Snake Oil, A Load Of Balls?

As we enter the depths of winter we are well and truly in the middle of the seminar/conference season. Listening to all these companies, they all seem to have the answer or magic cure for what ails our greens. Compost tea, phosphites, seaweed, all seem to be hot topics this year. We are being told that these are the way forward for both plant health and reduction in pesticides. But is this correct? Should we commit fully without solid independent evidence?

Last spring I was lucky enough to meet in person the legendary doctor Mr. James Beard. Me being me, I was right on him, trying to get inside that experienced mind of his. After two long days of careful probing there were two things he said that really stuck in my mind. The first was that there was no merit in so called ‘snake oils’ (meaning magic cures). He went on to say that in the future, some companies might find solutions, but at the moment it was like ‘throwing a load of balls up in the air and hoping that one would land correctly’. His words not mine!

The other thing he said that swayed my mind somewhat was that all a plant basically needs is a ‘a little N and sometimes a little K’ (meaning consistent application of Nitrogen over the season, followed by some Potassium at the right time). All this made me wonder; What should a plant management programme consist of?

I was prompted to write this blog today because of a phone call with a fresh Course Manager. This guy is not young but has only been a CM for two years. He’s on a very poor site, his greens sit on clay with no land drainage. His grass species is Poa, the perennial type rather than the annual. This poor guy doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. He has one rep telling the bio method is the way forward with compost teas, another saying only seaweed and yet another insisting that chemicals with phosphites will allow him to reduce his fungicide needs. Which way should he go? All these companies have data to prove their methods? Should he keep it simple and just concentrate on keeping the plant healthy with as Dr. Beard said ‘a little N and sometimes a little K’?

Choices, choices!

A green that has not seen an application of seaweed for two years!
Well I’m going to tell you what I told him. For me there is not enough evidence to prove many of these theories. However, that’s not to say they are wrong. Dr. Beard did say ‘some balls may land correctly’. But before he, you or I think about committing vast sums of money on these unproven products we should do our own research. Why not challenge these companies to put their money where their mouths are and give them an area to prove their product's worth. Over the last few winters I have managed selected greens differently to the others. For instance, I have greens that haven’t seen any seaweed for the last two years. The greens without the seaweed look and perform no differently from those that have received seaweeds.

So before you go out and try new products I encourage you to do your own research. If a company has a magic cure that they claim will reduce your fungicide usage for instance, challenge them. Give them a green that you will apply their product to, and then see what the difference is from your other greens that are maintained with your own methods. You never know, the ball might just land on that green!

1 Comments so far

Good topic Greg. At Dairy Creek, we're starting our scientific testing protocol to qualify our compost, worm castings and compost tea, in conjunction with cal poly university turf management faculty members and with the support of USGA to pay for the testing. The problem with most organic treatments is that the compost or tea ingredients are seldom ever exactly the same. This makes scientific evaluation difficult. That's why there is very little science to date. We're applying tea to the greens twice a month. The university scientists are using two greens as controls.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that compost tea is beneficial to all plants, including turfgrasses. Speaking of grass, one of the "medical marijuana" growers I know claims a 30% increase in yield using tea.

But seriously, the real benefit of adding biology to the turf and soil is that the creatures continue to reproduce and are a sustainable source of fertility and disease suppression.