The forgotten season

Fall doesn’t get much attention when it comes to landscaping on a golf course. But there are plenty of ways superintendents can add a pop of color to their facilities at this time of year.

John C. Fech, Ph.D.

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

A common goal in the world of landscaping golf courses — or any landscaping, for that matter — is the creation of four-season color.

October 2013 feature: Season photo 1

Photo by Krivosheev Vitaly/

Just about any competent golf course architect, landscape architect or horticulturist will strongly emphasize the importance of the other design considerations such as drainage, right plant/right place, gradation, scale, texture, mass/void, erosion prevention, soil amendments/ adjustments, sun and shade exposure, slope, winter hardiness, disease resistance, planting diversity, eventual size, and so on. But without a doubt, the influence of color on the golfer is most impactful.

Golfscape appeal in various seasons — spring blooms of various colors, summer green textures, winter bark/fruit/habitat (great when cast against the snow) — offer tremendous value. Yet far too often, fall becomes the forgotten season, with the opportunities for appeal lost in the midst of everything else on the calendar. Sure, lots of great plants bloom in the spring, but there are so many that bloom or have other attractive features in the fall, it just makes good sense to highlight them.

Of all the seasons, fall is usually the most stable and supportive from the standpoint of a conducive growing environment for plant material. Actually, in many ways, you could — and even should — think of fall as the start of the growing season, not the last bit of green before the snow flies.

Re-evaluate, then replant

Due to summer heat, stress and drought, replanting or regrassing the turfgrass portions of the golf course has become a given for many courses. But just as it is for turf, summer is stressful on trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers as well.

October 2013 feature: Season photo 2

Can you say “In-your-face color?”
Photos by John Fech

The wise course of action is to determine the reasons for poor landscape health and/or function and take steps to correct them. Once those have been addressed, new plants can be installed to meet the landscaping needs of the golf course. Accomplishing this is a multistep process, with plant selection as the last of those steps.

First, it’s important to revisit the goals for the areas affected. Even though this may seem to be a step backward, writing descriptions of the purpose for the plant materials utilized is a good investment of a superintendent’s time. With these descriptions in place and agreed upon, future modifications can be made easily.

Descriptions — or “program statements” — can be quite simple terms or phrases for defining the intent of the site. For example, a statement for a passageway from a turnaround to the next tee might read, “Establish a durable surface with views of desirable, multiseason appeal plant materials that fa-cilitates golfer and cart traffic.” Statements like this one provide a good foundation for short- and long-term plantings.

Inventory and analysis come next in the process. Typically, inventory and analysis are different procedures where the inventory is a simple documentation of the current conditions and the analysis is a set of value judgments pertaining to the worth and need for action on behalf of each landscape element. In the case of enhancements for fall, thorough notes that describe each plant and the potential for fall appeal should be made.

Architectural renderings can be daunting, especially if significant changes have been made to the golfscape over the years. I encourage superintendents to simplify and not worry about replicating them in terms of precise measurements. While few of us can draw finished architectural renderings, everyone can draw circles and ovals to create simple bubble diagrams to identify possible shapes of hardscape and landscape, and potential masses of plant materials.

Again, the plant specifications come last in the process. There is much value in identifying where the turf, groundcover, trees and shrubs will be as a middle step in choosing replacement plants.

Existing vegetation is a consideration in any replacement plant decision. Where sketches or bubble diagrams indicate changes, this becomes a good time to check the irrigation system for leaks, coverage, distribution uniformity and overall efficiency.

Chances are good that changes from turf to groundcovers or vice-versa have created the need for a retrofit in terms of spray heads, run times and updated equipment. Superintendents can then calculate run times based on the combined needs of the existing vegetation and the new fall features.

A golfscape or any set of plants is never a finished project. Once the plantings are installed and a growing season or two have passed, it’s important to take the time necessary to further determine the success of the renovation and re-evaluate, taking into consideration all of the parts of the process. Each phase of the enhancement effort can contribute to or detract from the overall success.

Highlight fall plants

Once program statements have been developed, site inventory and analysis performed, specific site conditions have been taken into consideration, irrigation adjustments made, traffic flow evaluated and existing vegetation evaluated … finally, it becomes time to choose plants with fall appeal.

October 2013 feature: Season photo 3

The wine-red color of oakleaf hydrangea leaves in fall is hard to beat.

As the many options are considered, the practice of “right plant, right place” must be a guiding principle. For example, it can be fatally tempting to overlook or ignore the soil requirements of a specific species in order to obtain the overwhelming features of its fall color, texture and fruit.

When considering the infusion or inclusion of plants with fall appeal, it’s helpful to keep notes relating to the reasons for specific choices. Keeping such information can be helpful when it comes time to explain their purpose to stakeholders such as owners, greens committee members and other influential golfers at the facility. Some fall plants tend to look a little on the ordinary side in spring and summer, creating ques-tion marks for those stakeholders. Thorough notes will help point out that solid green plants serve to create a backdrop that will allow the specimens with spring and summer interest to stand out, and that the course will look appealing in all seasons due to the landscape renovation.

Develop a plant palette

The best recommendations for plant materials come from local horticulturists and from local/regional information sources. Fortunately, finding specific information for your course is as easy as 1-2-3.

October 2013 feature: Season photo 4

Blackhaw is just one of many outstanding shrubs
for adding texture and color to the golfscape.

1. Use your favorite Web browser to find the botanical garden or arboretum nearest your golf course.

2. Use their website to identify recommended tree, shrub, perennial and groundcover species and cultivars.

3. Use Google Images (or a similar search engine) to help visualize the appeal of each recommendation. University websites and suppliers are also good sources of this type of information.

As these sources of plant material information are perused, it’s prudent to think outside the box about underused species. Ask the question, “What else besides the standard mums and sedum would make a real statement on our signature hole/tee box/clubhouse patio?” After all, if one of the program statements or overall goals at your facility is to develop uniqueness or to make the course stand out from others in the area, then using unique or different cultivars is a good path to explore.

And if you want to go beyond surfing the Internet to consider your options, an equally good or maybe even better course of action is to visit the arboretum or botanic garden in person. A picture of a plant is helpful, but seeing it, smelling it, touching it and “experiencing” it is much better.

After visiting one or more of the demonstration gardens near your course, develop a plant palette. This is an exercise that will encourage you to think about plant diversity and selection for fall appeal in various sites. Identifying five to 10 choices for each category is a good starting point, but restricting yourself to that number could produce a course with too many of too few species. A can’t-miss list will also come in handy when you need to choose plants, but time is short.

John C. Fech, Ph.D., is a horticulturalist with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an ISA-certified arborist who is a frequent contributor to GCM.