What you must know to restore clients’ lawns to beauty.

Making the best turfgrass match requires knowing the site and intended usage, then selecting the varieties and cultivars that perform well in those conditions.
PHOTO: GREENER WORLD LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE

September is the ideal time to renovate existing lawns or establish new ones. Lawn maintenance professionals can grow their profits along with the grass by adopting effective preparation and installation practices and using species and cultivars that are top performers in their particular regions.

Whatever your location or size of your company, for success these basics apply. Do your homework. Track the research. Attend the turfgrass field days. Analyze the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) results. Connect with regional university and extension specialists. Network with your peers. Ask questions. Determine your clients’ wants and needs and establish guidelines that will meet their expectations.

That’s the strategy used by Stephen Guise, president of So Cal Land Maintenance, Inc., based in Anaheim, California. So Cal’s market is filled with upscale, gated suburbia, condos and HOAs, along with large retail and industrial complexes.

It works for Joseph Potrikus, as well. He’s vice president of Greener World Landscape Maintenance, Cooperstown, New York. His clients include stand-alone retail outlets and urban/suburban lots (5,000 to 10,000 square feet), as well as subdivision and rural sites up to 5 acres.

Guiding the process

“Lawn renovation and new lawn installation is about 5 percent of our business – small, but significant in what it delivers to our clients,” says Potrikus. “For our full-service customers, where we mow and manage the fertility and weed, insect and disease control, the renovation, if any, is typically confined to a small area, a trouble spot. When the problem develops, our onsite staff member will discuss it with the homeowner and recommend rectifying it when the timing is right in the fall. There is that need for patience, but most clients rely on our expertise and opt into that recommendation.”

Greener World promotes this service with specific fliers targeting the underlying problems – insect activity, weeds, poor nutrient management – that lead to the need for lawn renovations. “Occasionally our crews spot a yard that has problems and leave a card and one of the fliers,” says Potrikus.

Potrikus explains the importance of correctly identifying the underlying problem so it can be rectified. “Often, the lawn is overrun with weeds, but I can see there’s a good base of grass to work with. When I recommend eliminating the weeds first, a customer may be dubious, thinking there will be nothing left. So he’s amazed at how much grass there really is,” he says.

Greener World’s new lawn installations are mostly for construction sites or properties where major renovation has involved heavy equipment traveling back and forth across the yard. “For those sites, we need to alleviate compaction, amend the soil and then install the lawn,” Potrikus says.

When water availability is an issue, turfgrass use is all too often labeled as a poor choice. But often the problem lies with inefficient irrigation. Water usage and costs drive the California landscape market.

“We’re in an extreme drought situation that is going to get worse,” says Brian Scott, professor of horticulture and Agricultural Science Department chair at Mount San Antonio College, Walnut, California. “Irrigation technology and water management are essential to the LCOs’ future.”

Taking the proactive approach, the California Landscape Contractors Association has been heavily involved in the water efficiency legislation process starting several years ago. State legislation is now in place with wide-ranging stipulations.

For example, no site plans can be approved without accounting for how many water acres will be used. Overhead irrigation is not allowed within 6 feet of hardscape with either a renovation of over 5,000 square feet or a new installation. Cities must adopt state legislation or establish their own, more stringent, requirements.

“There are opportunities to improve the efficiency and uniformity of the irrigation system on an existing property that can cut water costs by 25 percent while retaining turfgrass in the appropriate areas,” Guise says.

Guise facilitates presentations by multiple vendors to showcase the irrigation options for his HOA and condominium clients. These presentations provide their boards with details for discussion and comparisons based on the specifics of their sites and use requirements.

“It comes down to which system can cover the guidelines for efficient area coverage, smart controllers and remote control while saving the most money and being the easiest to work with,” says Guise.

That leads to analysis of common areas and how they are being used and can be used more efficiently. “Many of the landscape renovations are linked to the irrigation decisions. It’s more cost-effective to make the changes in conjunction with the irrigation upgrade,” says Guise.

Not Always Turf

The availability of California native plants in different colors, textures and sizes has increased tenfold over the last few years, according to Stephen Guise, president of So Cal Land Maintenance, Inc. “They can be beautiful alternatives to turf nearly anywhere the lawn fills only an aesthetic role.”

