Add-ons Add Up

How many times have you heard this comment from your customers? “That plant has been there for five years and I've never had a problem with it until I hired your company. You must've killed it!” It's as if they think plants live forever and if they die, it's your fault. As a landscape contractor, it's your goal to care for plants in a way that optimizes their life and beauty. However, if you aren't offering fungicide applications as a service to customers, you're not doing all you can. And you're not making all the profit you can, either. Adding a service such as this to customers not only benefits them and makes you — and their lawns — look good, it also puts money in your pocket. But before you jump in to this add-on, do some research. Applying chemicals without a license can get you into trouble and cost a lot more money than you'll bring in.

OVERLOOKED SERVICES

A fungicide is any substance that kills fungi — various plants such as molds, mildews or mushrooms that lack chlorophyll, stems and leaves and reproduce by spores. As you know, a fungicide is a pesticide — as are herbicides, insecticides and termiticides — because fungi, insects and weeds are all grouped together as pests.

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Many lawn care operators, as well as grounds management companies, do not include fungus or disease services to their customers. Some will argue that they are afraid offering fungicide application puts them at liability risk: if clients' materials die, they'll be responsible for the cost for plant replacement. Another factor is the number of operators who don't feel comfortable diagnosing fungus and disease problems. If the diagnosis isn't correct, the treatment won't be either. While these are legitimate concerns, what you should realize is that there are a plethora of resources available to them. Resources that cost very little or — most often — not at all.

EDUCATE YOURSELF

If you want to be successful at applying fungicides, the first step is to identify the disease. In nearly every state is a major university that performs studies on various areas of agronomy, plants, agriculture and trees. These universities can provide expert knowledge on the subject of turf disease identification and treatment. Couple this information with your local county extension office expertise and you'll have more than an educated guess when it comes to fungi. You'll be armed with information to back up your decisions for treatment. Plus, your county extension agent can offer a wealth of information on current problems in an area — providing you with up-to-date information and symptoms. These agents also offer classes on different subjects that relate to your profession as well as on-site diagnosis of fungi and diseases. For example, in Florida, many cold-hardy, drought-tolerant plants have recently died as a result of excessive rains received over the summer months, which flooded the plant roots. A drought followed and several plants including trees, palms and ornamentals, died. In some cases, maybe only one or two plants that were installed in a cluster died. Those grounds care professionals who were in touch with extension agents and universities were aware of the problem were able to tell customers and prospects exactly why their plants died.

It's important to use the resources you have because, admittedly, diagnosing problems in turf and plants can be difficult. Various fungi such as dollar spot and brown patch can be confused with insect damage, fertilizer burn, drought or too much water; so education is very important not only for you but your customers as well. Sometimes turf problems may present themselves due to poor soil conditions. And sometimes renovation is the solution. But more often than not, turf diseases are the result of poor horticulture practices such as overwatering, overfertilization or poor mowing practices that are caused by dull blades or the wrong mowing height.

As you become more educated on what causes turfgrass disease, you'll also be responsible for educating your customers, as well. Some companies, in addition to offering periodic educational newsletters, will invite their customers and prospects to horticulture workshops to assist in this process. Some have even used it as a way to recruit to customers by offering educational classes to home-owner association members. This not only promotes your company, but you can parlay it into something good for the community, as well.

Many colleges now even provide laminated color pictures in card decks to help you diagnose disease problems in the field. Simply compare the picture to the turf or plant and, often, the answer (disease identification) will be clear. Another resource is the Internet. Just type in the keyword “fungus” and a wealth of information pops up on your screen. Other diagnostic tools include pH meters and moisture meters to help answer questions for pH adjustments as well as irrigation coverage.

CERTIFICATION IS CRITICAL

In most states, the application of pesticides, which include fungicides, must be performed by a certified applicator. You might be required to become a State Certified Pest Control Operator or to just obtain a simple certification. Contact your local county extension agent, your state agriculture/horticulture college or your state bureau of entomology or agriculture for the specific requirements in your state. In Florida, you can be fined as much as $5,000 per illegal treatment and most states are cracking down on unlicensed and uncertified applicators so this should be a warning to those thinking of not receiving certification.

To be a successful fungicide applicator, you must follow labels. Once you've successfully identified the disease, make sure the product you use to combat it is labeled for the problem you have and you apply it at the right rate. Some fungicides call for multiple applications, some call for drenching the root system or a topical treatment, so make sure you read thoroughly.

Another critical element for fungicide success is watering. Customers sometimes don't know when or how much to water. If they have an irrigation system, sometimes sprinkler heads are set up in the same zone, watering uniformly in both shady and unshaded areas. This can affect your fungicide application. One suggestion is to offer to service their sprinkler systems, which would give you control over the time settings for appropriate and seasonal watering times, coverage and head cleaning and adjusting. Typically, charges for residential customers would be around $45 each time you check the system, with repairs costing extra. It's a good idea to check the system before you begin servicing that property to ensure it's working and providing adequate coverage. You'll need to check on the licensing requirements in your area before providing this service or you can sub it out and mark it up.

GETTING STARTED

Once you decide fungicide treatment is a service you want to offer, how do you begin? The best starting place is with your existing customer base. March is typically when landscape professionals begin marketing new services, so you may want to send them a newsletter in their monthly invoice letting them know about this new offering as well as other services such as cleanups, landscape enhancements, irrigation checks, mulching, hardscaping and water features.

Next, check out your local wholesale and retail plant nurseries. Many times they either do not have the expertise or the proper licensing to perform fungicide treatments on their materials — especially wholesale nurseries that may not turn their stock frequently. Offer to set up a complete service program for them.

You can also research local landscape management companies that don't have the credentials or licensing to provide this service. You act as their subcontractor and keep them informed about the customers' turf and plant conditions.

You can even extend this new area of service to sports fields and even homeowner putting greens. Various city and county parks and recreation departments will sometimes outsource this service, usually including aeration, fertilization, seeding and insect and fungus controls. Other possibilities include golf driving ranges, college campuses and schools.

Another add-on service involves treating lakes and retention ponds for algae and noxious weed control. Just count how many lawn care operators there are in your area. Now count how many landscape management companies provide your services as well. How many of them provide this aquatic service? If you are typical of most areas, there may be one or two companies providing aquatic services, which is another way to increase sales and profits as well as gaining a competitive edge. This potentially requires additional certification, so check with your local county extension service for the requirements and reap the rewards.

PROTECT YOURSELF

Even though fungicide application is a great source for addition income, you must first understand your particular business, what you must charge and how to protect yourself from various situations. Even with fungicides, there are some cases in which there is nothing you can do to salvage diseased materials and turf, depending on the problem. To protect yourself from those cases, insert disclaimers in your agreements that some diseases are included and others are not. For example, when treating for insects, some companies include “turf damaging” pests but exclude other pests such as fire ants, ticks, fleas or spittlebugs. For those treatments, they charge extra. And some treatments simply won't help already damaged plants. You'll have to replace them. Before doing so, be sure to fumigate the area — especially when the disease is contagious and may affect other plants on the site. Your plant replacement warranty should limit replacement to only those plants that die as a direct result of your services.

Bill Phagan is president of Green Industry Consulting Inc. (Tampa, Fla.). You can reach him at gibl3@greenindconsulting.com.

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