Take winter turf from brown to green quickly

Painting turf has been around for a long time, and it has some economic and conservation pluses that give it added relevance today. If you want your winter turf to look nice without the expense and energy required to overseed it, painting it green is an excellent option.

Spot-painting can also hide diseased, worn or damaged turf. It’s a means of making brown grass look fresh and alive in many situations, and is being employed widely throughout the southern tier of the United States. Grady Miller, professor and cooperative extension turf specialist at North Carolina State University, says that using turf colorants or dyes can also hide the effects of drought. He has looked at turf paints for years, primarily for sports turf, and found it to be useful in a lot of situations.

Many normal golf course boom sprayers can be employed to spray paint colorants.

“There are people who use them to hide blemished turf, diseased turf and some types of fertilizer or chemical burns,” Miller says. They can also be utilized to spray high-wear areas on a sports field or golf course, averting the need to come in and replant turf, in some cases. It’s an aesthetic measure that makes the area look good and gives the turf time to regrow. He says it can hide winter dormancy as well as mask the effects of a summer drought. He has tested it on hybrid bermudagrass, but it can also be used on other grass types. For example, a tall fescue lawn or park grass in the north could be painted if it turned color during hot weather and a scheduled event called for pretty, uniform turf.

It’s primary use is on dormant warm-season grasses across the South. Miller has seen it used extensively on golf courses in the Southeast. “You can get a green color without any inputs,” he says, meaning that without the extensive cost and scheduling required for overseeding, a uniform and pleasing green color can be achieved.

There are some other benefits of painting versus overseeding, Miller says. The extensive irrigation and fertility requirements for overseeding will not be necessary, and this is particularly attractive in an era when water availability and cost may be prohibitive.

Another major benefit, easier spring transition, may accrue in some areas. Miller says that when dormant bermudagrass is sprayed and kept green into the spring, it absorbs the sun’s heat better than dormant, brown turf. That grass will often come out of dormancy early and speed the spring transition out of cool-season grasses. He says he knows of some golf course superintendents who will paint some of their turf just to achieve this effect.

Most superintendents utilize rotor-type paint sprayers to paint small areas such as greens.

However, you can’t just go down to the hardware store and buy a can of turf paint. These paints are specially formulated latex-type paints. They are water-based, but they do not contain some of the elements potentially toxic to organisms that normal house paints might have in them. George Sajner, technical director for Pioneer Athletic, which makes Match Play Turf Colorant, says each company has its own proprietary formulation. This company’s paint is based on a latex formulation and is not harmful to turf. In fact, the company worked with Grady Miller five years ago to develop and test it.

Sajner says that his product is sold as a concentrate and is thinned with water, usually to a 9:1 ratio of water to colorant, though turf managers vary the strength for their individual purposes. At a 9:1 consistency, the colorant is about like water and can be sprayed by hand or machine sprayers, including the normal tractor-mounted pesticide or fertilizer sprayers owned by a golf course or athletic facility. Boom sprayers on a tractor could apply the paint at about the same rate as insecticides are applied, and in warm weather it dries in about one hour.

“Once it dries, it won’t rub back off onto clothing,” Sajner says, which is an important feature on athletic fields and parks. Match Play Turf Colorant is sold in 5-gallon containers and is usually mixed in a 50-gallon drum or in the boom tank itself. He notes that two applications may be needed to carry dormant turf through the winter, depending on how long the winter is; whether warm weather causes regrowth; and how much wear and tear the painted turf gets.

Usually, a golf course will only paint its greens, Sajner says, but last year, two entire golf courses in South Carolina—greens, fairways and tees—were painted in lieu of overseeding. That can be expensive, because this paint isn’t cheap. He says it usually takes about 50 gallons of concentrate to cover a typical golf course’s greens and tees, but it still might be less expensive than overseeding.

“It’s been most successful in the Southeast,” Sajner says, and that is in lieu of overseeding. However, he says that bermudagrass now is being grown on fields as far north as Indiana, so the application is expanding. He notes that in the five years since development, Match Play Turf Colorant has expanded sales every year. The company makes three colors: one for bermudagrass, one for perennial rye and one a very dark color for ultra-dwarf turf. Another factor in this is that sports fields of any kind, including high school and college fields, have become much more image-conscious in recent years. That means that brown turf or wear spots are often not tolerated. On golf courses, the paint can be used to color the sand and seed divot mix green before application.

In Louisiana, a new company called Terra Tints, Inc. started up based on the perception of its owner that turf painting is indeed an up-and-coming tool for the turf manager’s. Nick Simoneaux is president of the Louisiana Turfgrass Association, as well as the owner of Terra Tints, and he sees widespread application for all of the reasons listed above.

“Down here in Louisiana, where bermudagrass goes dormant, I see a big use for it,” says Simoneaux, who also owns a landscaping and lawn maintenance business. He is the distributor for a paint manufacturer, and has seen enthusiasm for turf paint.

There are some drawbacks or limitations to turf colorants. One is that there is the mixing and cleanup with which to contend. Another is that if turf goes dormant and the weather warms up, grass can come back and grow out of its paint, which means that it will have to be painted again.

This can be costly, says USGA Green Section director for the Southeast region, Patrick O’Brien. It is fairly common for superintendents he knows to put on two or three coats, especially when warm weather causes growth—and subsequent mowing removes the paint. Still, he says when other elements are factored in, it can be easier and cheaper in the long run to paint greens than to overseed them. It is a major use of turf paints.

When spraying fairways or other large areas, a pesticide boom sprayer can be efficient.

“There is going to be that savings on water, fertilizer and pesticide,” O’Brien says, and that is why he is seeing more and more painting of greens in the Southeast. In fact, he is seeing more tees being painted, too. It is still rare, however, to see a superintendent painting a fairway green.

Quality of play can be as good as, or better, with painting, he notes, especially if there is a problem with the overseeding process. “It’s easier to read the putts when it’s green than when it’s brown,” he points out. He predicts that as the ultra-dwarf hybrid bermudas—Champion, TifEagle and Mini-Verde—become more popular planting choices, painting will become more common.

O’Brien notes that there are several good manufacturers of turf colorants, and he hasn’t heard of any brand that doesn’t perform. Some greens may turn a blue-green color over time, but nobody knows why that happens and it is only an aesthetic issue. The paints are “totally safe,” and he estimates that 80 to 90 percent of superintendents in the Southeast now choose to paint their hybrid bermuda greens rather than overseed.

He does have one caution about sprayers. He has noticed that most superintendents have gone to rotor-type paint sprayers rather than using diaphragm sprayers for small jobs such as greens. The paint sprayers are better suited for the job than are the normal horticultural sprayers found on golf courses, at least for small areas. He predicts that as turf managers become more proficient with their turf paint guns they will begin putting on stripes to simulate mowing patterns and other aesthetic touches.

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

Turf Paint Sources

Becker Underwood 800-232-5907

Cleary Chemical Corp. 410-371-8298

Forestry Suppliers, Inc. 800-647-5368

Missouri Turf Paint 800-426-0774

Pioneer Athletic 800-877-1500

SeaSafe Turf Products 281-879-0932

Terra Tints, Inc. 337-230-6427