Hydroseeding is a method of seeding small and large properties that can be more efficient and less labor intensive than seeding or laying sod. Up until the economic downturn of 2008, the hydroseeding industry had been experiencing steady growth for equipment, material suppliers and hydroseeders. Still, hydroseeding is a viable profit option for landscapers and contractors and should see growth as the housing market continues to rebound.
Many landscapers offer hydroseeding as part of their other landscaping services. Costs to landscapers to add hydroseeding into the mix are relatively minimal, less than $10,000, and workers can be trained relatively quickly to load and operate the machinery. For larger applications, such as hydroseeding an airport or football field, the costs for equipment is much steeper – closer to $50,000.
No magic in hydroseeding.
One of the first ideas to debunk is that hydroseeding is a magical way to establish a lawn. It isn’t magic, though the process is impressive. The reality is a newly planted lawn will need some additional attention after the hydroseeding has been completed. Companies that offer hydroseeding services need to be sure they’re selling a beautiful lawn and not just the hydroseeding process.
“Too many hydroseeders are more concerned with selling the hydroseed than selling a lawn,” says David Ringl, salesperson with CSI/GeoTurf, a product supplier headquartered in Highland, Mich. “You’re growing an individual plant with each seed.”
Ringl says the successful companies know that hydroseeding is simply an efficient, effective way to distribute the products that go into establishing a successful lawn.
They understand that they will need to ensure irrigation is in place so the seed will germinate and follow-up their applications by fertilizing three to four more times during the season. Hydroseeders generally use two different methods to seed a lawn.
In the first method, everything is mixed into a slurry in the tank – seed, fertilizer, mulch and tackifier to hold it all together, and then it is shot over the prepared site.
Most hydroseeders practice this labor saving method, according to Jay Hallenbeck, a Midwest sales representative for La Crosse Seed.
However, a better method is to apply the seed with a conventional spreader, first, then shoot the mulch material over the seed. This will provide better seed to soil contact and is “horticulturally correct,” Ringl says.
Equipment and materials.
There are two types of hydroseeding machines on the market: jet agitated and mechanical agitation.
Jet agitated units use a powerful agitation much like a washing machine on wash cycle (only on steroids) to mix the slurry in the tank.
Mechanical agitated machines use one or more paddles to mix the seed-starting materials and a centrifugal or a gear pump to pump out the slurry.
The advantages of a jet machine, say suppliers, are that they have fewer parts, and are more reliable and less expensive.
Jet agitated units are best used with paper mulch, pourable mulches and wood/paper blends. Jet agitated machines are good choices for residential and commercial installations.
Mechanical units use one or more paddles to mix the material and centrifugal or a gear pump to pump out the slurry.
Mechanical units are the only unit that can process matrixes for erosion control, including bonded fiber matrix (BFM) and flexible growth medium (FGM).
Mechanically agitated units can also handle a wider range of materials and a little thicker slurry than can the jet agitated type. Any type of paper, wood or erosion control material can be used in a mechanical unit.
The size of the hydroseeder tank will determine the size of site you will be hydroseeding. As a rule of thumb, for every 100 gallons of liquid you will get 1,000 square foot of coverage.
Generally speaking, a 900-1,000 gallon machine is adequate for residential properties; a 1,500-3,000 gallon machine is suitable for seeding an airport or other acreage.
Wood fiber mulch is the preferred, though perhaps not the only mulch used in the industry these days.
The 1 1⁄8-inch-long fibers help retain moisture in a mix and are less likely to blow away, especially when a tackifier is mixed into the slurry. Recycled newsprint and straw, though less expensive, is inferior to wood fiber, according to Ringl, though newsprint is sometimes mixed with wood at a wood to paper ratio of 50/50, 80/20 and 90/10. Using 100 percent paper in the slurry is not advised, Ringl says. “There is no advantage with paper except dollar savings,” he says.
Seed is your least expensive cost and shouldn’t be scrimped on, according to Hallenbeck.
He says even though the cost of premium seed is going to be higher this year, due to drought conditions out West, it is still your cheapest investment and one that will pay off if you want to do good work and not have to revisit the site.
Both hydroseeders mentioned above can handle any kind of seed, including wildflower and crop seed.
Hydroseeding and erosion control.
Any time you can kill two birds with one stone you come out ahead of the game, and in business that means increased profitability. Lately, landscapers have been able to do just that. Some of the newer seeding materials on the market make it possible to seed some difficult areas that once required labor intensive erosion control blankets.
Hydroseeding products such as BFM and FGM mentioned above are the panacea for erosion control and quick turf establishment with eight times less labor needed to install than conventional erosion control blankets you see in the medians and alongside the highways and byways.
BFM is chemically bonded. You spray it down when it looks like you have 24-48 hours of dry weather ahead of you. FGM will not work in a rain event. These mulches are replacing erosion control blankets, particularly on slopes. Both mixes will protect sloping terrain and are not meant for applying in the middle of a ditch, Ringl says. He adds that they must have mechanical agitation – not jet agitation – to properly mix in the tank.
Contractors and government entities.
Companies who do large commercial sites, like airports and road work, are at the mercy of three elements, all equally variable – the weather, the general contractors who come before you and the folks who hold the purse strings, usually state and local government entities. Of the three variables, perhaps weather is the easiest one to deal with.
Contractors are pressured to meet deadlines and sometimes don’t. This makes it difficult for hydroseeders, who are at the whims of Mother Nature, to plan accordingly.
The contractor’s priority is getting the major work done and pulling out, says Don Emerson, owner of M & D Hydroseeding, a firm that does work mostly in Michigan. “You’re depending on someone else to call the shots.”
Geoff Cutsy, president of G & J Site Solutions in Calumet, Mich., echoed Emerson’s sentiments.
“On large jobs we’re at the mercy of the contractors. When working with residential homeowners you have a lot more freewill. You can choose the best time to seed and homeowners usually have irrigation in place,” says Cutsy, a Michigan Technological University graduate who started his business in 2003 as a way to pay for his college tuition.
“You have to be proactive,” Cutsy says. ”I try to control as much as I can.”
Then of course, you want to get paid. The jobs the big guys do include seeding public and municipal golf courses, airports and transportation thoroughfares.
Most of these jobs require they bid months in advance and be prepared to put out a lot of money up front for materials.
Emerson cautions that you have to be careful to not short yourself in the bidding process.
For example, make sure you factor in materials, labor and travel, which may include overnight stays for workers.
Getting paid from these contracts can take up to six months or more, Emerson says and may be partial payments.
As for the nuts and bolts of the business, Cutsy’s company uses a mechanically agitated machine for these bigger jobs.
He said you can use a higher quality of material in a mechanically agitated machine, compared to a jet agitated unit.
His choice of material for mulching is wood fiber, which he says has greater moisture control and is less likely to blow away in the wind.
The author is a horticulturist and freelance writer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.