Nature study: Converting out-of-play areas to conservation habitat

Purdue researchers are investigating the science behind establishing native pollinator-friendly plants on previously highly-managed turfgrass.


Student marking research plot
Graduate student Ryan Beard marks plots for a research project investigating the conversion of out-of-play areas to conservation habitat at the Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex in West Lafayette, Ind. Photo by Tom Campbell, Purdue University

The potential benefits associated with a golf course’s conversion of out-of-play areas from highly managed turfgrass to lower-maintenance, pollinator-friendly native vegetation are many.

The science behind such a conversion, however, is significantly scarcer.

“A lot of folks are interested in doing it, or have done it,” says Doug Richmond, Ph.D., professor of turfgrass entomology and soil insect ecology at Purdue University. “But most of those have been one-off efforts. Everybody’s doing their own thing. There’s been no data collected to determine how successful it has been.”

Richmond and graduate student Ryan Beard are part of a multiparty effort to change that. Their research project — “Renovating out-of-play areas to conservation habitat: Effects of seeding time and method on plant establishment and ecosystem services” — is underway at Purdue’s Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex in West Lafayette, Ind., specifically on the Pete Dye-designed Kampen Course.

Kampen is a research haven. Dye charged just $1 for his services on the condition that Kampen serve as a living lab for Purdue students, and it was designed with that in mind. Case in point: Kampen’s No. 7 hole features a pair of parallel fairways and a massive green bisected by a hump. The design allows for side-by-side research under identical conditions — real-world A/B testing of the turfgrass sort.

Richmond’s project is a joint venture between Purdue, the USGA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, local native plant nursery and seed supplier Stantec (formerly Cardno), and Martin Seed. It will convert roughly 6 acres of out-of-play areas at the links-style course to native, pollinator-friendly plants.

“It’s not a difficult process,” Richmond says. “But golf courses might not be correctly aligned with what they should when going to native prairie plants. Often, they’re looking for that big aesthetic ‘pop.’ Prairie takes a long time to establish. After it gets established, it’s very resilient, but a lot of folks get frustrated in the short term.”

The objective is to evaluate effects of seeding time (fall versus spring) and method (broadcast seed versus seed drill) on establishment success, and ecosystem services (pollinator abundance and diversity) provided. The fall/winter seeding was completed just before Christmas; the spring seeding will take place in April or May.

“We’re trying to document establishment, in terms of plant cover and species diversity,” Richmond says. “We’re also going to follow up with an ecosystem comparison: How does this change pollinator communities? Does it serve as pollinator habitat, or is it not any different than what it was before?”

Kyle Post, superintendent at the Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex and 17-year GCSAA member, says the project replaces primarily “waste” or fescue areas.

“When people think of a links-style golf course, they want a natural-looking setting — but the natural setting they’re looking for is fescue with nothing growing up in it,” Post says. “Unfortunately for Indiana, that’s not natural. For Indiana, it’s dandelion and thistle. If we turn that into a true naturalized area, we want to see if we can have some sustainable, unmaintained areas. We have a lot of areas we call fescue, but the inputs we put into them is just astronomical. For areas that are supposed to be low-maintenance, they’re not low-maintenance.”

Post has been at Birck Boilermaker since 2007 and recently took over as superintendent for Jim Scott, a 23-year association member who is still on-site as project manager for a couple of major renovations as a “pathway to retirement.”

Post says the most labor-intensive part of the project has been the prep.

“Killing everything off,” he says, “has proven surprisingly difficult.”

The seed list has 27 plants: grasses, like big bluestem, June grass and switch grass; two kinds of clovers; wildflowers, like black-eyed susan, purple coneflower and asters; and pollinator-friendly butterfly weed and milkweed.

The real payoff is at least a couple of years away.

“I’m curious to see the effects of broadcast versus drill seeding,” Post says. “But the real results are a few years away. Three years from now, we might find out we built some perfect thistle patches on the golf course. But hopefully, at the end of this, for anybody who’s interested in doing something like this, hopefully they’ll see what we’re doing and learn from any mistakes we’ve made. I hope anyone thinking about returning some out-of-the-way areas to naturalized areas will be able to look at what we’re doing, use some of it for a cautionary tale, but also see the things that worked out well for us.”

“Our hypothesis is that there will be some impact from the seeding effort — the different types, the seeding time — in how it’s established,” adds Richmond. “After we get it established, we suspect we’ll see it really is a good resource for the pollinator community.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.