While we’d like to think that the grass is always greener here at Red River College (RRC), that literally could be the case for Manitoba’s future golf greens due to Jayne M. Geisel’s current applied research.
Last year Geisel was awarded with $9,125 through the 2013 College Applied Research Development (CARD) Fund for a joint project with the Manitoba Golf Superintendent Association (MGSA) on the evaluation of over-wintering systems of putting greens.
For Geisel, a horticulturist who is an instructor in the Greenspace Management program at RRC, working on golf greens provided a unique opportunity.
“It’s interesting for me because I’m not a turf person; I don’t golf at all, I think I maybe have once in my life,” said Geisel.
“The Manitoba Golf Superintendents’ Association asked me If I could assist because I have a background in applied research; I worked 10 years for a company that mainly did research on potatoes and other vegetable crops, and it was applied field research rather than pure research at a university.”
The MGSA pitched in nearly $12 thousand for the study, bringing the project’s total to $21,510 over the course of several years.
The study involves observing three of the in-play greens at five Manitoba golf courses – those being Boissevain, Elmhurst, St. Charles, Pinawa, and Bel Acres – under three different environments. Some of the greens have wintered under a semi permeable plastic mesh cover that allows water and air to travel through; another set have been housed under a sandwich-like design, featuring a semi permeable cover with about 18 inches of flax straw with an impermeable tarp on top; while the remaining greens were the control, featuring just a sand base over the greens.
Under the tarps Geisel set up sensors from Canadian company Structure Monitoring Technology (SMT) – whose equipment has frequently been utilized by AR&C at our Centre for Applied Research in Sustainable Infrastructure to test air leakage of buildings and fenestration materials.
On the greens, the SMT sensors monitored the conditions faced by the grasses over fall and winter, chiefly measuring temperature and carbon dioxide levels.
“One of the big problems that grass has is it’s physiologically active all the time. Unlike trees that lose their leaves and are dormant, grass isn’t. If you move the snow, grass is still green, and when plants are green, they are doing something,” said Geisel.
“They use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. So we are reading carbon dioxide to say ‘if they use up all the available oxygen and then have to switch their respiration into anaerobic respiration – using carbon dioxide instead – then basically they’re fermenting under these covers,’ and there will be all sorts of problems.”
These problems range from grass disease to mechanical damage from shifting snow and ice which the covers themselves mitigate through the limiting of freeze/thaw cycles.
“Putting greens are a really challenging environment for those plants because they are kept so short – like turf normally would be tall – and these plants are cut at 1/8 inch and they have tiny little root systems so they are very stressed plants all the time,” said Geisel.
“What these guys (the MGSA) are trying to do is get these plants – that are close to death all the time – through our really harsh winter. And of course, they are the most important part of a golf course.”
This is the first such study of its kind in Manitoba, while previous over-wintering golf green studies in Alberta, in Ontario at the University of Guelph, and in the Northeastern US and Finland have all been performed in labs or controlled environments.
The greens that are part of the study are now being played, as all five courses are now open for the season.
And despite the severity of cold during this past winter — where average temperatures were colder than they have been for over a century — Geisel said the SMT sensors held up in collecting data as deep snow insulated the surface of the greens, allowing them to hover around -5 C even while temperatures above ground regularly dropped below -20 C.
With the first phase of this multiyear study now completed, Geisel admits there remains a learning curve as to what this first winter’s data can reveal.
Geisel and the superintendents have found both fungal disease and mechanical damage, but it is too early to tell if/how the SMT sensors can pinpoint the root causes and how those can be addressed in the fall and over the winter.
“We are not so much monitoring our good conditions, we are trying to say, ‘have they got into a bad condition?’ and trying to figure out when and how that happens,” said Geisel.
The findings of this project could benefit both the project partner as well as golf courses residing in Northern climates. Golf courses might be able to better maintain greens despite winter conditions — saving them from having to offer discounted green fees in the spring as well as avoiding costly renovations to damaged/dead greens.
Geisel’s main partner in the study is Greg Mitchell, the president of the MGSA, who she credits with showing a great deal of trust. (If the study was on tee boxes that would be one thing, but we all know you ‘drive for show’ and ‘putt for dough’).
“These superintendents are handing their putting greens basically over to us and we are telling them how they have to manage them going into the fall, and when the covers are coming off in the spring. And they are willing to partner with me to do that,” said Geisel.
“So it is significant from their side too. Golfers aren’t necessarily the most forgiving.”