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Soil Evolution Par for the Golf Course

 

In 2008, Glen Obear was interning at a golf course in Hawaii when the superintendent asked him to help diagnose a mysterious problem. Some of the course’s putting greens were developing bald patches, spots where the turfgrasses were dying and thinning out. The failures were troubling because the expensive, exquisitely crafted greens were just five years old. A new green is normally expected to last at least five times as long.

The superintendent suspected the issue lay not with the turfgrass itself but with the constructed soils underneath, known in the industry as “modified root zones.” Carefully engineered to resist compaction and promote drainage—while also retaining enough water for plant life—these soils are usually composed of 30 cm of sand over a layer of gravel. But when Obear and the superintendent dug into one, they found something curious: a red layer of cemented material about a foot down that appeared to be impeding drainage. No one had seen anything quite like it before, so Obear—then a University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-Madison) undergraduate—took a chunk home with him to Wisconsin.

His colleagues at first were underwhelmed. “To be honest, I was not interested in this when Glen started,” says Doug Soldat, a UW-Madison extension specialist in turfgrass management and urban soils who was Obear’s master’s degree adviser at the time. “But I let him do it, and I’m really glad I did.” The pair eventually found similar layers beneath putting greens in nearly 30 U.S. golf courses, including one in Madison. Obear went on to investigate why the layers develop and is now spearheading research at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (where he’s currently a Ph.D. student) that should one day help golf course managers prevent the strange layers from forming.

Along the way, the team discovered something else: The layers weren’t so strange after all, but merely evidence of what all soils do—age and evolve. “The big difference is that in [turf] soils, it happens quickly because you irrigate them, and you apply lots of iron and fertilizer,” says UW-Madison pedologist Alfred Hartemink, who chairs the UW-Madison Department of Soil Science. “But there is something happening that we can explain. It’s soil formation.”

Read the full story in the June Issue of CSA News online.