TURF MANAGEMENT: To aerate, or not to aerate: That is the quesiton

Greenkeepers constantly defend the cultural practice of arification. Some skip it just to avoid complaints from members, while others view it as sacred. We posed a handful of superintendents this simple question: would you ever skip a scheduled aerification? And, if so, what cultural methods would you use to replace the fact you didn’t pull cores? The results vary slightly, but the general consensus was that the benefits of aerification are undeniable and one of the few times aerification is skipped is usually when Mother Nature forces them to forego this treatment on the turf.

"It’s Turf Management 101," says Brian Nettz, golf course superintendent at Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco. "Golfers need to accept the practice. I think there are exceptions and alternatives depending on site, climate, rounds, etc. But, by and large aerification, even though it is a total pain for a superintendent and his staff, is a necessary evil."

Bob Brewster is the golf course superintendent at Mississaugua Golf and Country Club – one of the oldest golf clubs in Canada. He says aerification is a hot topic in the men’s locker room at most golf clubs, including his. "People see the greens as pristine and wonder why aerification is necessary," Brewster says. "Aerification is necessary to encourage root growth and the most important thing is getting air down in the surface to release the gases in the soil. Many superintendents have skipped aeration to avoid complaining from the membership.

"The best way to communicate is to provide proper soil pictures to prove what you are doing works or to explain the problems that exist."

Brewster says while he would never skip scheduled aerifications, he does compliment it with other cultural methods, such as slicing, topdressing and verticutting greens. Everything depends on the quality of the surfaces, he says.

"I would never skip these practices as this is an important part of growing healthy turf," he says. "Some superintendents I know are presently aerating with larger tines. This provides more air into the surface throughout the season and more room to add sand into the soil profile.

"Many soiled greens or old greens have been top dressed with many different types of sand over the years," he continues. "This has created a layering effect that, when dried out, does not allow the root to go down for the water. Therefore, in the heat of the summer, the grass is more susceptible to diseases and the grass dies."

Brian Youell, master superintendent at Uplands Golf Club in Victoria, British Columbia, says he also would never skip aerification.

"Aerification is the single most important thing we can for our golf course," Youell explains. "Being situated in the Pacific Northwest, we are open 12 months a year, and receive up to 70,000 rounds per year. Aerification plays an important part in relieving compaction and also allows us to add sand to our soil-based growing mediums, thereby improving our soil profile."

Youell has never skipped aerification, but he did have a fall aeration that they were not able to do because of the weather. To help manage members’ expectations he constantly communicates the importance of this practice for the health of the turf and for playability issues that may arise if aerification is skipped.

"I have always been very proactive in communicating the importance of aeration to my membership," he explains. "We use the club newsletter, I’ve done Power Point presentations, and I also use our Web site. If a superintendent is having a challenging time with their membership, I find the USGA Turf Advisory Service is another great tool. The USGA letterhead and the consultant’s report go a long way with a committee, not only to get aeration scheduled at the proper time, but also to get the necessary equipment to do the job right."

Uplands allows Youell to pick his aeration schedule and they schedule their tournaments accordingly. "This allows me to aerate at the proper time and get a quick recovery and in turn they pick tournament dates that ensure great, quality conditions," he says.

"I have seen courses in my region have their schedules forced to mid to late October and you have greens that never completely recover," Youell says. "You’re faced with aeration holes that never heal over, and that can be a long winter of substandard conditions."

While Youell would never skip aerification, he does use other "non-disruptive" aeration practices. "We use a Hydroject aerator on greens and we also use a Planet Air aerator on greens, tees, and fairways," he says. "We also use an Air-way slicer on our fairways during the winter. These aeration practices all can help when dealing with compaction and a lot of traffic as we do. If we happen to get a wet fall and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of pulling a core, we will put solid tines on our fairway aerator to at least get some sort of hole in the ground."

Dean Morrison, superintendent at Calgary Golf and Country Club, agrees with his peers that aerification is a very controversial practice, especially in the eyes of members.

"There are so many variables to take into consideration when aerating," Morrison says. "Soil types and turf varieties and the amount of play being the most important things to consider. Superintendents will develop programs specific to their properties that will be totally different from their neighbors down the road and members have a hard time understanding this.

For example, Morrison aerate twice a year – late spring and early fall. "Sometimes I pull cores, sometimes not, depending on what I am trying to achieve," he says. "While down the road a course aerates once a year in August and never pulls a core. What is the biggest difference? I am Poa grass on soil pushups and he is bentgrass on a sand base. There are sound agronomic reasons for both programs."

Like others, Morrison would not skip aerification; he would only reschedule due to inclement weather. He says if superintendents skip aerification, then they set a precedent with the membership that might be very difficult to reverse down the road. "You may skip one, but then the membership will want you to skip another," he explains. "You did it before, so why can’t you do it again type of scenario. Eventually this will catch up to you and the program."

So, what about those superintendents who have or would skip aerification practices? They are in the minority. And they still only skip it due to certain circumstances during the year in question.

Melvin Waldron III, golf course superintendent at Horton Smith Golf Course in Springfield, Mo., has never completely skipped an aerification in the past dozen years, but his club did skip pulling cores in the spring of 2008 to not disrupt golfers. "This past October we also didn’t get to pull cores," he says. "We waited until our girls’ high school district tournament at the beginning of October. With a lot of rain and temperatures, which were 10 degrees below normal, we decided to not risk the holes not healing before winter. In both cases, we did deep tine with half-inch solids going down to 6-7 inches."

David Kuypers, superintendent at The Cutten Club, in Guelph, Ont., Canada, says he would skip aerification.

"The goal of an aerification is to improve the health of the turf," he says. "If the turf will be harmed by an aerification, then there is no benefit to it. While there are significant benefits to aerification it can be harsh to the stand of turf. In some circumstances – wet conditions, extreme heat or drought – where there is already significant stress to the turf, aerification may be too great an added stress. In short, the patient may not survive the surgery. When the risks to the health of the turf outweigh the benefits, skipping an aerification can be a good idea."

Paul Scenna, golf course superintendent at Beacon Hall in Aurora, Ont., Canada, skipped aerification this year, but only because of a major capital project at his club.

"We had a very disruptive year because we were installing a new irrigation system with up to two holes closed at one time, so in light of that, I decided to help minimize the inconvenience to all members and extend the playing schedule by not aerating," he explains.

It’s always a challenge to find the right balance between doing what’s right for the course to promote healthy turf for the future and balancing member demands for the conditions they expect today. "We try to communicate that aerification has a direct correlation to firmness and we want to maintain a minimum organic matter content at the surface to get greens, tees and fairways firmer," Scenna says.

"The larger the hole you make, the firmer you can get, and the more organic removed, but it may not be palatable to the membership to wait for the surfaces to recover," he adds. "It is always a balancing act – trying to deliver a product that is fast and firm but with minimal interruption." GCI

McPherson is a freelance writer based in Toronto.