What alternatives are there to traditional fertilizers and other chemicals typically used on golf courses? What other actions can be taken to make golf courses kinder to the environment?
—Kathy McGuire, PGA National Resort, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Although golf courses are large areas of open space, certainly more desirable ecologically than equivalent amounts of paved highway or polluting industrial operations, they are less “green” than they appear. Golf maintenance operations use significant amounts of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides (more, acre-for-acre than farms in some cases), which can contaminate nearby lakes and streams as well as local groundwater.
A typical golf course uses about a half ton of chemical pesticides each year, at least some of which runs off into nearby groundwater sources. With nearly 20,000 courses now in operation across the United States and Canada, such problems affect just about every community from coast-to-coast. Luckily several institutions and organizations have been working to minimize the environmental impacts of golf courses.
According to researchers at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), there are many ways to create and maintain golf courses that remain attractive to golfers without excessive use of toxic chemicals. Examples include: selecting turf grasses that match local environmental conditions so as to reduce susceptibility to pests; mowing less often as longer grass increases natural pest resistance; using slow-release and natural organic fertilizers; taking into account pest forecasts to be better prepared for potential infestations; and introducing the natural enemies of problem pests and natural bacteria-based fungicides.
More information and tips are available for free via the website of the Environmental Institute for Golf, which publishes an informative series of best management practices for golf course managers looking to improve their facilities” eco-footprint. Some tips include: planting vegetative buffers around golf course water bodies to prevent the transmission of fertilizers and pesticides into the water; leaving grass clippings and leaves on the ground where possible to serve as natural compost in low-maintenance areas; and timing the application of fertilizer to minimize loss from rainfall and maximize uptake by grasses.
One of the nation’s leaders in green golf course management is San Francisco’s Harding Park, where course managers eschew conventional pesticides and fertilizers in favor of microbes to kill pests and soap to get rid of weeds. They also hand-pluck weeds, flush out moles with hoses, use traps to catch harmful insects, and choose native plants wherever possible. Beneficial insects such as ground beetles, ladybugs, fireflies, praying mantis, spiders and wasps help keep harmful insects at bay and also pollinate plants and decompose organic matter that serves as natural fertilizer. These and other alternative management methods make the course one of the greenest stops on the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tour.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also taking steps. EPA’s Wetlands Division consulted with several leading nonprofits and golf institutions on the creation of a booklet, “The Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States,” outlining the environmental responsibilities of golf courses. It is posted at the website of the United States Golf Association (USGA).