Green Thumb Lawn Care focuses on turf practices

Photo Courtesy Of Green Thumb Lawn Care.
From left to right: Jeff Morris, Anthony Willman, Josh Ray, Herb Hilicus, Jeff Meers, Bob Picard and Lance Paniccia at Green Thumb Lawn Care’s warehouse in Schenectady, N.Y.

Green Thumb Lawn Care in Schenectady, N.Y., specializes in pest control and fertility. The company has several offices in New York serving customers in the greater Albany area, Syracuse and southern Westchester County near New York City.

Their goal is to provide each client with customized service that delivers the exact requirements of the lawn’s fertility and pest control needs, and they have some customized gear to do it with. One example is their homemade motorized spreader. “There is no perfect spreader, but with this one you can focus your concern on applying the right amount of fertilizer, pesticides and spot-spraying weeds. The weight of the fertilizer does not matter as much,” Owner John Knutson says.

The unit was designed by Green Thumb’s mechanical guru Herb Hilicus. “I’m lucky that I have a mechanic who is great with everything from push mowers to 18-wheelers,” Knutson says. The spreader allows them to put down both fertilizer and weed control in one pass.

The fertility program for their bluegrass and ryegrass customers is similar. Fine fescues will see a different feeding rate. Knutson is more concerned with getting the right amount of material on specific parts of a lawn.

“We try to apply material heavier in the sunshine and less in the shaded areas or under trees,” he says. “The spreader that Herb made has saved my butt many times.” He feels it gives the company a competitive advantage, too.

About 90 percent of Green Thumb’s business is contracts with homeowners. They have built a reputation as being a go-to company in New York state for solving turf pests problems, and has seen its operation grow by word-of-mouth advertising.

John Knutson, owner of Green Thumb Lawn Care, specializes in pest control andlawn fertility.

Handling pests

Each customer pays a flat annual fee for Green Thumb’s fertilizer and pest control services. Typically, the only extra charges are for liming or aeration. Each customer gets a five-time fertilizer package: two applications in spring, one in summer and two in the fall.

Early on, the focus is on getting down slow-release nitrogen. “We want the nitrogen to last six to eight weeks,” Knutson says. “We want to be sure the homeowner sees the lawn a dark green.” In addition, they apply a fair amount of potash.

“That’s going to be harder to do since the price of potash has gone up so much,” Knutson says. Prices recently have jumped from $200 a ton to $1,200 a ton. “Potash builds roots and makes the grass tougher and more drought resistant,” he says.

Although Albany and Syracuse have historically had grub problems (glacial sand in much of the area), grubs have not been as bad since the introduction of Merit grub control in the late ‘90s.

Even in a rather delineated area, like the Albany-Syracuse region they serve, there is amazing variety in weed problems. Veronica has become a big problem in Syracuse, but not Albany. “That’s because Syracuse is so much drier,” he says. To get control of the many different weeds, each specialist will go out with several weed controls in their truck and use what the situation requires.

The spectrum of diseases constantly changes. In the 1980s, Knutson saw a lot of leaf spot; the 1990s brought snow mold; recently, it has been red thread and Pythium.

“Snow mold is not the problem it was 15 years ago,” he says, but he thinks he knows why red thread is blossoming. “The increase in red thread outbreaks is due to builders putting in pure ryegrass lawns,” he says.

Red thread thrives in ryegrass monocultures and becomes a problem when the grass growth slows in midseason. Knutson’s solution is to add a bit of fertilizer and educate the customer. “If you can get them to mow a bit higher and water more then you can reduce red thread problems,” he says.

Expertise

Even more than agronomics, Knutson feels his job is about human resources and developing good people. Knutson’s own knowledge base is deep, and he expects the same of his workers.

Although he is an expert in many turf-related fields, Knutson’s background is a bit of an anomaly in the turf industry. He has a background in physics. He spent a number of years working for General Electric. He got into lawn care as a silent partner, but quickly became involved in all the problems small lawn maintenance companies face. “I’m a problem solver. In this business, that means I’m like a pig in mud,” he says.

“One of our biggest challenges is the development of young people. In this part of the state, most people with agronomic backgrounds look to golf courses for work,” he continues. While it is not so much a problem in the northern part of the state, he finds himself training people to run lawn care routes and service the customers, handling both agronomics and customer care.

“Yes, they need to know the science of turf, but they also need to develop selling skills and relationship skills,” he says. “We’re an old-fashioned company in that we try to develop people. We help them take in a body of agronomic knowledge and teach them how to sell, organize service routes and take care of customers.”

Not only is there technical expertise required for the job, but there are local nuances that must be followed in certain political jurisdictions.

“In Albany County, for example, we have to notify every property owner of every adjacent property that in any way touches our customer’s property when we are going to spray,” says Josh Ray, horticultural specialist for the company. That means not only telling the neighbors of the intent to spray, but also the date of the treatment and all of the materials that may be used in the treatment.

Fertilizing and pest control, especially integrated pest management (IPM), which requires being able to return to a lawn quickly whenever a problem arises, make it difficult to predict very far ahead which day you’ll be on which lawn. “This isn’t like picking up trash where you know which houses you’ll see every Tuesday,” Knutson says.

In addition to weather, there are customer concerns about children visiting, or even clear days when it is simply too windy to spray. The solution to this problem in some areas is a door hanger that allows the landscaper to inform the neighbors that a treatment has been postponed or moved up or changed, but each neighbor still has to get the notice.

Each technician or specialist has about 450 customers to serve in a defined area. This allows the specialist to become a real expert on each lawn and its problems.

Employees

Knutson values his employees. “We try to be the best wherever we go or whatever we do, but we know we’re only as good as our weakest person,” he says. For that reason, they are committed to a lot of training and driving to get the best results for each customer.

“Green Thumb is a great place to work,” Ray, a company employee, says. He likes the fact that the company offers medical benefits and paid vacations. “He appreciates the opportunity to learn, too. The company sends its specialists as far away as Columbus, Ohio, to attend educational events, like the Ohio Turf Conference, for training and ideas.

“We have a good group of people,” Knutson says. He focuses on quality and draws an analogy between running a landscaping firm and an airline. “If the tray table is broken, the pilot can’t fly the plane.”

IPM

IPM is a standard part of their service to customers. “We believe in spraying when pests are there and not spraying when they are not there,” Knutson says. That, of course, requires constant checking. “What we put down depends on what we find in any given lawn,” he says.

Sometimes there are surprises, even for an expert like Knutson. He ran into cranberry girdler recently. The damage looks much like grub damage, but pulling up the turf reveals no grubs. The problem was localized on just a few lawns.

“There is no preventive. It usually happens in shady areas, under trees, where you wouldn’t expect to find grubs,” Knutson adds. Ohio State Entomologist Dave Shetlar was the one who pinpointed the problem for him.

While he appreciates the effectiveness of the new chemicals available, Knutson regrets that they are so efficient that they take a lot of the brain work out of the job. “They make our jobs easier to do, but if the material is working, some people feel they don’t have to put the thought into the job.” This, he says, is reflected in a range of problems, including decreased attendance at educational events for LCOs and greater use of chemicals.

That is why Knutson encourages his workers to attend as many educational events as possible. “My people are in charge of their routes. They are proud of the work they do and their relationships with their customers,” he says.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Turf. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.