Winter Work at Stowe Country Club

By Mark Finch, SCC Golf Course Superintendent

Winter Work

When we see a golfer or two walking the course course with a couple of irons and a pocket full of golf balls around Thanksgiving, it is a telling sign that winter in coming late. When we see the same people roaming the snow-less property on Christmas Eve is in confirmation that winter is late. Then to see people hitting balls and carrying a shag bag around the practice field after the New Year, we become skeptical of winter's arrival. 

So how does a winter like this affect the golf course in the spring? A quick recap of notable events:
  • 66 degrees, December 24th
  • 1 inch rain, December 30-31st
  • (-10) degrees, January 5th
  • 1 inch rain, January 10th
  • 3 degrees, January 11th
  • 54 degrees, February 3rd
  • (-18) degrees, February 14th
  • 1 inch rain, February 16th
  • 5 degrees, February 18th
  • 0.75 inches rain, February 20th 
Ice formation on the turf is the conditions we are most concerned about in our region as it pertains to the winter turf survival. The other condition is called crown hydration. This is the harmful freeze-thaw pattern that the turf is susceptible to while breaking dormancy in mid-March and early-April. These fluctuating extremes are notable but not that unusual. The sequence in which these events take place is what requires close attention. Basically, the recipe for disaster (in our case, ice formation) is a winter rain event immediately followed by single-digit temperatures. We observed this pattern three times so far this season. Fortunately, in the case of the December rain, the ground had not yet frozen so the rain was absorbed throughout the soil. The subsequent events occurred in mid-January/February and there was a large amount of ice. From a glass half full perspective we had a couple factors on our side at that point; barely any snow and it was already mid-February. Turf can withstand a certain amount of time under ice cover. Creeping bentgrass has an ice tolerance of 90 days and Poa Annua has a tolerance of only 30-60 days. Having a mixed stand of both of these grasses at SCC causes concern for any length of ice cover. This February icing events puts us in the better scenario for survival due to the shorter duration under ice. Turf damage occurs from ice coverage due to the low levels of oxygen and the accumulation of exhausted gasses that can be fatal to turfgrass. 

It is almost inevitable that every winter comes with a January (or February) thaw. As noted, on February third we reached fifty four degrees which typically would have melted a lot of snow. But with hardly any snow on the golf course to melt, it was the ice that was melting. By the end of that week Stowe Country Club was approximately ninety percent void of ice and snow. 

Digging Dry Well On 18 Green
We are not in the clear yet. The scariest days of winter are still to come for golf course superintendents in northern climates. The days and nights of freeze-thaw, or crown hydration potential, occur in mid-March through early-April. Essentially, the plant may begin to take on water during a thaw and then freeze at night. The cell structure of the plant becomes swollen with water and when this water freezes the cells expand to the point of rupturing. This rupture occurs in the crown, or growing point, of the grass so the plant becomes injured. 

We do everything we can throughout the winter as superintendents to intervene and mitigate any conditions that may be conducive to either of these types of winter associated injuries. Timely snow removal to hasten ice melt, drainage improvements to facilitate standing water and plant protectant applications are some examples of countermeasures we routinely execute before winter arrives and as the snow melts. Invariably, there is always the possibility of some amount of turf loss due to the unfavorable winter conditions. As for this year, we are closing in on the point where we can rule out much possibility of significant ice damage due to length of cover.

Adding New Sand at 18 Bunker
Our staff took full advantage of the extended period of mild weather that occurred well into the month of December. This "bonus" time was used to aerate fairways and rough along with facilitate a few drainage projects and bunker improvements that were scheduled to take place in spring 2016. Golf course improvements and repair that began after the golf course closed for the season include:
  • Both greenside bunkers renovated on hole 18 (completed reshaping, new sand and internal drainage)
  • Fairway/Rough internal drainage on hole 13 (piping and surface drains installed and ready for spring regrassing) 
  • Leveling and resodding of back tee on hole 10
There is no question that drainage infrastructure is lacking at SCC but our progress is reaching a  point where noticeable improvement is being made. We plan to continue addressing poorly draining ares of the golf course in the early spring and again in the fall of 2016. Our efforts are focused on fairways and bunkers. Enhancements in our cultural programs on greens has paid great dividends with the drainage performance and playability of the putting surfaces. We will continue to institute new practices to sustain the progression this year. 
Repairing Drainage 18 Bunker

During the month of January we resumed implementing our tree management program. For a period of time we had just enough snow to get on on the course with our tractor to conduct tree work. There are a growing number of tree specimens on our property that are diseased and hazardous. We specifically identified an area between the twelfth and thirteenth holes where spruce trees had matured to the point of die-back and became diseased. The selective removal of these trees will better enable us to safely recapture the beauty in this vast rolling space as a fescue area with desirable trees featured. A similar renovation took place between the fourth and fifth holes. The species here were northern white pines of the "pasture" form. After assessing the unnerving growth habits and health of this stand we prioritized reclaiming this tract as well. The completion of work at this location will introduce expansive views of the golf course as well as the scenic view of Camel's Hump from the fourth tee and green. We are excited to be finalizing the revitalization of the fourth hole through the completion of several projects over the past few years. These efforts include: 
  • Tree removal and fescue grass establishment, left side 2013-14
  • Tree removal and fescue seeding right side 2014-15
  • Cart path relocated and paved, tee to green, 2015
  • Mounded fescue features, right side, 2015
  • Bunker shape restoration, new sand, 2015
  • Tree removal, fescue restoration, right side, 2015-16
Golf Maintenance Staff Re-assembling SMC Tent
At this point in February we feel the golf season fast approaching and there is still a lot to do. There are golf course accessories to refurbish for another season and a fleet of grounds equipment that we overhaul, service and sharpen to be ready for heavy use during the golf season. We are fortunate enough to house all of our equipment under shelter this year for the first time ever with the addition of a temporary structure that we re-purposed from Stowe Mountain Club. We were able to erect the structure ourselves just in time before the first snow. 

When the golf ends for the year our efforts to maintain the course do not end. In fact, some of our most productive work is conducted in the off season. With another winter flying by, we continue to work hard preparing for another great golf season at Stowe Country Club.