When customers adopt best mowing and irrigation practices to complement programs offered by lawn care professionals, weeds can often be kept at bay.
By Mike Jiggens
Lawn care professionals need to get out in front of a problem before it starts, incorporating integrated pest management into their programs, an audience of lawn care practitioners attending the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium were told in February.
“In order to get these green lawns, we need to make sure we’re doing everything right because we don’t have the rescue products like we once did,” Mike Ross, technical sales representative for Plant Products said at the University of Guelph forum.
He said Fiesta is the only real “go to” weed control product legally available to lawn care professionals in Ontario since the province’s cosmetic pesticide ban took effect in 2009. IPM is a big component of golf and sports turf maintenance, but the lawn care industry hasn’t seen a lot of it, he added.
“It’s becoming more critical since we don’t have a lot of the tools we once did.”
When customers adopt best mowing and irrigation practices to complement programs offered by lawn care professionals, weeds can often be kept at bay. Getting the message out to home lawn customers is key, however, Ross said.
“We only have control of so many elements from the lawn care standpoint,” such as fertility and pest control. “It’s important we educate our customers on how it’s best to mow and irrigate as an option.”
Tim Armstrong, also a technical sales representative with Plant Products, said lawn care professionals are able to better manage their operations with IPM. It’s not just chemical use, but incorporates cultural practices and management as a whole to see what works.
“There’s no silver bullet in this industry, and it’s going to be constantly changing with new insects and new regulations.”
These will dictate what can and can’t be done.
Inspection forms the basis of IPM, and lead hands need to be educated about the needs of inspecting, identifying and monitoring, Armstrong said.
The best cultural controls start from the ground up, he said, beginning with soil fertility. The customer site must be rendered as healthy as possible, necessitating aeration to improve the soil profile and encourage a thick lawn aimed at reducing weed inputs.
As far as last resort treatments for weeds are concerned, Armstrong said lawn care professionals’ hands are strapped these days, noting Fiesta is the one product available. But he said others are anticipated in the near future.
Roundup is still available for use as long as the target can be proven to be a noxious weed.
Six Rs of lawn care
Lawn care professionals are expected to promote the six Rs: the right product at the right rate in the right location at the right time under the right conditions and with the right equipment.
A checklist that shows due diligence on the part of the lawn care company should be filled out by the individual in charge at the site, Armstrong said. This provides the customer with a monthly snapshot of what is going in, that certain areas exhibit greater drought tolerance than others and other relevant information. The customer learns what is available to the professional and how he can best perform his duties, backed by education.
Ross said the lawn care company owner can’t be everywhere at once and will often have to depend on what his labourers see.
“They don’t necessarily need to be the expert, but they can certainly do a lot of documentation. It’s a lot easier to document if you give them a checklist.”
Ross says he sees many different fertilizer types being used in the lawn care industry, including organics and different types of slow release products.
“It’s all over the map, but at the end of the day I still think we’re delivering the same relative nutrients. It’s just in a different manner and how we do that.”
How nutrients are delivered has a bearing on weeds, he said, adding he doesn’t suggest a soil test be conducted on every lawn. Soil types in the same neighbourhood tend to be similar.
Understanding and implementing a well-balanced fertilizer program is one of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy lawn.
“In fact it’s probably the single biggest thing we can do,” Ross said. “At the end of the day, the biggest impact we have on lawns is fertilization.”
Two to four yearly applications have typically been the norm within the industry, but Ross said the fewer the number of applications, the smaller labour costs will be.
Although nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are standard in most bags of fertilizer, the addition of minor nutrients in the right amounts are important when there are deficiencies.
“That’s where a soil test can come in very handy as well,” Ross said.
Certain weeds will become apparent when there is a deficiency in either of the main or minor nutrients, he said. Nitrogen is deemed the most important nutrient in lawn care and the one responsible for colour, shoot growth and density and that contributes to wear and disease tolerance.
