INTERVIEW: Organic Golf Course Turf Expert Skip Wade

This is an interview with Skip Wade, a national leader in transitioning to organic turf and an organic golf course superintendent.

Q. Where did this vision for an organically maintained golf course come from?

A. As a golf course superintendent I was always looking for ways to make my course look better than the competition’s. Always looking for the next great product. I’m always looking into things like Ace Golf Course Netting installation to give my course the edge over everyone else. One of our aims is to be able to continuously update the standards of our golf course to persuade people to come back. With the heightened interest in simulators that can be used inside, it has become even more important for us to keep our course in a pristine condition to encourage people to come and play here. If you look at turf grass, it needs certain inputs to thrive. If you look at humic acid it is the nth degree of compost.

I wasn’t sought out to be an organic guy, I just started using organics with success. I wanted to use products that make my golf course look better than the competition’s. When I went to trade shows, I would walk past the booths of the big guys and look for the small organic vendors trying to break into golf. One year I bought nematodes for biological control for weevils, and nitrogen fixing bacteria. Always experimenting with different products. Organic products allowed me to reduce my chemical and fertilizer loads. In 2014, I used no fertilizer, just compost, and compost tea on my course. And the results were great.
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In 1994, I gave a lecture to the Golf Course Superintendents Society about pesticide reduction, and was written up in the New York Times. And I became known as a crusader for organically maintained golf courses.

Q. What is most important thing a golf superintendent should consider when taking a course organic?

A. The first consideration is, who wants to take the course organic? The super or the membership? If the super wants to do it, he will have to convince the membership, and visa versa.

Q. What other things does a greenskeeper need to know about taking a course organic?

A. The first step is to get an assessment of how much Poa annua you have. Poa is the leading cause of chemical use on the course. It also depends on your geographic location. Second step is to stop using synthetic fertilizers and move to organics. Third is to start applying compost teas, and fourth is to look for biologicals first before reaching for chemicals. Fifth is your threshold – the degree of what is acceptable to members. If some dollar spot on the greens is okay and some poa is okay, then you are on your way. Also, remember that the more synthetic fertilizers you use, the more poa you will have.

Q. Do you see a movement on Long Island to take courses organic?

A. Today, the movement on Long Island to take courses organic has never been stronger in the 18 years that I have been practicing organics. I went to a seminar with greens chairmans last December, and they were finally talking about how to reduce pesticides on courses. As a pioneer in organic golf, I found it uplifting! Wow, I have been doing this for years and they are finally catching on.

Q. So what is causing this trend? Is it financial, or that it is environmentally more sound?

A. Well, I think that golfers are finally waking up and saying we can’t just keep putting down a ton of chemicals anymore. This past year, lawn chemicals ran off into the bay, and shut down the bay for 3 or 4 days due to nitrogen blooms. This is creating awareness of the problems chemicals cause.

Q. What is the next most important reason to take a course organic? Is it economics?

A. Yes. Some courses have a maintenance budget of $1 million, or $1.5 million dollars. The chemical budget is easily $150,000 or $200,000 of that. There could be a drastic reduction of what the membership has to raise each year. This is another reason organically maintained golf courses could catch on quicker.

Q. How does organics help with water retention and reduction?

A. First, you have to understand the conventional way of doing things. Everyone likes to put down heavy rates of fertilizer in the springtime, and that really hurts the soil microbes. The result is that you get extra growth. Then you have to cut a lot more frequently. The chemical fertilizer also elongates a plant’s cells, making them more susceptible to disease. In this scenario you have to use more water to keep the plant alive.

My approach is to water infrequently and let the turf do what it does naturally. I don’t use fertilizer because it burns the soil microbes. The microbes have their own intricate system. In organic systems you let nature take care of itself.

Q. How toxic are fungicides? Are they fungistats when you apply fungicides, the fungus just comes back?

A. Okay, here we go: how to manages greens without chemicals and save the planet. Managing greens alone is an art. Managing greens without fungicides: The question is about beliefs. Most golfers think that greens should be dark green, lush, with no brown spots at all. A good golfer, a true golfer, likes greens true and hard and the color doesn’t matter.

I was fortunate to be the superintendent at the Garden City Men’s Club. The course was rated in the top 35 in the nation. It’s a nice links style golf course. They didn’t care about color or Poa annua, which is probably the worst annual bluegrass that a greenskeeper deals with. Poa is the first grass to get diseases such as dollar spot, yellow leaf spot, and anthracnose, and insects like weevils.

Some guys maintain it with chemicals, which is expensive. My approach is manage the bentgrass and let the poa run out. We just keep seeding with bentgrass. Live with the poa, don’t use chemicals, and keep renovating with top performing bentgrass strains.

