My View

Grass selection in the UK and Northern Europe

Alistair Beggs of STRI shares his views on the importance of choosing the right grasses.

By AJ Beggs Bsc Hons

A blend of bent, fescue and meadow-grass can produce and excellent year-round putting surface  
2nd January 2013
Managing for healthy grass

Grass selection in the UK and Northern Europe should be a very simple process. Unlike other parts of the world where there may be issues with climatic extremes, salt tolerance, transition zones for grasses, etc, little of this is relevant to our work in Northern Europe. In essence we live in a temperate maritime climate and as such summers are generally cool and wet and winters mild and wet. Clearly the further from the Atlantic shoreline one moves, the more continental the climatic influence becomes. This can have an impact on grass selection.

Optimising light and limiting shade is one of the key fundamentals for the promotion of the better grasses

The good performance of UK and Northern European golf courses revolves around four fundamental basics.  All of them must be present if the grasses selected to deliver excellence are to persist and prosper and lead to sustainable outcomes:

•    Drainage – this is absolutely fundamental to maintaining the best grasses. They will not grow in persistently wet soils.  If it is flawed correct it as a matter of priority. 

•     Light – all grasses need light and the more of it they get in the morning (this raises soil temperature, lifts frost and moisture) the better the sward will perform.  Compromising the availability of light will compromise the performance of the better and favoured grass types.

•     Air – air is fundamental for plant health and cooling processes within the plant and without a steady supply of it sward composition and performance will be compromised.

•    Appropriate maintenance – items such as feeding, aeration, mechanical refinement are all important and can influence sward health and composition. However it is no use trying to use maintenance to overcome major flaws in the previous categories.  This won’t work and will always result in sub-optimal grass mixes and performance.

Once the environment and styles of management have been agreed grass selection can begin. The choices are fairly simple and the key is not to over complicate the process. Defying nature never works even at great cost.

For most golfing surfaces in Northern Europe the fescues (Festuca species) are likely to have a major role and will usually be the first grass of choice for playing surfaces.

Collectively they are wonderful grasses and offer excellent year round performance provided the fundamentals are correct. They will be the first grasses to disappear if they are not. Generally I favour the slender creeping (Festuca rubra ssp. litoralis) and Chewings (Festuca rubra ssp. commutata) varieties although low maintenance and drought tolerant hards are becoming more popular particularly to fairways and roughs. Always refer to the available cultivar lists and choose the best. Increasingly there are real differences between the best and more mediocre cultivars in categories such as mowing height, tolerance to drought, colour, disease resistance etc.

Fescue dominated surfaces are hard to beat both visually and from a maintenance perspective

Bents (Agrostis species) co-exist very well with fescues and will often be selected as bedfellows. There is plenty of research to suggest bent fescue blends perfom better than monocultures of either bent or fescue and this should always be borne in mind when choices are being made. Browntops (Agrostis tenuis) tend to be the favoured type particularly when the bents are blended, and again cultivar selection remains vital. Stoloniferous bents (Agrostis stolonifera) are sometimes selected alone to create monocultures. These work better in climates where summers are warm and sunny and or winters are cold. They are vulnerable to meadow-grass ingress and the ageing process can be ugly and expensive to manage effectively. In summary my view would be to avoid this type of bent in Northern Europe even though it can produce very high quality results in the short term.

It is not long ago that rye grasses (Lolium perenne) were considered suitable only for winter games pitches or for feeding cattle! Breeding programmes have moved them on but rye’s are only suitable for golf in certain circumstances. It remains a productive species that needs to grow quickly and therefore creates a mowing burden. The leaf blade remains difficult to cut and it is a grass that is very difficult to present to the same level as bents and fescues. However on the positive side it has a big seed which germinates quickly and it has good wear tolerance on small and heavily used areas. Like bents, rye’s can be used as a blend (usually with fescues) to provide solutions on tees and fairways, particularly where playing levels are high. I would only choose this grass type with full knowledge of a particular site and its budgets and resource levels.

A fescue dominated sward prepared to championship standard

No opinion on grass selection is complete without a word on annual meadow-grass (Poa annua). This grass continues to polarise opinion within the greenkeeping world but in respect of this article it cannot and should not ever be regarded as a positive grass selection choice. It is an opportunist that will contribute to sward mixes as they age and mature, and the extent to which it influences longer term performance depends upon the basic fundamentals referred to earlier. For example, it is king or will become king in a poorly drained environment, in an airless environment, where light is compromised or where maintenance is inappropriate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.