“I think we see a lot of over-applying nitrogen,” Ross said. “We’re seeing too much growth and too much thatch. We’re seeing a lot less nematode tolerance or wear tolerance.”
He said the industry is seeing many more programs now that are likely the result of consumer demand, including organic options. The challenge with that, he noted, is that there isn’t as much in the bag and it’s usually more expensive and must be put down more frequently.
“In a competitive market, that gets a little tougher to do,” Ross said. “But there are more socially conscious customers out there nowadays.”
Organic sources such as animal byproducts have their pros and cons. With comparatively lower amounts of nitrogen present, burning potential is reduced. It’s also a slow release source, but its foul odour accounts for the downside.
Synthetic fertilizers remain in the highest demand. With the advent of polymer-coated urea, applications are able to decrease from five or six times a season to two.
“It’s also a more efficient way of putting it down,” Ross said. “More of that nitrogen ends up in the plant.”
Ammonium sulfate, on the other hand, works fast, but the plant can handle only so much, he added.
Most lawn care professionals are using some form of slow-release fertilizer, he said, whether it’s 30 per cent or upwards of 70 per cent.
“They give a consistent release of nutrient over a longer period of time, reducing the number of applications per property.”
Some customers may want to see their lawn care professional several times over the course of a season, believing frequent visits provide good value for their money. But Ross argued that if those same customers had a nice lawn, they wouldn’t want to see a lawn care professional as often.
“The quality of the lawn is the big one.”
Ross said if 100 per cent urea is put down at a rate of one pound per 1,000 square feet, only 35 to 55 per cent uptake of nitrogen is achieved. The remainder either leaches into the soil or volatizes into the atmosphere.
“I might be getting a good cost on 100 per cent urea, but I’m losing a lot of that.”
With a polymer-coated fertilizer, 75 to 80 per cent of the nitrogen that is paid for actually reaches the plant. Ross said it’s a more efficient source of nitrogen that is feeding the plant as needed. Putting down polymer-coated fertilizers also reduces labour costs.
Overseeding is another means to achieve a thicker, healthier lawn and keep weeds at bay. Spring is the best time of year for overseeding, he said, as long as equipment can get out to customers’ sites. He cautioned, however, that it’s also a time of the season when there is competition with weeds. September is generally a month conducive for overseeding, but it depends on the location. In areas such as Huntsville, Ont., it can snow in October, and any seed that hasn’t yet germinated is apt to rot. A shift in scheduling may need to be considered.
Mowing is a practice normally left in the hands of the customer. If the customer can be educated to mow frequently enough so as to remove no more than the top third of the blade, he will stand a better chance of achieving a healthier stand of turf than one who removes half of the blade or more, shocking the plant and running into other problems.
More steady growth should be encouraged, requiring the customer to mow two or three times a week. If he removes no more than a quarter or a third of the grass blade each time he mows, he will realize a healthy, lush lawn when combined with fertility, aeration and amending soils with mychorrhizae or other beneficial products.
Managing thatch helps to prevent other problems from developing.
“You want to manage it to the point where you’re not creating an environment for insects to thrive,” Armstrong said.
He added aerating with hollow tines is more effective than using solid tines. They break up the cores that can then be returned along with organic matter.
Customers with irrigation systems often misuse them, Ross said. They tend to overwater frequently, promoting shallow roots and encouraging weed seed germination in the top canopy of the grass.
“Far too many of our turf areas are watered far too frequently and for too short a time.”
If the soil is sandy, more water will be required. If there is a slope, it may require more frequent watering but at separate times. Watering shouldn’t be done 20 minutes at a time because all that water is going to run down, Ross said.
If a customer has clay soil and is equipped with an irrigation system, it’s best that he break up his watering cycles. Ross said the system shouldn’t be turned on for six hours in one night. Irrigation should be staggered.
Armstrong finished their presentation by reminding the lawn care professionals in the audience that they must first understand why their properties are getting weeds in the first place and then build a program to eradicate them. It’s the preferable alternative to coming in at the end and waiting for a product to work, he said.