Turf Magazine - February, 2009

NATIONAL FEATURES

The Basics of IPM

An ongoing approach to managing pests
By Patrick White
Photo Courtesy of Lawn Care Pros, www.lawncarepros.biz.
Steve Anagnos completes a soil test taken from a customer's yard. His company, Lawn Care Pros, uses IPM to manage lawns on Martha's Vineyard.

Integrated pest management (IPM) was developed as early as the 1950s and was promoted in federal legislation in 1972 by President Richard Nixon. Green industry groups and extension agents have been promoting IPM for decades, so everyone working in the lawn care and landscape maintenance business should have a basic understanding of the concept.

While IPM has gained a strong foothold in industries ranging from farming to food service—in some cases it’s a regulatory requirement—it’s been slow to be adopted in the green industry because most customers don’t understand what it is. “IPM means something to those in various industries, but usually not to homeowners. Their eyes just glaze over,” says Todd Hancock with ELS Landscaping (www.elslandscape.com) in Texas. “They understand words like ‘organic’ or ‘natural.’ Many people want to go organic, they just don’t have the weed or pest tolerance required,” says Hancock.

IPM presents a middle-ground approach, placing plant health as a priority while emphasizing nonchemical options first and then, as a last resort, the least-toxic treatment option. And, if it’s explained properly, it’s a concept that many homeowners can get behind. Formulating an IPM program also depends on the mindset of the individual homeowner. “Some of them don’t want a single dandelion in their yard, and others can live with a few weeds,” he adds.

Commercial landscaping customers are becoming more knowledgeable about IPM, Hancock observes. In fact, he is currently working with the U.S. EPA to present trainings through its Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (www.epa.gov/oppbppd1/pesp) designed to educate building owners and managers. Likewise, various industry groups, including PLANET, are promoting the IPM approach. “And, the biggest driving force you’re going to see in IPM is the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED scorecard,” says Hancock. “They haven’t defined it very well, but they do require it. A lot of the U.S. Green Building Council’s requirements for IPM are not anything out of the ordinary: 72 hours notice for routine applications, 24 hours notice after emergency applications, use the least toxic options, those types of things.”

Regardless of whether it’s a commercial or residential landscape, Hancock says one of the biggest challenges in implementing an IPM program can be weed control. “There really isn’t an environmentally friendly herbicide, that’s just the way it is,” he explains. “We don’t have the same arsenal available to us for weeds that we have for insect control. There are a slew of environmentally friendly things that we can do as far as insect control: insects, grubs and so on. That’s where landscape applicators can make their biggest inroads.”

Still, weed control can be accomplished if a comprehensive approach is followed. “There is research that’s been conducted by Texas A&M showing that if you follow a proper, balanced program based on soil tests and use proper irrigation, within one season you’ll have a lot less weeds, even with no use of herbicides,” points out Hancock.

Other aspects of IPM also require a similar “big-picture” approach. Scouting is important, but the scouting has to be done properly. For example, Hancock explains, “If you look for grubs underneath a streetlight, you’re going to find a higher number. You have to take a representative sample because you might not have a widespread problem.” He adds that installing native, well-adapted, disease-resistant plants is important to avoid the long-term need to spray and treat. Even the location of landscape plantings—not too close to the house or, in commercial installations, dumpster areas—can have a dramatic impact on the number of turfgrass pests and rodents attracted to the area.

While the approach seems to make sense, how many lawn care companies are scouting for insects before spraying and following the other tenants of IPM? “A small percentage; a very small percentage,” says Hancock.

Another lawn care company that takes the practice to heart is the Broccolo Group (www.broccologroup.com) in Rochester, N.Y. “Our Web site and all of our literature talks about IPM,” says founder Laurie Broccolo, who authored a chapter in the EPA’s “Handbook of Integrated Pest Management for Turf and Ornamentals.” She also writes regularly for the city newspaper’s “Going Green” blog.

Photo Courtesy of Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care.
Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care in Rochester, N.Y., takes pride in producing the high-quality results customers expect by using integrated pest management.

The Broccolo Group builds a minimum of five site visits into its annual lawn care agreements with customers. Additional inspections are built into service calls if needed. Each program is customized as far as spot-spraying and fertilizing. “We treat for weeds when needed, and if crabgrass has been a problem, we’ll target areas like hot, sunny spots on the lawn that are more prone to crabgrass,” she explains. “As far as insect control, it’s very minimal. For example, we don’t apply preventative grub control. We treat only those areas that exceed a threshold of five or six grubs per square foot, and we explain that to clients. That’s something they appreciate: that we’re not spraying pesticides all over the entire property, yet we’re still providing them with good results.”

