In my last post, I referenced some tests that I had run during the 2014 golf season in St. Marys, Pennsylvania. It was subsequently brought to my attention from a former co-worker with an over-whelming wealth of expertise in golf course maintenance and turf grass management that I should go into more depth about the tests in particular. It should be pointed out that these tests should not be interpreted as “research”, per say. My hope for this was, and still remains, to bolster my experience with the medium of compost tea, while at the same time determine its efficacy with regard to turf grass. The key word used by my colleague that stuck out to me regarding my tests was, “observational”.
I first became interested in the prospect of golf courses incorporating compost tea and other “homemade” soil amendments into maintenance practices near the end of my third semester of business school in late 2013. My friend Mark had been working for about a year with vermicompost, and was beginning to experiment with organic gardening and fermenting foods. During this same time period, I was working on an idea for an entrepreneurship class project. I wanted to find ways to make golf courses more self-sustaining. Because of the state of the golf economy, I felt that compost tea may be a step in the right direction.
I was not exactly sure where to take this idea. I halfheartedly decided to enter a national sustainability business plan competition sponsored by Wal-Mart. Much to my surprise, my idea was selected to compete against student teams from three other universities at the regional round of the competition at George Washington University in February of 2014. I still was not sure how I could incorporate an entire business model around compost tea, but I was pretty much forced to figure it out at this point.
To make a long story, well, less long, I was fortunate enough to advance past the regional round, only to come up short in the national finals held in Bentonville, Arkansas. While I did not take home any of the cash prizes awarded, I did leave “The Natural State” with a feeling of optimism and excitement. I had convinced enough people to believe that this was a viable venture to get me to that point. Now I just needed to find a way to convince someone to buy it.
The time had come for me to put this stuff to the test. Spring had sprung in Pennsylvania and I was chomping at the bit to apply (literally) what I had been talking about all winter. I started the following week by taking some EM™ that Mark had made and sprayed it on some snow mold areas that had popped up at Bavarian Hills Golf Course. I did not see any results, and I did not expect to. It was already late in the season for snow mold, and one application likely had little to no effect.
Two weeks later I returned with a batch of compost tea that Mark and I had started brewing the day before. I decided I would buy a sprayer on the way into St. Marys that morning, and picked up a nifty little backpack sprayer as opposed to the less-expensive, more practical two gallon version. I have since relented to taking back the larger sprayer, and getting the more preferable latter model, but I digress.
In the middle of July, I decided to buy a low-end moisture probe with some of the store credit I had received from returning the backpack sprayer months before. The probe also has features for pH and light, and after a few uses I realized that only the useful readings for this practice were pH and moisture, since each test area had full sun virtually all day.
My process for each application would go as such:
· I would brew a batch of tea in the morning the day before I wanted to spray. Approximately 24 hours later, I would fill a travel mug full of coffee, fill the sprayer with compost tea (the remainder going into a sealed five-gallon bucket), and load my car for the hour and half drive north to St. Marys.
· Upon arriving at Bavarian Hills, I would stop by the pro shop for a cart key, take the cart to my car, load up and head to the sod farm at the back of the driving range.
· Before spraying, I would take moisture and pH readings at the same spot in the treated area, followed by the untreated area. The probe would be sunk approximately 2-3 inches into the soil.
· I would then apply two gallons of the tea on to the sod farm.
· The process would be repeated on an area near the 100 yard marker in the 18th fairway (one gallon), and then again to a section of the practice putting green (2 gallons).
· After a few weeks, I began taking readings from an untreated area on an upper quadrant of the practice green as well. I postulated that my untreated practice green readings may be skewed because the area from which I had been taking readings was the lowest point on the green. I thought taking a second reading elsewhere may be useful.
For the first few applications, I was only permitted to spray a section of the sod farm. It was only after I had successfully NOT killed the grass, did I gain access to other spots.
Over the course of the summer, I continued the project. I tried to make sure that I replicated the tests each time as best as I could. Unfortunately, life happened in September, so after August 29th, I was not able to make another spray (or take another reading) to all three areas until October 24th. I made one more spray to the practice green on October 30th, but that was as far as I got since the course was closed by that time meaning there were no carts for me to get to the other two areas.
Admittedly, I was not as consistent on my regiment as I would have liked. Factors such as trying to pay the bills and the commitment of basically an entire day without pay to make the trip to and from St. Marys did not allow me to be as flexible as I would have liked with my schedule. However, the results are promising, and do show improvement. The data from my tests in conjunction with other programs from around the country that utilize compost tea show similar results.
Above is a chart of the readings I had taken from the sod farm, which is the area that had been treated the longest. The moisture feature on the probe gauges on a scale of 1 to 10, with “moist” falling between 3 and 7. The readings from all sections are encouraging, but because the sod farm had the most thorough treatment, I feel as though it is the most accurate representation.
Admittedly, the results aren’t overwhelming, but I think they do paint a positive picture. One reason why the stats could have been better may be that my tea recipe was not optimized to the turf grass or soil conditions at Bavarian Hills. Among some other things, I would have liked to have toyed with more bacterial-dominant and fungal-dominant recipes, and also taken some core samples both at the beginning and end of the season.
That being said, I felt some confidence in November when course superintendent Jim Dornish outright stated in a board meeting that one could see the difference on the sod farm. I had noticed something similar, but before Jim’s comments I wondered if I was too biased to be objective. The treated area simply looked healthier.
As I am writing this, I have a batch of compost tea brewing, destined to be sprayed onto my house plants and garden beds in the morning. Then, it’s off to St. Marys where I hope to actually play some golf at Bavarian Hills; for once.
Travis Lesser is an Entrepreneurship Instructor at Penn State University, and is also the Owner and Founder of Spring Mill Solutions.