'Torsiello's Turf Talk' - Paspalum May Be a Miracle Grass for Seaside Golf Courses

By: John Torsiello

[Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a new Cybergolf feature called "Torsiello's Turf Talk," which will help edify golfers on efforts underway in the turf industry to improve playing conditions in an environmentally-friendly way. John Torsiello is an award-winning writer, contributing regularly to "Golf Course Industry" and "Lawn and Landscape." Look for more "Turf Talk" installments from John in the future.]

10th Hole at The Plantation Course at Edisto Beach

The golf industry is excited by what many believe is a miracle grass strain that has proven to be effective on seaside courses. This super grass is tolerant of various environmental stresses, requires fewer applications of nitrogen fertilizer, and can tolerate elevated salinity levels that might affect other types of grasses.

What is known as Paspalum is a perennial turfgrass indigenous to tropical and coastal areas, making it ideal for use on golf courses located along or near to the ocean or its lowlands (marshes and bays).

Paspalum has been around for quite some time; in fact, it was sort of discovered in the early 1970's and was reportedly first planted at a golf course in Florida in 1980. The course actually became a test lab and the layout was found to be an ideal playing surface that could not only withstand heat and humidity but also take a beating from the nearby ocean and return to normal in the event of a severe storm and flooding of the course.

"In my opinion, I think it is slowly but surely taking over the Bermuda grass market for golf courses," Jarrett Eledge, superintendent at King's Crossing Country Club in Corpus Christi, Texas, told me. "Its drought tolerance is amazing and the color is stunning."

With water restrictions an ever-increasing concern for supers across the South, seashore Paspalum seems one answer to those concerns. It can be irrigated using recycled water or even water with a salt content, although, like other warm-season grasses, it produces optimum turf when irrigated with potable water.

When the owners of Edisto Beach Golf Club in Edisto Beach, S.C., were considering grasses for their course during its renovation several years ago they settled on Sea Isle Paspalum because of its ability to be irrigated by non-potable water sources.

"We are very near the ocean here and, when I did soil samples before the renovation and took water analysis, the bicarbonates and sodium levels were off the charts," Tom Arneman said. "We use effluent water to irrigate and we thought the Paspalum was a good alternative to Bermuda. We really did our research, and we talked to turf growers and Dr. (Ron) Duncan at the University of Georgia (which has been at the forefront of seashore Paspalum research and breeding since the 1990s). It's worked great for us. We have Sea Isle wall to wall and we were able to open our course three weeks earlier than if we had planted Bermuda grass."

The Plantation Course's Third Hole

Kyle Sweet, superintendent at the Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, Fla., maintains Sea Isle 1 Paspalum on his course's fairways and rough areas and Sea Isle Supreme on the greens. The decision to replace Bermuda grass with Paspalum in 2005 was twofold. "We had the desire not to have to overseed. That, and the fact that we could use inferior water sources on the Paspalum and the grass could handle it, were the clinchers."

A major plus of Paspalum is that it needs little fertilizer once it becomes established, reportedly considerably less than other types of grass. Annual fertilizer rates of between five and eight pounds per 1,000 square feet of turf - except greens - and between three to six pounds per 1,000 square feet on putting surfaces are recommended. However, superintendents a little too fervent in their fertilizer programs and irrigation of Paspalum can actually open the plant up to disease.

"Initially, when seashore Paspalum cultivars were released and this species came into wider use," said Dr. Robert Carrow, professor of Turfgrass Science in the Department of Crop and Soil Services at the University of Georgia, "the disease concerns were primarily take-all and brown patch, which are promoted by excessive soil moisture." Dr. Carrow said that when management practices for seashore Paspalum became "more refined," there was less concern of incidences of these diseases.

He explained: "The reasons there were problems was that application of too much nitrogen and too-frequent irrigation leads to build up of excessive organic matter in the surface zone, which retains excessive moisture and results in low oxygen." This predisposes the plant to disease. Dr. Carrow said that turf managers who have reduced nitrogen application and adjusted their irrigation practices rather than following a Bermuda grass management regime have reported much less disease pressure.

Because Paspalum develops a deep root system and can thus tolerate drought conditions, it needs less-frequent watering. Along with using less nitrogen, reduced watering prevents the accumulation of excessive organic matter in the surface zone of the plant, which in turn protects the grass from the onset of disease.

Superintendents advise keeping mowing heights low to help prevent the buildup of thatch which, of course, can create an environment conducive to disease. But be careful when cutting. Arneman told me that if it gets scuffed up it will recover slowly. That's why you have to have patience in bringing mowing heights down.

18th Hole at The Plantation Course

It is also advisable to verti-cut aggressively to prevent thatch and allow the tightly knit and deep Paspalum roots to breath and receive nourishment. "I've had to be regimented on verti-cutting and topdressing," said Arneman. "I'll do light verti-cutting every two weeks during the growing season and topdress lightly the same day." Eledge advised, "The grass wants to lay down and it can build up thatch so it needs to be verti-cut regularly."

There have also been issues with spotted patch and dollar spot, but it is likely because supers are riding a fine line with fertilizer and trying to find the right levels to apply. They have dealt with a learning curve when managing Paspalum. Disease control is always an issue because of climate; i.e., heat and the humidity. Another issue has been pythium on greens, which seem to hold more moisture than elsewhere on a course. Certain times of the year, supers have reported seeing some yellow patch pop up on Paspalum. In addition, reports of dollar spot and brown patch have surfaced on some courses with Paspalum, although incidences of turf problems seem to be irregular, a result of poorly draining soil and localized weather conditions.

Said Lee Bladen, superintendent at Old Palm Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., "There's always diseases in the soil. It's finding the right balance in growing the grass to the point where it doesn't stress. I don't think Paspalum is any different to Bermuda in that regards."

Paspalum actually seems to be a warm weather grass with some cool season characteristics. Superintendents need to keep Paspalum at lower heights, but the grass likes to be brought down slowly because it can clump, especially in rough areas.

There are a number of fungicides on the market labeled for use on seashore Paspalum for the control of such diseases as dollar spot, leaf spot, take-all patch and fusarium blight. Most three-way mixtures of 2, 4-D, MCPP and diacamba herbicides are labeled for use on seashore Paspalum and provide post-emergent control of many broadleaf weeds.

I played the Plantation Course at Edisto Beach and found Paspalum to be an ideal playing surface, especially in the fairways where the ball literally seems to sit up. There have been some concerns that Paspalum greens seem to be a bit on the slower side. But that seems a minor inconvenience for most courses in light of the grass's other positive properties.

All in all, Paspalum seems a gift from nature for oceanside golf courses.

John Torsiello is an editor/writer living in Connecticut. He has written extensively about all aspects of the golf industry for a number of national and regional publications. He is a regular contributor to "Golf Course Industry," "Lawn and Landscape," "Golfing" and "Fairway Living" magazines as well as various online publications. He has strong, ongoing relationships with industry professionals and has worked closely with course owners, architects, developers, course superintendents and general managers around the country. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including first place from the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association for a piece that appeared in "Golf Course Industry" magazine.