Winterkill 2014

In previous posts it was predicated that the weather leading into winter was potentially harmful to golf course turf. Unfortunately, that prediction came true. The turf loss on golf courses in the northeast and beyond is of epic proportions. Veteran golf course superintendents are proclaiming that this is the worst winterkill they have experienced in their careers. The widespread area and level of damage are the main reasons this is news worthy topic. The damage consists of dinner table sized dead spots on greens to complete loss of multiple putting greens. The area of concern covers New England (seacoast to the mountains), Quebec & Ontario regions, and North Central region (Michigan and Chicago area).

What happened? Simply, too much rain in January. The abundance of winter rain led to copious amounts of ice. The nail in the coffin for turf was the dramatic, almost overnight, switch from generally moderate temperatures in the early winter to a chilling continuous freeze mid winter. After the last rain event in mid January the temperatures plummeted and did not rise until April. This flash freeze scenario was a main cause of the widespread damage, especially in northern Vermont. The two other scenarios that led to turf loss were anoxia (extended ice cover) and crown hydration (spring freeze/thaw cycle). Review prior posts and "post categories" for more information on these environmental conditions.

Course Updates:
Fortunately extensive turf loss was avoided, but both courses did receive isolated damage. Areas where water was unable to flow freely subsequently pooled up causing ice and turf damage. This winter emphasizes the importance of effective drainage (subsurface and surface) on golf courses. Drainage is key to creating conditions conducive to winter survival which then leads to quality conditions during the playing season.

Stowe Country Club
16th approach "Birdbaths"
The three historically wet greens received the most damage (3, 12, & 13). These greens have poor subsurface drainage and more importantly have very poor surface drainage. #12 is the worst of all greens. The entire lower shelf was damaged. Once the water drained to the green it pooled and froze solid. The other two greens were damaged in low spots, or "birdbaths" as I call them. Any other such birdbaths on the course were also damaged such as; 18 fairway, 16 & 17 approach and areas near drainage culverts, i.e 3 & 5 fairway. The 4th, 9th, and 10th green also received some damage. The damage on these greens was due to the freeze/thaw cycle in the spring.

14th fairway drain. Notice no winterkill below drain.
Stowe Mountain Club
The good news is that the fairways did well this year. SMC did receive some damage in areas that historically pool and subsequently experience winter kill. Every year drainage is added in these areas to better winter survival  to create firm playing conditions. This is an unfortunate ongoing challenge. A drain installed on hole 14 last Fall proved very successful. The bad news is that the damage to greens is more than we have seen since opening in 2007. The worst greens are 4, 7, and 13. These greens are bowl shaped and were unable to shed water fast enough when the January rains came. Other greens have smaller areas of damage at the water exit points. These areas were damaged due to what is called "collar dams". The small change in the height of cut between the green surface and the collar is enough to slow the winter rains down to form pools of water that causes ice formation. Collar dams become worse over time due to the turf maturing and forming a thick thatch. These areas will be corrected by cutting the sod out and lowering the sub-grade to make a smooth transition for water to flow freely.

Moving Forward:
The damaged greens on both courses were seeded earlier this week and covered. A limiting factor for good turf germination and growth are soil temperatures. A warm stretch of weather is greatly needed at this time to hasten seed germination. The covers are used to assist in warming the soil. Fairway and tee damage will be seeded this coming week. Selected areas in fairways will be sodded to speed up the recovery process. Sodding greens is not preferred due to the difficulty of feathering the new sod to the existing turf. This feathering process is much easier with fairways due to the higher height of cut.

The recovery process from winterkill is one of the most difficult tasks superintendents face. Maintaining healthy turf (mowing & grooming) directly adjacent to new seedlings takes skillfulness. Additionally, restricting golfers on these recovering areas may interfere with play, which is not popular. These are challenges that can be resolved on a short and long term basis. The turf maintenance team will work diligently to grow in the newly seeded areas and continue to add drainage to prevent future damage. This is not the first time we have seen winterkill and it will certainly not be the last. Your patience with the recovery during the ensuing weeks will help us with the task ahead. I will update you on a regular basis during. You can follow me on Twitter for daily updates @kevinkomer.

More information on Winterkill 2014 can be found below:
Club & Business
CBS Boston
WMUR Manchester, NH
Press Herald, Maine
Superintendents Association of New England
Michigan Superintendents Association
Ontario, Canada Damage Report
USGA Northeast Region
Chicago Damage