Turf Magazine - February, 2009

SOUTH FEATURES

Profits From the Ground Up

Small-scale topdressing builds lawns and businesses
By Don Dale

Photos Courtesy of Earth & Turf, Unless Otherwise Noted.

Small, self-propelled topdressers like this one from Earth & Turf Products can be maneuvered into lawns large and small, increasing business for landscapers and lawn maintenance companies.

Business has been growing in recent years for Wesley Segars, and the stimulus has come from an unusual source: a small, highly maneuverable topdressing machine. In addition, lawns are looking better in and around Greensboro, Ga.

Segars is owner of GardenCare, LLC, and he says that the addition of a topdressing unit has given his company a boost. He bought an Earth & Turf machine, and it has enabled him to add more employees and more profit to his company. Topdressing, especially with selected compost, builds soil and turf. When neighbors of his clients see how nice their lawns look, they want their lawns topdressed, too.

“It has helped us separate ourselves from the competition,” Segars says, because it is an add-on that not only improves the quality of turfgrass and soil in general, topdressers are equipment that not everybody in the residential lawn care business owns. He has now grown his company to eight employees.

John Bentley, general manager of Earth & Turf Products in New Holland, Pa., confirms that topdressing has been booming across the country. The company started in 1997 as a designer and manufacturer of topdressing equipment, which has really taken off lately.

“It was really a fledgling industry at that time,” Bentley says, primarily because many landscapers and lawn maintenance professionals didn’t understand the process or the benefits. These have long been acknowledged in the golf and sports turf industries, and large-scale topdressing equipment is a staple of good grass management in those venues. The advent of smaller equipment has made topdressing an option on even the smallest lawns.

From about 2004, the landscape industry began to embrace the small-scale topdressing methodology. Small topdressers can now spread compost and sand throughout new housing developments and on established lawns. It can also be done as an organic operation if so desired.

There aren’t a lot of companies that do topdressing as a sole business, Bentley says. Most of his sales are to two types of clients: managers of school or college athletic fields, as well as parks and recreation management; and landscapers and lawn maintenance companies. Used along with other turf management methods, topdressing boosts the quality of grass and soil health.

“You’ve got to get rid of compaction on a field or lawn,” Bentley says. “Aeration and topdressing do that.”

Bentley says that small equipment can be used to evenly apply sand, compost of various sorts or shredded topsoil, all of which can be mixed in any combination to suit the needs of a specific site. The applicator has to look at the soil type and variety of grass—as well as take soil tests where necessary. The method is also commonly used as a means of leveling uneven lawns. He notes that material of about 3/8-inch or smaller can be utilized, and the proliferation of companies that make and sell compost has given topdressers a good choice of materials to use.

By broadcasting compost, small topdressers have brought the latest in fertilizer technology to any lawn care business. Small-scale topdressers can be towed through yard gates and used to apply sand and compost to turfgrass.

These small machines have a hopper that holds material, but not a mixing mechanism. They have a belt or other means of mechanically conveying material to the rear of the machine, where a brush or paddle expeller propels the material backward onto the lawn. They have wide tires that leave a soft footprint, and a narrow body that allows them to enter through yard gates. Some units have a motor or PTO connection for power, some are self-propelled, and some are towed. The materials can be spread onto established turf or newly exposed soil and then tilled-in prior to planting turf or other landscaping plants. The equipment can also be used to spread crumbed rubber onto artificial turf fields.

Earth & Turf (www.earthandturf.com) machines range from hand-push machines to a self-propelled unit. Millcreek Mfg. (www.millcreekmfg.com) and Turfco (www.turfco.com) are also among the companies that manufacture topdressers.

Segars first purchased his Earth & Turf 100SP primarily to level lawns by spreading sand and a chicken manure extract. However, he began looking around for better nutritional materials to suit a more “green” image, and found what has been for him an ideal compost: an organic ERTH Products compost (www.erthproducts.com) enriched with extra nitrogen and other supplements for the St. Augustine, zoysia and bermudagrass grown in his area.

“We’ve been able to put on one application of compost, and that’s been it for all season,” Segars says. The bulk of his applications are made from March through May. He has devised a lawn care program that consists of a tight spring mowing, a dethatching, aeration with a Ryan self-propelled core aerator, and a treatment of ERTH Products compost. Aeration combined with topdressing allows good penetration of the organic material into the rootzone.

He transports the topdresser to job sites in the bed of a Dodge Ram 3500, accessed by a metal ramp. A 7-foot-by-14-foot trailer holds 15 cubic yards of compost, and a tender can keep the topdresser’s hopper filled by dipping the compost with a 25-gallon bucket. The 100SP is compact and has a tight turning radius, and Segars says he has had it on 60-percent slopes with no rollovers. He generally topdresses upscale yards of 3,000 to 25,000 square feet. This can be a one-man or two-man operation.

Photo Courtesy of Gardencare.
Wesley Segars has grown his business on compact topdressers and organic compost.

Segars says he often mixes the compost with a little sand before putting it in the hopper, and any sod laid over that establishes more quickly than usual and grows in the sod seams quickly.

Segars also plans on using the topdresser to apply pine mulch to a landscape, getting an even spread by opening the expulsion gate a little wider.

What the topdressing process has done for clients’ lawns is nothing compared to what it has done for Segars’ business. “It just exploded,” he says. The difference between lawns that have been topdressed and those that have not is obvious within two weeks. It’s advertising that is highly visible from the curb.

“We’ve done three times the number of clients that we did last year,” in the area of topdressing, he says. Because he’s only had his machine for two years, he sees a lot of growth in the future, even in a poor economy. He is moving his business into total landscape maintenance rather than just lawn care.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.