The first lawn care applications of the year are designed to stop grassy weed growth before it germinates.
It’s the kickoff to the lawn care season, and the first application in the annual series is a critical step in preventing stubborn grassy weeds. Pre-emergent herbicides go down as early as January in some areas of the country, and late spring after snow melt in northern and Midwest states. Their purpose is to provide a barrier of protection against crabgrass, goosegrass, foxtail, barnyard grass and even some broadleaf weeds that crop up in the summer, such as oxalis or prostrate spurge.
“For lawn care operators, pre-emergents are the most critical weed control they have the whole season,” says Jason Fausey, research and development specialist at NuFarm. “They really only have one opportunity to make that application, and that’s prior to weeds germinating.”
As with any lawn care application, timing is everything – and that’s tricky business when balancing a generous roster of accounts that essentially need this pre-emergent application during the same relatively narrow window of time. Specifically, that’s before weed seed germination and after soil temperatures level at 55 to 58 degrees at a 1-inch depth for four to five consecutive days.
“Timing is going to vary across the country, so the key is to monitor those soil temperatures,” says Bobby Walls, product development manager for herbicides and fungicides at FMC.
Also important are application technique and product selection. “This is where the planning comes in,” says Walls, suggesting that LCOs review their pre-emergent herbicide programs in fall, so they’re prepared to dispatch the crews once the ground defrosts.
Still, it’s not too late to seriously evaluate your pre-emergent herbicide protocol, including a review of best practices for application and understanding how tank mixing and adjuvants play into this, and other lawn care applications. Because, as Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist at BASF, points out, “The easiest and cheapest way to battle crabgrass is with a pre-emergent herbicide.”
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Adjuvants: Know what to use and when
Adjuvants are designed to increase the safety and effectiveness of a lawn care treatment, and they include a wide class of products from buffering agents that are used when water pH is not ideal, to penetrants that allow a product to work through the thick gel of a plant or down into the turf canopy. Adjuvants are most often used with post-emergent herbicides that require foliar penetration for efficacy, but they are also used when spraying fungicides or insecticides, says Laurence Mudge, manager of the green solutions team at Bayer.
“Wetting agents can help post-emergent herbicides stay on leaves,” Mudge says. “And, penetrators help the spray go down into the canopy to get the active ingredient down where you want it.”
The most commonly used adjuvants are surfactants and methylated seed oil products. These are designed to help herbicides penetrate leaves in a post-emergent application, Mudge says.
Situations that call for adjuvants include when hot, dry weather causes weeds to dry out and develop an outer cuticle. “It’s more difficult to control weeds because of the waxy surface on the weed, and that’s an ideal time to use an adjuvant,” says Jason Fausey, research and development specialist at NuFarm.
The main question to ask concerning adjuvants, Fausey says, is: Do you really need one?
Here are a few main classes of adjuvants and how they work:
- Wetting agents: Helps wettable powders mix with water
- Spreaders: Allows products to form a uniform coating layer
- Stickers: Prevents product “roll-off” and helps to stick on a plant or turf
- Penetrants: Helps product penetrate through the thick gel of a plant
- Anti-foaming agents: Reduce foam in sprays that require vigorous agitation
- Emulsifiers: Aid in mixing petroleum-based products with water (invert emulsifiers do the opposite)
Pre-emergent herbicides must be applied before weed seed germination occurs, and that can pose a challenge because there are varying environmental conditions even within a single lawn care route.
While application timing is based on an average soil temperature of 55 degrees (or some look to when forsythia bloom in the north, and dogwood in the south,) location gets even more specific than that.
Soil temperatures warm up faster on south-facing slopes. Bare spots in the turf also get warmer because they’re directly exposed to sunlight, whereas lush turf keeps soil cooler for longer.
The strips of lawn abutting sidewalks or driveways pull in heat from pavement surfaces, which ups the soil temperature compared to the rest of the yard.
“Most LCOs take a look at the calendar, but they also need to take look at the application site,” says David Loecke, herbicide product manager at PBI Gordon. “Take a look at the areas in which you need to make your application and make sure you’re timing accordingly.”
That means that properties on a route with south-facing lawns, for example, might get positioned first on the list for receiving a pre-emergent herbicide application. Or, one product might be used to treat properties earlier on in the route, while properties falling toward the end of the service cycle might get another product – perhaps one with a post-emergent mix to catch any weeds that have already started germinating.
As a rule, regions with a longer growing season will receive more than one pre-emergent herbicide application, Miller says.
For example, in the transition zone that includes his part of Virginia, first pre-emergent herbicide applications go down around Feb. 15 (depending on the weather), with a second round of product applied toward the end of March.
“With warm-season grasses further down south, you see LCOs doing up to four pre-emergent applications,” Miller says. Specifically, in Florida, LCOs might plan for three or four applications; they might do two applications in the Atlanta, Ga., area heading north toward the transition zone.
