December 2, 2019

Sustainable turf is good business

BY KATERINA JORDAN Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH
 
Of all the turfgrass sectors, I feel lawncare operators face some of the greatest challenges. First and foremost, with most clients, the lawncare operator is only responsible for a relatively small portion of the actual turf management. In all other sectors, the turfgrass manager alone handles mowing, fertilizing, cultivation and pest control. In lawncare, however, mowing is most often handled by homeowners. This creates a very difficult situation for the lawncare operator, as mowing affects so many aspects of turfgrass health, so lawn turf managers end up using the limited time they have on each property to fix issues, rather than to maintain healthy turf. Additionally, many lawn turf managers (especially in Ontario) are not allowed to use conventional pesticides on lawns. It has been 10 years since the Ontario cosmetic pesticide ban was passed. Although there have been numerous low-risk chemical and alternative management solutions for weeds, insects continue to be an issue on lawns, and there is very little lawn turf managers can do about them.
 
Professionals in the turfgrass industry have discussed the importance of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for years now, but in reality, we need more sustainable turf management, especially in the lawncare sector. What do we mean by sustainability? Dictionary.com defines sustainability as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” Within the context of lawn turf management, sustainability would involve a turfgrass stand that can support itself with minimal inputs and resources, and ideally gives more to its environment than it takes. I am guessing most of you are quite familiar with the numerous environmental benefits well-maintained turfgrass stands can give, including reduced soil erosion, groundwater recharge, filtration of pollutants, and increased oxygen, just to name a few. One of the responsibilities of a turfgrass manager, regardless of sector, should be to maintain turf in a manner to emphasize the many benefits,, while potential negatives to the environment are minimized. Being a good turfgrass manager is a constant balancing act between the two, trying to maximize the benefits of turf and ensuring environmental, social and economic sustainability. This article outlines some methods that allow more sustainable lawncare programs, that hopefully lead to healthier turf over a long period of time.
 
As a lawncare operator, some basic practices you can do increase the sustainability of your clients’ lawns, although much depends on your clients doing their parts. The following list of recommendations will hopefully allow you to keep your clients’ properties well maintained throughout the season, and ideally lead to long-term, satisfied clients over the years:
  • Communicate with your client. For a homeowner to help you maintain a sustainable lawn, you must effectively communicate not only what they need to do, but to explain why. If your client is responsible for mowing, lay out specific instructions about mowing height and, even more importantly, frequency. Develop a pamphlet about the importance of obeying the one-third rule (make sure you know it yourself) and what the drawbacks of infrequent mowing can be, such as self-competition or thinning. 
  • Send soil for nutrient analysis prior to applying fertilizer. This ensures you add only what is needed, saving you money in the long run. 
  • Use high quality fertilizers containing a continuous slow-release source of nitrogen. Coated and controlled-release products are good options to maintain consistent colour and health.
  • Cultivate only as needed. Use a soil probe to determine compaction levels, root depth and thatch levels. If you don’t have one, get one and take it to each site. De-thatch and aerate as needed, to reduce conditions conducive to pests, maintain soil quality and enrich the living portion of the soil. Use healthy turf as a defense against pests. Weeds invade and take advantage of weak and bare areas, so by keeping turf healthy, you naturally out-compete weeds. Keeping thatch levels in check and encouraging deep root growth by maintaining healthy soil helps reduce insect populations and/or visible damage to the plant. Serious lawn diseases are rare, but insects can be very damaging; if you have no chemical options; maintaining a healthy turf stand is your best defense.
  • Overseed as needed. If a lawn is thin or struggling, slowly shift the species population to a more suitable grass, to give it a chance to thrive. If a property is heavily treed, overseed with a shade-tolerant species such as fine fescue. If an area has heavy traffic, overseed with a wear-tolerant species such as Kentucky bluegrass or perennial ryegrass. Take note of the surrounding area and use patterns, and use overseeding as a method to introduce species that are more suited to each environment on
  • the property.
  • Instruct homeowners to irrigate as needed and ensure that automatic systems are properly set up. Water deeply and infrequently throughout the season, to encourage deeper root growth and reduce the risk of soil compaction.
You may be well aware of these recommendations, but sometimes we are so focused on the bottom line, we don’t always take time to think about long-term effects of management practices. I hope this serves as a reminder of steps that you can take as a lawn turf manager to maintain sustainably healthy turf — and ultimately, long-term relationships with your clients.

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