When I was in high school way back in the late ’90s, I knew my next step was going to college. That’s just what you did at my school. You received a scholarship or took out loans (I did the latter), and spent the next four years studying a major.
Then, hopefully, you’d receive that oh-so precious piece of paper from a university which was proof you were ready to enter the workforce and make money (after paying back all that debt).
But that trend seems to be changing.
Both PBS and CNBC recently published articles about how attending a 4-year college is becoming less popular. You can find those articles at the following two links – bit.ly/lawnschool and bit.ly/lawncnbc.
The good news is the green industry can and is capitalizing on this change in thinking.
Both the National Association of Landscape Professionals and local landscaping associations are reaching out to high school students and touting the strengths of a career in the green industry. You can read more about that in our cover story starting on page 36.
What makes this so encouraging is the industry is making a concerted effort to tap into a population with no bias.
I always wondered why this push wasn’t made more often, and I’m sure it was in certain areas and I missed it, but I heard one reason why last summer. A state association executive director told me that the association was so focused on making sure the members were stable after the Great Recession that there was no time to focus on the future. Now, the association can make that effort.
What makes this so encouraging is the industry is tapping into a population with no bias. A 16-year-old may have some idea of career aspirations, but most still are undecided or not fully committed to their dream job.
Some may not even know that a landscaping company has more to offer than a bunch of people riding mowers and cleaning up leaves.
This type of outreach also gives business owners a chance to show a younger generation that landscaping companies run like professional operations. Your pitch doesn’t have to be “come work for a landscaping company.” It can be “come work for a great company that performs landscaping services.”
Start thinking about how you can position your company as a career option. Reach out to a local high school to setup a time to make a presentation to a class, hold a career day at your location, work with a local landscaping association on an event; there’s a number of ways to make a difference. You may get more skepticism from the parents, so appealing to mom or dad is just as important.
This won’t solve all the hiring problems in the industry or the negative perceptions, but it’s better than watching even more talented kids succeed in another industry. – Brian Horn
Every landscaper has faced that situation where, no matter how much tending, pruning or fertilizing you do, the plants and grass just don’t seem to thrive. That may mean it’s time to look beneath the surface – in the soil.
Amendments are often necessary to correct an imbalance or offset a structural problem in the soil. These organic or nonorganic substances are tilled several inches into the topsoil, unlike mulches or top dressings which are left on the surface. Amendments release nutrients and aerate the soil, supporting an ideal growing environment. Understanding the soil you’re working with and addressing its needs can help to cultivate that flourishing landscape your customers crave.
Diagnosing the problem.
Sometimes a problem with the soil has visible symptoms: excess weed or moss, lingering puddles or standing water, recurring salt stains, or areas that remain dry and parched regardless of watering. Or, you may notice that despite routine fertilization, there’s little response.
“Soil is composed of many different living organisms that work to provide nutrients to the plants that it supports,” says Jerry Schill, CEO and co-owner of Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio. “It's always best to test your soil to determine exactly what it needs. Just like you shouldn't switch and swap medications with friends, soil amendments are not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The test will indicate if there is an imbalance in nutrients, which you can then address with a more targeted additive. Schill says there are other factors to take into consideration with the test results.
One is knowing what a property will be used for. “For instance, agricultural properties that have a lot of heavy equipment running on them are more likely to experience compaction. In these situations, you might want to add sand and leaf compost to alleviate that problem,” he says.
Also, it’s important to know what your client is planning to grow and understand the environment in which those plants thrive. “If you're using a lot of hydrangeas and azaleas, for example, you might need an alkaline amendment rather than one that's more acidic.”
Once you have all the pieces of the puzzle, you can then take steps toward addressing the problem.
Common chemical imbalances.
A pH imbalance is one of the most frequent reasons for a lackluster lawn, and this is something your soil test will reveal.
“If the pH is too low, you’ll see an off-color appearance and the inability of the lawn to properly respond to a fertilizer application,” says Greg Adams, president of One Step Tree & Lawn Care in Rochester, New York.
A pH reading of 7.0 is generally desirable and considered neutral. A pH of 0 to 7.0 means the soil is increasingly more acidic and a pH of 7.0 to 14 means the soil is increasingly more alkaline. Some plants thrive in either extreme, but for more general purposes, neutral pH is advisable. “Lawns require a pH of between 6.2-6.8 to perform to its best,” Adams says.
To correct low pH, add lime. For a high reading, add elemental sulfur or organic matter such as peat moss. It takes several months to a year for the change to become effective, so early planning and follow up is key. “With extremely low pH, it is not uncommon to correct the situation over a couple of seasons,” Adams says.
Excessive salinity is a common problem in sites near salt-treated roadways or in coastal regions. A white film or outline may be visible on a soil with excessive salt, or plants may exhibit signs of drought, despite receiving adequate fresh water.
