11 Landscape Design and Management
The fundamental principle for the environmentally sound management of landscapes is “choose the right plant, in the right place.” Ideal landscape plants are native and adapted specifically to the soil, degree and direction of slopes, precipitation type and amounts, wind direction and speed, light patterns, and microclimate. Susceptibility to major damage by insects and other pests is another selection criterion, as are the nutrient levels of the area. Because native and/or adapted plants can mimic natural ecosystems, their use in the landscape can reduce overall management inputs, attract pollinators, provide multi-season interest, and enhance out-of-play areas.
11.1 Planning and Design
Planning begins with a careful assessment of existing conditions. Slopes and drainage patterns impact not only the playability of the course, but the survival of existing and proposed plants. A majority of the non-play areas on the golf course should remain in natural cover. Supplemental planting of native or adapted trees, shrubs, and herbaceous vegetation can limit soil erosion, protect stream banks, and enhance wildlife habitat, including non-game species, birds, and pollinators, in non-play natural areas. Mimicking natural ecosystems by leaving dead trees (snags), brushy understory plants, and native grasses and forbs in these areas also reduces maintenance work by minimizing or eliminating the need to mow or apply fertilizer or pesticide.
Higher-impact, higher-use landscape areas, such as around the clubhouse, should be designed to utilize natural drainage patterns and channel runoff away from impervious surfaces (e.g. paved areas), conserve water, and lower nutritional input requirements once mature. Installing rain gardens in locations where they catch and temporarily hold water (such as near roofs and other impervious surfaces) helps control stormwater runoff, remove contaminants before releasing water into the surrounding soil or aquifer, and conserve water by reducing supplemental irrigation needs. For more information on rain gardens, see the NRCS publication Rain Gardens.
Golf courses are excellent facilities for zoning the landscape, using designations of high-impact zones, transition zones, and perimeter zones, and matching high-use and high-impact areas to plants that need more water and likely more-intense management. Taking into consideration the lay of the land, including differences in soil and changes in sunlight levels throughout the day, planning for landscaped areas should include consideration of the water needs in each area. A zoned approach is an efficient way to plan, as follows:
- High-use and high-impact zones: Match plants that need the most water to small, highly visible areas that will be watered as needed.
- Transition zones: Choose plants that require moderate amounts of water to be applied only when they show signs of moisture stress, such as wilting.
- Perimeter zones: Use plants with minimal water requirements. Water during establishment and in periods of extreme drought.
Ideally, 10% or less of the landscaped areas should be zoned for high water use, 30% or less of the area should be zoned for moderate water use, and 60% or more of the landscape should be zoned for low water use.
11.2 Site Inventory and Assessment
Before developing a landscape plan, an inventory should be conducted of existing plants, their condition and quality, their contribution to the overall style of the course, and how they’ve been managed. For landscaped areas, a soils analysis and a soil test should be conducted. The soils analysis evaluates the structure and texture of the soil. The addition of soil amendments can improve the structure and texture of soil, increase its water-holding capacity, and reduce the leaching of fertilizers. Soil amendments, such as compost from clippings, can contribute to an overall healthier plant environment, allowing easier root development and fewer soil-related problems. The use of peat as an amendment should be very limited (such as in containers), as it is both expensive and originates from peat bogs, which are non-renewable. Fertilizers should be applied on the basis of the results of soil tests that have been conducted to identify plant nutritional needs and pH, as described in the “Nutrient Management” chapter.
11.3 Plant Selection
Selection of specific plants should be based to the extent possible on natural ecosystems in the area. This is particularly true for the perimeter zones and out-of-play areas. Additional considerations for species selection and placement include plant hardiness, design intentions and knowing the ultimate sizes and growth rates of trees, shrubs, and ground covers. This reduces the need for future pruning and debris removal. In addition, the adaptability of plants to a specific site is important. Site-specific characteristics to consider include sun exposure, light intensity, wind conditions, drainage, and temperatures.
With respect specifically to trees, the distance to tees and greens requires additional consideration because the shade from trees prevents turfgrass from growing the best during the summer due to shade and reduced airflow, causes more frost or cold damage on the grasses in winter, and competes with turf for water and nutrients during the growing season. Because trees can impact the health of turf, their careful addition to the landscape when desired and/or selective removal from the landscape when too close to tees and greens should be a component to the landscape management program. See the short USGA article “When Trees and Grass Compete, Trees Win” for a summary of the issues associated with trees near tees and greens.
