Lawn care anywhere

LCOs from around the country discuss how to design an application schedule that suits your climate, turf variety, soil type and customers’ purse strings.

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Lawn care would be easier if we knew what the weather would bring and how many applications to schedule each year to achieve quality (and profitability) every time.

With experience, lawn care operators figure out the best programs for their regions based on the environment, soil content, turf type and what clients want to pay.

“I have some clients that want to do just enough not to be kicked out of the HOA and others want the 18-hole at Augusta,” says Wesley Ory, president of Heritage Lawns & Irrigation in Olathe, Kansas.

Lawn & Landscape spoke with LCOs from different areas of the country to find out how they structure their lawn care programs and why. Here, we share their insights plus lessons learned the hard way.

Analyzing turf and soil.

What’s underground largely impacts how products work on the turf surface. “Soil content will tell you how many fertilizer applications you need to put down,” says Henry Velez enhancement manager at Green Acres Landscape in Salem, Oregon. He says soil tests are essential for learning what nutrient levels a client’s property requires.

For example, sandy loam soil will leach fertilizer and water more quickly than clay. “There aren’t as many nutrients in the (sandy) soil so it will need more fertilizer applications each year closer together, every six to eight weeks,” Velez says.

Meanwhile, clay calls for a slow-release fertilizer. “We use a soil probe to test the pH,” Velez adds. “If a client has highly acidic soil, we’ll definitely want to put down some lime and bring that soil to the proper pH levels, and then commence with fertilizing about every four to eight weeks.”

In Georgia, annual lime applications are required for most lawns in the fall on warm season grasses, and in mid-summer for tall fescue, LeBar says. Soils farther south in Florida are generally low in potassium. “Potassium is part of our regular treatment and the rate depends on the year,” says Tyron Jones, president of Deans Pest Control in Fruitland Park, Florida.

Jones conducts numerous soil samples when enrolling new clients in a program. “We have done hundreds of soil samples over the years, and if I was starting a brand-new company, I’d run out and do 50 to 100 soil samples to get a good idea of what you’re working with on your lawns,” he says.

Soil health is the foundation of lawn care programs at Heritage Lawns & Irrigation, where products are custom-blended using Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Foodweb principles. “We make sure we are not damaging the soil and we are building it up, which allows us to use less fertilizer,” Ory says.

Specifically, soil health is addressed by using products that do not contain chlorine or muriate of potash, which can harm soil microbes, Ory says. “We keep our salt content low so we are not drying out and killing microbes in the soil,” he says. “We already have a carbohydrate source in our first treatment it could be a compost ingredient or a molasses base if it’s a liquid treatment.”

Turf type is also a significant factor in how a lawn care program is structured. “We fertilize our warm-season grasses more heavily May through August, especially Bermudagrass,” LeBar says. “Tall fescue we are fertilizing more heavily in spring and fall.”

Weather considerations.

Weather in Southeast communities like Atlanta, where Chuck LeBar, president, operates Magnolia Lawn, can vary from drought conditions to muggy and wet.

During droughts, when water restrictions are in place, lawns struggle and customers can fall off their programs, LeBar says. “In the case of severe droughts when Lake Lanier levels drop, water restrictions get put on quickly and homeowners can react by suspending service, cancelling service, delaying service … things like that,” he says.

He checks back in with those customers once the drought lifts and continues the program. “We apply what is appropriate for the season – you can’t make up for lost ground,” he says.

Also, every customer’s lawn is a microclimate when you consider irrigation. One client might have a semi-drought happening while a neighbor is growing strong because of watering. That impacts lawn care needs.

“If a homeowner is irrigating heavily and the grass is growing real fast and they are mowing, they’re harvesting the nitrogen and fertilizer gets used more quickly than a lawn that is drought-stressed,” LeBar says.

When it comes to unpredictable weather, the transition zone sees it all.

“We are literally too hot, too wet, too dry and too cold at some point in the year,” Ory says. “And the challenges we face every year based on the weather are different.”

A mild winter can pump up insect pressure. And, if the temperatures heat up with extended periods of 100-degree weather, seeding becomes almost a must-have service in the transition zone, Ory says. If the weather stays “normal” (who knows what that is), lawns will grow out of brown patch issues that are rampant in this part of the country and beyond.

“We use better products to get better results, and overall we are less expensive than guys going out there eight and 12 times per year.” Tyron Jones, president, Deans Services

While an easy, temperate winter feels nice, the net result can call for a ramped up lawn care program. “We can get overrun by army worms about every 10 years, and we have had huge grub outbreaks,” Ory says.

On the other hand, Velez can’t think of a single customer of Green Acres Landscape who takes a pre-emergent application. “A lot of times, they don’t want to pay for that additional (pre-emergent) service, and we don’t include that,” he says.

So what if weeds crop up? “We try not to use many herbicides, and a lot of our weed control is manual,” Velez says. “As long as you have a consistent, good fertilizing schedule, the turf can fight a lot of these weeds … that usually does the job here.”

A magic number.

An annual lawn care program can range from four to 12 applications, depending on the region and the company’s business strategy.

Jones says a key driver is where you want to fall on the quality and price spectrum. First, determine how low you can go. “What is the least amount of treatments to achieve your goals?” he says.

Then look around the market and find out what other companies like yours are offering. “If everyone else is doing eight to 12 (visits), you decide if you want to be in there with the rest of the pack – or do something different,” Jones says.

What do clients expect? If you only visit their property six times, will they get the results they want? Will they feel like service is consistent?

Jones decided six was the magic number for his firm – and that was as low as he could go. “The least amount of treatments we can do and be effective is six, and we cost slightly more per application,” he says. “We use better products to get better results, and overall we are less expensive than guys going out there eight and 12 times per year.”

Jones says his goal is to secure long-term clients, so offering high quality at a moderate price is the goal. Six visits hits the mark. “The turf stays healthy longer and needs less product,” he says, adding that integrated pest management and weed spot treatments are part of the deal.

Magnolia Lawn visits clients eight times per year. “We are putting down weed control materials in some way or another at just about every treatment,” LeBar says.

In Kansas, Ory’s clients see his team six times per year. Fertilizer is “spoon fed” to lawns. “Fertilizing at every application is a business decision rather than a horticultural decision based on how many times you’ll be on a property,” he adds.

Green Acres clients receive four to five applications a year, depending on the property’s soil content.

What’s more important than number of visits is how the service is communicated to clients, Velez points out. And properly measuring properties is critical for ensuring that each visit is profitable for the company. Understand what clients want and set realistic expectations. Educate them about what their lawn will be getting at each service.

“We always ask what they are looking for in a landscaping service, and whether they understand turf and how fertilizer works,” Velez says. “Once they are educated, we go through our service and explain everything upfront, prior to them signing a contract.”

For tips on creating a lawn care program, click here.

For tips on soil testing, click here.

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