EU pesticides ban?

You may not be aware

but the E.U. is in the process of trying to eliminate pesticide* use on golf courses.

Fusarium scars on poa annua

Fusarium scars on poa annua

This is a time bomb waiting to happen that will affect your daily game of golf much more than you might imagine.

It is indeed a sorry fact that Poa annua (annual meadow grass) is the grass species present on the vast majority of all golf greens in the U.K. and it is unfortunately highly susceptible to disease. Without pesticides to control the diseases, these putting greens will develop disease scars (similar to those shown in the photo) all over them, particularly during the months of autumn with attack from Anthracnose and in the winter from Fusuriam!

Is there anything that can be done to avoid this?

The ban seems unavoidable; it is already in force in Denmark, is coming in the Netherlands and will be extended across Europe, should the E.U. have their way.

Greenkeepers in Denmark may have the answer…

The following story is told by one of many greenkeepers in Denmark, who has made a phenomenal transformation of his golf course through the application of sustainable traditional greenkeeping. He says:

In 1999 my club played host to the finals of the SAS Invitational. The cream of world golf played, with Tiger Woods the main draw. Following this competition the greens died, having been scalped for the tournament to produce fast putting. Members played winter greens for the next nine months!  The grass on the greens was 100% Poa annua. A grass that is the least disease resistant species,  which requires high applications of chemicals, water and fertiliser to survive and a grass that quickly builds up a layer of dead roots called ‘thatch’ which can lead to wet and soft putting surfaces.

“I was appointed Head Greenkeeper in 2000. An enormous task lay ahead to turn these old clay based greens around. The most urgent situation was the fact that in January 2003 the Danish government was imposing the EU inspired pesticide ban in Denmark on golf courses. The way forward was to go back to the way greens used to be maintained 40 years ago before the invasion of ‘target’ golf and the over-watering of greens.

“The grasses on the greens needed to change to the finer grasses of Fescue and Colonial/Browntop Bent. These grasses are naturally more disease tolerant than Poa annua and certainly more economical to maintain as they require minimum amounts of fertiliser and water to flourish.

Fusarium at Rungsted GC 2003

Fusarium at Rungsted GC 2003

“For the next three years we worked hard to remove the 6cms of dead thatch which existed and applied 500 tonnes of top dressing per year to dry out and firm up the playing surfaces. Unfortunately the pesticide ban from 2003 found us with still a lot of poa annua grass in the greens and the disease damage in the photo is what to expect in the U.K. if a ban arrives there.

“We continued forward with our programme to change the grass types during the following years. As a result we have taken 73 year old clay based greens that used to be closed five months of the year, riddled with disease and very costly to maintain and turned them into firm dry greens, open 12 months of the year that have a high percentage of fine fescue/browntop bent grass in the sward.

“This has allowed us to maintain the green mowing height at 5mm and still have a green speed classed as fast for regular membership play by the USGA. We no longer need to scalp them to 2mm to obtain putting speed. Scalping stresses the grass and takes you back to the downward spiral of needing to fertilise and over-water which in turn encourages the Poa annua back and drives out the fescue grasses.

“Target golf is a thing of the past as we now try and keep the greens dry so allowing the “bump and run” shots to be played.

The 11th at Rungsted 2008

The 11th at Rungsted 2008

“I believe that it is very important to get behind your Course Manager and his green staff now and support them in their efforts to change the grass types on your greens whilst they still have the necessary chemicals available to combat fungal diseases as they go through the grass conversion process. You could also just bury your head in the sand and say it will never happen and carry on blindly with your Poa annua grass but the day a ban arrives those clubs with the foresight to implement such a change now, will be the clubs with a full membership, playing golf on firm healthy greens, 12 months of the year whilst your greens are bumpy, disease ridden playing surfaces.”

So is it possible for golf to survive a pesticide ban?

“In Denmark we are proof that golf carries on despite such legislation in place.  How good are the greens?  Here are some comments from two of Europe’s best agronomists who visited the club last year:-

‘The greens have been turned from nothing short of annual meadow grass bogs in 1999 to what can only be described as healthy bent fescue dominated surfaces in 2008….’

‘Everybody who has been involved in the process since 1999 deserves real credit for facilitating one of the most dramatic agronomic success stories I can recall. The success of these operations has been first class, bringing the putting surfaces close to the standards required for the British Open Championship in terms of green speed and trueness…’

Lorne Smith comments:-

Ian Tomlinson’s story from Rungsted GC is typical of the success of many other golf clubs across Scandinavia. Under great pressure, their greenkeepers swapped information and formed discussion groups, calling themselves the ‘ Sons of Golf ‘.   It is heartening that following this lead, two discussion groups were formed in the U.K. calling themselves ‘ The Gingerbreads’ . One in the North West (led by Stuart Yarwood at Lymm GC and the other in the Midlands (led by Jonathan Wood at Enville GC).

The most astonishing thing is that the Danish are developing ‘fine’ grasses on clay and in parkland settings and not just on free draining links and heathland sites.

The golf industry being more ‘significant’ in the U.K. than in Denmark, may be able to resist more strongly the implementation of a pesticides ban.

Nevertheless, though the remorseless momentum behind the theory of ‘man-made global warming alarmism’ that has built over two decades may be stalling, who would bet against UK political parties caving in, if the WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the shock troops of the Watermelon (Green on the outside, Red in the middle) movement, deciding that golf is a toffs game in England, really campaigned for a pesticides ban?

The whole issue of pesticides is just one more argument for all clubs to start going down the sustainable greenkeeping route now, while picking up the benefit of lower course maintenance costs and encouraging ‘fine running-golf ‘ in comparison with ‘target-golf ‘.

The trend towards ‘Fine Running-Golf’ gathers momentum…

* There are three types of pesticides: fungicides, herbicides (weed killer) and insecticides. Contact fungicides are more useful than systemic ones as most greens are attached by disease in the colder autumn and winter period when systemic fungicides will not perform.

Reader Comments

On January 7th, 2010 Gerald W Stratford Said:

A timely and important article.
Some readers might be interested in the decision made by the Greens Section of the Olympic Club in San Francisco to replace all of its old “push up” poa greens with USGA specification construction and a mixture of Bent grasses (Tyee and 007). We were literally forced to make the change because the chemical we have typically used to combat nematode infestation has been banned in the US. The new greens are now several months old, they are wintering well (we play year round in California) and members are thrilled with the new surface.