For more information on plant selection in Virginia, see the following:
- Plant Virginia Natives website for native plants listed by each region in the state
- Problem-free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes, VCE
- Selecting Landscape Plants: Shade Trees, VCE
- Selecting Landscape Plants: Groundcovers, VCE
During landscape bed construction, native soil should be used and any hardpan or compaction from construction should be resolved. The beds should be sloped away from buildings, with a minimum percent slope away from buildings of at least 2% for at least 10 feet. Resolve drainage issues and establish clear drainage patterns prior to installing plants. Plants with higher moisture requirements can be planted at lower elevations and drought-tolerant plants at higher elevations.
In general, the best times to plant trees and shrubs in Virginia is in the fall. Bare-root trees can be planted only when they are dormant, limiting their planting time to early spring or late fall. These times reduce the stress on the plants by capitalizing on periods of cooler (but not cold) temperatures and more moisture. When planting, the soil ball should be kept together and the fine roots kept moist.
Regardless of their ability to tolerate drought, all plants require supplemental irrigation during establishment. To increase water-use efficiency and improve plant establishment in landscaping, consider hand-watering individual plants for the first several months of the growing season. If the plants have been selected and placed in zones that match their water requirements, irrigation can be scheduled to help efficiently meet the water needs of the entire landscape, thus eliminating regular hand-watering. When needed, plants should be watered in the early morning to conserve water by avoiding water loss due to evaporation. Careful assessment of landscape watering patterns minimizes spray on impervious surfaces, blockage of spray by plants or other obstructions, and runoff on slopes, clay soils, or compacted sites. Focusing the irrigation of woody plants at or beyond the dripline promotes extensive rooting. Additional water conservation ideas in landscaped areas include using quick couplers in landscaped areas to meet water needs (note, placement is key when using quick couplers) and using planters in areas that need color, as planters require less water than landscaped beds. Self-watering planters can be used to reduce labor requirements as well.
For existing irrigation systems, assess the coverage to determine whether changes should be made to identify areas where efficiency can be improved. Ideally, the irrigation system for the landscape beds should be zoned. Periodically throughout the growing season, the performance of the landscape irrigation system should be checked.
11.6 Use of Mulch
Mulch conserves soil moisture, mitigates temperature extremes, and reduces weed competition. In winter, mulch helps prevent soil cracks from forming and exposing roots to cold temperatures and winter desiccation. Organic mulches include herbicide-free grass clippings (though avoid applying too deeply to prevent matting and heating the soil) and wood chips of varying dimensions. Organic mulches are preferred, as non-organic mulches such as stone may add heat stress around annuals and perennials.
Annuals and perennials grow best with no more than 2” of mulch; mulch around trees and shrubs should be no more than 3-4” deep. With any planting, mulch should be placed between the plants and not on top of the crown or against tree trunks or shrub canes. In winter after the ground freezes, a deeper layer of coarse mulch (evergreen branches) over bulbs and other perennials can delay or prevent early growth.
For more information, see the VCE publication Mulching for a Healthy Landscape.
Correctly pruning trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials has multiple benefits throughout a landscape or golf course. Trees and shrubs are pruned first for safety. Pruning in some cases can increase plant health and result in better growth in future seasons. Typically, the ideal time to prune deciduous shade trees and conifers in Virginia is in late winter/early spring, except in times of drought and except for trees with heavy sap flow (e.g. maples and birches), which can be pruned after fully leafed out. Shrubs should be pruned based on their season of bloom (if the flowers are significant). Plants that bloom on second-year or old wood set their flower buds immediately after flowering and can be pruned for the month following bloom. Plants that bloom on new wood, or current-season wood, can be pruned in early spring prior to dormancy break.
11.8 Pest Management
The same principles and methods identified in the IPM chapter can be applied to landscaped areas. The UNL Extension’s Integrated Pest Management for Landscapes provides guidance specifically for these areas.
Additional publications related to pest management of landscaped areas in Virginia include the following:
- 2020 Pest Management Guide: Horticultural and Forest Crops, VCE.
- Diagnosing Plant Problems, VCE.
- Managing Invasive Alien Plants in Natural Areas, Parks, and Small Woodlands, DCR.
11.9 Native Areas Establishment and Maintenance
Native areas can serve multiple functions on the golf course such as: buffers near surface waters; wildlife habitat by providing forage and nesting sites for different game and non-game species; and pollinator habitat. Establishing a native area can include plantings of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Selection of species to be planted should be based on the site’s climate, soils, intended use and planned management. Once established, native areas require little in the way of supplemental irrigation.
The following NRCS publication can provide additional information on species selection, seeding rates, and establishment: Five Keys to Successful Grass Seeding, NRCS.