So getting back to the subject: We just maintain the bentgrass. It can withstand some dollar spot and some red leaf spot in the spring. Knock off the fertilizers and use compost teas and nitrogen fixing bacteria, keep top dressing with compost and overseeding. When I ran Cherry Valley, we used a 14-3-3, which made the bentgrass succulent and in early spring we would spray fungicides to knock back the red leaf spot. What I realized was by the time the course opened, the red leaf spot had grown out anyway, so they didn’t need the fungicide sprays. But here at Cantiuque Park in Hicksville, New York, we don’t use fertilizer and don’t get red leaf spot in the spring.

Q. What is your theory on using compost teas? Do you use compost teas as fungicides?

A. I have been using compost teas here for seven years. When I took over the course I would follow the turf tech. After he sprayed fungicides I would follow him and spray compost teas to try and balance things. Now we use compost tea and Holganixx to fight off the fungal problems. Also, I used to have large patches of dry spots that I had to water by hand all summer. The compost teas and humic acid mostly cleared that up. So that was the battle that I had in the beginning.

Q. Do you have any other tricks for using teas or other organic products to replace fungicides on greens?

A. I have been using compost teas that I brew using my own recipe, and Holganixx which is like compost tea in a refrigerated jug. I have been using Holganixx all year and have not seen much dollar spot. My greens are cut at .09 every day. They were green and the poa was yellow. When I was topdressing once a week the quality of the put was still there. There was no bumpiness.

I didnt want to hear that organic is no good because you have to cut the greens at ½”. My greens are great. I had them rolling at about a 13 in the springtime and they are rolling at about a ten now. So compost teas work.

Q. Can we eliminate fertilizer completely?

A. Yes! In 2014 I did not use any fertilizer. I’m using compost. I went out with about five yards of compost per acre. Compost has so many benefits, including feeding microbes, whereas synthetic fertilizers burn microbes, causing the need for multiple applications. The synthetics are loaded with salts which burn the delicate microbial systems. This causes the soil microbial systems to disappear, turning the soil into just a powdery medium.

When you use compost the systems get stronger, more productive. The turf doesn’t flush growth so you’re not cutting much off all the time. When you push the grass with fertilizer you are stressing the plant, making the cells elongate and become fat and happy. This is when all the problems start, and the nasties like weevils and diseases move in. When the turf is lean and mean it just doesn’t attract insect and disease problems. Organic turf is tougher and resists insect-disease problems and is more drought-tolerant.

Q. How do you control weeds without herbicides?

A. My experience is to first use corn gluten. Some guys have success, some guys do not have success. I have had success with it. We didn’t get it down this year. But it really is a question of your threshold; of how much crabgrass you can live with. We have some on the fairways and collars, a bit on the greens. Even with crabgrass the greens run fine. We need to get people to make a paradigm shift and accept some crabgrass. Scotts has brainwashed people into thinking that we can’t have crabgrass and created this war on crabgrass. And as far as broadleaf, plantain, and dandelion, my 7th tee was loaded, so I applied a very heavy rate of calcium. The application worked well. In one year I eliminated most of the dandelion and plantain.

Q. Getting back to corn gluten, do you have application rates, time of year, etc.?

A. You have to monitor when your crabgrass is germinating. I have been monitoring crabgrass germination on Long Island for 20 years. On northern Long Island crabgrass germinates in a two-leaf stage about May 5th, a little before or after. You have to know the timing of the beast. I found May 5th is an important date. Keeping the germination date in mind, the corn gluten needs to be applied about two weeks before that date. You have to put the product down and water it in. That’s how it creates the barrier. Remember, though, it is 8% nitrogen, so you are feeding your Poa annua. If you’re fighting poa you may not want to use it.

Q. Do you aerate to combat thatch?

A. We have been doing things wrong for a long time. When I started here we had two inches of thatch. To combat this we deep tine aerated the course. I changed that practice. Instead we used heavy rates of compost tea and humic acid. Within a few years I brought the thatch layer down to only a half inch. We let the microbes in the tea break it down. The microbes have created their own intricate niche with threads of hyphe. So when you aerate you rip the microbes out of their hotels, throw them up in the sky. You don’t need to do that anymore in an organic system.

I don’t aerate the greens either, the microbes combat the compaction. I’m cutting the greens here every day. At Cherry Valley we used to skip every other day because the mower would leave tire marks in the greens. I don’t have that problem here. That is an excellent indication that the microbial system is working. Golf guys have been aerating for so long, that’s what they think they have to do. If you have a problem area, yes, but I don’t approve once you have an organic course.

Q. What’s next?

A. I think the industry is leaning towards organics based on a meeting with the USGA, and the guys in Canada shutting down the chemicals. We have to; the oceans can’t take our pollution. We’ve been brainwashed for 50 years with Scotts fertilizer.

The big tournaments when the greens go brown and spotty that this is acceptable.

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