Wednesday, August 10, 2011

July Weather Since 1990

One of the interesting parts of working in the golf world is dealing with weather.  It is important to understand weather variations over time when planning future projects and evaluating the success of past projects.  The last two summers have been hot and stormy, so I was curious: How "normal" is this weather?  When was the last summer with high heat and lots of rain?  The chart below summarizes July weather in Chicagoland since 1990.

(Click chart for full size view)

There are lots of ways to measure heat and precipitation, but I looked at the National Weather Service's departure from average figures for July. Out of curiousity, I also added in the number of days with rains over .5" -- big rains, in other words. 

The pattern confirms what I have heard from other Superintendents in the area.  Besides 2010, the last July we saw this extreme combination of high heat and heavy rain was . . . 1995.  Many people remember 1995 for its 100 degree days, but July also saw a lot of storms in this area.  We have had other unpleasant months over the years, but 1995, 2010, and 2011 really stick out for their combination of hot and wet -- one of the toughest situations for golf courses.

Notes on the chart:  Clicking on the chart will open a larger version.  Most of the data came from the National Weather Service.  I made a couple adjustments based on local measurements.  For instance, O'Hare measured over 11 inches July 2011 but we luckily missed a few of those inches.  It is important to note that this chart is only meant to summarize weather in July, not the entire summer.  There are many other factors in turfgrass health and golf playability, but July weather is very significant in our area.  I will take a look at August and its effects later this year.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Interview with a Fairway

A lot of golf course fairways have been hurting since it started raining this summer.  I decided to go straight to the source and ask our fairways some tough questions.  The following is a transcript of our interview:

So, fairway, it looks like you’ve been having a rough time in the past weeks?

Tell me about it!  I was doing great up until it started raining again.  I appreciate a nice shower.  Even a short bath I can tolerate, but I can’t sit in water for a week.  I can’t breathe.  Especially when the sun is out – that water gets hot!  Try holding your breath underwater in a hot tub.  That’s what it’s been like.

How did you cope with the extreme heat?  Was that a problem?

That string of really hot days wasn’t a walk in the park, but I survived.  The maintenance crew tried to give me just the right amount of water.  Too much water would have cooked me and too little would have permanently wilted me.  I made it through those hot days by breathing at night and holding my breath during mid-day.  That way I didn’t wilt to death during the middle of the day.  I’m not saying it was pleasant, but I can handle that for a while as long as the maintenance crew is helping me out. 

If you didn’t mind the extreme heat, when did the trouble start?

Well.  I started getting wet.  The first downpour was alright.  I soaked it up and it was cloudy and not too hot out.  The second one on July 23rd was way too much for me to handle, my roots were saturated and I couldn’t breathe.  Luckily it wasn’t too hot and sunny so you couldn’t really tell how much I was hurting. 

It seemed like you suddenly got sick right after that.  What happened next?

Just when I was starting to dry out and feel good again, I got a combined 2.5 inches of rain on the 28th and 29th.   Those two days were cloudy and not too hot so I just held on partially underwater.  Some of my low spots were starting to get smothered, but I was mostly ok.  And then it happened . . . Saturday and Sunday were the worst!

Did you get a horrible disease or something?

Not really.  The maintenance crew had just helped me out with some protectants that prevented most of the diseases.  I may have had a spot or two of Pythium Blight and Brown Patch, but that wasn’t really a big deal.  It was just the conditions out here on the 30th and 31st.  Remember, I’m plants, I can’t run away from lethal heat like you can -- hiding in your nice air conditioning all day and night!  I have to just sit here and take it.

I remember it was miserable out there in the middle of the day.  Why couldn’t you use the water to cool off?

My roots were still soaked and it was very humid so I couldn’t transpire.  Kind of like humans and your sweat, I need to evaporate some water to cool myself off.

Didn't the maintenance crew just add some drain lines on the first hole to help you out?

Yes they did, and I appreciate the effort.  They put a new line under the cart path and some other lines.  I'm sorry, but the way I'm built, it's going to take a lot more than that to dry me out when it rains this much! 

New drain and sodded area on #1.  Sod didn't make it.
OK.  So what happened?

