The Importance of Buffer Strips along Golf Course Waterways

Golf course superintendents have got to be some of the most knowledgeable, well-rounded individuals I know. When you think about all the subjects they’re expected to be proficient in, it’s really mind-blowing. I have a lot of respect for this profession. Not only do they need to know the ins and outs of the game, but they pretty much need to be landscape architects, mechanics, entomologists, gardeners, chemists, agronomists, botanists, soil scientists, arborists, wildlife managers, biologists, turfgrass specialists, plant pathologists, economists, weather forecasters, hydrologists, reclamationists, and even the occasional public relations professional. What’s more, they’re expected to be all of these things on top of keeping their players happy and coming back for more. If this list seems overwhelming, well, I’m sorry but I’m about to suggest one more. A wetland scientist. Golf course superintendents will need a good understanding of riparian sciences and knowledge of how to properly manage and maintain the health and quality of their ponds, streams, rivers and lakes if they are to succeed in the future of sustainable golf course management.

Weston GC, Toronto, Ontario - Project of Out on a Limb

Water features play an important role on the golf course and have a large impact on the environment that extends far beyond course property. My local course, the Logan River Golf Course, is situated along the Logan River which flows into the Bear River and ends up in the Great Salt Lake almost 100 miles away. These rivers weave through many acres of protected wetland habitat and residential areas on their path to the Great Salt Lake. Correct or incorrect water management practices made at the golf course will impact thousands of people who rely on the Logan and Bear rivers for a water supply. Most courses have similar, wide-scale effects on water supplies even if they are not obviously perceived.

Problems with water feature management can occur for a number of reasons, and can be seen in the form of algae infested ponds, aquatic wildlife die-off, and a high level of toxins in local water supplies. Soil erosion is also a concern; a symptom of poor management practices. Many times in an effort for a “quick-fix”, the symptoms are treated while the source of the problem is largely ignored. In my past experience as a property manager, I’ve seen a client spend enormous amounts of time and money on chemicals to “sterilize” his pond, while giving no thought to how he could prevent his pond from experiencing algae blooms in the first place. By observing and mimicking natural wetland ecosystems, we can save time, money, and the quality of our water supplies while at the same time adding to the aesthetics of our golf courses. 

No room for a buffer

The primary pollutants that cause these issues in golf course water features are nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pesticides, and sediment. These pollutants migrate into nearby water features and are the reason for the problems previously mentioned. The solution can be found in a combination of responsible fertilizer and pesticide application, and in buffer strips along water features. These buffer strips consist mainly of shrubs, forbs, and grasses that act as a natural filter. Buffer strips intercept surface and subsurface runoff and filter pollutants before they enter ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers. They also help stabilize eroding banks, provide a food source for aquatic organisms, deter nuisance species such as geese, and decrease labor time and costs associated with trimming and mowing along sloped banks. 

To gain a better understanding of buffer strips and their application on the golf course, we can look at the research done by agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. In their management of riparian areas, they follow a “three-zone” buffer concept where each zone contains plants designed to maximize filtration along waterways.

These zones, by their standards, can be hundreds of feet wide. Zone 1, next to the water’s edge, consists of trees and large shrubs.  Further away from shore, Zone 2 consists of small trees, large and medium sized shrubs, and tall grasses. Finally, beyond the other two zones and furthest away from the water’s edge, Zone 3 consists of dense grasses, wildflowers, and small herbaceous plants.  Of course, a golf course is very different than a forest or wetland ecosystem, and their suggested zone sizes and plant materials are not always practical for the limited areas in golf courses. But by adapting their model to fit the needs of a functioning golf course, it is possible to achieve many of the same results.

Zone 1 with Cattails and Sedges, Zone 2 with herbaceous species -
Weston GC, Toronto Ontario - Project of Out on a Limb

The first thing is to distinguish between in-play and out-of-play areas, as in-play buffer strips are going to be designed much differently than out-of-play buffer strips. For an in-play area, the three-zone concept will need to be altered to fit in an area of a few yards and will incorporate a series of gradually increasing mowing heights adjacent to the water. This may seem insignificant, but research has shown that even a buffer strip of 3-inch tall grass will provide a level of filtration when grown between bodies of water and shorter, high-maintenance turfgrass. In-play buffer strips should be not taller than 8-inches to remain playable. 

Buffer strips located in out-of-play areas can have much more flexibility in their design and plant materials. Zone 1 (next to the water’s edge) will consist of riparian shrubs and tall grasses. Zone 2 will include a blend of grasses of medium height, wildflowers, and shrubs. Zone 3 will contain grass species that can be left to grow naturally and be mowed occasionally to remove phosphorus that can buildup in plant material. 

As for the type of plant material used, the University of Minnesota has put together a list of plants known for their excellent filtration properties. They are also native, perennial, hardy, and do not require fertilizer once established. The following is a list of recommended plants that correspond to their related zone of use for an out-of-play buffer strip on a golf course.

Zone 1: Riparian Shrubs and Grasses (along the water’s edge)

  • Arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia
  • Bur-reed, Sparganium americanum
  • Canada bluejoint grass, Calamgrostis Canadensis
  • Cattail, Typha latifolia
  • Green bulrush, Scirpus atrovirens
  • Lake sedge, Carex lacustris
  • Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata
  • River bulrush, Scirpus fluviatilis
  • Soft rush, Juncus effuses
  • Water plaintain, Alisma plantago-aquatica
  • Wool grass, Scirpus cyperinus
  • Prairie cord grass, Spartina pectinata

Arrowhead, Sagittaria latifolia

Zone 2: Medium sizes shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses (moist soils)

  • Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
  • Meadowsweet, Spirea alba
  • Pussy willow, Salix discolor
  • Red osier dogwood, Cornus sericea
  • Blue flag iris, Iris versicolor
  • Blue vervain, Verbena hastate
  • Bottlebrush sedge, Carex comosa
  • Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
  • Culver's root, Veronicastrum virginicum
  • Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium maculatum
  • Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa
  • Gray-head coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
  • Purple coneflower, Echinacea augustifolia
  • Thimbleweed, Anemone cylindrical
  • Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii

Blue flag iris, Iris versicolor

Zone 3: Grasses  (mowable)
  • Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans
  • Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium
  • Sideoats grama, Bouteloua curtipendula

Before going all-in on a buffer strip development project, it’s important to help educate players and the public when planning to develop and install buffer strips. This is where the public relation skills come into play. Many golfers have become used to the clean-cut, manicured look and might view buffer strips as messy or unattractive weeds that eat golf balls. Newsletters, facts sheets, web-site information, and face-to-face communication will help to inform the public about the benefits of buffer strips. There are many examples of golf courses that have had great success implementing buffer strips and, as player’s attitudes change, have been complemented on the beauty of their courses.


From his earliest days growing up in a small northern Utah town, Skylar could always be found in the great outdoors. He developed a great love of nature and appreciation for beautiful landscapes, both natural and manmade, which led him to pursue a career that would allow him to spend as much time outdoors as possible. With an educational background in Horticulture from Utah State University, Skylar’s many years of experience in the landscape/turf industry has taught him much about working with nature. This in turn led him to realize that the future of this industry rests upon sustainability and responsible agricultural practices. He works for, a company that believes strongly in the principal of sustainability.
Contact him on Twitter at @Sky_Christensen

1 Comments so far

Hi, thank you for informative article. I also work with water pollution and golf courses and promote sustainable development principles. regards, Gill