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UD graduate student John Kaszan works on a plot of ground to help area golf courses superintendents choose the native plants they use on areas that are out of play or naturalized.
UD graduate student John Kaszan works on a plot of ground to help area golf courses superintendents choose the native plants they use on areas that are out of play or naturalized.

Choosing native plants for golf courses

Photo by Monica Moriak

UD researchers help area golf courses choose plants for out of play areas

When Erik Ervin arrived at the University of Delaware in January of 2018, one of the first people to reach out to him was Jon Urbanski, who serves as the golf course superintendent for Bidermann Golf Course in Wilmington.

Urbanski was interested in organizing a group of golf superintendents to meet with Ervin, chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, to see how UD might be able to help local golf courses.

Now, Ervin and graduate student John Kaszan, are working with Bidermann Golf Course to make conservation management decisions with regards to planting a meadow comprised of native plants in the golf course’s out of play and naturalized areas.

Ervin said that the main objective is to find the right mix of species that are native to the area but also properly adapted to the climate and the soils.

“We want to make sure that we’re coming up with the right natives so that they come up and are competitive with weeds. One of the issues with planting these native areas is often there is so much weed seed left over in the soil as a legacy that the area gets overrun and it gives these native, naturalized areas a bad name,” said Ervin. “What we’re trying to do is establish something that’s low maintenance, pesticides aren’t used and fertilizer really isn’t used.”

To make those recommendations, Ervin and Kaszan, a master’s level student in the department, used a plot of land in front of the Fischer Greenhouse on UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources campus. The test plots were used to see what native wildflower species were most attractive to  pollinators.

“What [Urbanski] has and what most golf course superintendents have done in these out of play areas is just planted a mix of fine fescue grasses that they let grow up and so there isn’t a diversity of wildflowers out there to attract pollinators at all,” said Ervin. “Turf guys know grass and when you start throwing in wildflowers and try to decide which ones are going to work and things like that, it starts to get pretty difficult. So that’s where we’re going to try and help.”

The hope is that the native meadow will attract beneficial pollinators to the area, something that is vital as the decline of bees and other pollinators continues, as well as cut down on the amount of mowing necessary to maintain these areas.

“Not only does that save a lot of money in terms of mowing and inputs but it also allows all the folks that are part of that golf course and the neighborhoods surrounding that golf course to go ‘Wow, this is a really beautiful park area that has all these ecosystem services,’ ” said Ervin.

This project follows a trend that has been occurring at golf courses over the last twenty years to show that they are good environmental stewards of the land, and are treating out of play areas as wildlife and naturalized habitats.

Kaszan said that the test plots were planted with native cool season grasses, plus wildflowers in the spring of 2018 to test how well they will perform in a meadow setting.

Cool season grass seed is typically cheaper than warm season grasses so the idea is that by planting meadows with the cool season grasses, golf courses will be able to drive down costs while also maintaining a more cohesive look.

“This project is to see how well the cool season grasses do in part with seeding times, how well they work together with the wildflowers and how much they retain diversity, approximating a good seeding rate as well as seeing how pollinators respond to these plots,” said Kaszan.

The plots contain 20 different species of wildflowers throughout, with 60 percent of the plots planted with cool season grasses.

Control plots have been planted with 60 percent warm season grasses, with 5 percent cool season grasses and the same mix of wildflowers.

“The idea is that once everything gets into flower, which will probably happen next year, and it’s pretty established, we can see how pollinators are going to react to the plants they’re used to seeing in meadow-like settings mixed with different grasses,” said Kaszan.

Kaszan said that he will work with Deborah Delaney, associate professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, to identify the specific pollinators that visit the plots.

Wildflower sod

The researchers are also investigating a wildflower sod mix of grasses and forbs that could be used by sod growers across the Delmarva and mid-Atlantic to create a wildflower sod product — an idea that was developed by one of Ervin’s colleagues at Virginia Tech that he has since adapted for Delaware.

“The idea is we’d come up with the right mix to grow on plastic in the field and once it reached a certain maturity and had knitted together, instead of having to go in the field and cut it, we can just roll it right up on top of that plastic,” said Ervin. “Then it’s a pretty high value product that can be marketed to homeowners who want to have an instant meadow because they’ve taken care of creating that really nice grass forb mix that’s fairly weed free. If we do a good job of this, some golf courses might decide to buy it. Some road side projects where you’ve got to have instant cover, you want to open that road and already have this native area.”

Kaszan has been working on the sod project in the greenhouse and has rolled out two of the test beds in plots next to the Fischer Greenhouse. He explained that creating a meadow by sowing seeds directly can be difficult as the seeds have to compete with weed seeds that have been left over in the soil as a legacy from the previous use.

By having the meadow mix planted right on the plastic, which helps reduce weed pressure, users will be able to roll the sod out into place and it will grow into a meadow.

“You just roll it like a carpet, just like you’d roll out sod,” said Kaszan.

The project was successful in the small plots and now the researchers are going to move it out to try and test it in larger plots on the farm.

In addition, the UD researchers will travel out to Bidermann Golf Course in the fall to look at the course and make their recommendations in person.

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