The fastest growing turf business in the United States probably isn't mowing, lawn renovations, hydroseeding or sodding. Not in this anemic housing market anyway.
Homeowners, tired of dug up backyards and muddy paws tracking into their houses, appreciate the synthetic turf dog runs provided by Steve Sochaki's installation crew.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF FOREVERLAWN.
The fastest growing turf business might be the installation of synthetic turf. We say might, because whatever data there are on the size of that market and its growth potential isn't being shared by the synthetic turf industry. Outsiders can only look to the explosive growth of synthetic turf on sports fields and on commercial and residential properties in the arid U.S. Southwest.
ForeverLawn Northern Ohio
Cleveland metro area, northern OhioServices:
Synthetic turf, lawn maintenance, landscape installations and design/buildEmployees:
10 (peak season)Website: www.foreverlawn.com/nohio.html
The issue there is water: its scarcity and its increasing cost. Property owners in many communities in the Southwest are being encouraged (in some cases with cash incentives) to replace their turfgrass lawns with drought-resistant landscapes or synthetic turf.
Before we go any farther, let's agree on some terminology. Let's use the word "turf" to describe synthetic turf. We'll use the proper term "turfgrass" to describe the living, growing groundcover that most of us treasure on our lawns, parks, campuses and sports fields.
Steve Sochacki, 40, owner of ForeverLawn Northern Ohio, Parma, Ohio, is one of a growing number of landscape professionals that recommends and installs synthetic turf. He says it's a legitimate replacement for turfgrass in specific areas of residential and commercial properties. It's also a great playground surface and it's now also being used on rooftops.
Sochacki came to synthetic turf from the landscape industry. After working summers with a local landscape company, he ended up acquiring the business in the 1990s when the owner got injured. At that point the company was providing mostly residential mowing and maintenance.
"We were doing about 30 or 40 yards a day," recalls Sochacki. "It was crazy. Business was booming in the 1990s. Times were good."
As time went on Sochacki began installing plant material and designing and building hardscapes, too. Then about six years ago, a customer asked if he could install synthetic turf in his yard. The customer had dogs and was tired of them tearing up his yard and tracking mud into his house.
"I started researching synthetic turf and came across a product called K9Grass." Says Sochacki. "I didn't make that particular sale, but I was impressed with the product."
Relatively new service
K9Grass is one of several different specialty synthetic turf products promoted and offered by ForeverLawn. Brothers Brian and Dale Karmie started installing synthetic turf in and around Albuquerque, N.M., in 2002. Two years later they founded ForeverLawn, which quickly expanded into Tucson, El Paso and central Florida.
Today, ForeverLawn has an established dealer network with offices in more than 29 cities, servicing areas in 30 states, according to its website, .
Turf's Here to Stay
Synthetic turf has come a long way since the Monsanto Company developed a grass-like product in the early 1960s that, at the time, had no obvious market.
While the first installation of synthetic turf for sports use occurred in Providence, R.I., it wasn't until a few years later in 1966 when turf replaced turfgrass in the Houston AstroDome that it became widely known in the United States. The AstroDome originally had a turfgrass playing surface, but when the translucent roof of the structure was darkened to reduce glare that was causing baseball players to misjudge fly balls, the turfgrass began dying. Thus was launched AstroTurf. Within a decade it had replaced turfgrass on high-profile baseball and football fields across the United States.
Some municipalities and schools are replacing the turfgrass and woodchips in their playgrounds with synthetic turf that meets ASTM fall safety criteria and can take a lot more play with less maintenance.
In spite of their proliferation, these artificial turf surfaces weren't without critics - lots of critics. These included players who complained about their abrasiveness and their hardness, which they claimed shortened their careers.
During the 1980s, the introduction of fast-draining sand-based sports fields and improved turfgrass varieties caused many professional teams and schools to replace these first-generation artificial turf fields with natural grass playing surfaces.
The developers of turf, however, weren't about to give up. Correctly judging that sports would command more of the public's interest and participation, they developed and brought improved products to the market. These are engineered turf products that look and provide playing conditions comparable to turfgrass while holding up under significantly more use. And many of the same teams and schools that had abandoned turf for turfgrass during the 1980s came back to synthetic turf.
Turf manufacturers and suppliers in the revived market for fake grass have been in hot competition to serve the sports surface market the past 20 years. But it's only been within the past decade that they've turned their attention to the landscape, grounds and municipal markets.
While the debate over the benefits of turf over turfgrass continues on the environmental as well as aesthetical front, turf is here to stay and will almost certainly find increased use on our landscapes.
Sochacki is a ForeverLawn dealer, but he still "loves doing landscaping," he says. And his company still provides mowing/maintenance and installs the occasional hardscape, including a recent stamped-concrete patio with sitting wall on a residential property. Even so, more of his energy is directed toward selling and installing synthetic turf.
"I eat, sleep and breathe the synthetic turf business now," says Sochacki earnestly.
He can show clients a range of products for different landscape areas. In addition to K9Grass, he offers ForeverLawn's Playground Grass, SportsGrass, SpashGrass and GolfGreens by ForeverLawn. Each of these products is manufactured with unique performance characteristics for different landscaped areas. Regardless, each product looks amazingly like real turfgrass, claims Sochacki.
"What we like to do is to take a particular landscape challenge or need and design a ForeverLawn solution around it," he adds. "While we've installed a lot of yards, one of the most popular products in our market is K9Grass. A lot of people have more than one dog and the dogs just tear up their lawns until their backyards are just mud. People get tired of wiping off muddy paws."
This particular turf product is woven in such a way that it drains well. It also contains an anti-bacterial, which is added to the fibers in the factory in Dalton, Ga., where it's made. Most of the synthetic turf sold and installed in the United States is manufactured in north Georgia.
Sochacki's company has also installed synthetic turf on playgrounds and on rooftops. The Playground Grass System (there are three versions) has an ASTM safety rating up to 12 feet and also contains an anti-microbial, he points out.
Installing the 15-foot-wide strips of turf requires excavation and ground leveling equipment, experience, and a significant amount of labor, including some hands-and-knees work.
The process starts by clearing the site, preparing the desired finish grade, creating and compacting the proper sub-base, laying out the turf rolls and trimming them to fit the space, securing and seaming the rolls, applying rubber infill (in some but not all types of installations), and, lastly, cleanup. Each step is done in order.
Sochacki says the biggest challenge in growing the turf installation portion of his business is customer education.
While he's tried television and radio advertising, and some of his clients have come via Internet searches, nothing works like active selling, he says.
"I found that what works best for me is getting out there and talking to people. When I show people the product they're surprised by how much it looks like grass [turfgrass]. Then it's mostly a matter of building relationships," says Sohacki.
Synthetic turf is not an in- expensive landscape solution, not in the short term anyway. Installation costs run from $10 to $12 a square foot. But, considering how long the turf lasts (sports fields are generally warranted for eight years, for example) and that it doesn't require mowing or inputs such as irrigation, fertilizers and pest controls, many customers see it as a cost-effective alternative to turfgrass.
Not that it doesn't require maintenance or cleaning; it does, especially a product used by dogs. Like the carpet inside a home, synthetic turf will collect dirt and other debris, such as leaves, and requires periodic cleaning.
Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 27 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.