Taking care of turf in the desert

Photos courtesy of The Sonoran Club.

Despite the fact that it is in the deep desert, the grass court at The Sonoran Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., is smooth and healthy. Turns out, if you can grow a golf course green in Arizona, you can grow a grass tennis court in Arizona. The two regimes are very similar, according to Monte Varah, landscape superintendent at Desert Mountain, the huge complex that includes six golf courses, five clay tennis courts and three hard courts, as well as the grass court. Varah, having been here since the construction of the lawn tennis court, is now an expert in growing manicured turf in the desert.

The grass court was built in the spring of 1993 and opened that summer. It serves an international clientele who play on grass, and is one of three grass courts in the Phoenix area. Wally Camp, Varah’s former boss who has since left Desert Mountain, was the supervisor of the landscaping when the turf court was built, though design and construction were accomplished by outside contractors. The general contractor came up with some unusual concepts for the site; among other elements, the turf featured drip irrigation and an underground heating system.

In general, Varah says, the site was excavated belowground in order to provide a kind of amphitheater where spectators could easily watch tennis matches. Then the ground was prepared, more or less, according to USGA greens specs at the time. Drainage tiles were installed at the bottom with a pea gravel base on top of that. Then, 4 inches of a USGA greens mix of sand and organic matter was laid in, all of which would give the court excellent water penetration.

“I was fortunate enough to come to work here when it was being built,” Varah says, so although he didn’t have a hand in it, he was an avid observer. On top of the greens mix, plastic waterlines were laid from a manifold in the adjacent pool utility room. The .5-inch tubing held hot water that was recirculated from pumps in the pool room. The whole idea was to heat the turf from below in the winter to avoid loss of play, because the original intent was to not overseed the court’s ultradwarf hybrid bermudagrass.

Monte Varah’s turf crew has found innovative techniquesto manage the grass court, including spray-painting the linesprecisely with the use of a guide rail.
By installing heating lines, the turf on the grass courtcan be warmed up for early morning play in the winter.

Another 4 inches of sand was laid on top of the heating lines, and on top of that, Netafim drip lines and another 4 inches of sand to cover it. The court was sodded with Tifdwarf hybrid bermudagrass, the Oldline Pee Dee 102 variety, which is still there to this day. It was chosen for short height of cut and density, which was needed to hold up to the rigorous wear and tear of tennis play.

Once the washed sod was installed, temporary sprinklers watered it in, and a topdressing of sand was added incrementally that first summer of grow-in. It was verticut and rolled to achieve a flat surface. The sod was installed in June and the court opened for play in September. The court was promptly nicknamed the “Wimbledon of the West,” and became a popular venue for top-notch tennis pros, such as Jimmy Conners.

The decision was made to overseed with perennial ryegrass that first winter in case the heating system didn’t work properly during cold periods at the 3,000-foot-plus elevation site (it generally snows here at least once a year). That was a wise decision, Varah says, because the heating system had some problems that winter and the ryegrass saved the day.

Thus began a yearly ritual of overseeding, even though the heating system problems were ironed out and now work fine. Now the court gets its ryegrass in the first week of October, in the middle of the Desert Mountain golf course greens overseeding. It takes three to four weeks to become playable again, but Varah aims for that early slot because the grow-in period would stretch to five weeks if overseeding didn’t begin until November. Seeding is with Pizzazz perennial ryegrass at a heavy rate to ensure a dense cover.

“We’ve been real happy with the way it wears,” Varah says of the Pizzazz. It was recommended by turf consultants and university scientists for these conditions. In addition, it looks and plays great when cut short, and the seed bags are clean of Poa, which can be a problem. Most of the play here in the desert is in the winter, so the overseeding is just as important as the bermudagrass.

The grass court is mowed every day. In the summer it is cut to .175 inch and in winter to .2 or .225 inch, all with a John Deere 220 push mower. The tennis facility has its own equipment so it doesn’t have to rely on the Desert Mountain golf course mowers. It also has its own aerifier and other necessary equipment. The court is treated very much like a tightly manicured green.

The court gets a more concentrated fertility treatment than a green, because it must be dense and healthy enough to withstand the wear of tennis shoes, especially in the serving areas. In the summer, the grass gets 1 to 1.5 pounds of nitrogen per month, dropping to half that in the winter. Good nutrition is necessary in the winter because the soil is being heated and the turf grows vigorously. Varah prefers Micro-Green or Country Club fertilizer blends much of the year with a little iron added in the spring. Also in the spring, an Andersons granular is used with a turfgrass regulator.

Washed Tifdwarf sod was used to grow-in the grass court at The Sonoran Club.
The grass court at The Sonoran Club In Scottsdale is planted in Tifdwarf and has become known as the “Wimbledon of the West.”

Fertilizer used to run through the buried drip lines, but those were taken out four years ago. The lines were blowing out and washing sand away, Varah says. Now fertilizer is mostly broadcast. Irrigation is now by a sprinkler system that utilizes Hunter I-20 and I-40 heads strategically placed out of play and along the base of the net. A turf cup is used to hide the heads when they are not in use. The controller is an Irritrol MC series unit.

Turf pests are one of Varah’s primary concerns. Grubs, such as the European chafer, come early in the spring because the turf has been heated during the winter (which, on the plus side, allows play to start at 8:30 in the morning, even on cold days), and will be warmer than the surrounding native soil. He uses Merit insecticide for the grubs, as well as cutworms.

Spring transition back to bermudagrass is not difficult, because with the tight mowing heights, the ryegrass just naturally gives way to bermuda as the weather warms. Varah’s crew gradually lowers the mowing height in spring. They have used Revolver or Monument occasionally over the years to kill back the ryegrass when it has been persistent. It also helps to cut back on Poa, and he says that by July, the court is 100 percent Tifdwarf again.

Varah, who has had experience as a golf course superintendent and a private landscaper in the past, says there are not any wear issues from tennis play. That is partly because the landscape crew has learned how to grow dense, tough turf, and is partly because the court is big enough to vary the playing area regularly. They can play in left, center or right sites, which changes the heavy wear zones.

Varah has several staff who rotate in and out of tennis court maintenance, but there are two or three who are particularly strong on this type of turf. He also has a long-time foreman who oversees the facility’s landscaping. Over the years the crew members have become experts at maintaining the lawn court, right down to developing their own system of drawing the white lines by using a sprayer guided by a custom rail.

Calling the court “one of a kind,” Varah says that he has a soft spot in his heart for this little jewel. The Sonoran Club, which has members all over the world, reports terrific appreciation for its condition.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.