Take a ride

Features - Lawn Care

Thinking about switching from a walk-behind to ride-on spreader? Here's what to look for when you upgrade. Plus, get the lowdown on sprayer considerations.

July 9, 2013
Julie Collins

Photos courtesy of ground logic and lawn plus

Maybe your walk-behind spreader is working just fine, but you’re exhausted after pushing it around all day. Perhaps you’ve landed a big new job that’s next to impossible to tackle efficiently with a walk-behind machine. Or maybe your aging equipment needs replaced and you’re wondering if now’s the time to try something new.

Whatever your reason for contemplating an upgrade, you’ll find contractors from companies of all sizes singing the praises of a ride-on spreader – and willing to offer their advice on finding the right one.

“Our average lawn size is around 20,000 square feet. Our biggest is 335,000 square feet. You’re dog-tired at the end of the day if you walk them,” says Dan Bradford of Scotts Lawn Service-Brainerd in Baxter, Minn. “We love our ride-on spreaders. We use them on every job we have.”

Portable sprayer buying guide
Portable sprayers are a vital tool in many contractors’ arsenal for fertilizing or pest and weed control, particularly for smaller, odd-shaped, or hard-to-reach areas or for direct spraying or spot treatments. If you’re in the market for new sprayers, consider:

Quality and cost.
“I think sometimes people shop on price, but I recommend looking at features and benefits over price,” says Gene Short, marketing and sales manager for H.D. Hudson Manufacturing Co. “It’s better to spend money to get a better product that will hold up longer and last longer because you’re not having to replace it or do maintenance as often.”

Sprayer type.
Handheld sprayers are generally the least efficient option for contractor use. Backpack sprayers offer portability and efficiency and are preferred by many contractors. Bridging the gap between the two, new professional and commercial spray systems like those offered by Green Gorilla boast a standard tank with a manual pump but include a twist-on Power Pack with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that pressurizes the tank so no pumping is required. “Other automated spray tank pumps act like a squirt gun, but with this you get a nice, pressurized spray pattern you don’t have to pump,” says Mark Verosky, senior vice president of Green Gorilla. The Power Pack maintains pressure within the tank for a consistent, even distribution of chemicals and less waste. With this system, you can place the tank in a cart or on the ground and use an extension hose to spray up to 20 feet away.

Tank construction.
Verosky recommends looking for a quality, thick-walled tank. “If I’m a contractor, I’m going to invest money in the tank,” he says.

Most backpack sprayers vary from 3 to 5 gallons. The majority of contractors prefer to carry a 4-gallon tank.

Pump style.
The most common options include piston and diaphragm. Short says piston-style pumps are more commonly used but diaphragm-style pumps are better for working with wettable powders or thicker materials.

Short says most contractors look for quality gaskets and o-rings – commonly Viton seals manufactured by DuPont, which are known to stand up to insecticides and herbicides.

Screens and filters.
A screen in the top of the tank below the lid helps keep out debris. Short also recommends a quality control valve that filters dirt and debris so it doesn’t get in the spray.

Hoses and wands.
For backpack sprayers, Short recommends a braided power sprayer-style hose at least 4 feet long. A longer wand – 18 to 24 inches – keeps spray material away from the applicator while spraying.

Nozzle selection depends on the type of spraying. A flat fan nozzle is most commonly used because it creates a wider, flat spray pattern for broadcast-type applications around large areas. Cone-pattern nozzles are commonly used for spot-treating.

With backpack sprayers, comfort is key. Look for padded straps, particularly if the sprayer will be used for long periods.

On the truck.
Truck-mounted spray rigs are another spraying option – but with a much larger size and heftier price tag. Yet plenty of contractors swear by them – like Wally Carson, owner of The Lawn Ranger in Hendersonville, Tennessee, who has been using truck-mounted spray rigs for 31 years.

He uses truck-mounted rigs because “for liquid application, the more consistent and evenly distributed, the better the results.” Carson also likes that his guys can fill up a 600-gallon tank and get through 300,000 square feet of spraying in one day.

Interested in buying your own truck-mounted spray rig? Make sure you think through the following before you buy:

Intended use.
The type of work you plan to do affects tank, engine, and pump size, plus hose length and gun type.

How you’ll haul it.
What size and capacity of truck or trailer will you use? Remember that depending on the capacity of the tank you buy, you could be hauling some serious weight.

Key features.
What are your must-haves? Carson, who uses Graham Spray Equipment rigs, looks for units that have a mechanical agitation system that constantly stirs the liquid, a quality small engine (he’s loyal to Honda), an electric start so he doesn’t have to pull a cord, a high probe pumping system, and a fiberglass tank.

Regardless of the features you put at the top of your list, remember that training is vital. Carson’s employees must undergo a thorough 2.5-month training program and be certified by the state before they can use one of his spray rigs alone.

Know the benefits.
Ride-on spreaders work for companies of all sizes. Big shops use them to tackle more large properties in a day. For smaller companies, like Greenview, a one-man operation in Marietta, Ga., a ride-on spreader does the work of multiple employees.

“My equipment to me is like having three other employees sitting in my truck,” says owner Sherman Henton.

Henton hasn’t always used a ride-on spreader, but about 10 years ago he started working on some large, hilly properties. “About 10 days after I applied fertilizer with the walk-behind spreader, the customers called and asked why it was so streaky. I told them the truth. I didn’t maintain the same speed, so the application was inconsistent.” After that call, Henton decided that, “being a small business, I needed the big boy’s equipment.”

