Ice on Course
Well, well, well. It looks like the Old Farmer’s Almanac was right on with their prediction of a classic snowy winter for our region. The accumulation began in earnest in the middle of December with a storm that dropped a nice 8” fluffy blanket of snow over the course. This cover is exactly what superintendents like to see for protecting the turf from drying winds and low temperatures that are sure to arrive in the coming months. Another storm later that same week added to the perfect cover. However, conditions soon changed with rising temperatures and rain at the end of the month.
A good snow pack can act like a sponge and absorb quite a bit of rainfall without concern for an ice layer forming on the greens. But when a couple inches of rain falls with daily temperatures above freezing it does become a cause for concern. All of that water has to go somewhere and the only place it can go is straight down to the putting green surface. So, almost one month to the day later and after three rain storms, that perfect cover had turned into a slushy mess. A little investigative shoveling revealed that a pretty solid ice layer, from ½”-3”, had formed on most of the greens underneath all of that slush. After seeing that, it wasn’t a difficult decision to warm up the Bobcat loader and begin removing as much snow and slush as possible to address the accumulating ice issue.
Ice. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!
So what’s the big deal with ice on the greens? Is it worth all of the time and energy it takes to remove so much snow? After all, turf has been around for millennium and it must have adapted to winter conditions over time. That is true but the modern golf green is a very different animal. The turf on a green is constantly under stress in an effort to achieve a superior playing surface. Low heights of cut, reduced fertility and water, traffic, insects, and disease all contribute to plant stress. Ice then is one more element to add to the list.
Research has shown that prolonged ice cover can cause suffocation (anoxia is the scientific term) to turfgrass. Even though physiological processes are greatly reduced during the winter months they do still occur. Under a sheet of ice, oxygen levels are depleted and an anaerobic environment results. If the turf isn’t directly killed from these conditions it will definitely weaken the plant and set it up for injury during the freeze/ thaw cycles of spring. The industry standard is to allow turf to be under ice for no more than 60 days. Now, this is just an average and certainly doesn’t ensure damage free greens. I’ve seen damage to turf with only 30 days of ice cover. Other factors such as plant water content, fertility and temperature variations all play a role in how the turf went into the winter and how it handles winter’s wrath. Remember that the plant can’t grow out of damage like it does in the warmer months so when damage does occur it is usually pretty bad.
Now that you are well versed in the science of the perils of ice on putting greens you’re probably wondering what can be done about it? The first step, as I mentioned, is to remove as much snow as possible covering the ice. After that a dark material is applied to the ice to speed the melting process. I prefer to use topdressing sand as it washes right into the turf canopy. Others use sunflower seeds, organic fertilizers, or colored sands. No matter the product used it is a very simple concept and works very well. Those greens located in the full sun had significant reduction in the amount of ice cover. Those greens located in the shade are always a challenge and it takes much more time to reduce ice build up. That is one reason why I continue to stress how important tree removal and maintenance programs are to turf health.
There really is no guarantee of success when working with the environment. Years of observation along with successes and failures provide a knowledge base with which to work and try to make the best decisions to prevent turf damage. It is always a challenge and this winter is no different. Let’s hope for a quick warm up and thaw.
See you on the course!