Soil studies

Soil studies

Features - Lawn Care

Here's what you need to know to ensure your customers have rich soil and healthy lawns.

August 15, 2011
Lindsey Getz

Healthy soil is a vital component of a successful landscape maintenance program. Still, many landscapers overlook the importance of improving their clients’ soil – even though it may be affecting their bottom line. It’s also a disservice to the customer considering most soils in the United States are poor for growing top-quality lawns. A simple soil test can tell landscapers what the soil needs in order to let a lush lawn and its ornamentals thrive. Implementing a soil testing program can add value to the services you already offer your clients. Many clients will appreciate the extra effort – they just need to be educated on why it’s important and how it benefits them.

In order to help you better understand what it takes to test and improve soil – and why it’s so important to do – we explored some of the most common questions landscapers pose on the topic.

What are some of the more common soil problems and what can I do about them?
The soil problems faced by landscapers vary greatly depending on region, but some of the most common problems you hear about are nutrient or pH problems and poor drainage.

All of these can have a detrimental effect on the success of your lawn care maintenance program. For the latter concern, there are several potential solutions. “For turf, aerations work well,” says Bill Leuenberger, Soil and Turf Management Department, Chalet Nursery. “Gypsum (a naturally occurring mineral with the chemical formula of calcium sulfate) can help, though it takes a long time to see results.”

For the former, the only way to know for certain whether a lawn is too acidic or too alkaline is to perform a soil test, says Chuck Darrah, president and consulting landscape agronomist for CLC Labs. Nutrient deficiencies in general are also a problem and different areas of the country have their own specific deficiencies, Darrah says. Many soils in parts of the Midwest and Mid-South are low in phosphorus. On the other hand, soils low in potassium are more common in much of the Northeast, Southeast and Northwest. “A good soil testing lab can give you the correct recommendations so that you’re adding just the right amount of the right nutrient back into the soil,” Darrah says. 

But is healthy soil really that important to grass and ornamentals that it’s worth the time and effort of testing? Yes. Poor soils can literally kill your bottom line, says Darrah. For instance, in acidic soil regions, acidity is a huge problem that can lead to a waste of fertilizer dollars. “As the acidity of the soil increases, the efficient use of nutrients decreases,” Darrah says. “The pH of an acidic soil can be raised by incorporating the right amount of lime. But the only way to truly know what the soil needs is to perform a soil test.”

Lawn grasses in general have an optimum pH range and a minimum nutrient requirement below which a quality lawn simply cannot be achieved, adds Darrah.

“Although nitrogen alone can produce a dark green lawn, long-term plant health cannot be assured unless other nutrients are present in the correct amount and the soil pH is in the preferred range.”

“‘Healthy earth, healthy turf’ is not just a rhyme – it’s a fact,” Leuenberger says. “Soils that are living, healthy and thriving root zones provide plants with the opportunity to flourish. Healthy soils have tiny microbes which help (plants) to develop strong root systems. Because the earth is always changing, the nutrients we supply are either taken up by microbes in the soil, plants or, in some cases, leached out of the soil. But great soils allow your plants to take all of its nutrients.”

Why aren’t the regular fertilizer applications I’m already doing enough to solve these problems? They might be, but you often won’t know until you do the soil test. In some cases, you may even be over-fertilizing. But because there are so many variables factoring into the health of the turf, often fertilizers alone aren’t enough, says Leuenberger.

In addition, there’s an environmental responsibility factor in play as well. LCOs know that there’s a lot of “anti-phosphorous hysteria” out there resulting in more and more fertilizer bans, says Stuart Z. Cohen, president of Environmental & Turf Services. “Testing the soil lets you know just how much fertilizer needs to be applied,” he adds. “There’s actually a danger in under-fertilizing. If LCOs under-fertilize and there’s patchy grass cover, they’ll not only get fired by the client, but they’ll add to environmental pollution because it will lead to more phosphorous-bound sediment running off and into the waterways. Good healthy turf helps reduce sediment run-off. It may not be well-known, but in many cases, using the right amount of fertilizer is better for the environment than using none at all.”

How do I successfully sell a soil testing service? Many landscape services have an almost immediate result that clients can see. A once-barren yard is made colorful with plantings or with well-maintained, lush green grass. Soil testing is part of that maintenance success, but the client needs to be educated on its benefits. Much of it will come down to trust, says Leuenberger. “You need to be credible in everything you tell your customers,” he says. “Building trust is vital. Results from the use of a soil test, or any amendments you apply, may never be seen by the customer. It helps to remind your customer that the service is preventative.”

It also helps to position a soil testing service as added value to your client. Tell the client that soil testing helps you individualize the service for their lawn, suggests Darrah. Talk in terms of monetary value. If you find a low nutrient level or the need for lime, a corrective application can be made. This way, the client gets more bang for their buck.

In addition, part of educating the client on why soil testing is important means explaining what it is. Use language they understand. “Explain that a soil test is a series of tests done to see if everything is OK with the soil,” Darrah says. “A soil test is like a ‘physical exam’ for your lawn. It shows us if there are any ‘hidden hungers’ and how much and what to use if a corrective application is needed.”

The whole soil testing effort comes back to a marketing plan. “Establish how you want to position soil testing within your various customer segments,” says Darrah. “Soil testing has a high-perceived value among users of lawn care services. Newspaper articles on lawn care and gardening magazine articles always advise homeowners to soil test – as does every university. This makes it an important tool in customer acquisition and retention that not only individualizes the service you provide, but positions your company as both professional and environmentally responsible.”

The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.