First Impressions

You've probably walked away from a golf outing or social event with a bad taste in your mouth. We all have. It might not have had anything to do with how many double bogeys you carded or how disappointed you were that the girl you asked to dance turned out to be married with five kids. Of course, the opposite is also quite plausible. As you strode from your car to the pro shop, you may have been quite impressed with the beauty and functionality of the plant material and hardscape elements, a feeling that carried over to the birthday party itself. In fact, you might not know why you felt the way you did. Until now. Let's look at a possible influence that often goes unconsidered: clubhouse landscaping.

Let's face it. A first impression is a powerful force. The impression that is made on customers — both first timers as well as current members — is one that can influence sales and performance on the course. When a bride-to-be or avid golfer is considering all of his or her choices, real money and image is on the line. Signing members and booking social outings can be positively or negatively affected by the way the place looks and feels.


In addition to just looking good and creating a positive first impression, the clubhouse landscape must function properly. A clubhouse is used by many groups of people; each of them should have input into the way it works and looks.

Start by identifying the groups that interface with your facility. Typical groups of clubhouse users would include the club manager, the golf pro, the pool staff, the tennis instructors, the greens committee and the owner. Don't overlook auxiliary groups or spouse philanthropic leagues. They can be very helpful when it comes to identifying goals and objectives you may not have thought of.

Consider if it would be better to interview them individually or as a group. You may find that it is best to do both. Ask for individual opinions, develop some thoughts and then call a meeting to discuss them. Set the tone for the meeting by announcing that each person's opinion is important. This will affirm and encourage each group member.


As ideas are tossed around, it's likely that golfers and club members will mention that they've been impressed with a certain club that they encountered in another city. When that occurs, try to encourage the participants to be as specific as they can. Was it the color that was impressive? What was the screening comprised of — plants, posts or something else? How accessible was the bag drop area to the rest rooms or pro shop?

After you've talked for a while, you'll get a pretty good sense of the theme that most of the participants are looking for. Some may feel that a very formal design is important for traditional or sentimental reasons. If so, this will probably translate into strong rectilinear lines and shapes arranged in a bi-laterally symmetrical design. Closely clipped hedges, upright evergreens, columns and rose gardens are indicative of a formal landscape.

Others may feel that a “softer” look is called for, especially if the clubhouse structure itself has strong architectural lines and features. In this case, you can plant multi-stemmed trees and shrubs adjacent to them to make the clubhouse more inviting and appealing. Informal landscapes tend to be asymmetrical, usually dominated by sweeping curves instead of straight lines.

As you complete your work, summarize the goals into a set of program statements. These will serve as a guiding force as the project unfolds over the next few years. They become very important as people join or leave the group(s) to maintain the original intentions and objectives for the landscape.


One of the first principles to keep in mind as you begin to sketch — or hire someone to sketch — is scale. Keep it in mind as the drawings are prepared. In general, strive to select plant material that will grow to reach two-thirds of the height of the clubhouse eaves or roof-line. Short “foundation-sized” plants often appear as if they were an after-thought, while really tall ones can compete with or dwarf the clubhouse itself. Of course, this is only a general principle. It is usually a good idea to provide shade for the clubhouse on the south or west side by placing a tree there that will eventually tower over the structure.


The hallmark of a good landscape design is a thorough site analysis. Whether you perform it yourself or hire a designer to help you, this step is a “must do.” Obtain a map of the clubhouse, either architect's blueprints or a survey or plat. Lay a sheet of tracing paper over the top and darken-in the outline of the building. Make notes of overhangs, footprints and utilities as well. Awareness of these features will be important when it comes time to install plant material.

Many factors are important to the failure or success of a landscape planting including soil drainage, sun/shade from nearby trees or buildings, wind patterns, slope of the land, radiated sunlight off the clubhouse siding and radiated heat from sidewalks and driveways. Any factor that influences the plant material should be noted. Draw from your experiences elsewhere on the course to provide guidance.

In the eventual landscape design, each and every limitation that is documented in the site analysis must be mitigated. You can achieve this several ways. For example, if an area drains poorly, you can remove the soil, install drain tiles and replace it with a growing medium that has increased percolation capacity. Another solution may be to simply remove the plants that are struggling and replace them with “bog” or “wetland” types. Still another solution might be to install a sculpture, bridge, water feature or non-plant material item.


Before you get carried away with picking out petunias and crape myrtles, use an intermediary step to transition from the site analysis to the actual plant selection. Once again, lay a sheet of tracing paper over the original architectural drawings and tape it down. Better yet, lay it over the site analysis. This will provide you all the necessary information to begin the design.

Start the bubble diagram by drawing shapes that you are comfortable with. Circles, ovals, squares, rectangles or anything in-between are fine. As you draw, keep in mind that each bubble (shape) will become a grouping of plants or a large single plant such as a tree or large shrub. A typical clubhouse design will contain anywhere between 12 and 25 bubbles.

Above all, fight the urge to identify specific plants. Instead, identify the shapes generically, such as “large broad-leaf tree,” “shady groundcover mass” or “water feature.” After all of the bubbles are drawn, you can pick out plants with advice from garden centers, university extension faculty and fellow superintendents. Localized information about how a particular plant has performed is invaluable.


In horticultural circles, the catch phrase of the decade is “right plant, right place.” While it might seem trite at first glance, it is a very effective phrase in that it causes us to focus on the specific needs of a plant and its suitability for a particular design.

Endeavor to match up the conditions noted in the site analysis with the growing requirements of plant materials that are adapted well to your area. In addition to the sun/shade, drainage and color of the plant, consider the eventual size. One of the most pitiful sights in landscaping is when size has been ignored. The result? A small perennial lost in an ocean of mulch, or the opposite — overgrown shrubs that need constant shearing to keep them from taking over the walkways and steps.


All this talk about ornamental plants, and none about turf. Heresy! In fact, a well-sited hunk of sod fits right in with the right plant, right place principle. Turf can be used to solve problems as well as for aesthetic purposes, yet it can be a problem itself if not placed in a suitable location. All of the rules for growing turfgrasses apply: proper sunlight, airflow, good drainage — as well as a large enough space to encourage vigorous growth. This requirement seems to be closely associated with clubhouses and parking lots, in that turf is often planted in narrow or odd shaped strips adjacent to sidewalks, driveways and parking dividers. Avoid pieces of sod that are less than 4 to 5 feet in width. These narrow or oddly shaped spaces are difficult to irrigate and fertilize effectively, and suffer from various environmental stressors including radiated heat, salt spray and foot traffic.

Sizeable chunks of sod are calming and welcoming; they also serve to highlight nearby plants that have interesting colors and/or textures. Well-cared-for turf provides a neutral material that focuses attention on the ornamental plants. This principle is called mass/void, where the annual/perennial flowers, groundcovers, bulbs, shrubs and trees are the mass, and the turf is the void.


The last step in good clubhouse design is to evaluate. Evaluation should occur on several levels. The logical first attempt is an in-house consideration of how easy it's been to care for the plants. Positive and negative comments from golfers and other clubhouse users should be documented as well.

After a season of growth, convene the original group(s) that provided input for goal setting and the establishment of an overall theme. These folks will also have received feedback from their clients and associates that will be valuable in the future success of the landscape.

Don't be too upset if most people didn't like the babbling brook or the gracefully arching ornamental grasses that you enjoyed so much. Likewise, don't be surprised if plants that were supposed to grow well in full sun struggled because the site didn't receive full sun after all. These occurrences are common, and can be rectified based on the information you've learned by gathering input.

John C. Fech is an extension horticulture specialist with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension (Lincoln, Neb.).

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