Fetsko Lawn Care sees organics on the rise in Raleigh, N.C., market

Fetsko Lawn Care

Owner: Rod Civis
Founded: 1992
Headquarters: Raleigh, N.C.
Markets: Raleigh/Cary area
Services: Plantings, bed designs, sod, mowing and maintenance
Employees: 32

Rod Civis and his wife Marlene were looking to buy a company in the early 1990s. In 1992, they bought Fetsko Lawn Care from David Fetsko.

“We wanted to do something that was enjoyable to us. We like to be outdoors. I come from a very strong customer sales background, so I wanted to be in front of people as well,” says Rod Civis.

Fetsko Lawn Care is a full-service landscape maintenance company serving more than 300 high-end residential and commercial clients in and around Raleigh, N.C. It handles plantings, bed designs, sod, mowing and maintenance. The company also offers organic-based lawn care programs, including disease and insect control, aeration and power seeding.

Civis says he takes a “hybrid” approach to turf. “Eventually I can see it going to an organic approach, but right now, it’s difficult in the climate we’re in to get people – especially in the residential sector – to go for the organic approach,” he says. “It’s just more expensive. More applications are involved with it. Even so, we’re environmentally aware and whenever possible, we use those organic sources.”

Fetsko’s lawn care program was custom- designed by its former company owner, with Raleigh’s unique climate in mind.

“We are far enough north that we can grow fescue grass because it’s a cooler-season grass, but we’re also right in the middle, so we can do bermudagrass and zoysiagrass as well. It’s a very challenging area because there are two completely different types of turf you can grow here,” says Civis.

Comprehensive, targeted approach

The lawn care program includes lawn trimming, edging and weed control using an EPA-registered herbicide, a preemergent in weed-prone areas, leaf clean-up, stick and natural debris clean-up, and trash removal.

Marlene Civis, vice president, and Bruce Schaper, general manager, of Fetsko Lawn Care.

The turf care program consists of an annual soil analysis to determine pH and fertility requirements, two spring natural organic fertilizer applications, including a preemergent, broadleaf weed control, summer iron application, summer lime application, fall fertilization and winter fertilization. Fetsko offers a turf fungicide program that has been designed to prevent brown patch and other turf diseases, and consists of five to eight liquid fungicide applications.

The company also offers an annual overseeding program that begins with soil aeration with a core-type aerator, after which a fescue is applied.

Civis says about 85 percent of the region’s homes and businesses have fescue lawns, which require more water. “By designing our fertilization program around this area, we can enhance the growth patterns without applying as much water,” he adds.

The company’s two spring fertilizer applications are based on a slow-release organic nitrogen source, which bonds with the soil particles. This builds and enriches the soil to make it more fertile and productive, and also reduces excess clippings and thatch buildup.

Fetsko Lawn Care does not fertilize lawns in the summer, based on a philosophy that it can burn a lawn or cause diseases. Instead, the company applies a dolomitic limestone to provide calcium and magnesium and encourage a healthy lawn.

The company uses a synthetic nitrogen source for its three fall fertilization applications. The products are polymer coated for efficient feeding and designed to work up to 90 days after being applied.

Weeds are controlled through soil enrichment to promote a dense turf to choke them out. The company reduces pesticide use by applying minimal amounts at the proper times, and treats weeds with a spot spray.

Multiple service choices

Fetsko Lawn Care also provides additional services.

The annual flowerbed service provides clients with year-round color and includes an annual soil analysis to determine pH, soil fertility and organic matter content. The company offers a recommended list of flowers best suited for the specific locations. Fetsko does a bi-annual changing of beds that includes soil tilling, soil enhancement, application of a slow-release fertilizer and mulch cover.

Fetsko’s shrubbery fertilization service includes an annual soil analysis to determine pH and fertility requirements and applications of a slow-release fertilizer, lime, a quick-release fertilizer application and a granular insecticide application. The company also provides two types of pruning: natural and sheering. Natural pruning is used three to four times a year to retain the natural shape of the shrub while keeping its size within a specified range. Sheering gives the shrub a smooth, even appearance and is done five to six times per year.

The company also offers mulching services.

