Bob Wolverton on Turf Performance
Watching grass grow for more than 20 years, Bob Wolverton of Columbus, Georgia has dedicated his career to the turfgrass and horticulture industry. He currently manages the athletic fields for Columbus State University (CSU), including an 11-acre golf course practice facility along with soccer, baseball, softball and intermural fields. In addition to the normal demands of maintaining high performance turf, he talks about the challenges of a persistent pest and excessive rain.
CSU’s fields, spanning approximately 20 acres, are mainly covered in Tifway 419, with some greens in Diamond zoysia and TifEagle Bermudagrass. An improved hybrid Bermuda, Tifway 419 has been widely used on golf courses and athletic fields as well as home lawns since its release in 1960.
“The TifWay performs very well,” Wolverton reports. “It’s easily manipulated.” The staff overseeds the softball, soccer and baseball fields each year. “We can overseed it and then take it back out of overseeding in the spring without too much effort to regain the density, body and texture of the Bermuda grass.”
Range of Heights
Wolverton says Tifway 419 responds well at a wide range of heights, from half an inch to two inches depending on the intended surface, while maintaining the desired density, look and quality. On the golf course and greens, he and his staff focus on the finer quality of the grass, but on the other sports fields, safety is paramount.
The extreme movements of the cleat-clad players on the sports fields demand a turf with high wear tolerance. The staff works “to maintain a good healthy root system to hold that grass and turf together so that it doesn’t just come out in chunks, and so we don’t have issues with player safety,” Wolverton says. “That’s our number one concern.”
For areas that sustain the heaviest abuse, Wolverton prefers TifTuf Bermudagrass, bred for superior drought resistance and improved wear tolerance. “We’re starting to incorporate a little bit of TifTuf, especially at our soccer goals and around the pitching mound on the baseball field. The TifTuf has very good wear tolerance, but under excessive traffic, its best characteristic is that it recovers much quicker than the traditional 419.”
Wolverton earned a degree in plant science from Rutgers University, and has worked on several premier courses, such as Augusta National, Winged Foot, Saucon Valley and Ridgewood. He also built the Bayonne Golf Club in New Jersey and helped build the Congaree Club in South Carolina. He joined CSU’s athletic staff in 2016.
Aside from routine maintenance, one major challenge Wolverton faces presented as chronic thinning of TifEagle on the golf greens. “We were having some issues on the greens that we tried very hard to figure out, and it turns out that it was this Rhodesgrass mealybug.” Due to public health concerns, many of the insecticides used to control this pest have been taken off the market, severely limiting control efforts.
“What we’re finding is that particular bug will attack just about any kind of grass — Bermudagrass, Zoysiagrass — any of the turf types that we would use commercially, it will infect. So by doing this research at the college, we’ll be able to help not just golf courses and putting greens, but also sports field managers and homeowners who have this issue as well.”
The Rhodesgrass mealybug mainly infests turfgrasses that never go fully dormant in the winter, primarily south of the Fall Line. “But with the warmer winters, we may actually see this pest migrate up at least into the Atlanta area,” Wolverton warns, “so it’s something to be concerned about.”
Wet Weather Woes
Turfgrass professionals across the South are dealing with soggy grass. In a region where drought is more common, a long season of unrelenting rains calls for new protocols.
Wolverton explains, “The problem is the root zones are so saturated that a lot of movement or heavy machinery across could sheer off roots, so we have to be concerned about that.” Wolverton’s staff is careful to minimize traffic, especially from machinery, while the grasses are waterlogged.
The excess rain also increases threats from disease and weeds. “We don’t really know 100% what the disease pressure is going to be yet,” Wolverton points out. “Trying to stay on preventative schedules, as far as fungicide applications, seems to be the most beneficial.
As far as weed control, there are reports of crab grass already in Charlotte, and I’m sure there’s probably some crabgrass germinating around here as well.”
In overly wet seasons like this one, he recommends splitting pre-emergent applications. “The one-time pre-emergent application is probably not going to be the best strategy this spring.
With all that water, the barrier breaks down a lot quicker.” Wolverton reduced pre-emergent applications, applying half in mid-January, and he’ll put out the rest in early April. “We may even go out with a third application on the golf side, just because there’s probably going to end up being so much weed pressure.
Wet Weather Benefits
On a positive note, Wolverton points out that the wet weather also benefits turfgrass. Dry weather, especially windy dry weather, poses the greatest threat to grass in the winter, dehydrating the crown tissues that produce new stems, leaves and roots. “The wet weather actually helps us out. We don’t have to worry about as much winter damage because the grasses aren’t being desiccated since they’re staying wet. That’s actually incredibly beneficial.”
If you have questions about turfgrass disease or pests, contact our Certified Turfgrass Professionals at 770.832.8608 or info@NGTurf.com.