Pressure washing away algae

By |  July 2, 2018 0 Comments

Man pressure washingIt’s a safe bet that many superintendents would not feel comfortable using a high-pressure hose to clean away build-up on their greens.

But when an uncharacteristic winter blasted the Southeast, the team at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club turned to pressure washing to rid the greens of algae.

And the unconventional move paid off.

Out-of-control algae

Located roughly five miles outside of Atlanta, East Lake Golf Club is the permanent home of the Tour Championship — the culminating event of the PGA Tour playoffs for the FedEx Cup. (Ralph Kepple, CGCS, is the director of agronomy.)

Unlike the mild winters the Peach State normally experiences, this past winter was consistently cold and extremely wet. December and January brought stretches of bitter cold, and when February and March rolled around, the excitement of warmer temperatures was squashed by an onslaught of rain and overcast skies.

With the horrible growing conditions, algae on the course became a significant problem.

So much so that instead of the usual algae problem areas on a couple of holes, this past year algae grew on at least part of every green.

“We’ve seen algae problems in the past — on one green in particular — but nothing to the extent we had this previous year,” says Charles Aubry, superintendent at East Lake Golf Club.

At the first sight of algae, the club typically would bust out the hoses and spray constantly to push algae off the greens. Which works, of course, but is messy and sloppy from the amount of water used to remove the troublesome growth.

However, this year they found there is a more efficient way to remove the layer of algae: pressure washing.

Scooping up algaeAn idea straight from the ballpark

The idea of pressure washing greens was the brainchild of Davis Watts, second assistant at East Lake.

Watts’ brother is a high school baseball coach, and whenever Watts goes home to Greenville, Ala., he helps his brother with baseball field maintenance.

After dragging the infield, clay sometimes brushes over the edge of the grass, creating a false lip — not ideal for ground balls, and certainly not great for drainage.

As is common practice in the sports turf industry, the crew would then turn to pressure washers to clean out the buildup, evening out the dirt of the infield and the grass of the outfield.

After seeing the similarities in both situations, Watts shared his experience on the baseball field and suggested it be implemented at East Lake.

“I’ve never done it on greens or seen it done on greens before, but with the extent of algae we had, it was worth a shot,” Watts explains. “It worked so well for baseball fields, it had no choice but to work on greens too.”

Golf course green

The East Lake crew found that pressure washing 4-6 inches from the surface was most effective on their greens.

The nitty gritty

Some superintendents might be thinking, “That’s a lot of force on the greens; wouldn’t there be damage?”

Damage? No. Exposure of the green itself? Yes.

“What we found with the pressure washing was that you get to use so much less water,” says Aubry. “It was able to remove the algae out of the profile and it would just kind of gather up at the end of your spray path; it would kind of sit there. So we would have guys available with shovels to scoop it up as it was accumulating.”

Here’s how it worked.

The crews started out holding the sprayer about a foot away from the green, but soon discovered this wasn’t aggressive enough. To be most effective, the crew moved to within 4 to 6 inches of the surface of the greens, spraying in an area roughly 4 feet by 4 feet.

“It worked well,” says Watts. “It’s interesting how aggressive you can be with it and not tear the green up.”

Using a pressure washer at full blast — roughly 2,700 psi — certainly cut down on the slop of previous methods because at the end of the spray path the algae would almost bubble up away from the turf.

Unlike with hoses, the team could turn off the water after every swipe, saving a decent amount of water and avoiding unnecessary pooling on the greens.

After pushing the residue into consolidated piles with the stream from the pressure washer, crew members used shovels to remove the algae.

Golf course green

The brown areas on the greens shown here after pressure washing are healthy stolons, not dirt or sand.

“I don’t ever wish this on anybody, but if you do get in this situation you can learn a lot about your greens because it exposes stolons,” says Watts.

The team had one pressure washer on hand and borrowed one from the neighboring course, Druid Hills Golf Club. Team members also used regular hoses for certain areas during the process.

Clearing the algae away took roughly two weeks, with the crew working normal hours and the course remaining open.

“Davis came up with a great idea to get rid of it,” Aubry says. “We tested it out on the back edge of our No. 9 green — the one we were having the most problems with. When we saw the results we were getting, we contacted the president of the club about it, and he obviously approved.”

The green is exposed. Now what?

Once pressure washed, the greens were not in a playable condition, says Aubry.

The healthy stolons and rhizomes that remained created a soft surface and if mowed directly afterward would scalp severely.

To reduce any chance of the remaining stolons becoming a thatch layer, the crew heavily topdressed the pressure-washed areas. This diluted and filled the voids left between the stolons and smoothed the surface of the green.

The East Lake team then used a dried, bagged sand blended with Earthworks 3-3-3 fertilizer at 30 lbs./M, and Renovate Plus at 3 percent of the total product rate.

In addition to making sure the areas had adequate moisture, the crew mostly kept mowers off affected areas, only mowing as needed to smooth out footprints. The crew applied additional fertility at low rates foliarly when soil and air temperatures were conducive for growth.

Aubry suggests that superintendents considering pressure washing on their courses move forward with caution because every course is different.

But for East Lake, pressure washing was an efficient way to remove the built-up layer of algae, clippings and old leaves dropped from senescence, exposing healthy stolons and rhizomes to sunlight and air.

“I’m about 100-percent positive that we’re in a lot better situation right now than we would have been if we did nothing,” he notes.

Despite the continued cold weather, the team has topdressed and fertilized the areas, leaving Aubry positive about the overall outcome.

For those who might be inspired by East Lake’s creative thinking, Aubry offers a bit of advice.

“I won’t go full bore on it unless you have some experience with how everything is going to pan out in the end,” he says. “Every place is different, obviously, so move forward with caution. But I think it’s definitely worth a try to see how your greens recover and take it from there.”

Photos: Charles Aubry

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