Recruiting from within

Fetsko Lawn Care has 32 employees. Civis looks for “people who have the desire to do well at the tasks that are given them. We look for success and pride in what they do, as well as reliability.

Tall fescue is the turfgrass of choice on about 85 percent of the lawns in and around Raleigh, N.C. Fetsko Lawn Care makes two spring applications with slow-release fertilizer. It makes an application of lime but no fertilizer in the summer.

“We’ve been able to retain the good people. We go to them when we’re looking for someone. That’s what works the best because they’re putting their name on that person and they’re going to make sure the people they refer to us do a good job.”

Civis explains that what differentiates his company from others is service specialization. “Maintenance crews go out and do the cutting, mowing, blowing and edging. The same crew will not be putting down your fertilizer, doing your seeding or doing your pruning.

“We have specialized crews for each of those. We have specially-trained people who know how to plant plants the proper way. We have a specialized crew that’s trained in how to put down fertilizer. We have specialized crews that do our seeding and pruning as well, because they’re trained in all of the techniques.”

Civis does cross-train employees in case someone needs to be pulled to help out in another area, “but the primary focus is when they’re on a maintenance crew, that’s what they do.”

Another component of the company’s service approach is having someone who answers the phone, and responding to all requests within 24 hours of receiving them.

Seeking “raving fans”

The strategy that has steered Civas’ company through two decades is its commitment to provide “raving fan service,” although sometimes the company is asked to do something that’s not in the best interest of the client’s landscape, he admits.

“It’s our job as professionals to educate our customers,” he says. “People want pruning at the wrong times of the year, they want fertilization at the wrong times of the season, or they want extra fertilization, and it’s up to me and my general manager to educate them that we won’t do the wrong thing by them and we won’t let them do it either. We’re pretty adamant about that.”

Civis says the company’s biggest challenge is providing that desired superior service at the best economic price.

“We do that to make sure customers are happy by meeting their expectations,” he says. “That means meeting with them and talking about them about what they’re expecting. Someone who’s expecting a lawn to be gorgeous after the first application is going to be very disappointed. By explaining the program is going to be a 12-month process, their expectations are met so we can continue to provide them with a great service.”

Technology enhances efficiencies

Civis says the company has become more efficient by the introduction of various technologies.

“We have a computerized system,” he says. “All of our routes are printed out with notes that can be adapted to the requests of each customer. The crews don’t have to remember to write it down, it’s already loaded into the system.”

Fetsko Lawn Care also has GPS on all of its trucks. “That way we can track where our crews are at all times so that we can better service the customer,” Civis says. “If a crew needs assistance or a customer calls and needs something, we look at the closest crew on GPS and get them over there to minimize travel time and expenses.”

The company’s general manager organizes the crews in the morning, ensuring all of their questions are answered before they go out for the day. “Having someone out there talking with them makes a big difference so they know what’s ahead,” he says.

More organics going forward

Civis notes a trend in requests from his customers for less pesticides and herbicides. “A lot of people tell us they have allergies or children who have allergies and we have to be very careful,” he says. “I’ve seen some of the chemical manufacturers and others in the industry start to look at more organic sources for those solutions.”

Fetsko Lawn Care has a five-year plan that focuses on 35 percent growth over the next five years.

“We’re also looking for breaking into some additional markets that we’re not currently in and developing some other services to offer to our existing customers,” Civis adds.

Civis says even though the majority of grass in the region is cool-season grass, he sees that changing significantly in the next five years.

“I think more bermuda and zoysiagrass, which uses about one-third less water, is a good opportunity for us to start educating the public in our commercial properties spending a certain amount of money on water each year,” Civis says. “If we switch them over to these types of turfs, they can save a considerable amount of money.”

The industry is moving toward a more organic source of fertilizers, Civis says. “That’s going to come with education,” he adds. “We educate our customers through our website and our newsletter. We educate our clients that organic options may be a little bit more expensive, but there are benefits to be obtained from it.”

North Carolina State University came out with new data on organic approaches, he says. “They’re seeing a good benefit from it over a hybrid or herbicide approach,” he says. “That’s the trend we’re going to start employing.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at [email protected].