Golfers at the Vineyard Golf Club have grown accustomed to the occasional broad-leaf weeds on the putting greens.
But that's not surprising: The course, which is located on one of the principal playgrounds of the rich and famous — Martha's Vineyard, Mass. — also purports to be the nation's only fully organic golf course.
Under the circumstances, a stray weed or two is to be expected, according to golf course superintendent Jeff Carlson, who has gone to extreme, if not imaginative, lengths to keep the course's 18 holes free of synthetic chemicals.
In lieu of herbicides, weeds are killed with boiling water and a natural foam cocktail. Moss is removed with kitchen dish detergent. To deal with turf-destroying grubs, Carlson flies in nematodes — beneficial roundworms — from Iowa packed in dry ice.
The crafty Carlson also uses a strategically placed scent to disrupt the mating cycles of damaging oriental beetles. To avoid the introduction of unwanted grass seeds or diseases that may threaten the greens, golfers must have their shoes cleaned before entering to play.
Expensive control measures? Yes, by traditional measures of golf course supervision, quite expensive. Then again, the club's members are not only environmentally conscious but also willing to pay exorbitant membership fees — an initiation fee of $350,000, with annual dues of $12,000.
That raises the question: Will this environmentally friendly but considerably more expensive approach ever play in Peoria — or, for that matter, Birmingham or Opelika?
That remains an open question, says Dr. David Han, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System turfgrass specialist and Auburn University associate professor of agronomy and soils.
"Whether it turns out to be a niche in the classic sense of the word or a big part of the golf industry remains to be seen," says Han, who adds that the fortunes of golf courses will always be tied to one critical factor.
"A golf course superintendent who wants to introduce a semi-organic or organic approach is not going to get anywhere without buy-in from the membership," he says.
For the last 30-plus years, Han says golfers have been interested in two things: how well their green plays and looks.
Golf course superintendents have even coined a name for this phenomenon: The Augusta Syndrome —the widespread view among golfers that every course in America should look like Augusta National Golf Club during The Master's Tournament.
In one sense, these high expectations are a testament to the success superintendents have had in the last few decades developing ways to keep golf courses in pristine shape, he says.
"Based on what older players have related to me, they didn't care 30 years ago if there was annual bluegrass around the golf course —they just expected that," Han says. "But now, if you have it, it's a problem you've got to get rid of."
Organic approaches present other challenges to superintendents.
Han says organic practices tend to be more labor intensive for superintendents and workers alike. In Carlson's case, there is the added complication of arranging for shipments of nematodes to control grub outbreaks or, for that matter, training golf course workers how to introduce these nematodes for the most optimal results.
And Carlson's uses of nematodes raises another question: Will enough of these roundworms be available if other superintendents adopt organic regimens?
Han says this is one of the perennial challenges associated with organic production — infrastructure.
"Is there a sufficient enough infrastructure to produce these products on a wide scale — enough to ensure that it goes mainstream?" he asks.
Likewise, workers have to be trained to recognize the weeds that must be hand pruned and to avoid scalding themselves as they apply hot water to remove these undesirable weeds — both of which add up to more expense.
Despite these challenges, Han foresees a place for organic approaches, if only to a limited degree.
The rising costs of chemical inputs could prove to be a major factor in a growing number of golf courses deciding to go at least partly organic, Han says.
"Who knows? The costs of synthetic fertilizers have spiked as fuel costs go through the roof, so there may be some real economic pluses associated with organic fertilizers," he says, pointing to the growing amounts of poultry and other types of organic waste that must be eliminated.
While the Vineyard Golf Course is not yet ready for prime time, Han says much can be learned from its experiences.
"Will we see every golf course in the country go organic? No," he says. "But will we see other courses around the country taking lessons from Vineyard Golf Course? Sure.
"It really depends on how much buy-in follows from those who pay the fees to play on these courses."
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