Golf courses finding native wildflowers and grasses an environmentally friendly way to reduce maintenance costs

Some golfers enjoy prairie wildflower areas he installed at Colonial Oaks Golf Club, owner and golf pro Mike Riley said, and others don't seem to pay much attention to them. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
Mike Riley, owner and golf pro at Colonial Oaks Golf Club installed four areas of native prairie wildflowers in out-of-play areas on the course, including the area behind him. Riley enjoys the ever-changing blooms in spring and summer. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
This photo taken Monday shows the first area of prairie wildflowers the Fort Wayne Country Club installed in 2002 near its hole No. 3 green and No. 4 tee. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
Fort Wayne Country Club has planted patches of prairie wildflowers in several areas on the course where golfers typically don't hit balls, which saves on mowing, fertilizing and watering costs as well as adds beauty to the grounds. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
Fort Wayne Country Club is testing use of native fescue grasses on the course because they require no maintenance but still allow players to find and hit golf balls out of these areas. On Monday, the weight of raindrops and early morning dew had the grasses leaning over. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Golf courses are known for their finely manicured greens and fairways. But some have found a way to beautify the course while also saving money on maintenance costs.

Fort Wayne Country Club, 5221 Covington Road, and Colonial Oaks Golf Club, 8218 Huguenard Road, both have installed native wildflowers and grasses in areas golfers typically don’t hit errant shots.

“There’s always something blooming,” said Mike Riley, owner and golf pro at Colonial Oaks.

The prairie plantings also attract a lot of bees and butterflies, along with birds and animals such as rabbits, Riley said.

Fort Wayne Country Club, which planted its first prairie patch in 2002, likely was one of the first golf courses in the area to try this approach, said Brian Chalifoux, who now is in his 31st year as golf course superintendent at the club.

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Seeding native plants in out-of-play areas allows his grounds crew to skip mowing, fertilizing and watering those areas, Chalifoux said. The native plants and grasses still look green and bloom without the pampering required by other areas of the golf course.

About the only maintenance required is mowing the area once a year for some areas or burning them, Riley said. Chalifoux said Fort Wayne Country Club burns their prairie areas every two years.

Fort Wayne Country Club and Colonial Oaks are among the few golf courses that have planted native wildflower areas on their courses, said Mike Van Laeken, director of Heartland Restoration Services near Huntertown.

Heartland Restoration worked with both local golf courses to provide the native plant seed mix they used to start their prairie areas. The plants include those with interesting names, such as Ohio spiderwort, rattlesnake master, foxglove beardtongue and ironweed.

Heartland Restoration has noticed increasing interest in planting wildflower areas from private landowners, but not much change by golf courses, Van Laeken said.

Both Chalifoux and Riley said they plant the native wildflowers and grasses in areas where golfers rarely hit balls because some of the plants grow to 6 to 8 feet tall. Any ball hit in there won’t be found.

To make it easier for golfers to play out of native plant areas, Fort Wayne Country Club also has planted two areas – at holes No. 4 and No. 11 – with native fescue grasses that have short blades at their base and taller seed stems reaching up to 18 inches tall, Chalifoux said.

Golfers will be able to find and play balls hit accidentally into the fescue grass areas, but the grasses don’t require mowing, fertilizing or watering, he said.

Response from golfers has been mixed.

Some like the color and changing blooms the native plants add to the golf course, Riley and Chalifoux said. Others don’t seem to notice them or think of them as weeds.

But both men think golfers will see more areas planted in native plants and grasses at golf courses in the future because it’s both cost-effective and good for the environment.

Their efforts also won praise from Alex Cornwell, organization manager and co-lead beekeeper for Southwest Honey Company in Fort Wayne.

“Golf courses are typically large lots of land, consisting of only green grass,” Cornwell said via email. “This equates to a desert for pollinators because there is so much open space with little foliage to gather nutrients from and few undisturbed areas for pollinators live in. However, utilizing the space to create more habitat for pollinators will help them.”

He said pollinators, other insects and animals also would benefit from the reduced use of pesticides and chemicals on golf course grass, especially near pollinator-friendly areas and water run-off or ponds where insects and animals may go to drink water.

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