Carol Davis learned the business from the ground up

The Rapid Gro Lawn is the most requested service of the Briar Group. It is a hydroseeded lawn that can also be installed using organic components.
Photos courtesy of Carol Davis.

Carol Davis got into the turf industry when she was hired to do accounting for an established landscaping and hydroseeding firm in 1986. She went on to become the company’s general manager and then an equal partner in the business. Although the partnership fizzled, Davis’ love of the industry did not, so she started her own business, Briar Group, in Tacoma, Wash., in 2001. The company specializes in turf establishment and turf-related products and services a five-county Puget Sound region with four employees. The company has also done projects in other areas in Washington, as well as Alaska, Oregon, California and Canada.

Davis runs two T-330 Finn hydroseeders with which her company does all of its work. Services include lawn establishment with Rapid Gro, and the company also does English estate lawns, featuring a mat of green grasses, strawberry clover, English daisy, Johnny Jump Up pansy, purple rockcress and baby blue eyes with white sweet allysum. Briar Group also provides special mixes, environmentally friendly products and erosion control.

Davis says the most requested service from her company is the Rapid Gro lawn. “That’s a product that’s goof-proof,” says Davis. “We spray it down, they water it, they get a lawn. I’m not really selling hydroseeding in my turf products. I’m selling a fully established, beautiful lawn, and that’s what my customers are buying and that’s what I guarantee they’ll get.”

Two years ago, Davis introduced a new product, Rapid Gro ER (extended roots). “It is a completely different type of seed,” she says. “The mycorrhizal rooting stimulant is engineered into the seed, so you get a root system of 3 or 4 feet or as deep as the soil will allow it to establish. That means less water and less fertilizer. That’s why I call it an environmentally friendly product.”

All of her products (except fertilizer) are also available in organic form, says Davis.

Briar Group provides their clients with a site-specific turf seed mixture.

“There’s definitely a niche for it,” she says. “Here in the Northwest, we’re environmentally conscious. We started recycling before anybody else started recycling. I assure my customers that if they order the environmentally friendly organic lawn product, that is what they’re going to get. We’re going to clean out all of the chemical fertilizer in the tank; they’re going to be the first call of the day because that’s the only way we can really ensure that there isn’t anything else in the tank,” she says.

One of the special mixes that Davis offers is a fisheries protection mix, which she uses near water bodies.

“We have to make sure if there is any runoff, it’s not going to be detrimental to the body of water,” she says. “We make sure we either use an organic fertilizer or a phosphate-free fertilizer.

“What we do is make sure that the mix we use is going to stay in place, so we use a bonded fiber matrix mix to make sure the product we are applying is going to stay in place and then we use a phosphate-free fertilizer.”

For a turf application, Briar Group’s team goes to an area that’s prepared, and then they hand-rake the soil and it’s ready to go. “We install that product over the surface. We’ve leave care instructions for the customer so they know exactly what to do, and then we guarantee the results, so even if there was a freak rainstorm before the tackifiers in the mix got set up and something washed away, they have no worries because I come back and respray it at no cost,” says Davis.

Typical clients of Briar Group are homeowners, professional landscapers and developers. “It’s a diverse marketplace and I cater to all of it,” says Davis. “We have a 1,000-square-foot minimum, so we can handle the smallest lawn. In the past year, the retail market was very much hindered by the economy. When the retail market is hindered, so is my landscaping market. So, I ended up doing more commercial projects, more bid jobs, schools, businesses, parks, hospitals–all of those things that keep going on and have to be built and developed.”

For Davis, the challenges turn into opportunities. “I survived the major drought here in 1992. Virtually every water district in my area said ‘no more water,’ and that meant people couldn’t water their lawns, and it also meant I couldn’t access water to hydroseed,” she says. Because so many lawns were severely damaged, Davis created an overspray product that’s placed on top of the hydroseeding to give a lawn that had been stressed in the previous year a facelift. She also created an out-of-season warranty.

“We couldn’t install people’s lawns until after the end of August, and they opened up the window and said ‘We can’t have all of this empty soil around without being stabilized for the winter,’ so I was able to extend my season through the winter with the client purchasing at the time of installation an out-of-season warranty, which meant that it’s a two-for-one application,” she says. “I come back in the spring and respray any areas that did not do well because of the time of year.”

Davis uses her company’s Web site (www.rapidgro.com) as an education and communication tool with her clients and contractors. On the site, she has a commercial bids page that enables contractors to know all of the projects that Davis is bidding. General contractors who are registered with McGraw-Hill as interested bidders on projects listed on the bid page will receive a sub-bid quote from Briar Group on projects that require hydroseeding or erosion control.

English Estate Turf, here designed by Carol Davis, owner of Briar Group in Tacoma, Wash., is a mixture of grasses, clover and flowers that grow in the English countryside.

Davis says if a customer calls after seeing the Web site, there’s an 80 percent chance she’ll get the sale because of all of the information available on the site. “It’s high-tech, but it’s user-friendly and gives a lot of information on the diversity of the products,” she says.”They can see me on the site and see who they’re talking to,” she adds. “They can see the guys who are coming out to do their job and the trust element is there. The site helps them in the preparation for their job. It’s always an advantage if the customer calls me before they’re completely done with their soil prep if they’re doing it themselves. We can save them an error, money and save time.”

Outside of the company, Davis continues her involvement in the industry through her association with various industry trade groups. She serves on the board of directors and is treasurer of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the International Erosion Control Association, and is also a member of the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals.

Going forward, Davis predicts that the product she sells with the mycorrhizal rooting stimulant “is going to be the wave of the future.”

She says, “We’re going to get away from the traditional water-gobbling grasses and more people are going to go for this extended root application because visually it’s the same, and they’re really not compromising quality and getting the advantage of using less water. I have the ability to add the mycorrhizal element to any of my mixes.”

For instance, for an English estate turf, Davis can use the DEEEP Roots additive as a mycorrhizal rooting stimulant in conjunction with Stay Moist. DEEEP Roots will speed grow-in and root establishment while increasing the grass density. The mycorrhizae improve nutrients absorption from the fertilizer and provides resistance against stress. Stay Moist is a moisture retentive added to the hydroseed mix upon installation and will cut water requirements by half with the same germination and establishment results.

“Although Stay Moist is expensive per square foot, clients save it in their water bill because most of my clients are paying for their water,” says Davis. “In Seattle, you can pay $150 a month for your water bill. Being able to cut that bill in half to 2.5 cents a square foot for a 2,000 square foot lawn doesn’t seem like much, but it’s immaterial. It’s environmentally sound and the right thing to do. We’re protecting our natural resources.”

One of the biggest challenges Davis faces in her work is drawing water in different areas her company services to fill its tanks.

“I run big machines, so unless someone has a really big lawn, we’re basically able to fill up locally and service two to three different counties in one load,” she says. “We’re bringing everyone into compliance with regulations by providing them with erosion control, which turf is.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.