Two Different Approaches to Lawn Disease Control
Although lawn disease prevention has been part of America’s landscaping services mix since Americans began appreciating and enjoying their lawns, it still remains a perplexing service to feature for many of today’s landscaping companies.
Here are two different perspectives on educating and selling turfgrass disease management, one from a lawn care company in Texas and the other from a company in Florida. While their viewpoints on how disease management is integrated into their companies’ services are different, both companies are in agreement that lawn diseases can become a big problem for their clients’ properties and must be addressed.
Deliver the service only when needed
Prior to starting Emerald Lawns in Austin, Texas, Luke Hawthorne worked as a sales rep for a large corporate lawn care franchise. Whenever he ran across a lawn with spotting, he was instructed to use disease as a scare tactic in order to close the sale.
“Unfortunately, there seems to be too much word out on the street that whenever the phrase ‘lawn disease’ is used by landscapers, customers run the other way,” he says. “It was brought on by too many large unscrupulous lawn care company campaigns that to this day still have their evil grip on the landscaping sales process.”
Now that Hawthorne runs his own business, he tells clients that no lawn care company he knows of can prevent lawn diseases, especially in central Texas where brown patch, take-all root rot and grey leaf spot commonly infect lawns. Emerald’s 6,600 lawn customers receive on average five to eight applications per year; and its 700 tree customers obtain on average four to seven treatments annually. The company added 1,500 new customers last year.
“Contributing elements to disease are always going to be there no matter what,” says Hawthorne. “What high-integrity landscapers need to convey to their customers about lawn disease is that their services can keep diseases under control, but not totally eradicate them.” The better course of action, he continues, is to educate customers on proper turfgrass care, especially mowing and watering, which most property owners can control.
Too many lawn care service providers are not discussing lawn disease control meaningfully with their clients, says Hawthorne. They are placing too much emphasis on (and trying to sell) disease prevention services regardless of whether customers’ lawns will benefit from them or not.
“Preventive fungicides do more harm than good in most cases as they kill the beneficial organisms in the soil along with the bad ones,” he claims. Even so, he admits if he has a customer with a lawn that gets a stiff outbreak of brown patch every year, he will offer a preventive application in an effort to manage the fungus.
“Out of 6,600 customers and nine years of doing business, I can count on two hands the instances that this was needed,” says Hawthorne.
Emerald Lawns has had good success suppressing disease outbreaks by using organic fertilizer, and resorts to using synthetics only when a lawn needs a quick improvement. He is convinced over-fertilization is a major factor in promoting the eruption and spread of brown patch, take-all root rot and grey leaf spot.
“If too much fertilizer is applied and weather conditions are favorable, fungus will be virtually uncontrollable regardless of how much or how often fungicide is applied,” says Hawthorne.
Hawthorne knows a lot of lawn professionals in his region who charge for disease control/preventive treatments, but his company provides it as part of its service package for no additional cost. Emerald Lawns also conducts free soil sampling to determine upfront if there are any problems. “If the soil is super poor, we want to get into those lawns with our new Holganix bionutritional application. This gets us a lot of referrals.”
Florida lawns require disease service
Turf disease management occupies a lot of Nick Frey’s time at Top Cut Lawn Care Services, Orlando, Florida. As director of environmental services, Frey is busy adding disease management as a new business service for Top Cut Lawn Care.
“Lawn care providers face one of their biggest challenges when organizing a disease sale,” says Frey. “The sale has to be proactive and focused on disease management. Lawn and ornamental companies that do a good job in that sales process can do very well with this recurring sale.”
Lawn disease, pest management and fertilization are integral parts of Top Cut’s service delivery model. Frey sees a core connection to client satisfaction by performing these services in-house versus subcontracting them. “In Florida, we have a number of diseases that can be either a business line or a cause for client dissatisfaction,” he says.
All of the company’s crews are integrated for all services, including disease management. “We have 12 crews, all of which are cross-trained to apply all types of products on turf, shrubs and trees,” says Frey. “Training is always key to our success in service delivery. In turfgrass management you must be ahead of the curve by being able to identify problems before they exist.