A pH reading above 10 indicates the soil is too high in sodium, also called sodic soil. Such a soil will not properly absorb water. The addition of gypsum, sulfuric acid or a product containing calcium will help restore the imbalance. Another approach is to add organic materials to the soil to promote good drainage, enabling the salt to flush from the soil.
Compost, which is decomposed organic matter or manure, is a common soil additive that provides numerous benefits. It helps to feed the microbes in the soil, causing them to release valuable nutrients needed for plants and grass to flourish. Regular additions of compost will help to maintain soil quality and promote aeration.
Adding compost can also correct water issues. Soil that is too compact or high in clay will retain water, resulting in mildew and poor root development. Compost will help to aerate this type of soil and promote better drainage. Soil that is very sandy allows water to pass through it too quickly, preventing absorption. Adding compost to sandy soil will enhance its ability to hold water, improving retention.
“Soil is composed of many different living organisms that work to provide nutrients to the plants that it supports.” Jerry Schill, CEO, Schill Grounds Management
While many customers are happy to turn their lawn care and maintenance over to professionals, it’s a good idea to keep them in the loop when it comes to their soil requirements. Educating your customers deters problems and helps them to understand their landscape’s needs.
“We always tell our customers when we are going to do a pH test. When we get the results, we share those with our customers and discuss what changes or additions (if any) should be done,” Adams says.
Beneath every thriving plant or lawn is a carefully tended soil. Proper analysis and cultivation is the key to keeping each landscape healthy and pleasing to the eye.
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.
Hire Power helps you recruit, hire and retain the best talent for your company. We’ve got a rotating panel of columnists ready to advise you on staffing.
At Blades of Green, our hiring process has evolved every year for the past three years that I have been here. In 2016, we added a work shadow to our process. In 2017, we revamped the questions that we asked, and we have already started discussions about what we are changing in 2018.
It is important that companies take the time to ensure their process is attracting the right people and is keeping with the times. If you have concluded that your process is not attracting the right people, you need to change it.
We hire less than 3 percent of the candidates who apply for our positions and can weed out approximately 25 percent of those applicants with just a phone interview.
Identify your non-negotiables.
These are the things every candidate must have to be a fit for your team. They are also the things that would immediately disqualify the candidate. Companies need to decide what is most important to them. Is it finding great people or filling a position? The stance we have taken at Blades of Green is finding great people. Sometimes that means we are understaffed. However, if we weigh being understaffed against hiring a person who is a bad fit for the team, we would rather be understaffed in a heartbeat.
Before contacting an applicant, we review what we call a pre-application form. This is a form candidates fill out to indicate they are interested in one of our positions. The pre-application form asks very basic qualifying questions that help weed out candidates who don’t meet our minimum qualifications. If they answer all the qualifying questions appropriately and they have a good work history with applicable skills, a phone interview is scheduled with the candidate.
The phone interview gives us insight about their work experience, their reason for leaving previous positions and what they are looking for in an employer. It also offers a great first impression for both the candidate and our team. If that 30-minute phone interview goes well, the candidate is then asked to complete Blades of Green’s full application and a personality survey. This process is for every candidate, no matter the position. Once those steps are complete and satisfactorily answered, we invite the candidate to an in-person interview.
The in-person interview is conducted by the departmental manager who oversees the position the candidate applied for and whoever did the phone interview. It is imperative to have that person who did the phone interview in the in-person interview to ensure the consistency of the story. Additionally, as part of the first in-person interview, candidates are asked to complete a cognitive assessment. Lastly, prior to an offer and pre-employment screenings, the candidate would be offered an opportunity for a work shadow with the appropriate department. We have learned some of our most valuable information about a candidate from our employees during these work shadows. What works so well is the candidate is placed in an informal environment with a peer. Their guard is down and their true personality shines.
The process can be tedious, at least the first time around. But once companies have built a solid foundation, it only requires revisions when necessary. Having a consistent pre-hiring process also reduces risk associated with claims of discrimination.
And, since every employee at Blades of Green knows the intentionality we place on hiring the right person, they can be proud of the person they work beside because they know the process they went through.
Angela Hieronimus is an HR manager for Blades of Green.
One concern for lawn care operators is avoiding a disease outbreak at the start of the season when the turf may be vulnerable.
Dr. John Kaminski, associate professor of turfgrass management at Penn State University, maintains that the most effective way of warding off disease in the spring is to nurture healthy turf through the fall and into the winter.
“I think of it as fundamental Turf 101,” he says. “I think the stronger you are going into winter, the more likely you are to avoid some avoid some (disease issues) that you may come across.”
Dr. Jim Kerns, associate professor at NC State University, agrees. “Turf that struggles through the winter months is predisposed to disease in the spring,” he says. “Pathogens are opportunistic, therefore having weak plants at any time can allow for disease development.”
