Green Lawns Bring Green Pockets

Dec. 1, 1999
Lawn care is a worthwhile industry to invest in for rental centers. The appeal of a nice-looking lawn goes a long way in homeowners' minds, and they are

Lawn care is a worthwhile industry to invest in for rental centers. The appeal of a nice-looking lawn goes a long way in homeowners' minds, and they are often willing to spend as much as it takes to maintain its beauty.

The $7.2 billion outdoor power equipment industry has been growing at an average rate of 8 percent during the 1990s. Analysts still predict continued growth over the next five years, given a favorable economy.

With the exception of mowers, mower attachments and string trimmers, homeowners can hardly justify purchasing many of the specialty equipment items critical to a good lawn-care program. Similarly, as commercial landscapers search for new services to distinguish themselves, they will also look to their rental dealers to supply them with such products as aerators, sod cutters, stump grinders and power rakes.

To meet their needs, rental dealers should know about the proper lawn-care practices in their area. In particular, knowledge of types of soil and grasses will always impress customers. Keeping handy key addresses of local cooperative extension services, as well as literature on good practices, can also be useful. Spring isn't far away. Here are some seeds to plant in your customer's minds.

Spring calendar Many of the activities in the early spring enjoy only a narrow window of application because weather often interferes. Typically, a spring calendar begins with clearing the yard of debris left over from fall and winter. Power raking to remove thatch goes first, followed by aeration and application of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Mowing comes last. Overseeding in most regions is more likely to succeed when performed in late summer and fall, but you can still do it in the spring if proper moisture is available.

Seasonal grasses Grasses are frequently grouped based on their adaptation to temperature. A cool-season grass favors temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit for growth; whereas, a warm-season grass will grow better between 80 and 95 F. Cool-season grasses, such as annual and perennial ryegrass, rough and Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass, and fine and tall fescue grow better in the northern United States. Warm-season grasses like Bahia, Bermuda, St. Augustine and zoysia grass thrive in the South. The most difficult region to grow grasses in the United States is the transition zone between the Northern and Southern regions

Dethatching If a lawn is dull, yellowing and lifeless, there may be several reasons. One could be an excessive amount of thatch. Thatch is the layer of dead stems, roots and clippings between the soil surface and the green vegetation that can deprive your lawn of vital nutrients. A layer of 1/2 inch or more also prohibits water and air from reaching the grass roots and prohibits herbicides with soil residual action to settle in the top layer of the soil. Thatch is also an excellent breeding environment for insects and disease.

Dethatching is a process that mechanically removes accumulated thatch using steel flail blades and rigid wire tines to slice through the turf, lifting thatch debris to the surface for removal. Dethatching may cause a slight browning for a short period. But to expedite recovery, lawn caregivers should remove all thatch, using a hand rake or lawn vacuum.

Aeration Soil compaction frequently results in turf deterioration. Caused by lawn traffic such as walking and mowing, compaction is greatest in the top 2 to 3 inches of the soil. In compacted soil, dirt particles are forced together, reducing the area where roots can grow. Aeration, the process of mechanically removing cores of turf, relieves compacted soil by improving the exchange of water and critical nutrients between the atmosphere and the roots.

For optimal effectiveness, aeration should be performed at least once annually. Spring (between March and May) and fall (between August and November) are the ideal times to aerate cool-season grasses. Warm-season grasses benefit most from spring or summer aeration. Avoid aerating cool-season grasses during hot and dry periods and warm-season grasses during cooler temperatures. In drier climates, aeration before the typical dry season increases drought resistance because roots can grow deeper, decreasing the amount of water necessary to help lawns remain healthy.

To achieve the best results from aeration, water the area the night before and map out any obstructions such as sprinkler heads or drains. Go over high-traffic areas more than once and be sure to cover every inch of the lawn. After aerating, water the lawn and apply fertilizer. This will promote growth and allow grass to compete with weed growth.

Fertilizer and pesticide applications Fertilizer and pesticide applications usually present little rental opportunity except for broadcast applicators. Lawn fertilizers come in liquid, pellet and granular forms with labels that rate the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium content according to a three-number code. For example, a 10-6-4 rating means that 10 percent of the bulk fertilizer is nitrogen, 6 percent phosphorus and 4 percent potassium. Testing the soil annually checks for deficiency in any of these three minerals. You must pay particular attention to lawns established around new construction, because the building process often brings to the surface deep soil that may have a totally different composition and fertility level from soils nearby.

If the soil is wanting in one mineral, apply a fertilizer with a higher proportion of the mineral in short supply. People most commonly use the granular form of fertilizer.

Proper calibration of the application equipment ensures delivery of the proper amount. This stands true for herbicide and pesticide applications as well. Use proper safety gear when applying, and carefully follow all application guidelines including time of re-entry.

Mowing Although mowers do not represent much of a rental opportunity, here are a few tips to keep in mind. Of the wide variety of mowers available, chose the one that best suits your needs. Sharpen the blade yearly, and before mowing, remove any objects from the lawn that might dull the blade. Cutting height varies by turf grass variety. Fescues, bluegrass and Kentucky grasses can be cut to between 2 and 3 inches long; warm-season grasses will show optimum growth and appearance between 1 and 2 inches. You can bag, vacuum and reuse clippings for compost. You can leave small clippings on the lawn, providing a natural fertilizer.

Turf renovation Lawns may require renovation for various reasons. It is important to identify the nature of the problem and to correct it before replacing the lawn or overseeding it.

A typical problem is winter damage. Low-temperature fungal disease may attack extremely wet turf caught by early cold. This can also happen with an extended snow cover. Other causes for concern are excessive nitrogen applications late in the growing season that won't allow the grass to harden before the winter. Similarly, mowing the grass too late in the fall will deplete the grass's ability to manufacture reserves for the winter. Other causes can include dryness, excessive rain, poor drainage, compaction, poor fertility, excess thatch, unsuitable grass for the area and insufficient sunlight.

If the lawn has at least 50 percent healthy turf, you should consider overseeding. With less healthy turf, the best solution is a complete renovation that involves removing the existing vegetation and seeding over a new seedbed.

When overseeding, you plant grass seeds over an existing lawn. It is the preferred method when bare spots exists or when you need to improve the appearance of the lawn with more suitable grass varieties. In general, late summer and early fall are the best times to overseed lawns because soil and air temperatures will be optimum for seed germination. You should always delay herbicide applications, if any are required, for at least four to six weeks after overseeding.

To overseed, you can use a slit-seeder; its slicing blades cut through the soil, opening small furrows usually 2 inches apart, where seeds are deposited. Slit-seeding requires two passes at 45 degrees at half the recommended rate. Overseeding using a slit-seeder beats broadcasting seeds because germination is higher when the seeds get deeper into the soil.

Another method gaining popularity for renovating lawns is hydroseeding. Benefits of hydroseeding include a faster and higher rate of germination, easier seeding on slopes or narrow areas, and the application of seeds, fertilizer, mulch and water in one run. Commercial equipment is available, but smaller and more user-friendly units are finding their way to rental dealers. If you want quicker results but at a higher cost, laying sod can be an option. Remember that you must apply sod no later than 36 hours after harvest and have the plot ready before delivery.

New sod and newly planted seeds must be watered every day for two weeks for proper installation.

Expect good results from repeated lawn-care practice in the way of return business. Even if you're not an expert, you can still provide good advice. Remember that with such a short period of usage, having your equipment in good working condition with good safety features in place is critical. In a few weeks, as you plan for next season, look at your inventory to determine if you will be able to meet the needs of your customers next spring.