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The 7 Basics of Great Turf Care

Published on March 13, 2018

You need a firm grasp on basic lawn care techniques to succeed in this highly competitive industry.

Knowing the basics will give you a competitive edge... and help you get better reviews for your lawn care business.

Growing and maintaining healthy turf isn’t rocket science... but it is a science.

Here, we'll give you the knowledge to succeed in:

  • best lawn mowing techniques
  • soil sampling
  • use of fertilizer
  • identification and treatment of insects and diseases
  • proper watering
  • weed control  
  • aeration and de-thatching

What is the Best Lawn Mowing Technique?

Starting a lawn care business? You shouldn’t have any problem finding a quality commercial mower.

Options include:

  • walk behind
  • stand on
  • zero-turn mowers.

Until you start buying vehicles, mowers will be your most substantial investment so make sure you know what to look for.

Many homeowners (and some lawn care owners) believe a lawn that is cut short looks better or needs mowed less often.

But when you cut turf too short, you are encouraging weed growth.

When you cut too low, you prevent the grass blades from growing high enough to shade out weed seeds. Because the grass isn't allowed to grow, the leaf blades make less food. That means they can't grow healthy roots.

“When it comes to cultural practices the critical one is to raise the mowing height,” says John Harrison of Espoma, a fertilizer company based in New Jersey. “Scalping the lawn puts so much stress on the lawn and gives tremendous opportunity for undesirables to come into the lawn.”

Harrison also stressed the importance of keeping the mower blade sharp. A sharp mower blade can save up to 20% or more on fuel. The tell-tale sign of a dull blade is an uneven cut and ragged tips at the ends of the leaf blades.

Only one-third of the length of grass should come off a turf stand at one time. Cool season grasses should be kept at about 3 ½  inches tall while warm season grasses are cut shorter, from ½ to 1 ¼ inch, depending on the variety.

As a bonus: if you only take a third of the length of grass off at a time, you’ll never waste time raking up unsightly clippings (homeowners hate seeing them)! The clippings are actually good for the turf as they return nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.

Test the Soil Before You Treat

Like checking on the foundation of a house before making a purchase, lawn care operators should check the health of the soil before starting a lawn care regimen.

Use a soil sampling tool to get a visual check of the soil down to a depth of about 10 inches. This tool will offer a side view of the soil you’ve collected. From this sample you can determine the type of soil below the turf, such as:

  • sand,
  • clay,
  • or sandy loam

You'll also find out if the soil is compacted in that specific location.

Use the same tool to collect random soil samples which can then be sent to a lab for testing.  A good pH range for turf is 6.0 and 6.5. If the soil test is done through a county extension service or commercial lab they’ll be able to recommend what you need to do to adjust the pH as well as what to add for nutrients.

Feeding the Lawn

Lawns can be fertilized with chemical or organic fertilizers formulated especially for lawns.

A healthy turf requires both major and minor nutrients. The major nutrients are usually abbreviated on a package as NPK, which represents nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), also called potash. Nitrogen is used the most in the soil partly because it easily leaches through the soil profile, whereas the other two major nutrients (phosphorus and potash) get bound up in organic matter.

  • Nitrogen is responsible for the green, lush growth.
  • Phosphorous is responsible for good root growth
  • Potassium will help prevent disease.

After a long winter’s nap the turf can use a little nudge to get up and growing - and greening.

Lawn care professionals normally use a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content to jump start a lawn. For example, a fertilizer labeled 35-5-5 will deliver a high percentage of nitrogen, with lower percentages of phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen works pretty quickly, especially after a rain, so expect to be mowing soon!

Always read the label carefully regarding application rates and be careful not to over fertilize with nitrogen, which will result in a browning of the tips of the blades and/or excessive growth. Better to under fertilize than over fertilize when it comes to using a product with a high nitrogen content.

Summer and Fall applications

Lawn care operators will typically apply a summer application of fertilizer using less nitrogen than they did in the spring and a fall application that contains a higher phosphorus content to promote healthy roots.

However, in some states, phosphorous has been banned from these products due to environmental concerns.

Potassium will help strengthen the turf going into the winter and prevent disease problems so it should be applied in early autumn. If you're working in the fall, do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer when the turf should be starting to harden off for the winter.

Organic fertilizers, especially formulated for lawns, are also a good choice because they’re slow release and promote an overall healthy turf. In addition, they pose virtually no problems for the groundwater or nearby lakes and streams.

