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Using composts to improve turf ecology

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As the Superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, IL, I became interested in applying compost as a soil amendment after reading about research suggesting it’s many agricultural benefits…

By F. Dan Dinelli, CGCS Posted Jan 28, 2009

Improving soil It is said that if any of the billions of organisms inhabiting the soil had hands, the fate of the world would be in them. An important soil function is the harboring of a diverse community of organisms that includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, springtails, millipedes, sowbugs, earthworms, and many others. This community drives the decomposition of organic residues; recycles important nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and contributes to the formation of new soil and soil structure. With these activities, soil organisms contribute to other important soil functions, such as supporting the growth of plants and absorbing, neutralizing, and transforming compounds that might otherwise become pollutants in the environment. Basically, soil organisms play a critical role in shaping and maintaining terrestrial communities and ecosystems.

As the Superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, IL, I became interested in applying compost as a soil amendment after reading about research suggesting it’s many agricultural benefits. Dr. Michael Boehm, Ohio State University and Dr. Eric Nelson, Cornell University have done helpful work, specifically about the effects of compost on turfgrass. Generally, researchers and practitioners recognize that incorporating high-quality compost does several things:

  1. Adds food and nutrients for plants and organisms,
  2. Adds a diversity of organisms to the soil,
  3. Encourages plant growth promoting substances in soils. Compost can also have an effect on soil structure, nutrient cycling, disease suppression, nematodes and other biological activity.

In fact, the use of composts on turf is not new. A book given to me by my Grandfather, Frank Dinelli (retired Greenkeeper at Northmoor Country Club), titled Turf For Golf Courses, by Charles V. Piper and Russell A. Oakley printed in 1917 has a chapter devoted to “Manures, Composts and other Humus Materials”. Yet because compost is not widely used on golf courses, I wanted to participate in further research prior to investing in the process at North Shore Country Club.

Phase I: Experimentation

In 1996, we got just that opportunity by participating in a two-year study of various composts and organic materials under the direction of Dr. Michael Cole of the University of Illinois and GreenCycle, Inc. (operator of several composting facilities) of Northfield, Illinois. The study was a replicated 10’ X10’ plot design on our 5th fairway comprised of creeping bentgrass and Poa annua maintained at 1/2” mowing height. During the field evaluation, all observations were noted. However, our main objective was to observe any disease symptom differential between the various plots.

Our first application was in the fall of 1996 to observe snow mold (Gerlachia nivalis, Typhula spp.) suppression. None of the materials demonstrated any noticeable snow mold suppression. However, plots treated with compost had a notably earlier green-up and recovery rate verses the control plots. We then repeated applications late spring of 1997. Observations through the remaining growing season showed strong dollar spot (Sclerotinia homoeocarpa) suppression — up to 80% reduction; improved turf color and density, and increased earthworm castings. Thus, while our initial objective of snow mold suppression was not observed, our experiment to test organic products to improve overall turf ecology proved quite successful.

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