Smart with soil

Features - Lawn Care

Learn the unique needs of your customers’ lawns.

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March 2, 2018
Holly Hammersmith
Restrictions vary from state to state, so it’s important to keep up with the laws in your service area.
Photo courtesy of Green Leaf Nursery

Benjamin Moretta has been fertilizing lawns for customers for 16 years now. During that time, no two applications have ever been the same.

“My fertilization program has never been the same from year to year. It constantly changes,” says Moretta, who is owner of Moretta Lawn & Landcare, based in Canton, Ohio.

Moretta also stresses the importance of continually adopting new best practices.

“A lot of it has to do with drought or sufficient amounts of rain, just depending on how the year goes as far as how much nitrogen’s going down, when it’s going down, timing with rainstorms,” he says. “It’s one of those things that if you stay stagnant, your results won’t meet the expectations of the client.”

Moretta Lawn & Landcare serves both residential and commercial customers. Residential customers are primarily high-end, requiring weekly pruning, deadheading of annuals and other landscape maintenance. The company has six employees and an annual revenue of $500,000.

Moretta uses a combination of semi-organic products and synthetic weed controls. The organic product is liquid and the synthetic product is granular. Typically, he offers five total applications per year on any given property.

Staying up to date.

In terms of ongoing education, Moretta says he takes continuing education courses and has attended seminars such as those through The Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“I go to them every year regardless of whether I need it or not, just to hear what is the newest, latest and greatest,” he says.

Moretta also attends continuing education conferences from his supplier.

Most states offer state conferences on turf grass or even have specific turf grass councils, says John Benefield, lawn care specialist at Green Leaf Nursery based in Glasgow, Kentucky. Green Leaf Nursery offers landscape, design and installation services, along with lawn care maintenance. Customers are almost entirely residential and the company has 10 employees with an annual revenue of $650,000.

Benefield mainly uses granular products for fertilization and a liquid herbicide for weed control. The company’s typical fertilization package includes four treatments per year. Customers may request extra treatments such as insect control or fungicide, as needed.

Benefield also recommends staying in communication with local and state regulators.

“Make sure that you know what products you’re able to use. They (local inspectors) know what can be used in your state versus other states, because not all chemicals and fertilizers are allowed in all states,” he says.

Lastly, Benefield says it’s helpful to work with the sales reps and companies you buy products and supplies from. They can also provide education and training.

© ThomasVogel | iStockphoto
Making correct applications.

To ensure every application is correct, Moretta advises to double check the product and application amount before applying. “It’s one of those things you get paranoid about,” he says.

Sometimes the unexpected can happen during applications, putting a day of fertilizer applications on hold. When Moretta returns to applying the product, he wants to make sure he starts where he left off.

“I write a lot of stuff out, so I have all the calculations and stuff right in front of me at all times,” Moretta says.

For Benefield, one of the main ways he makes sure he is applying the right products in the right amounts is through soil testing.

“That’s pretty much the most important first step you can take in making sure that you’re developing a good turf grass fertility program,” he says. “Soil testing is the best way to see what particular and specific nutrients need to be added to the soil to improve your turf’s health.”

Training other employees.

Because their operations are smaller, both Moretta and Benefield say they solely apply almost all fertilizer applications themselves. Moretta says he has team members spray broad-spectrum herbicides under his supervision. Training for this is performed annually.

“We always take a backpack sprayer with clean water in it and turn it on and start spraying with it and then we turn a fan on in front of it,” he says. “We have them put their hand five feet from it, so they can feel what drift actually is.”

In addition to the hands-on training, Moretta says employees are instructed to write down the weather conditions at every job prior to making an herbicide application.

“They’re constantly on their phone looking at the weather to see what wind direction is, temperature, that kind of stuff,” he says. “I always make sure to tell them if it looks like it’s going to rain within an hour not to mess around with Roundup and just to hand pull (weeds) and then (also to) make sure that the foliage is actually dry before they do any spraying after a rainstorm.”

Ideal weather conditions.

While most liquid products are labeled to be sprayed in temperatures of up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Moretta says he usually only applies liquids at temperatures below 80 degrees. This means he will typically make applications in the early morning in summer.

“I like to leave as soon as the sun comes up and be done by 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. Moretta also prefers to spray only when wind speeds are below 10 miles per hour.

Granular products typically do not require as strict guidelines for application. “With the granular insecticide that I use, I like to make sure there’s adequate soil moisture or there’s potential for some rain coming up because that product needs to get into the soil,” Moretta says.

Some products may not last as long if there is a lot of rain or high temperatures during a season, Benefield says.

“If we get a lot of heat and a lot of humidity and a lot of rain, and it causes that pre-emergent to volatilize, and typically toward the end of the season, you see outbreaks of crabgrass and stuff, so that plays a factor also,” he says.

“Making sure that the output’s correct, that’s crucial.” Benjamin Moretta, owner, Moretta Lawn & Landcare
In case of mistakes.

Moretta says he hasn’t had any notable application mistakes. If a mistake were to happen he would document what he did and why the error occurred. He would also repair the damage made by the application and cover all expenses associated with that.

“It just typically depends on the mistake. If I were to spray a product where it’s not needed and it may harm a landscape plant, I will always try to notify the customer and let them know of my mistake. It may not harm the plant at all, or it may lead to us replacing the plant,” Benefield says.

A spill kit is kept on the truck at all times in case of a chemical spill.

“If we were to have a chemical spill, typically you’ve got to call a chemical agency and let them know of the spill, but we have like a spill kit system that we can kind of contain that spill and take care of it,” Benefield says.

As a best practice, he says it’s vital to keep track of every application made and details surrounding the application such as the date, why it was made, amount of product applied, type of product and more. This information may also be requested by a local inspector.

Proper equipment maintenance.

Both contractors say checking calibration on their spreading equipment is paramount. Moretta uses a skid sprayer.

“Making sure that the output’s correct, that’s crucial,” he says. “If you don’t put out the right amount of weed control product there’s a potential that you’re not going to get any kill out of it. If you put down too much there’s potential you could burn the turf.”

Benefield uses a sprayer that sprays liquid and granular at the same time. He tries to perform maintenance on the machine according to the recommended schedule in the owner’s manual.

“I always just make sure all the fittings are greased. I change the oil every 100 hours,” he says.

Lastly, Benefield recommends paying attention to whether the product is being spread evenly.

“You don’t want your spreader to be spreading more on one side than the other. That can make the lawn look bad,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.