When it comes to heading off early season disease problems, Kaminski says LCOs working in northern sections of the United States and Canada are at a disadvantage. “The northern guys have the challenge of having annual bluegrass,” he says. “You can have perfect turf and still have a bad winter and get turf loss, but the adage of having healthy turf going into the winter is definitely going to be important.”
The primary disease issue confronting northern-based LCOs each spring is snow mold, whether it be pink, gray or speckled. “The type depends on snow cover and conditions in the spring or before snow falls in the winter,” Kerns says. “In order to get gray or speckled snow mold, at least 60 days of snow cover are required. Pink snow mold, or Microdochium patch, does not require snow cover and can be severe when temperatures reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit or below with periods of high humidity.”
Another concern is take-all patch. “The disease won’t show up until the following summer,” Kaminski says, “but the best time to apply fungicide is when the pathogen is active. And that’s going be in the fall, October and November.”
As an alternative, the fungicide can be applied in the spring but in any case, soil temperatures should be between 55 and 65 degrees, NC State’s Dr. Jim Kerns says.
Turf that struggles through the winter months is more susceptible to disease in the spring. “Pathogens are opportunistic, therefore having weak plants at any time can allow for disease development,” Kerns says.
Other disease issues come spring include, depending on the variety of grass, spring dead spot, large patch, fairy ring or take-all root rot.
In addition to applying fungicide, Kaminski recommends maintaining an ongoing fertility program through the fall as well. “I think what (LCOs) want to do is continue fertilizer programs at a moderate level,” he says. “And as the turf starts growing more as we get into the fall they can bump that up a little bit.”
“The key to me is getting a good fertilizer down where the plant is going to store that and not use it all. So, you’re basically going to want to continue to fertilize it as normal and then right before the grass pretty much shuts down but is still able to take up those nutrients. Then it will store (the nutrients) over the winter and give it a better chance of surviving some of the pressures over the winter.”
“The key to me is getting a good fertilizer down where the plant is going to store that and not use it all.” John Kaminski, associate professor, Penn State University
Fertilizers can be beneficial. Kerns notes potassium’s effectiveness against spring dead spot, but he says fertilizers are not a substitute for fungicides. He says when dealing with issues such as large patch, spring dead spot and take-all root rot, the applications must be scheduled to coincide with a period when the soil reaches a temperature of 70 degrees at a 2-inch depth for a minimum of four or five consecutive days. He says that in these instances the calendar should be set aside. “Pathogens respond to temperature and moisture,” he says, “not the season.”
The weather is the wild card in all this. “The weather has been odd,” Kaminski says. “Everyone says it’s getting so warm but in 2013-14 and 2014-15 we had some of the worst winters that we’ve had. You can’t predict that. And so you have to do the basic things to protect your turf; with fertility and fungicides, and hope that things turn out in the spring.”
LCOs must be alert to the prospect of having to deal with issues they haven’t faced before. Both Kaminski and Kerns are seeing issues that, while not new, are becoming more common farther north than in years past.
“We’re seeing some oddball diseases,” Kaminski says. “We’re seeing an unusual Pythium that’s hitting Poa. Not in the winter, it’s a seasonal thing. Thatch collapse is a new disease that we’ve seen. There’s really no good control for that. We just try to tell people to treat it like fairy ring.”
Some diseases that in years past were more problematic in the Transition Zone are now advancing northward, Kerns says.
“We’ve diagnosed Pythium root dysfunction and Pythium root rot in more northern areas than we have in the past,” he says. “Another disease that seems to be more problematic is summer patch. It also seems like nematodes are more problematic in more northern climates. These diseases are by no means occurring as frequently as we see them in North Carolina, but the incidences seem to be increasing. (But) this is just an observation and we do not have data to support that claim.”
In the end, Kaminiski says disease control comes down to adhering to the basic principles of turf management. “I think the thing is just try and stick to the fundamentals,” he says. “And don’t get so far removed from doing normal things that you know are going to result in a healthy plant.”
It’s important to not subject the turf to unnecessary stress and increase its susceptibility to disease. “A lot of times we see people whose expectations are so high and are just pushing their turf so hard for such a long period of time that it makes it a little tough,” Kaminski says.
Attending winter conferences can help LCOs expand their knowledge about diseases such as Pythium.
“When the winter season hits, it’s conference season,” Kaminski says. “There are always new things that are coming out and are important. It would be good idea for (LCOs) to go and continue to update themselves on the latest information that’s out there because things are changing fast.
“This new disease with Pythium a few years ago it was thatch collapse for us. There are a lot of new things that are coming out and there are also new management options like the new nematicides that are out on the market. Kind of educating themselves about it and knowing what to look for. I think it’s a good time, as you get into winter and put the grass to bed, to really focus on revitalizing yourself and that includes continuing education.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.