water, so the idea is to irrigate with the intention of keeping the ground as dry as possible. Fescue has an extreme ability to survive drought because of its deep roots. It is quite common to have 20-25 mm roots during the whole season. However one should show caution with the danger of desiccation during the spring. That being said one can always try to fight the ingress of Poa by drying out the greens in the summer months. This kind of strategy can lead to dry spots, and many greenkeepers often used wetting agents to counter the effect of such an irrigation strategy.
Weeds on fairways demand treatment with herbicides. It is difficult to eliminate clover without spot spraying. Dollar spot is the most common form of disease that occurs on the greens. However, the damage done on fescue contrasted with other species of grass is often negligible.
Most greenkeepers choose to keep a cool head, and let the disease run its course. 60% of those asked never used fungicides on their greens!
Golf course excursions
After trips to three different courses in the Copenhagen area it became reasonably clear that, given the right growing environment, it was indeed easy to succeed with fescue.
Smørum Golf Center has Per Rasmussen presiding over the greens. For many a year he has been a unifying figure amongst Danish greenkeepers on the benefits of fescue. Smørum is a huge golf complex with over 51 greens open for pay and play. Together with commercial success Smørum has also produced many fine golfers through its work with juniors and commitment to fostering golfers of the highest calibre. Out on the course Per is using one green to test the effects of varying cutting height and the frequency of cutting and rolling. Through this large scale experiment in cooperation with Bioforsk we hope to give a detailed and thorough insight in how best to grow and maintain fescue by the year 2014.Vallø Golf Club is a family run business. With an investment of 7 million DKK (£700,000) the farm was converted into a 27 hole course. It is maintained by the owner and his father-in-law, with the addition of two part-time workers in the summer months. 1,300 members now enjoy golf on a course with a general good standard; all made possible due to fescues low maintenance costs.
Furesø Golf Club has members that demand a high standard. The course was rebuilt in 2000. Fescue and browntop bent were the choice of grasses. This is a demanding combination because browntop bent has a tendency to dominate and creates a lot of thatch. However, due to greenkeeper Thomas Pihl’s exact and systematic methods it was no problem for the fescue to be the dominant grass. He has managed to deliver excellent greens even though much of the course is surrounded by thick woodland. The high demands of the members are amply provided for.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.