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Lower-cost trees, shrubs, groundcovers and flowers

By |  September 17, 2018 0 Comments
High priority maintenance bed (Photo by: John C. Fech)

“Gotta look good,” high-priority locations. (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Ornamentals serve an important function on the golf course, providing fairway definition, creating a backdrop for greens, preventing errant golf shots from striking golfers, producing shade in appropriate locations, screening undesirable views, providing habitat for songbirds and increasing the aesthetic appeal of the facility.

Unfortunately, all these benefits come at a price.

The good news is that a number of techniques and best management practices can lower costs while retaining the protective, functional and amenity value of ornamentals.

A look-see

When the focus is lowering maintenance costs, a logical first step is to have a “look-see” into the inputs and outlays of cash. This is much easier to accomplish if part of your budget is delineated specifically for ornamental care, separate from turf maintenance. Typical categories to itemize include labor, water, pesticides, fertilizer, mulch, replacement plants and tools/equipment. Depending on your individual needs and region of the country, other categories also may be useful. But the initial action is identifying expenses that at first may appear to be high. You might say something like, “Whoa, we’re spending a bunch of money on fertilizer. Is that really necessary?”

Ornamental bed (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Though quite manageable at this size, it’s conceivable that “ornamental creep” could add maintenance costs to this bed. (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Once you’ve identified a particular group of costs, next comes a deeper examination. Digging deeper into each line item helps bring clarity to what could be a muddy area.

Look closely at ornamental labor costs, for example, including the specifics of seasonal help, benefits, incentives and training, and even possibly assigning them to another line item. One way or another, take them into account. After all, somebody has to do the work. The idea is to see if it can be done with fewer or different people. In this day of “work smarter, not harder,” common labor efficiencies include reduction of hand weeding, watering through integration drip systems, mulching and herbicide applications. On the other hand, if a large number of inexpensive and ambitious summer interns are available, it may be less costly to use them than to invest in materials or equipment.


In addition to looking closely at each individual area of cost, prioritization can be helpful. More than likely, certain spots are “gotta look good areas” of high importance to various groups associated with the course. Maybe it’s the approach to the clubhouse door, the No. 1 tee box, the No. 18 green or the signature hole.

Though it can be overwhelming, it might be beneficial to seek input from stakeholders (the owner, the green committee, the club manager, the golf pro). The pitch to each of these might go something like, “Hey, we’re looking at lowering the ornamental maintenance cost on some areas on the course. Which are the most important to you?” This could yield more information than you intend, so use this technique with care. But it may also turn over a rock that had not yet been turned over.

Once priority has been established for several locations, calculate input costs for each bed or grouping of trees and shrubs. Focusing on a spot or area of the course can be as helpful as looking at each maintenance category.

Tree debris (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Species such as saucer magnolia can drop significant amounts of debris. (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Remove bad trees

Continuing to prune and treat poor-condition or pest-ridden trees and shrubs is a black hole of cost. Removal requires an outlay of cash but pays off in just a few years. Other benefits likely are realized as well, such as increased sunlight on greens and tees, enhanced views to the green from the rough or near rough and greater air circulation. In many cases, you may justify tree removal costs through reduced fungicide applications for brown patch, dollar spot and Pythium blight because of improved ambient microenvironment above greens.

As an arborist, I hesitate to endorse wholesale tree removal, but poor-condition trees are a liability. Trees with cracks, hanging branches, co-dominant leaders, stem-girdling roots and decay are cause for concern, as well as trees that are leaning. Depending on the extent of the defect(s), the time to remove may be soon, very soon or immediately. The specific location of problematic trees comes into play when considering which to remove first.

The arboricultural term “target,” aka a person (golfer, golf maintenance worker, superintendent) or item of value (clubhouse, refreshment stand, rain shelter, parking lot, maintenance facility) brings the issue of damages to mind, which means dealing with a lawsuit (the first case), or replacement costs (the latter case). In addition to what the tree could fall on, superintendents need to consider the issue of “frequency of occupation,” or the likelihood that a person could come into contact with a tree. No superintendent wants to be faced with the situation of negligence, where trees in poor health are called to their attention and he/she fails to act appropriately.

Well-placed small trees (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Pictured are well-placed small trees. If tree debris drops, it’s unlikely to affect play. (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Scouting for developments in condition, defects and pest incidence is a cost-saving technique. There are a couple general approaches to scouting. Either assign a crew member with extensive experience in spotting ornamental problems to inspect specimens daily or ask each team member to be on the lookout for an abnormal appearance of non-turf plants. A third route with significant value is to hire an ornamentals consultant. This option may be especially advantageous if no herbaceous and woody plant experience exists on the staff. When looking for a scouting firm, strongly consider a certified nursery professional (i.e. California Certified Nursery Professional) and an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist, preferably one with Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) training. Monitoring and a series of scouting inspections made weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or quarterly is desirable on courses with many established specimens.


