Molasses. It’s the perfect ingredient for tasty cookies but the jury is still out on its ability to reduce thatch. So says Wendy Gelernter, Ph.D. and Larry Stowell, Ph.D. of PACE Turf, the member organization known for translating research into practical turf management recommendations.

Molasses has actually been used for decades in agriculture for a variety of purposes, including as a nutrient (it contains sulfur, potash and trace minerals) and as a “sticker” that helps pesticides adhere to leaf surfaces. But molasses is also frequently touted as having the ability to control thatch on golf course turf.

Gelernter says, “The theory is that when applied to the soil on a seven- to 10-day schedule, the sugars in molasses promote the growth of microorganisms. These microbes then supposedly feed on the organic matter in the thatch, breaking it down so that thatch depth is decreased. As a result, the claim is that one or more aerifications can be deleted from your turf management program.”

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Stowell says there is some logic to the use of molasses — the application of high concentrations of sugars can stimulate microbial growth. But Stowell says a few questions should pop into your mind when you hear claims that molasses reduces thatch. These include:

Are all microbes equally good? Do the sugars from molasses have the ability to selectively promote the growth only of microbes that are good for turf growth? Or are all microbes — including fungi that cause diseases — equally stimulated?
Is high microbial activity necessarily a good thing? Since anaerobic soils (soils that have low levels of oxygen) are a problem, especially on golf course greens, is it wise to encourage the growth of more microbes that will suck even more oxygen out of the root zone?
Where is the data? Though there have been a few articles published on the use of molasses as a thatch reduction tool, results have been inconclusive and/or disappointing. Bert McCarty and his research team at Clemson University showed in 2006 that weekly applications of molasses, made over a period of two years, had no effect on thatch depth for Crenshaw bentgrass, but that it was beneficial when used on A-1 bentgrass. More recently, a study conducted at Pennsylvania State University by David Moody, Max Schlossberg and Mike Fidanza concluded that there were no differences in organic matter decomposition between untreated turf and turf treated with molasses (the product I-MOL). The authors did note that treated turf showed a decrease in lignin and cellulose (both constituents of plant cells), but found that these results were “inconclusive, warranting additional investigations.”
Finally, and most importantly, does molasses allow you to delete aerification procedures? Stowell says, “We hate to say this, and we long to be proven wrong someday, but you should always be wary of products that claim they are good substitutes for aerification and topdressing. It is hard to imagine how the many benefits of aerification and sand topdressing — from oxygen movement, to water movement, to production of even and firm surfaces, to disease reduction, to salinity management, etc. etc. — could be replaced by the application of any single product.”

The bottom line, says Gelernter, “The data is currently inconclusive on the use of molasses or molasses based products for reduction of thatch. While some other products, such as CPR and Thatch-X, have shown promising results, they should not be used as substitutes for management techniques like aerification and sand topdressing.”

Additional turf management topics are available to members of PACE Turf on the organization’s  Web site at: www.paceturf.org.

SportsField Management