The company does not provide mowing services, which is handled by either the homeowner or a separate contractor. Broccolo says, “We also talk to our customers about the fact that we’re partners; that we’re only one-third of the equation. They, and their mowing/watering practices, are just as important as our component.” She says that, particularly when using an IPM approach, it’s important to meet personally with clients to explain the approach to them and to gauge their expectations.

Photo Courtesy of Grow Landscapes, www.growlandscapes.net.
Grow Landscapes utilizes IPM to care for customers' lawns in northern Virginia. The company schedules seven visits a year to inspect each yard, and says that, “It's an important part of this technique to be on top of pest outbreaks before the populations get out of control. Regularly scheduled field monitoring and pest record-keeping are the cornerstones of an IPM program.”

Alice Kirchhoff, customer service manager for Rainbow Lawn Care (www.rainbowlawncare.net) in Minnesota, agrees that communicating with the property owner is critical to a successful IPM program. “We try our best to incorporate IPM into everything we do. A lot of that involves educating our customers on proper cultural practices, such as sharp blades, high mowing heights and watering infrequently, but deeply. We strive to make sure our customers understand how proper practices can prevent pathogens and insects from coming in and causing damage to the lawn. We try to tell them that promoting good root growth will create a nice, thick turf that will crowd out weeds and resist disease.”

Rainbow also puts an emphasis on aeration as a means of promoting healthy turf that will resist weeds and insects, and thus the need to apply additional treatments. The company also promotes the use of multiple cultivars of grass. “You don’t want a complete monoculture of, say, just Kentucky bluegrass,” Kirchhoff explains. “Maintaining various types of grasses can make the overall lawn more able to withstand some types of pest and insect problems that primarily target one type of grass.”

Kirchhoff points out that it requires more extensive training to educate technicians using an IPM approach, “It does take more training, particularly when it comes to things like weed and disease identification. Turf diseases, unless you’re really looking closely, just look like brown spots on the lawn. They’re not easy diagnoses to make, so there’s a lot more training provided to our technicians. We make sure that they’re inspecting to see how things are going every time they’re on a site. We do rely on our customers as well; we try to educate them and really try to make sure we’re available to them so they can contact us. Then we try to get out to their lawn as quickly as possible to arrest any problem that might be developing before it becomes too big of a problem.”

In general, because Rainbow markets its IPM/environmental approach to customers interested in such practices, they tend to have a higher weed tolerance. Kirchoff says, “There’s always going to be a contingent of customers who just want instant results. They want the dark green lawn; they want 6 pounds of nitrogen per year. But, there definitely are more customers out there who prefer a ‘healthy lawn’ approach.”

IPM Explained

While IPM programs must be tailored to each industry, site and situation, the EPA defines the approach generally as “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices” undertaken in a way that manages pest damage “with the least possible hazard to people, property and the environment.” The EPA offers the following guidelines to help get you started, and your local extension service office can provide landscape and location-specific IPM assistance.

Set action thresholds

Before taking any pest control action, IPM first sets an action threshold, a point at which pest populations or environmental conditions indicate that action must be taken. Seeing a single pest does not always mean control is needed.

Monitor and identify pests

Not all insects, weeds and other living organisms require control. Many organisms are innocuous, and some are even beneficial. IPM programs work to monitor for pests and identify them accurately, so that appropriate control decisions can be made in conjunction with action thresholds. This monitoring and identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed, or that the wrong kind of pesticide will be used.

Prevention

As a first line of pest control, IPM programs work to manage the crop, lawn or indoor space to prevent pests from becoming a threat. This may mean using cultural methods, such as selecting pest-resistant varieties. These control methods can be effective and cost-efficient and present little to no risk to people or the environment.

Control

Once monitoring, identification and action thresholds indicate that pest control is required, and preventive methods are no longer effective or available, IPM programs then evaluate the proper control method both for effectiveness and risk. Effective, less risky pest controls are chosen first, including highly targeted chemicals. Then, additional pest control methods would be employed, such as targeted spraying of pesticides. Broadcast spraying of nonspecific pesticides is a last resort.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/www.epa.gov.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.