New Malton completes first year at nation's first organic Golf Club

Paul Stevenson's exasperation is plain to see. His New Malton Golf Club has completed its first full season on a 100% organic regime, during which time he has boosted surface quality, brought back wildlife and turned around a once failing course. However, recognition from the wider industry and authorities so far eludes this Hertfordshire course.

Stevenson: proves that taking an organic approach can work as he boosts surface quality, brings back wildlife and turns around a failing course at New Malton - all without chemicals. Image: HW
Stevenson: proves that taking an organic approach can work as he boosts surface quality, brings back wildlife and turns around a failing course at New Malton - all without chemicals. Image: HW

 

"No-one has ever proved it can be done - we are on our own," he says. Comparing his own situation with the many state-funded initiatives promoting environmentally-friendly farming, he adds: "We can't get a grant for any of this. Defra says it's commercial - as if farming isn't." His co-director and club pro Brian Mudge adds: "With a bit of help, we could do it all quicker."

Stevenson reckons the New Malton method is not just right for the environment, but for the industry itself. "Many courses have become chemical junkies, spending £100,000 a year or more, and it's hard to wean them off," he says. "Greenkeepers have got away from using their own brains - they just call up their advisers at the chemical companies.

"We've no-one to ring up. We will spend maybe £10,000 on products and our course will be every bit as good. I am sure that this is the way forward - it really surprises me that the will to go organic is not there."

Stevenson says he is "not good news for the industries that supply golf" and claims the club's failure to win in this year's Golf Environment Awards is an example of how the golf establishment is trying to "bury" the club and its methods.

However, the Sports Turf Research Institute, which runs the awards, has said the fact that the course has only been managed organically for only one year meant it was too early to prove the sustainability of the methods over time.

What such organic methods save on inputs, one would expect would make for more labour-intensive maintenance, but the course employs only two full-time and two part-time staff - as well as what is believed to be the UK's only full-time golf course ecologist, Jon Atkinson.

Stevenson himself is an agro-chemist by training, who lists chef, merchant banker and kitchen designer among his previous careers, before getting into the golf world through course construction. His team originally wanted to build a new course but failed to get planning permission. Four years later, they snapped up New Malton. "The team all have our own areas of expertise, while sharing an interest in sustainability," he says.

But he admits that organic is no soft option. "Your powers of observation have to be ten times greater. I'm on my knees every day with a magnifying glass."

And since reopening the course in late summer last year, the elements have not done his team any favours. "From early August last year through to November it hardly rained at all," he recalls. "Then we had an awful winter, then it was dry from Easter right back through to August. Yet throughout all that we remained chemical-free."

Rather than install costly sprinklers on greens, the club is trialling a method of containing run-off in tanks before reapplying it using solar-powered pumps. "All greens are to United States Golf Association specifications," Stevenson explains. "That means they are 80 per cent sand. Irrigation puts a lot of water on quickly, but they are very free-draining, so 80-90 per cent of the water isn't used."

A dressing of powdered zeolitic rock also helps retain moisture in a form accessible to grass roots - though not, fortunately, to fungi. And while keeping greens free of weeds means daily hand-weeding, staff have tipped the balance in their favour by creating conditions that favour a close cover of desirable varieties.

"Most greens are annual meadow grass (Poa annua), as they were here when we took over, but the ideal is a bent and fescue mix," says Stevenson. "Here we have gone from 90 per cent meadow grass to 60 per cent bents in one year, giving the greens a natural deep green colour. P. annua flowers every two weeks - we cut at 3.5mm in summer and its seed head will be under that, causing the ball to bobble. So the trick is not to give it what it wants."

That means keeping fertilising down and limiting watering because Poa has a shallow-rooting habit. In addition, Stevenson adds, promoting a fungal biology in the soil benefits the bent grasses further at the expense of Poa. "As a result we don't get flowering heads at all," he says. "We didn't know this would happen, it's just something we've learned by doing it."

This learning experience has also entailed some "horrendous" mistakes, he admits. Failing to get on top of this season's bumper dandelion crop early enough left him with fairway edges covered with seed heads, which looked confusingly like golf balls. "That caused some irritation and some lost business," he says.

Weed control is carried out largely by using two different grades of scarifiers, as well as "wearing the weeds out by mowing them", he says. "It's a completely different regime. We don't cut until the afternoon because it's kinder to the grass - it's growing then and you get a more precise cut."

Soil biology in the root zone is boosted by a compost tea applied monthly to the fairway, fungal additives and extracts from plants such as comfrey. "These have been around for years. Before chemicals, that was all there was," says Stevenson.

Other unconventional pest control methods include strong-smelling herbs such as rosemary planted on the edge of the tees to deter the rabbits that have not already been eaten by the resident population of stoats and weasels.

And the wildlife-friendly regime is not only a means of controlling pests. "The flora and fauna have gone berserk and customers take great delight in it," says Stevenson. Indeed, during HW's brief tour of the 230-acre (95ha) site, several pheasants, wood pigeons and ducks, a covey of partridges, a green woodpecker, a kestrel and even a sparrowhawk made their presence known. "We only need about 130 acres for golf and we can use the rest as we choose," Stevenson explains.

The river Cam, which meanders round the course edge, floods frequently. But this has been turned into a virtue by creating "fritillary meadows" on affected areas because the flowers thrive on inundated land. Stevenson hopes their flowering will coincide with a visit from the BBC's Springwatch next March. Otters and bank voles also populate the watercourses, while grass snakes and adders can be found on land.

"Golf courses take up 400,000 acres in the UK - that's more than all the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserves," he points out. "They could have a massive impact on the environment."

The course is working with the RSPB to establish traditional meadowlands where rare breed cattle from neighbouring Wimpole Hall, a National Trust-run estate, will graze. An allotment-style garden has also been established this year, providing fresh produce for the clubhouse kitchen. "Every golf course in the country has half an acre where they could grow some vegetables," Stevenson reckons, adding that a community gardening club is planned on site for next year.

Elsewhere, cider apples and local varieties of greengage are grown and the club also plans to plant strips of lavender as forage for bees, enabling small-scale commercial honey production. Woodland areas will also be coppiced and cleared of dense brush, then given over to pig rearing.

Stevenson reckons this can be achieved without compromising the club's core business. "You have to get the customer on your side," he says. "There are two kinds of golfer - one that's just there for the golf and one that wants to know everything."

The club communicates with members through newsletters and a redesigned website. Stevenson says awareness of the issues behind chemical use is growing. "You need full spray suits and aspirators to apply some of them, but then the player comes along behind and gets the chemicals on his ball, his club and his hands," he says.

He adds that he is more than happy for others to follow in his wake. "I hope the world will see these as practical steps and not difficult ones. You just have to keep a very open mind."

GOLF FOR ALL

New Malton aims to challenge the sport's image further with an inclusive membership policy. The course's third director, Carl Weininger, plays despite only having one arm.

"The golf world isn't welcoming to disabled people, or at least doesn't know how to help them," says director Paul Stevenson. "But disabled golfers are very careful with the course and a pleasure to have."

Mental handicap charity Scope runs a residential centre that backs onto the course and the club plans to build an education centre for its users on spare course ground.

The young are also made welcome, with juniors paying an annual subscription of £120, which includes free tuition from club pro Brian Mudge. "Children buy into the organic part - they see it as logical in a way the adults don't," says Mudge. "The next stage is to get them more involved in things like the gardening club."

Stevenson adds: "Golf clubs tend to ignore children, but where are they going to find the next generation of customers? The English Golf Union GolfMark scheme recognises youth-friendly courses but many are reverting to gentlemen's clubs."


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