Have an unsightly course spot? Half-hide it!

Trees, shrubs and ornamentals can provide good options for superintendents looking to take the edge off less-attractive areas on a golf course.


Half-hiding example
When it comes to unsightly objects on a golf course, sometimes the best approach is to half-hide them. Photos by John Fech

There are quite a few items on the golf course that, well, a superintendent would rather not be all that visible to golfers. Yet, when it comes time to update the pump house, service the restrooms, repair the shed or replace utility piping, there’s a better way to diffuse the appearance than throwing a tarp over it.

So, if you’ve been dealt a bad hand, and complaints from golfers/members about ugly features in full view in highly trafficked areas are piling up, consider half-hiding them. The half-hide approach keeps these areas and features accessible so that you can access them, but lessens the objectionable outward façade by using attractive trees, shrubs or ornamental grasses.

This is a good time of year to reflect on and evaluate the various locations on the course where a little redesign might be in order. In some cases, a fresh set of eyes can provide a different perspective and a possible idea for minimizing the obnoxious specimens. A server from the clubhouse, a technical support product representative or even the mechanic who rarely leaves the shop might fit the bill in terms of an outside assessment.

Decorative box
Depending on the location, a large decorative box can be lifted off and set aside during repairs to the feature it is concealing.

How much should you hide?

One of the basic tenets of half-hiding is volume, or determining the level of investment of time and money it will take. As with many operations on the golf course, it depends.

At least three variables and considerations apply.

First, it depends on the function of the item. What does this unattractive thing do? Generally, we tend to pay more attention to highly functioning and important items. Air conditioning units, restrooms and pump houses are pretty important features of a golf course that require at least some modicum of half-hiding investment if they are less than stellar in appearance.

Grasses are often massed for a diffusing effect.

Second, it depends on the frequency of needed maintenance for the item. Even though they could benefit greatly from visual screening, features that need recurrent maintenance should be hidden a bit on the lesser side, likely with fewer plants or at least with wider spacing to allow for better access. These types of settings should be free of plants with thorns, tangled vines or rough leaves; maintenance technicians injured while servicing these features aren’t likely to be happy with the designer or the superintendent.

Spruce screen
The half-hiding approach can also be used when blocking the view of structures adjacent to the golf course, especially where full screening is not practical. Here, a line of spruces provides an all-seasons screen.

Third — and perhaps the most important of the three variables — it depends on the location of the item. Features that are highly visible in heavily trafficked locations deserve more attention than spots that are out of the way or out of sight. Good examples of high-visibility locations include the clubhouse, cart storage facilities and refreshment stands. Out of bounds and roughs are less likely to need half-hiding plantings.

The need for screening large objectionable items can fit this topic as well. The item may not be yours — an apartment building, parking lot or a factory — but half-hiding is still a viable option.

Plant grouping
Several plants together can be used to half-hide an unsightly object.

Here’s a simple and easy-to-use formula and procedure for hiding an object:

  1. Measure its height and width.
  2. Consider how quickly it needs to be hidden. 
  3. Identify planting locations based on this calculation. Plant trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses half of their mature width plus 1 to 2 feet away from the object. It’s important that they do not grow into and brush up against the object; in most cases, you need to allow access for maintenance purposes by service technicians. 
  4. Adjust the calculation in No. 3 based on the need to hide the object and whether it is imminent or could wait for a couple of years. Of course, lessening the distance to the object has a direct effect on accessibility and the need to replace the plants or at least to prune them to keep them accessible.
  5. As with any golfscaping project, evaluate how well the planting is meeting the goals/objectives — in this case, the effectiveness of lessening the “ugliness” factor. If adjustments need to be made, they are usually better done sooner than later.

outdoor speaker

electric box
If an element isn’t super offensive but just needs a little help — like outdoor speakers and electric boxes — flowering perennials and grasses offer a great way to introduce color and texture to the golfscape.

Plant material options

Each category of plant material that can be used for hiding unattractive objects has unique features as well as pros and cons.

Evergreen shrubs, vines and small trees. Evergreens offer the advantage of being able to lend some degree of covering in all seasons of the year, as well as unique color and texture characteristics. The downside to using them is that they are slow to recover if injured by weather or pests and their limitations with pruning and restricting growth to a specific size. Since the primary theme in this article is diffusing the appearance of an adjacent object, evergreens should be used with caution. Typical species include pine, spruce, arborvitae, holly, boxwood, rhododendron (in most cases), Oregon hollygrape and juniper.

Deciduous shrubs, vines and small trees. Deciduous trees and shrubs can be pruned and shaped to various degrees of hiding influence and offer good recovery capacity when injured. Many different shades and colors of leaves and flowers are featured with deciduous plants as opposed to most evergreens. There are disadvantages: Deciduous stock must be pruned annually, which adds to the cost of labor, and they’re not capable of fully diffusing the unattractiveness of various features in winter. Commonly used species include photinia, crape myrtle, cherry, crabapple, serviceberry, plum, dogwood, English ivy, Boston ivy, viburnum, camellia, cotoneaster, hydrangea and privet.

Plant massing effect
Here, various plant objects combine for a massing effect that half-hides unattractive yet necessary golf course features.

Large perennials. Mostly deciduous depending on the hardiness zone of the golf course (some plants such as nepeta, coral bells, lily turf, hellebore and daphne stay green all year on southern courses), large perennials offer great potential for hiding unattractive features that are low to the ground in nature, such as drainage covers. A wide array of colors, textures and blooms is available. Local suppliers are usually well stocked with options. As well, perennials are easy to replace when problems occur. Deciduous species usually lose the capacity to cover items in winter, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, leaving them fully visible.

Ornamental grasses. Similar to large perennials, most ornamental grasses offer a sturdiness and girth that may be required in certain locations. Massing as many as 10 or 11 grass plants together creates a hiding element that is appropriate for large spaces such as golfscapes, differing slightly from a residential landscape. In northern climes, ornamental grasses offer four-season color and texture appeal, which is sometimes lacking in perennials. In southern areas, grasses usually continue to provide similar appearances during the other seasons of the year. Species such as feather reed grass, eulalia grass, switch grass, side oats grama, pampas grass, fountain grass, sea oats, prairie dropseed and big bluestem are common choices.

John C. Fech is a horticulturist and Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a frequent and award-winning contributor to GCM.