In 1975, Joel Barker introduced the concept of “paradigm shifts,” which are ways to view changes in culture, manufacturing or the marketing of goods and services. The classic example he described was the shift in automobiles being manufactured in Detroit to Japan. Barker saw these as common, everyday fresh looks at all facets of life, with the goal of seeing the world anew. Shifts are appropriate in the golfscape as well.

The first is a shift from hedges to multi-stem shrubs. Keeping most hedges looking neat and trim requires monthly shearing. Not only is this labor intensive, it’s bad horticultural practice. Over the years, this technique keeps the oldest, least productive, most disease- and insect-prone stems in the canopy of the plant, which leads to fewer flowers, thinner foliage and increased pest pressure. A once-per-year thinning of the oldest stems is much preferred to reduce pest control costs and retain function and attractiveness. A saying in the arboricultural world is, “Real horticulturists don’t shear, they thin.”

Separation of turf and ornamentals (Photo by: John C. Fech)

Good implementation of separation of turf and ornamentals. (Photo by: John C. Fech)

The next shift is from annuals to perennials and ornamental grasses. If annuals are strongly requested by stakeholders for color and textural appeal, choose industry-proven cultivars such as those designated as improvements by All America Selections or new introductions revealed at industry proving grounds such as the California Spring Trials. Once established, perennials generally require less water, fertilizer and pest control than annuals, yet offer most if not all the same benefits. Choices among perennials also are important. The Perennial Plant Association is a leader in this evaluation effort, designating certain new and underutilized cultivars.

Another pertinent shift to consider: size. As a transition is being made within ornamental beds with specific plant material, also consider reducing their size. Many beds are subject to “ornamental creep,” where because of their beauty they tend to increase slowly in size as just a few more plants are added each year. If a real plant lover is on the crew, beds can double in size in just a few years. If you observe this trend, lean on your prioritization of use area to hold costs in check.

Plant selection

When in the plant selection mode — no matter if it’s a tree, shrub, groundcover or flower — investigate the disease susceptibility of the cultivar just as you would with a turfgrass species. Depending on the species of ornamental considered, significant differences exist. For example, approximately 200 to 300 cultivars of crabapple are available in various locations in today’s market. Though it’s hard to be exact, about half of these are susceptible to fireblight, apple scab or cedar apple rust. They remain on the market because they offer great architecture, flower color, superior winter hardiness and/or size characteristics.

Other characteristics such as debris production can significantly impact cost of maintenance. Some woody plants such as eucalyptus, magnolia, maple and elm can drop large amounts of debris on turf. This may have little impact if the tree is in the rough or in an out-of-bounds area. However, when near a green or tee or even a cart path, play can slow while golfers look for balls or grumble lining up a putt. Not all species produce seeds, flowers, exfoliated bark and other plant parts in abundance. Obtain assistance in selection by visiting local arboreta and botanic gardens and/or by contacting local university Extension faculty.


Everybody knows how to plant a tree or flower, right? Wrong. The No. 1 mistake is poor planting technique. People get in a hurry, and they often simply don’t know how. No matter which type of plant is being installed, take time to spread out the roots in a wide, shallow planting hole — or better yet — think of it as a “planting area.” Failure to do so compromises the extent and orientation of the root system, which in turn increases the stress level of the ornamental plant. Because any stressed plant on the course, turf or otherwise, is more likely to succumb to pests and damage from golf play, it makes sense to get it right from the start.

After planting technique, one of the most important installation considerations is location. The industry term “Right Plant, Right Place (RPRP)” has been coined to underscore its importance. Consideration of the site in terms of shade, sun, size and usage is crucial. For example, hostas in full sun won’t last long and will require replacement in short order, leading to additional costs. Shrubs near tee markers must be of the correct size to avoid covering sign information.

The guiding principle of separation of turf and ornamentals and other elements such as ball washers, benches and signage lead to healthier plants and reduced mowing costs. On average, most ornamentals require about a third to half of the water and fertilization inputs as turf. So, it’s wise to separate them to avoid over-application.

A classic violation of RPRP is the installation of “planter boxes,” aka “tree surrounds.” Installation of wooden structures around the base of mature trees is common to avoid bare turf areas that develop because of tree shade and root absorption. These enclosures necessitate the placement of soil against the bark of trees and shrubs, which usually stays wetter than desirable, leading to rotting bark/sapwood and eventual demise of the tree. Instead, you may achieve coverage of the compromised surface by integrating or “shoehorning” in groundcovers and perennials that are adapted to the low-light conditions.

Lowering the cost of maintaining ornamentals is not a “once and done” endeavor. Periodic evaluation and reflection in a step-by-step process is key to success. This is best achieved by placing all costs on the table and examining each one to see if there is a better or less costly way to achieve the same goals and objectives.

John Fech is an Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, serving the Omaha, Neb. area. He also is an ISA Certified Arborist. You may reach John at for more information.

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About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Golfdom's former managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at Golfdom, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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