The lawn care industry is built upon providing property owners with uniformly green, weed-free lawns. The popularity of lawn care into a multi-billion-dollar industry is a testament to its success in doing so. However, sometimes Mother Nature tosses lawn care companies a curveball or two. One of these curveballs is turfgrass-destroying fungi. Lawn diseases (there are many) are never pretty and managing them can be expensive, so lawn care pros usually approach them on a case-by-case basis.

“Lawn disease prevention as an add-on service standing on its own is a stretch,” says marketing manager Rob Brown of Lebanon Lawn & Landscape, Lebanon, Ohio. “Most companies offer it, but not a lot of homeowners sign up for it,” he says. “At Lebanon, we’ll consider it as a possible add-on for our high-end properties because of pricing concerns for the majority of our customers.”

Rainbow Lawncare in Minneapolis has always offered fungicide applications if its customers’ lawns have diseases, but the company doesn’t push preventive measures if the disease isn’t visible. Some lawns, however, are prone to the same diseases year after year, so Rainbow Lawncare developed a program — preventive fungicide applications, turf aeration and applications of compost — to prevent the eruption of diseases on these lawns, says Jon Prochnow, Rainbow’s lawn care sales manager.

Aptly named red thread, this disease is caused by a fungus that attacks lawns that are lacking nitrogen. It typically appears in spring and fall. Aerating a lawn is one of the best ways to alleviate symptoms of the disease because it helps more oxygen reach plant roots. PHOTO: RAINBOW LAWNCARE

“The easiest time to sell this (lawn disease) service is during the time when our customers have an active disease problem,” he adds. “Typically, they don’t like how the disease is making their lawns look and they want us to fix it as soon as possible. If it’s a problem they have experienced many times before, then it’s a great time to talk about prevention.”

Rainbow technicians make it a point to educate customers about what kind of lawn diseases they have and list options for them. “Sometimes the best option for our customers is to wait it out, but often they want their lawns looking green and lush as quick as possible,” Prochnow adds.

Many lawn care providers do not offer lawn disease prevention packages as a service because it’s an expectation they believe is already being handled when property owners sign up for lawn services.

“Most of the larger lawn care companies provide total management of residential lawns, which helps keep lawn disease outbreaks at a minimum,” says Bobby Walls, product development manager at lawn chemical manufacturer FMC. “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.”

PHOTO: VIRGINIA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE AND STATE UNIVERSITY, BUGWOOD

Lawn diseases often occur regionally, says Walls. “In the Northeast, snow mold often emerges in the spring after heavy snow cover. In the same region, red thread can take hold during an exceptionally cool and moist summer. In North Carolina, where I am located, we worry about dollar spot, which is most common during warm, wet weather with heavy dews and in lawns with low nitrogen levels.”

Environmental factors play a big role in the emergence of lawn diseases, continues Walls. “Wetness or dryness, heat or cold are all environmental factors that can affect lawns. Often the pathogens are harbored in the soil, but it takes an environmental change in the soil to trigger it. Sometimes, just the right temperature and moisture content cause the disease to flare.”

Rainbow Lawncare constantly stays on the lookout for evidence of dollar spot, red thread and necrotic ring spot on its clients’ lawns. “Dollar spot and red thread don’t cause as much damage to the lawn as necrotic ring spot, which seems to be a bigger issue every year with all of the new homes and developments going up in our area,” explains Prochnow.

Red Thread. Use slow-release and higher potassium fertilizers to strengthen plant resistance against disease. Also, mow at correct heights based on turfgrass type and always use sharp, clean blades to keep diseases at bay. PHOTOS: BRUCE WATT, UNIVERSITY OF MAINE, BUGWOOD

Good cultural practices

“The best control for lawn disease is a healthy, well-fed and balanced lawn,” says Brown. He advises using slow-release fertilizer with a high level of potassium to strengthen plant resistance. Mow the turfgrass at the correct height based on its type and always mow with a sharp, clean blade. Promoting good airflow over the turf helps, too.

Prochnow agrees. “Yearly aerations and proper fertilization can help, but it’s also important to communicate with your customers about proper watering and mowing,” he says. “Watering too much can leave the grass blades wet, creating the ideal environment for disease. Also, mowing too short or with a dull blade can weaken the grass plants and make them more susceptible to lawn disease. It’s important to take advantage of disease control opportunities, which include fertilization, aeration and topdressing because not all lawn diseases require a fungicide application.”

Fairy ring PHOTOS: RAINBOW LAWNCARE

Rainbow uses compost topdressing to help prevent the onset of necrotic ring spot in its Twin Cities market. Rainbow had difficulty controlling the disease until it started making two spring fungicide applications one month apart, and then combined them with aeration and compost topdressing. It overseeds areas of lawns damaged by fungi.

Pink snow mold PHOTO: WILLIAM M. BROWN JR., BUGWOOD

All of Rainbow’s application services are priced per 1,000 square feet. It calculates its labor time for applying fungicide the same as fertilizer. Because fungicides are costly it charges accordingly.

“We already owned a topdresser and dump trailer so it was an easy service for us to add,” says Prochnow. “We find that some of the granular options work best and are easiest to apply compared to the liquid options because we don’t have to mix up a separate tank just for the application.” Rainbow’s spray technician crews apply granular fungicides as part of their normal route.

Dollar spot PHOTO: WARD UPHAM, KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY, BUGWOOD 

Brown also finds his technicians can be cross-trained on disease control to help keep routing tight. “Existing equipment can handle most applications,including fungicide treatments,” he says.

In Minneapolis, necrotic ring spot causes more damage than dollar spot and red thread for Rainbow Lawncare. In fact, necrotic ring spot seems to be a bigger issue every year in this market as development spreads and new homes spring up. PHOTOS: RAINBOW LAWNCARE

“Many major lawn care companies are conducting in-house training on lawn diseases, and they encourage their staff to attend trainings at turfgrass institutes and agricultural extension services,” adds FMC’s Walls.

PHOTO: HOWARD F. SCHWARTZ, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY, BUGWOOD

Most of the lawn care companies already have the equipment, typically sprayers and granular applicators that can be used for disease control. “When applying fungicides, for example, what will vary is the application equipment, such as spray pressure and nozzle type. It’s a calibration problem or change out of accessory,” continues Walls.

Fungicide applications are one of Rainbow’s most profitable services weighing in at more than a 60 percent margin, says Prochnow. Aeration and topdressing services are more labor-intensive, and have lower profit margins, although they’re helpful in preventing lawn diseases.

“It’s hard to put an exact number on the revenue our disease prevention plans generate because the topdressing and aeration services are a big part of the program as well as preventive fungicide applications. The service grew very fast the first year and has grown approximately 10 percent each of the following years,” says Prochnow, who sees disease prevention as “one more way” to give property owners the lawns they want.

COVER PHOTO: RAINBOW LAWNCARE