Mark Schneider and Sean Kenny from Nutrite spoke to an audience of lawn care professionals in March at the eighth annual Nutrite Lawn Care Seminar in Guelph, reflecting on the challenges from 2016 and looking ahead to what the current year may present.
Schneider said the lawns professionals see in April might not be the same once June, July and August arrive. He said the lawn care season began “like gangbusters” in May and June of 2016, but “the rain forgot to come” in July, August and well into September.
The subsequent heat and drought posed a challenge for the industry. Turf went dormant during the drought-stricken summer months, opening the door for weeds to establish. Schneider said that could lead to some weed pressure this spring, but noted there was good recovery from the drought in the fall.
“Weed pressure I don’t think will be a lot higher, but you never know,” he said.
In addition to weather conditions, lawn care professionals must deal with site conditions, which Schneider said is frequently a formidable challenge.
“Just because you’re dealing with one block of houses over here, a block away could be totally different. It could be different soil. It could be different trees around the property.”
Soil types vary from region to region in Ontario. One area might have heavier clay soils while less than an hour’s drive away might be areas with sandier soils.
“You don’t have to go very far between properties to see great variances in soil types.”
Mother Nature often has the final say about how the season fares. If she cooperates and brings timely rains, the results are usually good, Schneider said. If not, and if customers don’t or can’t irrigate at the appropriate time, a lack of soil moisture could prove to be a huge factor in turf’s health.
Insect and disease pressures might loom in a given year, but they can often be addressed proactively. Schneider said it could prove challenging to properly identify pest insects and stay ahead of them by understanding their lifecycles, but those who do can stave off problems. Disease pressures can be minimized by mowing at heights of two to 2½ inches on home lawns and sports fields.
When problematic lawns present themselves, the lawn care professional needs to know if the cause if biotic or abiotic.
Choosing a fertilizer
Schneider said fertilizer choices and the time of year for application are important considerations to make. When choosing a product – especially for the first application of the season – a fertilizer blend that has enough of a nitrogen source readily available in cold soils should be selected, he said.
With today’s technology, the number of annual applications can be reduced and the plant will still be provided with the amount of food it requires.
For fertilizer to work effectively, the soil temperature must reach optimal warmth. About eight degrees Celsius is regarded as the “magic” soil temperature. Until soil temperatures climb above eight to 10 degrees, not much is happening with growth, and all the fertilizer in the world won’t help the plant grow, Schneider said.
“You have to pick your source of N accordingly.”
It isn’t until about mid-May when the ground warms up on a consistent basis, allowing everything to grow. By June, there are both ups and downs, he said.
Schneider addressed other issues that confront lawn care professionals on a regular basis, including heavily shaded sites and differences in soil types.
Lawns that are heavily shaded will experience ill health unless they are afforded sufficient sunlight. If problem trees cannot be removed, a more shade-tolerant grass will be required if it is to have any chance to thrive.
Differences in soil types will impact turf’s health. Heavy clays make it difficult for water movement while silt-loam soils offer better drainage. Clays negatively impact percolation and infiltration rates.
“It’s not the best environment to grow turf,” Schneider said. “If I had to pick a perfect spot to grow what I would consider the best kind of turf, you want it down in a sand-loam area.”
Kenny said hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are provided to the plant by organic matter in the soil and can be
addressed through cultural practices. The plant’s other needs are controlled through fertility. If nitrogen is a problem, it is either because there is too little or too much of it in the soil.
He said a trend has emerged that shows a lack of phosphorous in turf through soil sampling. Because of its propensity to trigger algae blooms, phosphorous has been all but removed from fertilizers sold to consumers. But lawn care professionals can readily acquire the right amounts of phosphorous they need if they find lawns under their care deficient in the nutrient.
Schneider said it is important that fertilizer be spread properly on a lawn and that a lawn care professional’s staff must be trained how to ensure there is sufficient overlap. Without proper training, inexperienced applicators may overlap too little or too much, and both operator speed and particle size must be configured into the process.
“Make sure your operators know this sort of thing because the last thing you want or your customers want is where it’s green-yellow-green-yellow,” he said.
Most lawns cared for by professionals are a blend of ryes, fescues and bluegrass and tend to do well in all-compassing environments. In recent years, however, there have been more fescues included in the blend, Schneider said, because of improvements in fescue cultivars. They tend to perform better in high traffic and shaded areas and are more drought-tolerant than before. Lawn care professionals might have to be more site-specific when selecting seed if one area is in open sun and another is in heavy shade.
Current fertilizer products offer between eight and 32 weeks of longevity. When mixing and matching different products to a program, the lawn care professional can change the number of trips he makes to a property. If the customer demands five annual trips, changing out fertility to different products can free up time for an extra dandelion control visit or an overseeding or aeration service.
The importance of overseeding and aeration
The inclusion of overseeding and aeration into a lawn care program is encouraged among lawn care professionals, Schneider said.
“There is an equipment cost, but they are part of what we call a more holistic look at what we’re trying to do.”
Proper lawn care cannot be accomplished by fertilizer alone or by just control products, he said.
“You have to incorporate all these corporate practices into your program to make it successful.”
Schneider said he has seen some exemplary properties in his travels that have not seen a drop of herbicide in eight years because of the incorporation of various strategies.
“It can be done.”
Three to five pounds of nitrogen per season are standard for most parts of Ontario, he said, adding amounts of required phosphorous and potassium can be determined through soil testing. One or two tests per year on a home lawn give a better idea of what is required.
If a lawn care professional is putting down fertilizer or other products on a particular area and no discernable improvement is made, “it’s time to look underground,” using a soil probe.
Once turf begins to fade, the first things to come back are broadleaf weeds, Schneider said, noting that was a major issue last year on soccer fields.
Turf can fade for a number of reasons, including anaerobic conditions and wilt. During the prolonged drought period of 2016, most stressed turf rebounded, but some failed to do so and required either seed or sod to restore it.
Soil must be periodically aerated to address a lack of infiltration, lack of air, lack of root growth and reduced water percolation. Schneider said he has seen some extreme conditions – especially on sports fields – where there has been compaction and no aerification in the top three or four inches. He said even with a reasonably good mix, a bucket of water poured on top would sit there and go nowhere, and it’s still not percolating an hour later.
Schneider said the heavier the soil is, the more frequently it should be aerated. The practice should be performed at a time of year when turf has a chance to recover. Aeration should not be done when temperatures increase to 25 degrees Celsius with little rain during the next couple of weeks immediately.
Thatch can be a friend or an enemy, but it’s usually an enemy, he said. Generally associated with heavier soils, thatch is a loose, intermingled organic layer of dead and living shoots, stems and roots that develop between the zone of green vegetation and the soil surface. Buildup begins when turf produces more organic debris faster than it can be broken down. It inhibits water infiltration and harbours weeds and grubs. Ideally, the layer should be kept to within an inch or less.
If a lawn care professional is able to aerate, verticut and topdress at the right time of year, he can maintain control over thatch and improve his soil physics and the health of the turf, Schneider said.
Kenny said a lot of fertility done by lawn care professionals gets caught up in the thatch layer. If the nutrient is sitting in the thatch, the plant won’t take it up. It must be present in the soil solution for the plant to take up. If excess thatch isn’t resolved, it can contribute to weed, disease and insect problems and will reduce efforts to correct nutrient deficiencies.
The compaction relief from thatch removal is important and has the best chance at success in late August and into September, he said. Cooler weather afterward works best.
Kenny recommended keeping a soil probe and bucket for collecting soil samples close at hand as well as a 10-times magnification hand lens to identify insect pests and provide a closer look at other issues.