Plan ahead for spring

The work you do before the season starts will pay off when business picks up.

© KatarzynaBialasiewicz | iStockphoto

Running a successful lawn care program isn’t just about spreading fertilizer or chemicals on a client’s property. It takes preparation to make sure your team has the right equipment and training, as well as a strong relationship with clients. Here are a few tips to get the most out of a lawn care program this year:

Start early.

A successful start to the spring lawn care season begins in the middle of winter for the team at Landscape Enterprise in Salem, Virginia, says co-owner Darrell Hungate. Right after Thanksgiving, the company sends out written renewal contracts to all clients, then follows up on them after the holidays.

“We give them 60 days to renew,” says Hungate. “That gives them through the Christmas holiday, but also gives plenty of time for them to think about it, or for us to call, if they have any questions or want any add-ons.”

Hungate’s team also sends out newsletters summing up the year to the client, to remind them of the crew’s hard work and the value of the service. Since his 15 employees are assigned to particular properties, each newsletter can be personalized to the client.

As the only major employee (besides a longterm temp) at Wunsch’s Lawn Care in Willows, California, Brian Wunsch often visits clients directly and talks to them face-to-face about renewals.

He generally waits until after Christmas to talk about contracts, because “everybody’s got their mind somewhere else with the holidays,” he says, but continues the discussion through February if necessary.

Get ready.

As renewal contracts go out in December, employees at J. Rick Lawn & Tree in North Dakota and Colorado are already preparing equipment for the spring lawn care season. The end of fall means cleaning and close inspection of equipment.

“Over the winter, whatever we determined needed repaired or replaced was done,” says Jon Rick, owner of the company. “We want to make sure we don’t have a problem out in the field where a hose bursts. A small problem can create a larger problem.”

The preparation includes updating any MSDS sheets to be kept in the truck, and checking spill kits to make certain the crew is ready in case anything should go wrong.

As clients renew or update their services, Wunsch takes time before the start of the season to revise his square footage numbers to make sure he has the right equipment and products to cover the properties. Though he’s been applying fertilizer for the past few years, this year he’s started offering chemical applications as well, which means building a new pricing Structure.

He used a breakdown of the additional material cost per thousand square feet, but modified the price to cut out some overhead since he would already be on the property for maintenance. When he talked with clients for renewals, he made it a point to share how they were saving money by bundling services.

By Feb. 1, Rick has updated numbers for renewed and new customers finalized for applications starting in mid-March.

With those totals, Rick is able to use early order programs to save money on applications and ensure the first few weeks of the season run smoothly.

“We do early order for our chemical and fertilizer to make sure we’re stocked up for at least 8-10 weeks into the spring, so we don’t hurt production waiting on product,” he says.

Rick sets aside time at work to walk his employees through the company policy manual to establish expectations for the job and for clients before the first crews go out.

He also takes his employees out and physically walks them through an application on one of his properties before the season starts, “just to make sure everyone’s on the same page on procedure and processes,” he says.

Get the word out.

Because he spends time talking face-to-face with clients while he works on the property, Wunsch doesn’t invest much in marketing. Instead, he relies mostly on word-of-mouth in his community.

“I’ve been extremely happy with who I’m getting as far as customers,” Wunsch says. “If I have a good relationship with an existing client, they are most likely going to tell a friend of theirs with a similar property.”

However, as Wunsch adds new offerings, he’s looking into a more direct marketing approach to gauge interest in particular services. He has an order of 500 direct mail postcards to most of the mailing route in Willows this year to promote tree injections.

Rick also hasn’t done much new marketing in the last few years for lawn care, even as a larger company across two states. The focus instead is usually on referral sources and maintaining current customers, as is evidenced by about a 98 percent renewal rate this year, he says.

With his team now more established in Colorado, he’s started a few marketing efforts to bring in new customers through sponsored Facebook posts and technicians distributing door hangers in specific neighborhoods where they already have name recognition.

know your enemy.

Though applications begin toward the end of March depending on the weather, Hungate looks at pest and disease trends locally to prepare for the season. His team’s pesticide and chemical application recertification also comes up in March, which gives them the opportunity to talk with other technicians and see what they’re fighting and what works.

“Also, we’re 20 minutes down the road from Virginia Tech, which is the hotbed on the East Coast for turf, so we get firsthand info really quickly from there,” on new turf pressures, he says.

Though he doesn’t do a heavy amount of study before the season starts, Wunsch checks out new ideas and practices through the University of California’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website ( regularly.

For Hungate’s area of the country, he’s seeing molds like brown patch becoming a problem this year due to sporadic spring and summer temperatures, plus a heavy level of moisture during the winter. He’s also seeing increased insect pressure, and a higher occurrence of blights like red thread.

His crew works with clients to identify the symptoms of mold and fungus diseases, and tells them about resolutions, like aeration for problem mold areas or liquid fungicide for fungus.

In California, Wunsch’s clients deal with rust almost every other year, he says, but fungicides can be too expensive for them.

Instead, he talks to them to help manage expectations and ensure them that it will clear up after a little time, or with some nitrogen and aeration.

He’s less forgiving with another constant, crabgrass. He’ll use an application of Dimension to rein it in for clients. For other pressures, like powdery mildew, he’ll spray horticultural oil to keep plants healthy, weather permitting.

Moisture is a problem for Rick’s clients as well, but only in that they don’t have enough of it. Colorado has had a dry, warm winter, which could mean increased mite activity. One benefit to the dry weather is that a common issue, necrotic ring spot, might be less prevalent, since it thrives in wet seasonal conditions.

But the dry weather is an even bigger danger to the application program, since his crew isn’t able to put down fertilizer without the moisture to water it in. Though they usually start applications in mid-March, this year’s start date depends on the weather.

“That’s going to make a heavy impact on when we start because we don’t want to put fertilizer down on extremely dry lawns when people don’t have their sprinklers on yet,” he says. “Moisture is really going to dictate when we start this year.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
March 2017
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