“At Top Cut, we continually train our staff in IPM (integrated pest management). All our crews are integrated. We also have invested heavily in specialized equipment, including IPM/turf trucks, utility vehicles with tanks and booms and Z-sprayers. Each piece of equipment is specialized for the products we apply and the sites we serve,” he adds.
Frey says it’s just as important to educate customers about diseases as it is to educate the company’s technicians. “Letting our customers know the timing of each disease, that soil-borne pathogens are recurrent in the same areas and offering them solutions that can help alleviate the symptoms are major points,” says Frey. “Selling a disease program requires the lawn and ornamental operator to gather information from their client’s site, as well as educating the client on the pathogen.”
Top Cut approaches control of turf-damaging diseases preventively. Large patch, brown patch and take-all root rot are the most common fungi creating problems on its clients’ lawns. These diseases generally persist in the same areas and appear under the same conditions from season to season. This takes much of the guesswork out of planning preventive treatments, says Frey.
While disease is problem specific, Top Cut’s customer contract items are usually included as “additional to contract” and priced accordingly. “Some clients like to have an all-inclusive contract whereas disease control management will then require some basic assumptions for budgeting purpose,” says Frey.
He adds: “Any of our normal liquid lawn and ornamental tools are capable of performing a disease application, once properly calibrated. All of our offerings are based on preventive applications, which we find is the key. With manufacturers offering product replacement guarantees, it has become very easy to offer a guaranteed service to a customer. Several of the large fungicide manufacturers are currently offering guarantees as long as one year when fungicides are applied correctly.”
Top Cut’s applicators are trained to recognize the optimum conditions on clients’ lawns for disease outbreaks – soil temperatures and the high-pH soils on some properties. In the case of recognizing and managing lawn diseases in hot and humid central Florida, knowledge is power. Frey says his technicians and managers are very good at identifying the causes of diseased yellow turf, and creating a repetitive business line for the company.
Total management the way to go
Bobby Walls, product development manager for lawn chemical manufacturer FMC, encourages lawn care companies to offer a total lawn care management package to safeguard against onset of lawn disease.
“Most of the larger lawn care companies provide total management of residential lawns, which helps keep lawn disease outbreaks at a minimum,” says Walls. “Yet it’s difficult to sell preventive disease control specifically as a service unless the customer can see evidence of the disease forming in their lawn. It’s like selling an insurance policy. You really have to educate the customer about what could happen even though they can’t see it.”
Although it’s very difficult to predict what will be the most predominant disease outbreak in lawns, Walls finds that professional lawn maintenance can reduce the onset of disease. He says three elements must be present to cause lawn disease — a species or cultivar of turfgrass susceptible to disease, a pathogen (fungus) and environmental conditions favorable to the spread of the pathogen, such as excess moisture, snow cover or excessive heat or cold.
Many lawn care companies find that the key to offering a good lawn disease service is providing quality and consistent applicator training, and most companies are doing a good job of that, says Walls. There is an incredible amount of information about turf diseases on the Internet, much of it regularly updated by chemical product manufacturers and turfgrass experts at land grant universities. Nobody can blame a lack of resources for not being knowledgeable or up-to-date about diseases in their particular markets.
“When I go to field days I find many lawn care companies emphasizing attendance for their employees and getting in on the proper training,” says Walls. “There is a lot of movement among landscape organizations to require certification of its members if they present themselves as lawn disease experts to their customers. Many of the major lawn care companies are conducting in-house training for lawn disease, and they are encouraging their staff to attend trainings at turfgrass institutes and agricultural extension services.”
Walls also points to the increasing interest among consumers to be environmentally responsible when it comes to their lawns. “Although big box stores still sell mostly synthetic chemicals for lawn care,” he says, “certified lawn professionals have a growing inventory of non-synthetic (organic) alternatives.”
COVER PHOTO: EMERALD LAWNS