Going Organic on Martha’s Vineyard

I saw the future of golf course maintenance last night, and I can give it to you in a word: ORGANIC.

Jeff Carlson, superintendent at Vineyard Golf Club on Martha’s Vineyard, was invited to speak in the town where I live by Clean Up Stonington Harbors, a non-profit that seeks to limit marine pollution in the waters in and around Stonington, Conn. The association wanted Carlson to explain how organic turf management practices can be used for coastal developments and private lawns. But he went well beyond the management of seasonal weeds and how to cultivate a low-maintenance yard.

Opened in 2002, Vineyard Golf Club was a controversial project from the get-go. Islanders were fearful that the Edgartown course would spoil the aquifer. “Water quality was a huge issue,” Carlson said. The only way the course for the course to secure approval was for it to have zero environmental impacts. And the only way to do that was to limit the acreage allotted for managed turf, refrain from the use of pesticides, and introduce bio-stimulants and organic composted fertilizers into the maintenance equation.

Carlson admitted that, like most golf course superintendents, he was a “product” guy who used conventional pesticides, herbicides and insecticides to promote healthy turfgrass, combat diseases and control insects.

Now he kills weeds with boiling water and a natural foam cocktail. He removes moss with kitchen sink detergent. He imports microscopic worms from Iowa called nematodes to attack turf-ruining grubs. He and his crew disrupt the mating cycle of Oriental beetles with a strategically placed scent that drives them crazy and leaves them too exhausted to reproduce. A local fisherman who specializes in the removal of skunks is brought in to trap the noisome animals, which dig for grubs and can ruin a course overnight.

Carlson also traps and relocates crows, which he describes as exceedingly smart. “They mate for life, mourn their dead, use tools and deploy scouts,” he said. “They’re very clever.”

All of these practices, Carlson explained, were evolved by a process of trial-and-error over the past nine years. There was no book to follow. The companies he contacted for organic materials, many of them based in Canada, told him there was no track record for the exclusive use of organic products at a golf course. Many mistakes were made. But the layout’s seeded fairways, nurtured from the start by organic compounds, are naturally healthy and can resist diseases better than sterile sod fed with chemicals. It’s the equivalent of organic produce vs. processed fast food in the human diet.

Au naturel: Vineyard GC is America's only organic golf course

Carlson, who received the 2008 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship from the Golf Course Superintendents Association (GCSAA), pointed out that alternative maintenance strategies and organic product testing results are shared with the USGA Green Section and Cornell University in an effort to develop a viable organic maintenance program. It was clear during his presentation that some version of this program could be used as a blueprint for every club, resort and muni in the nation. There is a way to maintain a golf course with few if any environmental impacts. Vineyard Golf Club is living proof.

Designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie, the layout calls to mind a Surrey heathland course on the outskirts of London. The bentgrass greens and colonial/fescue fairways are framed by tall native fescues and a patchy forest of pitch pines, scrub oaks and brambles. The firm fairways, sprinkled in places with revetted bunkers, accentuate the ground game. Bump and run shots can be played to greens with open entrances.

“The key was to get the members to embrace playability versus visual perfection,” said Carlson. (This on the eve of the Masters, where the flawless conditions at Augusta National produce the effect of a manicured outdoor museum). At a club where high net worth individuals mingle with 150 island residents who pay a fraction of the going rate for membership, the reality is that Augusta-like conditions are not sustainable. Or even desirable.

Here’s the rub: Going organic is labor-intensive and somewhat costly. At present, it’s still cheaper to apply chemicals than it is to evolve homespun recipes, seek out organic compounds and hire teenagers to hand-pull weeds. But there’s always a way if the people speak.

From the photos Carlson projected of the course during his presentation, Vineyard Golf Club appears to be in very good condition. Not perfect, but perhaps more beautiful for not being perfect. A few blemishes here and there are a small price to pay for an organic golf course.

Here’s why. Members of the maintenance crew at Vineyard Golf Club occasionally wear flip-flops on the job without a care in the world about stepping on poison. Even a few of the members play barefoot on warm summer days. The most environmentally friendly course in the nation points the way to a better, more sustainable future.

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