Landscaping to prune your budget

Caring for a golf course’s ornamentals doesn’t have to break the bank.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
High-priority areas, such as clubhouses, deserve the time, effort and resources when it comes to ornamental plantings because they will deliver a return on investment with golfers and club members. Photos by John Fech

Trimming, pruning, cutting, thinning … all these horticultural terms and procedures have an analogous application for managing a golf course’s maintenance budget. In these challenging economic times, the goal for most golf course superintendents is to maintain quality and hold the line on costs or, better yet, reduce them. When it comes to caring for ornamentals, here are some tips, tricks and techniques superintendents can consider to help accomplish both goals at the same time.

What’s on your course?

You can’t manage what you don’t know, and you can’t “prune” what you can’t see. An inventory of the existing plants will help as a starting point.

There are several approaches superintendents can consider, but one simple way is to pull out the original architect’s renderings, lay a sheet of tracing paper over the top, then draw in the actual sizes of the landscape beds, permanent containers and woody plants of all sizes. It’s likely that many changes have occurred since they were drawn. After all, plants die, increase in size and change in shape; landscape beds often enlarge or shrink. Some specimens are replaced with the same species, some with similar species and others eliminated altogether. Using colored pencils to distinguish between woody and herbaceous plants can be helpful as a foundation.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Functionality is also key for ornamentals on golf courses. Trees that create a physical barrier between “targets,” such as playgounds or pools, are valuable assets.

Prioritize by location, function

Revisiting where you need impact and where you can let it slide is important in this endeavor. Determining the high-priority areas — the clubhouse, the first tee, the refreshment stand, the screening of that awful-looking junkyard, etc. — can really help direct resources toward the items and features that will bring some real return on investment and reduce the outlay of cash in areas that are not that noticeable to members and golfers.

While prioritizing, it’s helpful to identify whether the specific feature being addressed is being deemed important or not important based on functionality or location. For example, an entrance planting is usually not functional; the benefit is more aesthetic and welcoming. On the other hand, a line of evergreens along a fairway is quite functional in that it creates a physical barrier between a “target,” such as a children’s playground or public swimming pool, and the area of golf play. If the trees are in good health and reasonably attractive, that’s a plus.

Drill down

In a particular planting, is it needed or just nice to have? Groupings of ornamentals often contain various plant species that are not needed to define the space, serve the intended function or create aesthetic appeal. At one time, they may have, but not now.

The only way to know whether unnecessary plants exist is to look closely and evaluate each plant. A common occurrence is a planting that originally contained 10 or so plants now only needs seven because many have grown larger and crowded out the others. As well, removing the vestigial ones helps create more airflow through the beds, reducing foliar diseases, which further “prunes the budget.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Getting rid of certain plants is a good management step as long as there’s a good reason to do so. The top photo shows a before view of a planting alongside a tee at Biltmore CC in Barrington, Ill. The photo above shows the after and the positive effect removing the planting had on the hole from an aesthetic and playability standpoint. Photos courtesy of Wyatt Bird

Downsizing the beds

In addition to looking within a particular planting at the individual plants, it’s important to consider the area’s overall size.

In golfscapes, a frequent development is “landscape creep,” which is the tendency to receive favorable comments on a planting’s health and appeal, then following the natural tendency to add more plants than are needed. The thinking usually goes, “Oh, that feels good to hear those comments, especially when everyone else is complaining about the greens. Let’s add just a few more colorful shrubs and annuals, and they’ll really love it.” A few iterations of that, and the creep is on. Drawing a line on the ground to separate the necessary from the added can help fight landscape creep.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Removing a tree or shrub can also have a positive consequence of removing a source of debris that requires time and effort to remove, such as the leaves seen in this bunker. Photo courtesy of the USGA

Choose low-maintenance plants

Plants that require less pruning and pest control are a good way to keep landscaping costs under control. For the plants that remain after you’ve taken the previous two steps, consider these shifts:

Shift from hedges to deciduous shrubs. Hedges are notorious for requiring lots of maintenance, while well-spaced shrubs are usually low- to medium-maintenance plants.

Shift from pest-susceptible plants to ones that may be less appealing, but more disease/insect resistant, thus requiring fewer pesticide applications.

Shift from random plant choices to ones that have been evaluated by a land-grant university or a leading industry organization such as Proven Winners or All America Selections.

