3 THINGS
Naturalized Areas on the Golf Course April 9, 2019 By George Waters, USGA

Naturalized areas vary by course. Using native vegetation maximizes resource savings and environmental benefits. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

Naturalized areas are becoming an increasingly common sight on golf courses. In fact, according to a recent USGA-funded survey, 46 percent of U.S. golf courses are increasing their acreage of naturalized areas. There are many reasons for this trend, including the desire to save water, create wildlife habitat, reduce maintenance costs and focus more resources on primary playing areas.

Unfortunately, for all their benefits, naturalized areas also come with their fair share of controversy, especially if golf balls start disappearing. Understanding a few key facts about naturalized areas can go a long way toward ensuring their success at your favorite course. Here are three things every golfer should know:

Naturalized Areas Are Not “No-Maintenance” Areas

One of the most common misconceptions about naturalized areas is that they require little or no maintenance. At the very least, most naturalized areas require annual mowing in the fall or spring, but many courses perform additional mowing throughout the year in areas where playability and aesthetics are a concern. In addition, weed control may be required at various times during the year. Naturalized areas with exposed soil may also be vulnerable to erosion that requires repair after a significant rain. How much maintenance is required, and how much it costs, hinges very much on our expectations as golfers.

Playability Has a Price

Most golfers support improving habitat for wildlife on the golf course or shifting maintenance resources away from areas that are typically out of play. However, your opinion might temporarily change while searching through dense native vegetation in the hopes of finding a wayward tee shot. Striking a balance between playability, resource savings and environmental benefits is one of the biggest challenges that comes with managing naturalized areas. Maintaining a consistently playable and weed-free naturalized area can be extremely expensive, and it may be impossible in certain environments where the soil and climate simply will not support those conditions. In most cases, there will be a tradeoff between savings and environmental value on the one hand, and playability on the other.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Naturalized areas do not all look and play the same. While we often hear naturalized areas referred to broadly as “fescue” during golf telecasts, the reality is that the plants within naturalized areas vary significantly from course to course, and even within the different areas of an individual course. We may envision an open grassland when we think of naturalized areas, but this is not always the best option. In some environments, low-growing ground covers and small shrubs may provide more habitat value and resource savings. In dry climates, a naturalized area may have large areas of bare soil. Working with the native vegetation and landscape gives naturalized areas a better chance of success, reduces maintenance costs and provides better habitat for the local wildlife.

The potential benefits that accompany naturalized areas are tremendous. Enhanced wildlife habitat and stormwater filtration are assets to golfers and surrounding communities alike. Spending less time and money on out-of-play areas can improve playability where it matters most and help keep a golf facility in business. By understanding the tradeoffs and challenges that come with managing naturalized areas, and being patient with the occasional tough lie, we can do our part to help maximize the environmental and economic benefits.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org

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