There is an age-old debate among landscape companies as to whether liquid or granular fertilizers offer better results, efficiency and cost-effectiveness when it comes to turf management. Yet for industry veteran Andrew Adams, president of Capital Turf Management in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., that contest was settled long ago.
“Liquid fertilizers are less expensive, more accurate and there’s a lot less cleanup,” says Adams, whose $1.5 million company has offices in Pennsylvania and Maryland and provides commercial turf management throughout the Tri-State area. “As long as you get solid coverage with liquid fertilizers, you’re going to get good results.”
He should know. Since 2003, when Adams founded Capital Turf to focus on commercial turf management, he has subcontracted with large landscapers to maintain athletic fields, swim clubs, churches, high schools, colleges and universities, just to name a few. Over the years, he’s also developed a successful business model that allows him to apply fertilizer to large properties both economically and profitably.
“I’m preloaded for five acres, whereas with granular, you can put four to five bags in and only do one acre,” Adams says. “My guy is just spraying, spraying, spraying.”
Of course, Adams hasn’t sworn off granular fertilizers entirely – they’re often good for small-scale residential use and late fall applications when weed control isn’t an issue, he says. Yet he maintains that more and more turf management companies are following his lead and switching to liquid-only applications. Here’s why.
Liquid fertilizers are preferable, Adams says, because they allow turf management companies to provide fertilizer and weed control in a single, blanket application.
“You can put crabgrass pre-emergent herbicide, weed control and fertilizer into one application, and then blanket spray over everything,” he says.
Getting it right the first time is especially useful when you are servicing hundreds of commercial properties every year.
“It’s very hard, in my opinion, to do a 90-acre site and do a spot treatment for weed control,” he says. “In the commercial realm of things, you can often only do two applications a year, so we have to almost be perfect.”
Granular fertilizers can be effective when covering a small, focused area, yet bigger guns are needed to do an application to a large commercial property.
“If you’re doing granular, there are good machines out there, but they go 6-7 miles per hour and have a boom that allows you to spot-treat,” Adams says. “That makes it harder to blanket spray, and sometimes you have to go over sites twice.”
By way of contrast, Capital Turf’s crew members employ a 300-gallon boom sprayer with handguns, allowing them to spray liquid fertilizer in broad, 15-foot swaths.
“We can cover everything,” Adams says.
Although granular devotees say their product results in better color, Adams doesn’t concur. He says his firm can customize nutrients that plants take more quickly.
“When I use liquid fertilizers, I don’t have to wait for rain or use sprinklers, like you do with granular,” he says. “The set up is a lot faster, and I get quicker results.”
Lower material costs
The lower price of liquid fertilizer allows turf management companies to maintain an average acre of land at about three-quarters of the cost of granular.
By Adams’ calculations, the material costs for applying granular fertilizers, at about $15 per bag, average about $37 per acre. Compare that with $9-$10 less for liquid fertilizer.
From wear-and-tear on employees’ backs to storage issues and potential spills, Adams says granular fertilizers are simply more of a hassle than their liquid counterparts.
“In addition to your employees trying to lift 50 pound bags, the bags also take up a lot of room at your shop, which can be a headache,” he says. “And when they fill the hopper, there are so many steps where they could spill the product.”
Compare that with liquid fertilizer. “We have a 2,800 gallon tank, and we pump it in and take off in the morning,” he says. “Our two-man truck can cover 15 acres a day.”
Less clean up
It could quite possibly be a turf company’s worst nightmare to have a customer slip and get injured on a job. Yet Adams says this could easily happen with granular fertilizers.
“When you use a granular application, it’s less accurate and some of it typically falls onto the sidewalk or pathway,” he says. “What if somebody forgets to blow the path off, there’s granular fertilizer there, and somebody walks out and slips on it?”
By contrast, liquid fertilizers can be applied with greater precision, Adams says, and crew members don’t have to clean up the sidewalks after the job is done. “You’re carrying a gun or sprayer, and you know where the product will go,” he says.
While liquid applications are by no means spill-proof, Adams maintains that hose breaks are less common, easier to clean up and less expensive than granular spills. “If you have a granular spill, then it’s almost impossible to clean up,” he says. “You almost have to cut the grass out, because it will burn the grass.”
Liquid spills do less damage, too. “You can spray the surface with charcoal fairly quickly,” he says.
Passing on the savings
At the end of the day, liquid fertilizers not only allow turf management companies to operate more profitably, but also to pass savings along to customers, Adams says.
“We can do treatments for a lot less than other companies, and I would charge more if I was using granular fertilizer,” he says.
In today’s economy, when nearly everyone is looking to pinch pennies without cutting corners, that won’t do, he adds. “If we’re hired by a homeowners’ association, we’re just not going to be able to go back in and do spot treating, getting into all of the corners where the air conditioners are,” and still be competitive on cost, he says.
Caveats and pitfalls
Although Adams argues that liquid fertilizers are the most effective, they are not foolproof. Landscape companies, therefore, should take heed when using them.
“You have to pay attention to the labels, and not spray when it’s over 90 degrees,” he says. “You don’t want to have a situation where you get tip burning or damage someone’s grass, and that could easily happen if you’re not following directions.”
Other common mistakes that landscapers make, Adams says, are to spray liquid fertilizers right up to the base of trees or to get sloppy with customers’ sidewalks.
“You’ll get tip burn on the bottom branches of pine trees, or you’ll get a yellowish color on the sidewalk,” he says of these two common problems. In the latter case, he says that “the yellow color will eventually break down with sunlight, but we’ve gotten calls from customers that see that on their sidewalks and they’re not happy.”
As long as applications are done properly, Adams says you can count on good results. “As long as someone doesn’t hold the gun too long in one area, you’re golden,” he says.