June 15, 2005 | General


BioCycle June 2005, Vol. 46, No. 6, p. 28
Demonstration project addresses golf course superintendents and citizen concerns while linking compost applications to turf quality.
Jon Nilsson

STUDIES conducted over the past 10 to 15 years have clearly shown the potential for compost amendments to reduce the severity and incidence of a wide variety of turfgrass diseases. Research has shown that compost has been particularly successful when applied either as a topdressing, a winter cover, a root zone amendment, or as an aqueous extract. Unfortunately, one of the greatest obstacles to widespread use of compost has been inconsistent performance (batch to batch) due to lack of understanding of compost microbiology.
Perhaps nowhere else in the U.S. are consistent results needed more than in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York. In the late 90s as citizens groups became alarmed over potential misuse of pesticides, a law suit was filed which showed that original plans for golf courses failed to comply with the state environmental review law. As a result, Local Law No. 34-1999 was enacted by the Suffolk County Legislature stating that County owned properties must phase out the use of pesticides. With this law, any new proposed county run courses must now be built pesticide free. Existing county courses must also phase in organic practices.
To comply with the new ruling, Suffolk County public golf courses have begun to experiment with use of compost teas on small areas of their courses. Even though initial results have shown that playability on these courses will not be compromised, many golf course superintendents are skeptical that organic methods can work. Also, without proper technical support, some superintendents have not been able to integrate nonchemical techniques into their current management practices.
One major stumbling block continues to be the lack of understanding of just how the microbial communities of compost and soil work, and how they can be utilized to reduce disease incidence. To solve this problem, a New York firm called Soil Foodweb NY (SFNY) has teamed up with the Suffolk County Timber Point Golf Course in Great River, New York. With funding from the New York State Department of Economic Development, SFNY is conducting a 2 year project to refine and demonstrate biological techniques for New York Golf Courses. These methods can mitigate potential pollution that could occur from spray drift and ground water contamination as well as reduce costs associated with fertilizer and fungicide applications. They can also provide compost operations with new market outlets for specialized “designer compost.”
For many years, science has been able to identify total populations of organisms in soil. More recently, the organisms that are active in soil can also be counted. Once identified, the community of organisms in any soil can be compared to similar soils, with high yields and where no disease problems and few pesticides are required. Thus a healthy food web “standard” can be defined for different soils, climates and plant groups. In addition to specialized compost tea, innovations in microbial foods, unique delivery systems, and microbiological testing are all part of this soil building approach.
With lab testing, the amount of active beneficial microorganisms (ie. various species of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mycorrhizae, microarthropods) that are present in soils is measured. Using this data, specialized management techniques are employed which enhance the growth of these organisms. When a soil contains the correct set of organisms, plant growth can be enhanced to the point that very few chemical inputs are needed to obtain comparable yields to “conventional” practices. Plant health and productivity are “rebuilt” by getting the right set of organisms back into the soil food web.
Long Island, New York relies upon a sole source aquifer for all of its drinking water. There is a long history of chemicals from landfills and farms turning up in the drinking water system. Many pesticides and fertilizers applied to turf are also suspected to be part of groundwater contamination. Golf courses on Long Island are under pressure from environmentalists and breast cancer organizations who want to reduce and eventually eliminate use of these materials in turf management. Studies have shown that soils that are high in biological activity can mitigate ground water pollution and act as “biological filters”. If biological turf management practices can be shown to be cost effective, there will be a built in incentive for golf courses to adopt these preventive measures.
With these issues in mind, the performance targets of this project include: Determining the cost savings that can be expected from avoidance of use of fungicides and fertilizers in the first 2 years of implementation of the soil building approach on a commercial golf course; Finding the institutional barriers to widespread adoption of these techniques by golf course management; and Developing ways to make the implementation of this technology easier for golf course superintendents.
One of the most common misconceptions is that organic amendments and practices are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts and require additional labor. What the soil building approach has shown is that there is a great amount of soil fertility and turf health that can be realized by increasing microbial populations. In horticulture, this type of benefit has been shown where fairly large amounts of bulk compost were applied. With new advances in compost tea production, we are now seeing similar results using much less compost. Beneficial results have been obtained where as little as 10 lbs. of compost are used to make 110 gallons of compost tea which will cover 11 acres of turf.
To get this information out to as wide an audience as possible, SFNY will distribute information through the Organic Golf Course Steering Committee and the Long Island Neighborhood Network ( These two organizations sponsor annual conferences on organic landscaping and are leading advocates for organic turf management practices. They have worked closely with the Sebonack Golf Course which is a Jack Nickolas signature course and is proposed to be the first organically-managed golf course on the island.
The New York State Golf Association has also offered its support to help get information on project results out to its membership. The first field day will be held at the Timber Point White Course and is planned for the first week in October, 2005. Guidance information will also be made available to the Cornell Waste Management Institute.
Jon Nilsson is a compost consultant for East Coast Compost,LLC. which has worked on disease suppression via compost for several years. He is the Project Manager for the Soil Foodweb NY project. and can be contacted via email at

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