 I wasn’t dry yet and the sun came out.  July 30th was the sunniest day in a long time and the temperatures hit the low 90’s.  The sun heated up the surface of the water that was partly covering my blades to over 110 degrees and it cooked their insides.  In a four hour span on Saturday afternoon, a lot of my cells turned to useless soup.  Sunday afternoon hurt again with the exact same conditions. 

Can we do anything to help right now?

Well.  The maintenance crew tried to help by aerating some holes for me.  Unfortunately, it has continued to rain so I still haven’t been able to breathe much.  Just rained another 1.5 inches in the last 24 hours.  At least the temperatures have cooled off so I’m not losing any more plants.  I know the maintenance crew is going to aerate and overseed this week once I dry out a little.  I’ve been in this situation before and I always come back with a little help.  Please be patient while I grow some new shoots and roots. 

Why are other areas of the course growing so well and you’re not? 

There are lots of reasons, but most of them go back many years.  If you notice, I’m low and the greens and tees are high – for the most part.  They were built with soil and sand custom made for greens and tees.  I’m all clay, rock, asphalt, and brick.  You might not know this, but I was a rock dump before I was a golf course fairway.  The greens and tees got the benefit of topsoil and there wasn’t much left for me.  I have a rougher life than those pampered greens.  They don't even get driven on by carts!  The tees are less spoiled – at least they have to deal with divots.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to grow some roots now.

One more question -- When do you think you'll be back to "normal"?

If past years are any guide, I will probably have one more rough patch in August that will prevent a big recovery.  At the end of August, I will recover and grow new shoots with the help of the maintenance crew.  By October 1, you may not be able to tell that it was another hot, wet summer.

Early October 2010
That was the end of our interview.  You may want to see these post for more information:

Scald and annual bluegrass (Poa annua) problems:

Pythium Blight:

Drainage project on 1st hole:

2010 -- a similar year for us -- in review:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Venting Fairways and Tees

The past couple weeks have not been kind to most Chicago-area golf courses.  First we had extreme heat and then lots of rain.  While some turf wilted in the heat and the rough went dormant in many areas, we could cope with dry and hot.  The wet period that started on July 22nd was a different matter.  The end of last week (July 27-29) saw significant rain 3 days in a row with warm temperatures.  This created a situation we know well in a wet late summer -- a toxic soup of wet wilt, scald, and pythium.  The high temps this weekend cooked saturated, low-lying fairway areas but the rough is looking fabulous!  Quite a few golfers have commented on how green it is on the course and they are right:  The greens, higher areas, and rough are healthy and growing fast.  It is those lower areas that are the problem.
Scalded low area near the creek on #1.
At the moment, there is only one thing we can do to improve the situation and speed up turf recovery -- Vent!  Not the verbal kind of venting, although that can help, but the mechanical kind.  Venting refers to solid tine aeration done mostly for the purpose of improving gas exchange in the soil.  We have been using a machine called the Planet Air on the fairways that shatters soil while leaving only a slit in the turf and a minimum of mess.  Tees are being treated with solid tines on a conventional aerifier.  So far, I have no plans to needle tine the greens as they are still performing well. 
Aerator uses a slicing motion to vent turf

Slicing Tines on Planet Air
I've noticed a lot of superintendents are doing the same thing and dealing with a lot of the same problems.  Check here for more recent superintendent blog posts (Link).  I especially like this blog post as they seem to be in a similar situation (Link).

In his Scouting Report for July 29, 2011, Dr. Settle writes: "Then there's why overly wet rootzones are our worst enemy. Midsummer is never a good time for cool-season turfgrass because any additional downward spiral of turfgrass health can be difficult to reverse until cooler weather returns. Root biomass/length are at their lowest levels and what's left root-wise has impaired function because of high soil temperature. Turf plants in physiological decline display abnormal photosynthesis and respiration, yet concentrated wear continues on a daily basis (the life of a golf green). Often the only recourse is a well-timed cultural method such as needle-tine aeration. If it sounds as if I'm exaggerating or blaming the weather too much, guess again."

Thanks for telling it how it is!  Wet + Hot + Stress = Unhappy Turf.  These scouting reports a great resource for everyone involved in golf.  You can check them out at Chicago District Golf Association Turfgrass.
Classic water damage in a drainage swail.
Saturated conditions lasted for longer than the turf could tolerate.
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