Guise notes synthetic turf can be a better fit in some areas, too. He recommended synthetic turf with ceramic-coated sand particle infill as the replacement for natural grass on the strip between the sidewalk and the street for a large condominium complex where nearly every resident was a dog owner. “Even with everyone picking up after their pet, the strip had become nothing but green dirt. The irrigation system in that section now is designed to wash the urine through a sand filter where it’s deodorized and purified before being channeled into the storm drain.”

Stay with natural grass where it’s the best fit to serve a purpose, such as play areas for kids and pets. Guise says, “Most of our properties are fenced or walled in, blocking much of the air movement. In those situations, with our frequent 90-degree temperatures, the synthetics get unbelievably hot.”

Choose wisely

Turfgrass plays a key environmental role: cooling the air, providing dust control, trapping runoff, filtering the water. That helps justify its use and makes the best match of turf type and cultivars even more important.

Each state’s extension service is a great resource on turfgrasses. Look to their bulletins for how-to information and tap into their tracking of pending turf problems.

For cultivar performance, the best resource is the NTEP website (http://www.ntep.org).

Dr. Nick Christians, professor of horticulture at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, says, “Check reports for your state and the surrounding states with similar conditions. Individual universities publish lists of what they see in their trials.” (ISU’s blog is http://iaturf.blogspot.com.)

“The complicating factor is that many of the cultivars performing well in the trials are not yet available to the homeowner and probably not even to the LCO,” says Christians. “What’s available depends more on the crop and what is growing in the Northwest.”

Thus, savvy LCOs develop great working relations with reputable, knowledgeable seed vendors and sod producers.

“We use a mix of one-third bluegrass, one-third perennial ryegrass and one-third fine fescue by seed count so the balance is approximately equal in seedling production. It’s a blend our seed vendor generates based on best cultivar performance for our needs and seed availability,” says Potrikus.

For special accounts, such as lawns that were sodded with straight bluegrass and sports fields, he reviews the regional NTEP trial results and the Cornell University recommendations with his seed vendor and then relies on him to put together what is best for those sites. “He also can track down a specific cultivar if I ask for it,” says Potrikus. “It’s another instance where building long-term relationships improves our level of service.”

The turfgrass selection must match the client’s long-term budget capacity for maintenance as well. “We’re seeing response variations based on the maintenance level. Cultivars that do well with lots of fertilizer and water and a complete care program are not going to do well in low-maintenance and vice versa. Make the variety selections based on those best adapted to the specific lawn,” Christians says.

“Predicting environmental conditions is like trying to hit a moving target,” cautions Christians. “So don’t base your cultivar selections on a single year; go with the best average.”

Keep high and low temperature spikes in the equation, too, cautions Dr. Douglas Karcher, associate professor, Department of Horticulture, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “The cold winter of 2013-2014 was tough on all our warm-season turfgrasses, even zoysia grass. From a zoysia cultivar standpoint, the coarser textured Japonica fared better than the Matrella did. On the bermuda grass, the cold tolerance showed up in the big three Oklahoma bred cultivars: Latitude 36, Northbridge and Riviera. The really widely used bermuda grasses, like Tifway and common, didn’t fare well,” he explains.

That was tough for the LCOs. “Many of their customers were not paying enough attention to notice that everyone’s lawns looked bad, and the LCOs were losing jobs because of it. Some of our communications about winterkill were to educate the public that the problems were not what their LCOs was doing; it was a fluke of the weather. Even if the homeowner didn’t see it, the LCOs could print off copies of our information to pass along to their customers so they could reconsider,” Karcher says.

That degree of cold comes once every 10 to 15 years in Arkansas, but the same grass species and variety will react the same way the next time. Karcher suggests LCOs research cold-tolerant grasses.

Tall fescue, a possible cold-season alternative, can do fairly well on a site with moderate shade and irrigation. “But the two or three previous summers were unbearably hot and that drove out a lot of the tall fescue,” says Karcher.

Consider their characteristics

Every turfgrass has its good points and its weak points. “Once LCOs decide on a species, they can check out the NTEP trials for the best cultivars. For zoysia, look for resistance to large patch; for bermuda, look for resistance to dead spot and winter kill; for tall fescue, look for resistance to brown patch and heat tolerance,” Karcher says.

Monitor environmental conditions throughout the season in terms of the potential impact on the turfgrass. In Arkansas, the cool summer provided much less growing time than typical for the warm-season turfgrasses. “They are probably going to be pretty weak going into the winter,” says Karcher. “So if the 2014-2015 winter brings more cold snaps, even if they’re not as harsh as the last year, the warm-season turf will not have the carbohydrate reserves to come through it well. The lawn care operators can get folks prepared for that possibility.”

