(Beyond Pesticides, August 23, 2010) While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama will be returning to the organically-managed Vineyard Golf Club, where he played while on vacation last year. While golf courses around the country have begun to incorporate organic techniques and reduce pesticide use, the exclusive club is believed to be the only completely organic golf course in the country, meaning that synthetic pesticide, fertilizer, or other chemical treatment is strictly forbidden.
American golf courses hold themselves to a high standard, when it comes to maintaining the thick perfectly manicured and weed free turf on greens and fairways. To attain this standard golf course managers rely on a toxic assortment of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals. These practices have been linked to numerous diseases in humans including cancer, as well as damage to local wildlife. Jeff Carlson, the superintendent of the Vineyard golf club recalls one of his earlier jobs where he used mercury based fungicides, soon his wife’s hair started to fall out from mercury poisoning. Environmentalists and human health advocates have mounted strong opposition to the creation of new golf courses. In recent years however golf course managers have begun to work with environmental experts to maintain their greens in ways that are less damaging to the environment and human health.
Many courses around the country are adapting IPM practices to reduce their reliance on pesticides. The Vineyard Golf Club was proposed it had to overcome strong opposition from residents concerned with heavy pesticide use in their area. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the project on the condition that no products are used with a synthetic active ingredient. As a recent piece in The New York Times points out, many were initially skeptical that a golf course could meet the standards of well to do golfers without the help of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Eight years later the Vineyard Golf Club with its $350,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $12,000, is not only a recreation spot for Martha’s Vineyard’s wealthy summer residents, it is also a laboratory for demonstrating safe and effective ways to control weeds and pests organically. The Vineyard Golf Club relies on such practices as planting more disease resistant grass, using boiling water for weed control, and using microscopic worms to kill turf destroying grubs.
Despite being good enough for our commander and chief, many conventional golf course managers argue synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are a necessary to maintain healthy looking grass, and an organic approach is not viable. Others disagree. Arguing that instead of relying on large amounts of synthetic chemicals to make turf appear healthy, managers should instead work to create turf that actually is healthy. Healthy soils and turf are less hospitable to weeds and diseases. In addition as pesticide use declines biodiversity increases, this can naturally reduce the populations of various pests. Beyond Pesticides serves on a steering committee that seeks to develop a collaborative strategy with the golf course industry in an effort to effect change. This group developed the Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the U.S. Increasingly, players and golf course managers are asking the right questions and looking for answers that result in meaningful reductions in pesticide use.
These techniques are not just reserved for exclusive golf clubs with huge budgets. Parks and school playing fields across the country have converted to organic techniques, even on cash-strapped publically funded budgets. A 2010 report by the environmental health group Grassroots Environmental Education concludes that the annual cost of maintaining a field using organic products and techniques can be as much as 25% lower than the cost of conventional programs using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
While not acknowledged in the Times, Howard Garret, the host of a local organic gardening show in Texas also runs several organic golf course maintenance programs in the Dallas area. According to The Dallas Observer the organic practices Mr. Garret employs are not only safer for the environment, but they have also managed to save golf courses money, mostly by reducing water requirements.
The methods used to maintain an organic golf course are similar to those used to maintain any organic lawn or turf. Maintaining organic turf starts with healthy soil. This may require aerating compacted soil. Earthworms and other organisms will aerate soil naturally, but they are usually absent from soils treated with large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Soil should be tested for pH and nutrient content. Watering and drainage should be carefully monitored. Too much or too little water will encourage weed growth. The variety of grass should be carefully selected, to ensure it can thrive in the given climate.
While there is currently no system in place to certify a golf course organic, interest continues to grow and many golf courses are making an effort to reduce the amount of chemical pesticides used. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Lawns and Landscapes and Golf and the Environment project pages.