Making the grass greener

Hydroseeding could be your next profitable add-on.

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If you’re looking to build your business, hydroseeding could be a natural addition to your existing lineup. It’s a planting method that works for starting or renovating lawns, establishing large-scale commercial areas such as corporate parks and improving erosion control. For many LCOs, it’s worth investigating if you’re subcontracting these kinds of jobs out on a regular basis.

Hydroseeding uses a mixture of seed, mulch, starter fertilizer and a bonding agent called tackifier so the product doesn’t run off in rain. The ingredients are blended into a slurry and sprayed onto the ground. Lime and other additives, such as moisture retention agents, may also be added. The mixture usually contains a temporary green dye so it’s easier to see where you’ve sprayed.

Back in 1985, Greg Omasta, founder of Omasta Landscaping in western Massachusetts, purchased a hydroseeding machine. “It seemed like a way to grow the business,” Omasta says. “We were one of the first in the area to offer the services, and we spent the first whole summer hydroseeding large environmentally-impacted areas that had been disturbed by new mall construction.”

Today, the company hydroseeds anywhere from 10 to 150 acres a year, ranging from residences to solar farms. “It’s another one of those add-ons, like lawn aeration, you can offer to clients,” he says. At least a quarter to as many as half of his hydroseeding jobs turn into maintenance contracts. He also does a lot of subcontracting for other landscape companies.

“There are no two hydroseeding jobs the same,” he says. “But it’s not as easy as just spraying on seed. You have to educate yourself and learn all the nuances such as how much seed to use, when to seed or not to seed with weather, or what mix to use on steep slopes.” He’s gained most of his knowledge on the job and through working with his vendor.

Omasta always sends out a soil test if he’s establishing a new lawn. “It’s smart to do because you learn what that lawn needs,” he says. “It’s also a sales tool. If we find out the lawn lacks potash, which helps maintain the turf and root structure, we sell that as part of the package.”

Omasta’s company also does its own prep work with excavators and power rakes. “The prep work is important. The finished product only looks as good as what you start with,” Omasta says.

One of the biggest benefits of hydroseeding is the ability to customize the product to the specific jobsite. Different seed blends are used depending on where it’s being applied. For example, in Omasta’s part of the country, the seed mix is predominantly bluegrass for lawns. For shade, a mix with more fescues would be used. On commercial jobs, the landscape architect typically chooses the mix.

The kinds of mulch used in the slurry include paper or wood-based types, but Omasta prefers wood mulch mixtures. “The fibers form a better matrix to protect the soil,” he says. “Paper doesn’t have the bonding capacity of wood.”

Omasta’s son, Chris, who’s vice-president of the company, does a lot of the hydroseeding jobs himself.

A common mistake he sees newbies make is when “They try stretch the mix and go as far as they can with as little material as possible, or they skimp on how much seed they use or fertilizer,” he says. “That doesn’t produce a quality job.”

He believes the job outcome depends partly on the equipment. “Some of these machines don’t have auger systems inside so they don’t mix the product well, which causes the application to be spotty,” Chris says. He also encourages contractors to stay current. “One of my beliefs is that you keep asking questions. Gain new techniques from other contractors who are doing this and don’t be afraid to learn. None of us in this industry can afford to stop learning,” he says.

Kerry Gephart, CEO and chief estimator at Advanced Landscape & Hydroseeding in the Inland Empire of Southern California, has been hydroseeding for more than 20 years, and he believes there are misconceptions. “One of the biggest problems is contractors thinking they’re going to make a lot of money hydroseeding, so they buy a cheap machine at auction and go spray. But there are some times when you shouldn’t be hydroseeding,” he says.

Although hydroseeding can be economical on large jobs, it’s not always ideal for small sites. On a 500-square-foot lawn, sod may be a less expensive option.

“Most of the cost of a small job like that is going to be getting the truck to the job site,” he says. “We have learned that our minimum has to be 1,500-square feet to be cost-effective.”

Gephart agrees that job prep is essential. “If the site wasn’t prepared properly, you can get weeds coming up,” he says. “Those don’t come from the spray.” Oftentimes, he’ll pull up to a site and check the irrigation system before spraying. “I’d say that nine out of ten times if we get a callback, it’s irrigation-related. The best hydroseeding job in the world cannot overcome bad sprinkler coverage, especially in a climate like Southern California.”

Gephart suggests doing your own jobs first before agreeing to subcontract because there’s no substitute for experience. “You’ve got to learn the best mix for your area, how to spray efficiently, and how not to paint yourself into a corner. You want nice, even applications without missing areas like the back of hillsides,” he says. “It’s a good business but don’t jump in without knowledge. That just hurts the whole industry.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.

April 2018
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