Consider whether evergreen shrubs are necessary. Many evergreen shrubs can desiccate in the winter, requiring replacement or tender loving care in late fall and over the winter.

Use fewer annuals. Annuals offer season-long color but require frequent watering. Ask yourself if an area that is currently in annuals or a hedge could be replaced with ornamental grasses.

Shift from plants to something else. Does the area under evaluation have to be planted, or could it be mulch or a large rock instead?

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
In certain situations, mulch alone is a better choice than including plants. Here, the mulch is accentuated with basal aerial roots Photos by John Fech

Choose smaller plants

Smaller plants are usually easier to plant and prune than large ones, require less fertilizer, and as small plants, make it easier for pest control. Of course, a golfscape is not a small patio of an urban brownstone where small plants are perfect selections. Still, in some cases, smaller is possible.

Going smaller could be as simple as making the choice between two shrubs — one that grows to be 10 feet and the other that tops out as a 5- or 6-foot plant. Thinning, removing spent flowers and inspecting for borers is going to be much easier on the smaller plant, and they may actually serve the same purpose. Another possible small-choice situation is between a small tree, such as a hawthorn or crabapple, and a larger honey locust or buckeye. “Is the larger tree really needed or is the small one sufficient?” is a good question to ask.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Plants that require less pruning and pest management, like these outside this clubhouse, are good ways to keep landscaping costs under control.

Go with groundcovers

If patience can be found, planting groundcovers and waiting a bit until they fill in is a great prune-the-budget technique.

Groundcovers are a good option for the medium- or low-priority spots on the golf course. The “gotta-look-good-right-away” areas are natural locations for fast-growing, high-color/texture plants such as coleus, petunia, scaveola, zinnia, vinca, salvia, lantana and calibrachoa. In areas that are important but not high-priority spots, plants like thyme, English ivy, lady’s mantle, lamium, wild ginger, periwinkle, pachysandra, sedum and catmint will fit the bill. Of course, the sun/shade and soil moisture preferences are important considerations for these as well.

Handle with care

Always follow the care tag instructions. Speaking of waiting for them to fill in … whether it’s a perennial, annual, groundcover, shrub or tree, plants will grow. Installing them closer than they should be, aka crowding plants, produces immediate appeal but creates several problems:

It costs more because a larger number are being installed.

It creates a dense planting that encourages foliar diseases due to a lack of adequate airflow.

It creates the need for branch removal or stem reduction after a few years.

All of these outcomes are contrary to the goal of pruning the budget. A common practice is to find a sweet spot of three-fourths the indicated size and planting for the happy medium. For example, a small tree that is listed as 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide might be a good choice for an area slightly smaller; this will allow for some appeal in just a few years but not create a big need for pest control and pruning.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Smaller plants are easier to care for and may be a good fit in some landscape beds.

Shopping for deals

If you’re in a location with more than one vendor of ornamentals, then there is the opportunity for paying less. Of course, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for, so do the research before buying.

Shopping for plant deals is a little like comparing auto insurance rates. If the cost is low, then the service might be slow or the deductible high or exclude certain glass-breakage occurrences. Same goes for plants: Low-cost plants might be ones that turn out to be leggy, in need of more water to keep them alive or slow growing. If, however, you’re comparing the exact species and cultivar of trees, shrubs and flowers, then shopping is a good practice.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

In most cases, well-sited groundcover plants are a great way to reduce the budget. Showcased in the photo above is vinca minor.

Cutting the cord

There’s nothing wrong with getting rid of certain plants, as long as you have a good reason to do so. Getting rid of a tree means getting rid of the costs associated with it. Sure, there’s an initial cost for removal, but after a few years — especially on ones that you’re actively treating or fertilizing — the cost recovery is significant. 

Good targets for plant removal are ones with defects and persistent diseases, that cast too much shade on turf, pose a tripping hazard, block important views, decrease airflow, drop excessive debris, increase the liability of harm to people and property, block irrigation application streams and have encroached into the line of sight for golf play. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Paying close attention to the plant care tag, especially regarding spacing, can save money on installation and eventual maintenance.

Get help!

Finally, if you’re having trouble making any prune-the-budget decisions, reach out to an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist or a horticulturist with the land-grant university closest to the course. Some universities employ horticulturists through area Extension offices. They can be a great source of assistance as well.

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.