Bigger isn’t always better

Despite their small stature, shrubs, flowers and vines can make a big impact 
on stakeholders.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
While all ornamentals have some degree of aesthetic appeal, some also have high functional value as well. Photos by John Fech

A golf course is a large place, filled with lots of turf and other green plants. On many courses, big trees tower over golfers, venues, features and amenities alike. 

Yet, in some cases it’s the small-to-medium-sized plants that leave a positive impression on members and other stakeholders. Shrubs, small trees, perennials, annuals and vines have an important aesthetic and functional purpose in locations such as turnarounds, distance and directional identifiers, refreshment stands, clubhouses, tee markers and restroom facilities. Incorporating these elements and maintaining them well is the key to success.

Functional small plants

In some situations, plants are chosen not necessarily for their beauty or attractiveness, but for what function they bring to the golf course. Just like when a trash can or ball washer is needed, small plants can serve to add value as well. 

One classic function is for plants such as vines and shrubs to direct or frame views toward special features of a course. Another is to define a curve and to separate turf from hardscape features. Small trees can lend an appropriately sized backdrop and space definition to patios, where a big tree would be overwhelming. They can also provide brief periods of welcome shade in spaces where larger specimens could restrict air flow and create a microclimate that encourages foliar pathogens. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Especially when resources and staffing are limited, placing and maintaining plants in high-priority areas is a good management strategy.

Aesthetic small plants

Aesthetically, small plants serve to add color, texture and depth to otherwise large, stark golf course features. Buildings such as clubhouses, sheds, refreshment stands and restrooms benefit greatly from well-designed and well-placed specimens. Bridges, ponds and patios can be enhanced similarly. 

Incorporating aesthetically pleasing small plants is especially effective when the structures are made from one or two building materials and monochromatic in nature. A great deal of softening of these facilities is also achieved by adding aesthetically pleasing plants. Unattractive elements such as downspouts, paths and wood frames can be hidden or half-hidden by the correct placement of vines, perennials, grasses and annuals. 

Care must be taken to choose plants that are appropriately sized to keep the function of the golf course feature intact. Plants that cover up window views or stairs in a tee box become a detriment rather than an asset. 

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
These plants add color, texture, softening and variety to the golfscape.

Needed or just nice?

Considering that we’re currently in the tightest labor market in recent memory, it’s important to prioritize where and how many nonturf plants exist on the course. Certainly, there are several features or areas of high importance where a few small plants can make a big difference, such as entrances and clubhouses. If budget and labor is in short supply, focusing on these makes a lot of sense. Discussions during yearly planning sessions should bear these decisions out, identifying the essential locations for functional and aesthetic installations.

Though these are not usually easy-to-make decisions, it can be helpful to approach them with the simple theme of bolstering the needed plantings and reducing the low-priority placements. Asking the question, “Can we go from the current size and number to smaller and fewer?” will pay off. Another prudent question to pose is, “If these plants went away, would anyone notice or complain?” If the answer is “no,” then that decision becomes easier to make. If the answer is, “Well, yes, we get lots of compliments on those tee box plantings/hanging baskets/patio planters … and a few thank-yous, too,” then it’s probably best to keep and improve them.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Regular inspections help to spot problems sooner than later.

Inventory of existing plants

Unfortunately, sometimes perennials aren’t perennial. They fizzle, falter, get outcompeted, gradually enter into a downward spiral or just outright die. In fact, many perennials are thought of as “temperennials” or temporary perennials, especially if they’ve been given a generous hardiness rating for that particular zone. As well, some turn out to be disease-susceptible rather than disease-tolerant, a little less sun- or shade-tolerant than they were touted to be or grow a little taller or wider than they were supposed to. 