Note: Check state and local laws in regards to fertilizer applications. Some states, such as New York, have laws prohibiting nitrogen applications during certain times of the year. And as mentioned, some states have outlawed phosphorus. 

How to Control Pesky Weeds

Weeds are a problem for both commercial and residential lawns. However, once weeds are eliminated they are fairly easy to control... if the lawn is being properly maintained.

The quickest way to eliminate weeds is by chemical means. A product containing 2-4D as its main ingredient is very effective at eliminating weeds. In most states you will need to be licensed to apply this and other pesticides to a lawn. While that means a little more work now, you get to sell the service for a higher profit.

Alternatively, you can contract this service out to another company.

Organic Weed Control?

Another way to control of weeds is to use organic based fertilizers that naturally support a healthier turf.

When you grow a lawn the organic way, according to Jim Agabedis, it's less susceptible to drought, insects, and disease. Jim has been practicing these principles of lawn care for over 30 years as owner of Minuteman Landscaping out of Brighton, MA. Part of the premise of natural lawn care is to be tolerant of a few weeds.

Remember, a healthy, thick carpet of grass is the key to preventing any type of turf problems, including weeds.

How to Prevent Lawn Diseases

Are you a lawn care detective?

As a lawn business owner, you must be on the lookout for any suspicious behavior in a turf.

When it comes to disease, be on the lookout for discoloring of the turf, unsightly rings, and bare patches. These can be signs of fungus problems. Fungus problems can spread easily.

There are chemical controls for most fungi - however, the best line of defense is prevention.

Here are a few tips to prevent fungus problems:

  • Maintain proper pH
  • Mow at the proper height
  • Don’t over fertilize with nitrogen
  • Water at night or very early in the morning
  • Avoid thatch build up by de-thatching and aerating the turf
  • Keep trees pruned (or remove if necessary) to allow sufficient light to reach the turf  
  • Make the final cut of the year a little shorter than usual to help prevent snow mold spores that can fester in the moist leaf blades of taller grass.

Effective Tactics to Control Insect and Pest Invasions

Insect infestations vary from region to region and even neighborhood to neighborhood.

Keep a sharp eye out for problems such as patches of lawn becoming loose, which could be from grubs gnawing on the roots underneath.

Another sign of the presence of insects is leaf blades wilting, which is a sign of chinch bugs.

The first step to insect control is identification. Once the insect is identified a treatment strategy can be undertaken. Chemical and biological controls are very specific to the insect being targeted. For instance, if you’ve detected a grub problem in the turf and made a positive identification, you will need to do some research about the proper timing of a pesticide application.

Grubs are generally treated during the larva stage. In this case, heating degree days are tallied to determine when the grub is in this stage of development. Treating the grubs at any other time will be a waste of time and product. A county extension agent can help determine the appropriate time to treat insect pests.

Check out this resource to identify insects and diseases so you can implement an effective treatment plan, or read:

The Right Way to Water

Proper watering techniques will help establish and maintain a beautiful lawn free of insect and disease problems.

Consistency is the key to effective watering. An irrigation system that is programmed to deliver water only when it is needed is far superior to sprinklers or sporadic hand watering with a hose.

Irrigation systems should be installed by trained professionals.

Turf requires about an inch of water a week. You can tell how much is delivered by putting down a shallow dish where irrigation is taking place. See how long it takes to fill it up to an inch. It is better to water well and then wait a week to water again than it is to apply more frequent, shallow waterings.

When is the Best Time to Water a Lawn?

The best time to water is early in the morning, which allows for the lawn to take up the water before it gets hot outside.

Another advantage of watering in the morning is the leaf blades will get a chance to dry off as the sun gets higher and the wind picks up, which will prevent fungus problems from spreading.

Aeration and De-thatching

Regular aeration and de-thatching of a lawn will ensure that air, water, and nutrients will be easily accessible to the roots of the turf.

De-thatching a lawn is only necessary when there is a thick layer of thatch built up beneath the surface of the turf.

Aeration is something that could be done on a yearly basis or as needed.

Healthy Lawns Make Happier Clients

Taken in combination, these techniques of turf maintenance will ensure a healthy,  beautiful lawn with the least amount of chemical inputs.

Healthier, greener lawns will build your reputation for quality work... making it easier for you to grow your lawn care business.

Related: The Right Way to Estimate Lawn Care Services

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