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Do Fairways need Fertiliser ?
by David Stansfield


The answer to this often asked question is very simple - no! Such a response may seem to make the rest of this article some-what redundant. Nevertheless, it is always worthwhile expanding on the reasoning behind such a hard and fast principle, and perhaps mentioning that there are exceptions that prove the rule, if only to make the statement more believable.

The overwhelming majority of fairways in Northern Europe are grown on native topsoil and have the leaf clippings, when mowing, returned to the ground. Nothing is taken away. So, if the soil is carefully managed, there should be no need to add anything to a system of build up and break down which, far more often than not, naturally sustains a balanced population of grasses adapted to a poverty environment. Such grasses are well suited to being managed into good fairway turf, having an inherently fine texture, being resistant to disease and weed invasion and, most importantly, being highly suited to providing uniform, clean, tight lies.

If one adds fertiliser to a system without a very good reason, the risk is that the grass population will become imbalanced. There may be circumstances where the risk is worth taking, but in most cases it is not. An imbalanced population of grasses is not well adapted to its particular environment, which makes it susceptible to environmental stress, not least to drought. Hence, putting fertiliser on fairways to make them green and to provide the opportunity to present them sharply striped, has a cost in terms of the price of the material itself, the machinery to cut it, the fuel to make the machinery work, and the staff to drive the machinery. But more importantly, it also has a price in terms of creating a demand on what is becoming a scarce resource, water, plus the price of high cost systems to apply it. It also has the hidden penalty of not encouraging skilled golf.

Frequently I am confronted by the demand that members want more grass under the ball, i.e. to leave more grass when mowing and to make the turf look like a picture from a glossy magazine. No thought is given to the spin off (if you will excuse the pun!), the inevitable loss of ball control due to more grass between the club-face and ball; nor indeed how much longer the course will play; nor to the drain this will have on the course budget; nor to the management headache that more frequent mowing creates for the Head Greenkeeper and his (usually) scant greenkeeping team. Fundamentally, if the grass grows quickly it needs mowing more often, while the higher it is mown the sooner it becomes unacceptably long.

The key to providing good fairways on natural courses is to manage the soil rather than the grass. If the soil is in good condition, then the grass which is best adapted, both to that particular situation and to the playing of good golf, will follow on behind like Mary's lamb.

Soil in good condition is soil which is well aerated and has an adequate level of organic matter. A scarcity of organic matter is a comparatively rare situation, but it is usually something which can be overcome by top dressing using bulky organic material, e.g. fen peat, sphagnum peat, green waste, some spent mushroom compost, dried sewage sludge, or even diluted slurry (if the members will put up with the smell). The need for topdressing in this way can usually be satisfied by a relatively short programme of localised treatments. If not, then there is a good case for fairway irrigation.

In contrast, maintaining good aeration is such a fundamental aspect of routine maintenance, that it has to be carried out routinely every year, forever. The standard method of achieving this in the past was by 3 - 4 passes over Winter with a heavy duty deep slitter. However, with modern day levels of play this is now rarely enough. More intensive slitting needs to be applied and it must be backed up by regular vertidraining and/or hollow tining and/or vibratory mole ploughing.

There needs to be careful control of traffic flow too, so that particular points onfairways do not become over-hard, especially at the end of carries, around fairway bunkers, and along the line of walk-through close to the site of each green.

Having said all that, the point has to be made that one can never say never, and there are circumstances when it is valid to apply some form of fertiliser to fairways. Such treatments may take the form of applying a low input organic feed as a routine operation, as an alternative to topdressing where the organic matter levels are low but not desperately so. There are many products of this nature on the market, based on manure or seaweed or both.

Also, situations arise where a short course of high nitrogen fertiliser can be justified, especially when fairways have been damaged or when seeding. Always remember that, in these circumstances, the use of this type of fertiliser is the finishing touch, not the fundamental cure. Once upon a time opium and cocaine were regarded as miracle cures for ailments, but their regular use did far more harm than good, and proved to be a hard habit to break.