Field Insights Blog | GreenCast | Syngenta
Field Insights Blog | GreenCast | Syngenta

Winterkill Prevention: Some Thoughts on Snow Removal on Greens

When I was a superintendent, there was always a question that would make me wince and it went a little something like this: “So, what do you do in the winter?”

The answer to that question, as you well know, always surprises the person who asks.  They assume winter is a superintendent’s “down time.”  They were always surprised when I would tell them, “There is no down time anymore.” 

In the winter of 2014, we heard about something called a “Polar Vortex” for the first time in Michigan.  We had the coldest and most extreme winter on record, with above average snowfall.  Many private clubs in the Detroit area, who are pressured to deliver perfect greens and fast speeds all season long, suffered severe ice damage to their putting surfaces due to a rain event before Christmas and prolonged ice cover in excess of 60 days.  If you didn’t have damage that spring, then you either had pure bentgrass greens or you were in the minority.

What later became known as the “Worst Winter Ever” ushered in a new era of turfgrass winter management.  Snow blowing greens suddenly became the norm in Southeast Michigan.  With a trend toward more extreme weather events in the Midwest, there are more and more superintendents clearing snow off greens in the winter.  Is it the right thing to do?  Have we lost our minds?  I suspect it is somewhere in between. 

As a former superintendent who found himself regularly snow blowing greens in the final three winters of his tenure at a private Detroit-area club, I will share my thought process with you here.

How much poa annua?  This is a key determining factor.  If you have poa annua greens, then ice covering your putting surfaces for 30-45 days is a big deal that you should attempt to mitigate.    If you have bentgrass greens, this is much less of a problem, as bentgrass has much better tolerance under ice cover than a temperamental poa annua plant.  Ice cover later in the winter is potentially more damaging than earlier in the winter, as the plant has much less energy reserves to work with.

Is there ice?  If there is no ice, I would recommend keeping hands off.  Snow is a great insulator in the winter against low temps and will protect against desiccation.  Even with a greens cover in place, extremely low temperatures may cause turfgrass injury.  This January, we have seen some record-breaking low temperatures and turf left exposed to these conditions is definitely injury prone.

 Is there a melt in the future?  I know a few superintendents who will clear greens in anticipation of a warming trend.  The thought process is no snow = no melting water = no ice.  I adopted this philosophy in later years, but only if it occurred during a certain window of time: December through February.  Ice formation in early March wasn’t as much of a concern for me, since by the end of the month the greens were usually melted, leaving the poa annua under ice less than 30 days.

Are conditions right for crown hydration injury?  Poa annua is very susceptible to crown hydration injury, when the turf begins to take in water and then suffers an immediate freeze, which effectively explodes the crown of the plant.  If you are expecting a freeze-thaw cycle, snow and water should be removed from the putting surface to minimize the potential for injury.  If you’re seeing temps above freezing during the day, and below freezing at night, then it’s time to push off whatever snow remains and break out the squeegees!  A shop-vac hooked up to a portable generator is also a great way of getting rid of puddles on greens before a nighttime freeze.








What is your ability to clear greens?  Is removing snow even feasible for you?  What tools are available to you?  When I was a superintendent, we had one snow blower and two full-time staff (including myself) in the winter, so clearing 19 greens required split shifts and multiple days.  It needed to be planned in advance so as not to miss our melt window, beginning with the shaded greens first.  One time after a severe snow event, we even cleared several greens with tractors in a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to get 2” of ice to melt.  In restrospect, using a loader was a risky move that probably caused more harm than good from the weight of the tires and damage from the bucket digging in, and I would not recommend going down this road unless you feel it is absolutely imperative.









What is your snow removal mantra?  I had a snow removal mantra when I was a superintendent: if I take one shovelful of snow off a green, I will clear the entire green.  In my experience, shoveling channels to aid in surface drainage only succeeded in creating ice dams that backed up water.  However, I know many area superintendents who will shovel a herringbone in the snow and have been very successful getting the green to melt.  I think the success of a herringbone depends on several factors, such as slope of the green, angle to the sun, and available sunlight.  Keep this in mind because it has the potential to backfire and create a freeze-thaw situation where there wasn’t one to begin with.

Sometimes less is more.  Don’t clear snow off greens “just because” or because you see Club XYZ up the street doing it.  You should always have a reason and a purpose for doing it.  I have spent many foolish hours on frozen greens trying to do too much: aerating ice, putting up tents with space heaters underneath, driving turbine blowers across the greens, and sadly the list goes on…  The hardest thing to do as a superintendent is to “do nothing.”  Patience is a virtue that the best superintendents have.  Wait for the right opportunity, or even better, know when to “do nothing.”

Take samples and plan.  If you find yourself under ice, you must go out and pull some samples so you have advanced knowledge about the situation.  Many times, I pulled a “dead plug” from a green, put in in the windowsill, and saw it come to life three days later.  Crisis averted!  Pulling plugs and doing the windowsill trick will help you to plan and know what you’re up against before the spring thaw.

Take pictures.  I cannot stress this enough.  If you have shade issues that are contributing to ice formation, document everything.  Take multiple pictures of ice formation and shade patterns and share these with your owners and committees.  If a tree is contributing to ice formation and winterkill then it must be removed!

Keep a level head.  There is no worse feeling as a superintendent than seeing the snow melt and finding out that Mother Nature dealt you a cruel death blow.  I spent many sleepless nights in the early part of 2014, knowing that my season would begin with half of my greens dead from ice cover anoxia.  My advice to you if you find yourself in a similar situation: don’t spend time feeling sorry for yourself. 

 Accept that it happened, move on, and come up with your recovery plan for what will be your greatest success story.

Spend your time and energy in a positive way. 

And finally, if you find yourself in a tough situation this winter, don’t isolate yourself--make sure you reach out to your peers and sales professionals for help and advice along the way.  I’m happy to be your sounding board if you find yourself trapped under ice and you’re not sure what to do.  There’s no shame in getting a second opinion.  Just don’t ask me to grab a shovel…

Follow Adam on Twitter: @Superin10dent 
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Snow Removal Q&A Hotline: (248) 914-4902

About the author

Adam Garr is a Syngenta Turf & Landscape Territory Manager located in the Midwestern US. You may also follow Adam on Twitter:

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