There’s no magic bullet for all the different climates and microclimates. Scott says, “It’s all about knowing the site and intended usage, then selecting the varieties and cultivars that perform well in those conditions.”

Issues of heat and disease limit the use of bluegrasses in Southern California. Scott reports tall fescue is the dominant turfgrass, with multiple cultivars working well.

“We’re seeing one cultivar use, blends of multiple cultivars and 10 percent bluegrass, by weight, in a seed mix with tall fescue cultivars, for better color and greater self-repairing ability. We’re also tracking the perennial ryegrasses. Breeders are making strong advances in its development,” he says.

He’s anticipating a shift to warm-season grasses. “The Seashore Paspalums require little nitrogen (N) – only a couple pounds a year to stay green. We’re seeing excellent texture and color in the cultivar Platinum.”

Scott reports many of the hybrid bermuda grasses are good performers. “A new cultivar, Bandera, is pretty aggressive, self-repairing, uses little water and does well with different growing conditions” he says.

If contractors want to push warm-season lawns, they’ll need to educate consumers on what to expect from them and promote the environmental aspects of them, notes Scott. “They can irrigate down to 60 percent of ET in the summer and still have a green lawn. If they opt to allow the grass to remain brown in winter dormancy, they can stop irrigating and be even more responsible in using water.”

Process

The pH around Cooperstown is ideal for turf, 6.5 to 7. The soil in most of the region is basically gravel, a little soil and lots of stone, with very poor nutrient value. “We core aerate for those lawn renovations, but it’s shallow, an inch or less, not to relieve compaction but to create more seed to soil contact, especially in lawns that have heavy thatch. We core aerate to a 3- to 4-inch depth in those lawns with heavy clay soils. That is followed by slice seeding for both soil types,” Potrikus says.

So Cal’s market covers the sandy soils along the coast and the heavy clay inland soils. “Each installation and renovation is different, with conditions often varying from one side of the street to the other. We use soil testing to determine what’s deficient and a particle size analysis to better define the infiltration and percolation rates. Most projects will require soil amendments and a customized fertilization program,” Guise says.

In all states, LCOs must monitor and comply with regulations. Guise says, “In Coachella Valley, you need a license to overseed a lawn and must take an eight-hour class to be certified.”

Some sections of California have dust control requirements as well, with the AQMD monitoring dust that travels 50 feet or more from a property and assessing fines when that occurs. “That eliminates the former dust-producing practice of drying down the turf and then scalping it prior to overseeding,” says Guise. “Now we need to gradually bring down the height and use more precise methods of overseeding.”

Both companies also work with athletic fields and sports complexes, expanding the usage of large area and specialized equipment and making it more cost-effective. For Potrikus, that justifies the PTO-driven, tractor-pulled aerators and slice seeders and the deep-tine aerator used for some large site residential clients with clay soils. For smaller properties, his crews use walk-behind aerators and slice seeders.

New introductions and improvements in rotary mowers make them a workable choice for the warm-season bermudas and Paspalums, which helps drive the use of these grasses for multiple applications.

Guise says, “We’ve opted for a new Kubota tractor with turf tires and PTO to use with a 9-foot PTO-driven Trimax mower as well as large-area PTO-driven aerators, overseeders and topdressers. It makes our turf renovation and installation projects more cost effective while reducing our mower maintenance and mowing time.”

Monitor innovations

Guise has used both the Netafim subsurface system and the Rain Bird dripline for subsurface irrigation on commercial properties for turfgrass areas of 4,000 to 5,000 square feet. “Because it’s underground, it eliminates the evaporation we get from surface irrigation in the dry heat here. We do need to be careful with aeration since we set it at a 4-inch depth.”

Potrikus has incorporated practices and procedures he’s fine-tuned on sports fields into the turf renovation for his other accounts. He’s pushed the window, starting some of his aeration and slice seeding in mid-August for sites with irrigation and extending to the beginning of October when circumstances require it. He’s also used dormant seeding; getting the seed down in November so it’s in place for germination when temperatures are right in the spring.

“You have to be selective any time you push a window,” Potrikus says. “It’s a matter of analyzing the site conditions, the microclimates involved, past weather patterns and long-term predictions to determine the potential for success.”

Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at suz@trusty.bz.