It’s no secret. The products we are putting on the ground in order to encourage plant growth are being placed under more scrutiny. For those of us who live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, we know all too well about potential industry game changers, such as legislation capping fertilizer amounts and removing terms like “navigable” when defining bodies of water. Some factions even argue that there are products superintendents are using today that actually deplete the soil from the diversity that healthy turf needs to thrive. One method to help us begin the process of adapting to these changes is one of the oldest methods of encouraging plant growth.
Hardly a new technology, humans have been composting in one form or another for thousands of years. It is only within the last 50 years or so that we have begun to gain a better understanding of the science behind it. Thermophilic composting, or using heat-loving bacteria to break down waste, is a very common form of composting that can be time, labor, and space intensive. What’s more, the odor emanating from a thermophilic compost pile is difficult to control, and finding a place on your club’s property where this does not affect members, guests, or nearby residences can be a challenge. However, if you are able to make it work, it can be an effective way of putting your club’s food waste, grass clippings, fallen leaves and other “brown waste” to good use.
Another method of composting is called vermicomposting, or using worms to turn organic waste into a very powerful and rich fertilizer (aka, worm castings). A concern about applying worm castings to your golf course is that seeds from food waste not digested by the worms may end up in your compost, and ultimately into your soil. One method for avoiding this pitfall is to put food waste into your thermophilic compost pile, as the heat will kill off any of these pesky seeds. You can then feed your finished thermophilic compost to your worms, which will then devour the organic-rich matter to produce arguably an even more effective product.
Regardless of which composting method you choose, the finished product can be used to add to, or even replace, some of your existing maintenance practices. Using compost in your top-dressing mixture, in your sand-seed boxes on teeing grounds or golf carts, or even in your flower-beds are just a few of the ways this low-cost fertilizer can be incorporated into your club’s maintenance schedule. But your options do not end with compost as a granular amendment.
As I mentioned in a previous post, by steeping your compost into aerated water for a period of time (many experts site 18-24 hours as the optimal time period), compost tea brings you an effective liquid amendment to add to your existing arsenal. Recipes for compost tea are countless and can be varied, allowing you to mix fungal-dominant or bacterial-dominant recipes depending on what is needed for that application. There are differing opinions about whether the most optimal method involves simply pumping air into the solution via a “bubbler” (think of a fish tank), or using a vortex method, which can eliminate anaerobic pockets that may occur with the bubbler method.
To test the efficacy of one method, I built a small vortex brewer out of a 5-gallon water cooler bottle, and treated portions of the Bavarian Hills Golf Club in St. Marys, Pennsylvania during the 2014 golf season. Throughout the season, and with Superintendent Jim Dornish’s blessing, I spot sprayed compost tea on three different areas – half of his sod farm, a corner of the practice putting green, and on the 18th fairway. Approximately every 7-14 days over the course of the summer I conducted some tests, for observational purposes, using a moisture probe just prior to spraying. I found that in each sprayed area, there was better moisture retention when compared to similar nearby, untreated areas. This not only shows the potential monetary and environmental savings from using compost tea instead of other costlier fertilizers, but it also points to a potential for significant water savings resulting from incorporating compost tea into your regiment.
An additional offering that can be involved into your regiment is called EM™, which stands for “effective microorganisms”. While EM™ is a trademarked term, the name for the microbial inoculant has become interchangeable with the product itself, much like Kleenex™ or Post-It™. There are several proprietary blends on the market, but each generally includes lactic acid bacteria, photosynthetic bacteria and yeast. Courses like The Presidio in San Francisco involve it in their application schedule, as the product gives the facility an anaerobic amendment that can be made reasonably cheaply and easily.
Another low-cost potential addition to any course’s application schedule is called “bokashi”, which is a method of composting derived from Japan that is commonly made with only molasses, water, EM™ and wheat bran. It can be made with aerobic or anaerobic inoculants, and helps to breakdown organic matter more quickly. Silver Spring Golf Club in Wisconsin prides itself on being the only “zero food waste” facility in that state, utilizing bokashi as a part of this initiative. What is particularly interesting is that bokashi can also be incorporated into the fermenting of foods for human consumption, ultimately encouraging a more efficient digestive process. It is nice to know that something we are putting on the ground is something we can safely ingest.
The technologies discussed above are hardly new, yet there seems to be some resistance to incorporating them into existing maintenance practices. What cannot be avoided, however, is the increasing need for the industry to change its ways. While there is no denying that there will be costs associated with switching from current chemical fertilizer methods to these more ecologically friendly ones, clubs must focus on the long-term benefits these methods can bring. Cost savings in the long run, cleaner water and less negative impacts on human and animal habitat are at the top of that list, but the potential diversity each of these amendments can incorporate into the soil is perhaps the biggest benefit for your club’s continued operation because those courses that can operate with less water while maintaining a healthy course, will be the ones that survive.
Travis Lesser is an Entrepreneurship Instructor at Penn State University, and is also the Owner and Founder of Spring Mill Solutions.