Since buying his ride-on spreader, he has not fertilized with anything else. “There’s no possible way to push a walk-behind spreader all day at the same speed. Application rate depends on the speed of the applicator, so that’s why I stick with my ride-on,” Henton says.

Rodney Creech, owner of Lawn Plus in West Alexandria, Ohio, used to push a spreader and use a tractor for spraying. “Now we are 100 percent ride-on equipment,” he says.

A key benefit Creech touts is efficiency. “You may be able to push 3 to 4 miles per hour in the morning, but after you’ve gone 8 to 10 miles can you still push at 3 to 4 miles per hour? Ride-on machines never get tired, so you can get a lot more done in a day,” he says.

This also allows Creech to hire older, more-skilled employees. “These guys have work ethic and can run the equipment and it doesn’t kill them to be out there all day. They walk in at 4 o’clock and usually have a lot of energy left,” Creech says.

Ride-on sprayers allow LCOs to service a larger yard, save energy and time and apply products more consistently than with a portable sprayer.

Find the right features.

Regardless of your reasons for switching, it’s important to find a spreader with the right features. Creech focuses on equipment that’s comfortable, can cover large areas and is user-friendly.

“There’s one piece of equipment that’s the best ride-on on the market, period. I used to own them but I don’t anymore because they’re so complicated,” Creech says. For my guys, it’s got to be a simple design, simple concept.”

Shopping around for the right features for your needs is a vital step. That’s why Henton relied on the advice of other people who had experience with ride-on spreaders before he bought his first one. With his current equipment, “I can fertilize, I can use different combinations of liquid applications all at the same time. That means I can use dry fertilizer, liquid post- or pre-emergent fungicide, or insecticide. It’s very efficient for me,” Henton says.

Henton isn’t alone in wanting a versatile piece of equipment. “I wanted one where we could apply the granule and spray for weeds at the same time,” Bradford says.

Ride-on spreaders’ consistent application rate is useful for liquid applications, too. “If you slow down with a hand wand, the application changes,” Henton says. “The only time I’ll used a backpack sprayer now is if I have a very small area that needs non-selective herbicide, which I don’t want to put in my lawn care equipment for fear of having residue.” You should also consider size and portability. Creech recommends making sure you can haul the equipment in the back of a truck.

Beyond actual equipment features, Henton stresses the value of picking a company with quality customer service.

Now, with his spreader from PermaGreen, he’ll call the company and they’ll stay on the phone with him until he gets it fixed. All three contractors stress the importance of calibration, routine maintenance and safety too. Knowing how to properly use and maintain your equipment is vital to getting the most out of it. L&L

The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.


Turf care alternative
By Daniel Cote

A very effective way to help a lawn prepare for a dry season is by top dressing with a compost soil mix – whether maintaining a healthy lawn or renovating a damaged one. The mix must contain a high percentage of compost, around 75 percent. This holds true for both organic and conventional lawn care.

Compost topdressing protects against extremes by balancing the soil’s three dimensions: chemical, biological and structural. Rather than being a specific soil amendment, such as an NPK application, topdressing with compost is a protective preventative practice that balances the lawn’s holistic structure, even enhancing other applications. In conjunction with overseeding, for damaged turf, the lawn care professional is essentially turbo-charging the entire renovation process.

Water Retention. Compost retains water, meaning you can water the lawn less and the water remains available longer. The organic matter in the compost soaks up water like a sponge, keeping water available in the soil for the plants to use. Without compost, the water just drains away, leaving nothing but dry, hard soil around the roots of the plants. Additionally, as the lawn grows denser through the use of compost, it will naturally retain more water, resulting in more drought-resistant, green turf.

Natural Nutrients. Besides retaining water, compost feeds the lawn with nutrients in a slow-release process. A single topdressing with compost, as part of a continuing lawn care program, will handle from 50 to 100 percent of the lawn’s fertilization needs. At the same time, compost, unlike any other topdressing application, will improve the actual soil structure, stimulate microbial activity, break down thatch, and neutralize the pH – creating a healthier, stronger lawn. A balanced and healthy lawn will naturally crowd out weeds and stop bug infestations. And homeowners will see the benefits of topdressing with compost not only on their lawns; it will also help trees, flowers, and shrubs, strengthening all the plants whose roots will grow stronger as they feed on the nutrients.

Environmental Concerns. Legislation banning phosphorus from fertilizers is the beginning and not the end of government intervention in the field. As more regulations are passed, as more restrictions on chemicals and synthetics are put in place, and as homeowners are further educated about sustainable practices, compost topdressing will become mainstream. For an absolutely perfect, emerald green, weed-free, pest-free lawn, some may currently still prefer herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. However, with compost being sustainable, environmentally friendly, and, most importantly, extremely effective, lawncare professionals would be remiss not to make topdressing with compost the number one tool in their arsenal for healthy lawns.

How to Topdress with Compost. The topdressing process has been made much easier and less expensive in recent years with the manufacturing of affordable, self-propelled, walk-behind top dressing machines. Turf grass professionals are no longer restricted by bulky, tractor-driven applicators for topdressing. The new machines are designed for topdressing applications on lawns and landscapes, rather than enormous sports fields and golf courses, making it possible for landscape professionals to provide this valuable service to residential customers.

It is easier than ever to topdress with compost. After ensuring that the lawn has been mowed to the correct height, and has been aerated and overseeded as necessary, simply load compost in the hopper of a self-propelled spreader and let the machine spread it across the grass. A direct application of a layer of compost should be from 1/8 to 1/4 inch.

The author is owner of Ecolawn Applicator.