11.10.1 Native Area Establishment
To establish native areas with grasses, transplanting will result in much quicker establishment but will be much more expensive than direct seeding. Direct seeding, by contrast, is much less expensive but requires two to five years to reach maturity, depending upon the species.
Prior to seeding, the area should be prepared. The primary preparation will be related to weed control. Eliminating all existing perennial weeds, especially aggressive and noxious weeds, yields the best results and will require less labor later in managing the native areas. Eliminating weeds may require a full year or possibly longer prior to planting or transplanting natives, depending upon the existing site conditions. Annual and biennial weeds are often a problem in the first two years during establishment as they compete with seedlings for sunlight and/or moisture. Competitive weeds can be controlled either mechanically, chemically, or a combination of the two, and should be performed prior to weed seed maturity.
11.10.2 Native Area Maintenance
Native areas require management that mimics natural disturbance processes (such as grazing and periodic fires) to invigorate and maintain desirable species in an optimum condition. On a golf course, these managed practices can include mowing, haying and using prescribed burns, which reduce unwanted woody vegetation and invasive plant species.
Burning reduces plant litter and stimulates new plant growth. It must be timed to negatively impact the targeted invasive species. For example, burning should be timed in early spring after invasives like smooth bromegrass have greened up but prior to native green up. Burning to control invasives should be done on a three- to five-year rotation. However, annual burning may be needed in the beginning for native grassland heavily invaded by smooth bromegrass or Kentucky bluegrass. For more information on prescribed burns, see the “Prescribed Burns” section of the “Cultural Practices” chapter.
Mowing or haying should be delayed until after the primary nesting season for grassland bird species (mid-spring through early August) and be done on a rotational basis, such as once every three to five years. Haying should be done with a sickle bar mower and rake in order to remove plant litter; swathers or conditioners do not remove plant litter build-up and may shade native plants and inhibit growth. Haying should be done from the center outward or toward undisturbed habitat. Selective use of herbicides may be needed, in conjunction with mowing, to control invasives.
11.10 Landscape Best Management Practices
Planning and Design
- Leave the majority of non-play areas in natural vegetation – the perimeter zone.
- Enhance natural areas with supplemental plantings of native and adapted species.
- In landscaped areas, use natural drainage patterns and directional site grading to channel runoff away from impervious surfaces onto planted areas such as grass swales, filter strips, or rain gardens.
- Install rain gardens in locations where they can catch and temporarily hold runoff.
- Minimize the amount of area covered by paved surfaces. Where feasible, use permeable materials such as bricks laid on sand, interlocking pavers or pervious pavers, porous concrete, mulch, or plants.
- Use a zoned approach to plant management and water needs and minimize the areas zoned for high water use.
Site Inventory and Assessment
- Conduct an inventory of existing plants, their condition and quality, and their contribution to the overall style of the course.
- Conduct a soil analysis before choosing specific plants for landscape areas.
- Conduct a soil test before applying fertilizers. Modify pH if needed, based on results.
- Amend the soil to improve soil texture and increase water infiltration.
- Select native species whenever possible; use adapted species or cultivars of native plants where appropriate.
- Select trees, plants, and grass species to attract birds seeking wild fruits, herbs, seeds, nesting materials, cover, and insects.
- Know the ultimate sizes and growth rates of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and ground covers.
- Select plants recommended for your specific location.
- Choose the most stress-tolerant species for a particular area.
- Do not introduce invasive species into the landscape.
- Control or remove existing invasive species and noxious weeds.
- Irrigate frequently during establishment.
- Water established plants based on their needs and, when necessary, deeply and infrequently.
- Irrigate in the early morning to conserve water.
- Avoid water runoff onto impervious surfaces or slopes.
- Evaluate landscape irrigation performance periodically.
Use of Mulch
- Use mulch in landscaped beds.
- Use organic mulches whenever possible.
- Use only herbicide-free grass clippings for mulch.
- Protect bulbs and other perennials in winter with a layer of coarse mulch (evergreen branches) to delay or prevent early growth.
- Hire a certified arborist to prune trees as the correct pruning cuts are essential to good tree health.
- Maintain pruning equipment to ensure clean cuts and less risk of damage to the plant.
- Prune deciduous shade trees in March and early April, except in times of extreme drought.
- Prune shrubs based on their season of bloom.
- Use IPM for landscaped areas.
Native Areas Establishment and Maintenance
- Eliminate weeds prior to establishment.
- Use native species, and select species based on the site’s climate, soils, intended use, and planned management.
- Seed native areas at the recommended rates for that species.
- Maintain weed control, especially during establishment phase, and time weed control efforts prior to weed seed maturity.
- Maintain native areas through prescribed burns, mowing, or haying.