“But one thing that we notice with some of the warm-season grass is they are more competitive to crabgrass because they’re a tropical grass just like crabgrass,” Miller says. “Cool-season grasses start to get weak from summer stress and can’t compete with the crabgrass quite as well.”
Meanwhile, split applications can prolong control on a property and meet that every-eight-weeks visit window that many LCOs promise customers, says Laurence Mudge, manager of the green solutions team at Bayer.
“A lot of companies will apply a half rate, then maybe two months later they’ll come back and make another pre-emergent application,” he says. “There are agronomic and business reasons for doing that.” Some products just won’t last through summer to prevent weed growth, Mudge says. “So you need to do two applications vs. one single one because if you only do one application in February, it may run out of gas by the time you get to July and August.”
Mudge notes that this all depends on turf type and “the situation.” Mainly, lawns that have a healthy turf stand will stand up to weeds.
“You are not putting as much pressure on your pre-emergent herbicide because your turf is providing enough competition that weeds don’t germinate,” he says. Mudge also points out that fall is an important season for making pre-emergent herbicide applications for managing winter weeds, especially poa annua. (This applies to transition zone and down south.)
Mix it up
Follow these tips to make tank mixing a success.
Tank mixing is an efficiency measure for lawn care companies that feel the pressure of servicing routes in limited windows of time. Mixing a fertilizer with an herbicide, for example, can give customers green-up results while controlling weeds – a one-two punch.
Specifically with herbicides, lawn care operators (LCOs) might mix a pre- and post-emergent product going into late spring to catch any weeds that have germinated in the lawn. This can happen in bare spots in turf, areas close to sidewalks and on south-facing slopes where the soil temperatures warm faster and weeds can crop up sooner than in other turf areas.
But before you tank mix any product, take a step back and ask yourself why, says Jason Fausey, research and development specialist at NuFarm. “You want to ensure that you’re spending the time, money and effort on applying a product at the right time,” he says, adding that mixing must be beneficial for the lawn and not just for the LCO’s schedule.
Before you tank mix, here are some considerations to keep in mind.
Pick the right partner. Read the label and be sure the products you’re mixing are meant to be combined. “You need to make sure your products are compatible, and some labels will tell you what products to mix – and what not to mix,” says Bobby Walls, product development manager for herbicides and fungicides at FMC.
Do a jar test. Be sure the products you’re mixing will stay in suspension by performing a jar test before you prepare an entire tank, says Dean Mosdell, technical manager for the western U.S. at Syngenta. “Take the same ratio you’d use to apply the products then mix them together (in a jar),” he says. You want to be sure that the mixture stays uniform and no particles form at the bottom of the jar.
Mind the mixing order. Mixing is relatively simple, but it’s not a matter of simply adding products and agitating. “You have to be careful of the mixing order when you’re adding multiple products,” says Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist for BASF. Dry products go into the mix first, followed by wettable powders, then water-dispersible granules (or dispersible granules), and next flowables or suspension concentrates. (Those products have the consistency of latex paint.) Finally, you can add emulsifiable concentrates. “You add the products that are easiest to mix toward the end,” Miller says.
Get well-equipped. There is a full range of tanks available on the market in a range of sizes. Some side-injection tanks allow LCOs to customize the mix for the property, Mosdell says. “Equipment can vary widely for liquid applications, and rotary spreaders are best for granular products,” he says, adding that swath size matters in terms of efficiency on the job.
Aside from timing, even application of the product is critical, Fausey says.
Sometimes, complaints from clients that weeds are sprouting in the lawn in spite of a pre-emergent application are because of missed spots during application.
“With pre-emergents, it’s really important to have a perfect barrier across the entire lawn to have perfect weed control,” Fausey says. “If there are any skips or overlaps or breaks in the barrier, you’ll find weeds that will germinate in those areas.”
Also, these products need to be watered in within an average of seven to 10 days of application. “If you don’t receive a rainfall and fail to use irrigation, the herbicide will not be released into the soil,” Walls says.
On the other hand, too much rain can sabotage pre-emergent herbicide applications, says Dean Mosdell, technical manager for the western U.S. at Syngenta. “During warm, wet springs, the active ingredients tend to break down faster in the soil,” he says, noting that “crabgrass breakthroughs” can be treated upon germination with a post-emergent herbicide.
If you’re planning on aerating properties in the spring, the pre-emergent application will still be effective. “Some of our research with pre-emergent herbicides shows that cultural practices like aerification will not affect the level of control,” Mosdell says.
Same goes for seeding, Loecke points out. “If you are planning on seeding, there are certain pre-emergent products out there you can use,” he says, noting that it’s critical to read the label because in a lot of instances, pre-emergent products can actually prevent the grass seed from germinating.
So many times, the success an LCO has with a lawn care product all depends on reading and following the label’s recommendations.
“Some products might have a larger window of application time,” Walls points out, noting that the label dictates application timing, technique and proper tank-mixing partners (if applicable). “It all comes back to the label,” he says.