In order to keep vibrant, healthy plants in the golfscape, regular inventory and assessment should take place. This can be done as an everyday task or a scheduled biweekly analysis, whichever makes the most sense for a particular course. Asking the tough questions about a specific plant or grouping of plants is integral to their success, such as:

  • What’s their status? 
  • Are they functioning well?
  • Do they need a little or a lot of help? 
  • Any obvious pest problems? 
  • Need a little trimming? 
  • All of these are helpful in terms of choosing to implement a sound best management practice or to replace them.
  • Needed plants and site rehab

Based on the priorities established above and the outcome of the inventory, remediations and removals, the next step is to choose plants that will improve the status of the existing locations. More often than not, this is much easier after the undesirable plants have been removed and the site improved rather than before, if for no other reason than it’s easier to see the needs without all of the other plant materials in the way. Once the scurfy plants have been culled, a window of time for soil rehabilitation and nutrient amendment is created. It’s wise to take advantage, as the opportunity may not be available for several years.

Certain specific replacement plants can be a little hard to come by, especially in recent years due to supply chain shortages. Having several sources of shrub/perennial/vine and annual plants helps to minimize this frustration, both from an actual product standpoint and in terms of gaining an expanded plant palette and plant care support ... and maybe even a slight discount from time to time. Establishing relationships with at least four vendors can help to make this happen.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Well-chosen replacement plants are an important component of ornamental plant care.

Managing small plants

Just like all other elements, small plants need to be cared for properly to become and persist as an asset. Employees who care for nonturf plants must know their specific needs — sun/shade, wet/dry, pruning, fertility and associated pests. Fortunately, university Extension faculty, local arboretum/botanical garden staff and experienced plant suppliers can provide the specific information needed to accomplish the objective of keeping them looking good and functioning well.

Among the areas to focus on as you plan for the care of small plants is spacing. It’s a simple thing, but an important one. Plants spaced too close together are likely to crowd each other, compete for water and nutrients, and create a dense canopy that encourages the development of foliar diseases. Plants spaced too far apart often lack the visual appeal necessary to create an aesthetically pleasing mass and facilitate weed invasion. Start by reading the plant care tag to find the recommended spacing, then follow the chart at left to find a happy medium for spacing.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Spacing and specific plant needs are foundational considerations.

If available budget dollars are a concern, consider the 9-inch spacing for annuals and groundcovers. You’ll get a fairly rapid coverage of the area with less than half the number needed for a 6-inch spacing.

Managing small plants is also easier with the right tools. At a minimum, a square-nosed shovel, edging tool, four-pronged pitchfork, hoe and a hori hori garden knife should be in the utility vehicle at all times. Along with these, a plastic milk crate or open box made of similar materials should carry a couple of durable pocketknives, a fish-fileting knife, soil sampler, pruning saw and a bypass hand pruner. These tools provide the golf course crew member the necessary support to pinch, prune, cut, dig, replace and thin as necessary to keep ornamentals looking their best. Add in a 10X magnifying glass and a couple of decent plant identification apps for the smartphone, and regular monitoring and inspection for pests and other problems becomes an easier task … and let’s face it, when a task is easier, it tends to be accomplished much more often. 

Large-scale plantings call for large-scale watering and fertilization equipment. The purchase of an efficient fertilizer injector will save lots of time and effort when caring for annuals and other high-maintenance plants. If petunias, pansies, periwinkle, geraniums, impatiens and zinnias are in beds near high-priority areas on the course, such an item becomes a good return on investment.

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
The proper tools can make all the difference in the world when maintaining flowers, vines, shrubs and annuals.

Also, keeping soil test results in mind, appropriate volumes of high-quality compost should always be on hand for incorporation during initial plantings and renovations. For small plants, there’s nothing better than getting them off to a good start with the right amount of compost, aka “black gold.”

Finally, while this varies from course to course, the willingness of an employee to share their knowledge with golfers when asked about a specific plant and its care is a real plus. A knowledgeable answer adds real value to the course’s reputation and to the enjoyment of the golfer’s experience on a particular day. An investment in bolstering the depth of knowledge of the staff on the course is well worth the investment.

Recommended plant spacing

Plants needed per 100 square feet:

  • 6-inch centers:  400
  • 9-inch centers: 177
  • 12-inch centers: 100
  • 24-inch centers: 25

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.