The Turf Company is committed to providing quality turf

PHOTOS BY DON DALE.
Xerilawn is a proprietary blend designed to look like premium bluegrass but uses half the water.

Darwin McKay is owner of The Turf Company in Meridian, Idaho, a sod supplier that now provides grass to the industry in several intermountain and northwestern states. Its specialty is varieties or blends that meet specific needs, whether tall fescues, fine fescues, bluegrass or blends.

Over the years, McKay has become a prominent figure in the western landscape industry, speaking out not only to promote his business, but also to provide quality information to the green industry, as well as homeowners and other turfgrass users. From his video ads on YouTube to Master Gardener programs, his is a familiar face to those in the region involved in the use of turfgrass.

“The thing I’ve always believed in is information-based marketing,” says McKay, who founded his company on the outskirts of Boise in 1979. This former U.S. Army officer with a degree in ag education, who also worked in the J.R. Simplot food processing research and development division and was a vocational ag teacher for seven years, quit all of his other enterprises to grow sod full-time in 1980. His office is still located on that original plot of land, and he currently grows over 1,100 acres of sod in three states. His peak year for sales was 2006, with around $6 million worth of grass sold, though volume has decreased with the economic downturn.

At an annual meeting of the American Sod Producers Association, now Turf Producers International, in 1982, he became aware of the availability of cool-season turfgrasses other than the standard bluegrasses. He also heard that some growers in other states were actually blending species for special purposes, something that wasn’t being done in Idaho at the time.

He saw opportunities to solve problems, as well as to increase his market. In 1986, he planted his first turf-type tall fescue. Following this success, his company has worked with seed companies, research institutions and independent breeders to come up with solutions to grass growers’ problems.

Bob Johnson, the company’s business manager, says the company aims to provide quality turfgrass to buyers within 600 miles of its Idaho farms and another in the Reno, Nev., area. Sales have actually extended farther because of the demand for practical turfgrass solutions. They have sold cool-season sod as far south as Santa Barbara, Calif., and Sedona, Ariz., to meet specific challenges.

One of The Turf Company’s solid sellers is a proprietary blend called Xerilawn, its big attraction being low-water use due to heat tolerance and deep rooting. Different species within the mix give it good qualities throughout a wide range of soil and weather conditions. It contains some commercial hybrids, an experimental variety and two native grasses of the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain region. The identities of the grasses are proprietary, with a patent being sought for the blend.

Darwin McKay believes in efficient production of aridadapted sod blends.

It’s easy to see that this type of blend, which was developed and started selling in 2005, takes some company initiative and commitment. The percentage of each species in Xerilawn has evolved over the past four years as the company has worked with the blend, Johnson says, but it is designed to look like a uniform lawn through the growing season, and the components have been tested under university research conditions. The Turf Company advertises it as a blend that sends down roots to a depth of 6 feet, uses about 14 inches of water during the May to September growing season and is insect and disease resistant.

“Xerilawn was developed to give homeowners the look of a bluegrass/ryegrass blend, but only use half as much water,” says Johnson. The company is now developing a similar drought-tolerant blend for use on golf courses.

RTF, a rhizomatous tall fescue blend licensed from Barenbrug USA, is another variety from the company that touts drought and heat tolerance. Not only do these fescues send roots down to a depth of 8 feet, they also have the ability to spread laterally and fill in open spaces in the lawn. As such, RTF is more like a bermudagrass or St. Augustinegrass in its ability to repair and thicken itself.

Johnson says RTF is an unusual, patented sod blend that can handle long periods of drought and stress with high tolerance of summer heat and intense sunlight. Developed from strong forage and pasture grasses, it doesn’t enter into a semi-dormant state and lose color in July, and has low maintenance costs. It is aimed primarily at home lawns, community parks and sports fields.

The company also sells several other blends, such as Shadowmaster, a blend of fine fescues; 4EVR Blue, a blend of Kentucky bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses; Enduraturf, a shade-tolerant tall fescue blend; and Teton Blue, a premium mix of several Kentucky bluegrass varieties. In addition to home and public lawns, the blends have been used on many golf courses from California to Washington.

McKay tries to be innovative in all of his operations, including the growing of the sod. The company does sell some seed, but 98 percent of its business is in sod sales, and a significant portion is sold retail through its Meridian headquarters. From primary tillage using efficient techniques to the use of preplant NPK granular fertilizer, to the use of center-pivot and solid-set sprinklers for germination and then side-roll sprinklers for growth, to a solid fall fertility program that includes organic materials, the company tries to be efficient in the growing of premium sod that looks good to the discriminating buyer from the field to the sales outlet.

The company also conducts experiments to come up with different ways of growing and establishing turfgrass (it will install, if requested). For example, the company produces a significant percentage of its sports blend sod without netting so it can be used for sports that require cleated shoes. It was a stretch to think that this could be done with some varieties, but testing on large areas proved that netting wasn’t necessary to hold the sod together.

His other passion is in the dissemination of turgrass information, which has taken many forms over the years. For example, at various times he has been a guest on a radio show and taught water-efficient landscaping for the local water utility. In 1988, he taught the first class for the University of Idaho Master Gardener program, and he has taught similar programs to companies in the landscape trade associations for Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada, emphasizing arid-adapted plants and irrigation techniques.

“We do six or eight trade shows a year,” McKay adds, displaying different turfgrass products and providing information, such as the various brochures The Turf Company produces on its grass blends, as well as on horticultural subjects such as lawn fertility schedules. He is a big proponent of giving the public information so they can make correct choices for their lawns and other landscaping needs.

The Turf Company sells its sod as far south as California and Arizona.

He is also a fan of other media. The company maintains a Web site at www.turfcompany.com, and is active in the creation of advertisements for its products and skills. Using his media alter-ego, Dr. Lon Sodgrass, McKay produces short video segments that can be found on a TV screen in the company office, as well as on YouTube. Several of these can be found by going to www.youtube.com/turfcompany.

McKay is also a big advocate of having everyone in his company, right down to the person who answers the phone, capable of giving out good factual information and being able to answer questions in a credible way. He provides three-hour training sessions on landscaping, ranging from turf management to irrigation parts, and loves that his employees are able to be good emissaries for turfgrass.

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