Cutting Up

There is a missing link in many lawn care programs — an underutilized cultural practice that boosts turf health and, potentially, your bottom line. Vertical mowing is a healthy habit and a beneficial component of an annual turf care routine. Simply put, vertical mowing encourages turf to take its vitamins.

The practice turns up thatch and opens the turf canopy so it can drink up nutrients and water, and clear out room for fresh growth. Verticutting is an energy boost, setting the stage for green-up in spring and preparing turf for overseeding in fall. And most turf varieties appreciate verticutting — the vigorous mowing isn't limited to sports turf or commercial properties.

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Consider verticutting part of a balanced diet. Here are some ways to make sure your turf receives the correct dose and some details on choosing appropriate equipment to deliver the best results.

DIGGING IN

Verticutting is a deep-cleaning process for the turf canopy. Vertical blades — arranged .025 to 1.5 inches apart on a disc — rotate through turf, dredging up thatch and opening the canopy to allow the turf to breath. Vertical mowing in the traditional sense is a remedial mechanical process to remove excess thatch, reduce turf canopy density and extract organic material from the turf region at or below the plant crown area. Verticutting isn't aeration, and it isn't grooming. But often, there is a mix-up between the two.

Golf course superintendents who groom turf understand the regenerative benefits of conditioning their turf. Though the concept is similar to verticutting, the results are quite different. Groomers are a lightweight version of a verticutter. The vertical blades are thinner and the cutting depth is less — targeting the growing points and tips of the grass stem. Results from groomers are less drastic, allowing turf to recover quickly and look relatively untouched.

Verticutters, on the other hand, dig deeper into the turf canopy and penetrate the crown area of the plant, possibly below, severing stolons and stems. While groomers are designed to condition or stimulate new growth, verticutters are more rigorous and remove thatch. When a verticutter passes over a section of turf, results are visible. Vertical mowing can be disruptive if you cut deeply into the canopy. Upturned soil and debris rest on the turf surface.

Cleanup is simple, requiring one pass over the area with a mower to collect residual debris. This step is critical to ensure what's left behind doesn't compact into soil and reverse verticutting benefits. Removing debris and opening the turf canopy also reduces humidity, promotes drying and reduces the opportunity for disease development.

Sure, verticutting can be dirty work. But the benefits are worth the cleanup — and recovery is minimal if you perform the process properly, gauge verticutting vigor based on turf requirements and utilize the right equipment for the job. Light vertical mowing (being less aggressive and more frequent), can benefit both active growing and aggressive turf by promoting superior turf performance and persistence.

A BENEFICIAL BOOST

What turf types will benefit from vertical mowing? And why is the management method such a crucial part of turf cultural practices?

First, verticutting isn't limited to regional divides. The highest concentration of use seems to be in northeastern states where operators use verticutters to manage thatch in bentgrasses during summer months. However, those in arid climates who rely heavily on irrigation will find that vertical mowing opens the turf canopy, eliminates accumulation of organic layers and improves irrigation efficiency and moisture penetration into the soil profile.

Areas with significant rainfall naturally accumulate thatch, so verticutting is a smart way to whittle away grass mass and lessen the chance of disease. Southern states harbor warm-season grasses, which experience lateral growth. Rotary mowers draw up some of the overlapping stands on this “creeping grass,” but verticutters will reduce density drastically.

Every turfgrass species benefits from occasional verticutting — two to three times each year — especially those that grow by stolons or rhizomes. Some examples include the bluegrasses and bentgrasses in the more northern climates and Transition Zones. Southern states use considerable amounts of bermudagrasses and ever-increasing acreage of zoysiagrass, which respond favorably to periodic heavy vertical mowing.

A light vertical mowing or grooming program can also aid in managing thatch accumulation and scalping tendencies. Traditionally, bermudagrass greens and fairways on sports fields and golf courses will undergo verticutting at the end of the season in preparation for overseeding of winter grasses.

Verticutting intensity depends on the application and frequency. The process produces various results on turf, depending on depth and aggressiveness (how deep blades penetrate into soil). Closely spaced vertical blades and a deep cutting depth vigorously churn up soil and results can require a longer recovery period. You should complete an aggressive vertical mowing program only during the most active growing period of the season, which promotes rapid recovery.

Because superintendents typically groom turf throughout the season, verticutting intensity can be lessened. Landscape contractors who choose to vertical mow properties more than twice a year should also decrease cutting depth for mid-season cuts.

Typically, you should perform vertical mowing three times each year. First in the spring, which helps remove dead and dormant organic material and promote fresh growth. The spring application helps expose turf crown areas to improve soil warming and green-up.

Turf specialists can schedule the second application mid-season, during the most active growth. This timing increases turf recovery and promotes performance, pushing turf to maximum health. Some turf managers hesitate to verticut during this time, and aggressive cutting can stunt grass growth and force turf into stress conditions if you aren't careful. Decrease cutting depth and “go easy” on turf mid-season to achieve best results. For example, if you mow at 1.5 inches, you should set vertical blade depth at 0.75 inch — half the depth from the height of cut and the soil level. Performed properly, this application will allow more sun, nutrients and moisture to enter the soil profile so it stays strong for the rest of the season.

Finally, fall application prepares seedbeds for overseeding. If light verticutting isn't performed during the season, you might take a more robust approach in fall to open canopy so it can accept seed. Be careful not to remove excessive canopy from the base plant, which can impact its ability to recover in the spring.

HARDWARE: THE GOODS

Depending on the application, you can choose vertical cutting attachments to fit turf type and venue. Depending on mower type, attachments can provide vertical cutting capabilities. Dedicated vertical mowers can be attached to a tractor and are well suited for heavy-duty cutting requirements.

While rotary, reel and flail mowers cut horizontal growth, vertical mowers cut on the vertical axis. Achieving this cut can be as simple as replacing your existing cutting unit with the vertical reel, which has the same footprints. Verticut reels are available for fairway mowers and greens mowers. The vertical reel shaft features ¾-inch blades and will perform only vertical cutting.

Landscape contractors generally run rotary mowers, which do not accept the attachment. In this case, operators can utilize a dedicated vertical mower to produce the same — if not more intense — results. For example, a dedicated mower that attaches to a tractor with a three-point hitch. Operators engage the PTO, which turns on the hydraulic system. Bi-directional blades spin in forward or backward motions, depending on operator preference. Forward spinning is more aggressive. The independent heads follow ground contours to ensure a complete, vertical cut. Operators can control cutting height and depth by adjusting rollers.

These features further explain the difference between vertical mowers and groomers. Vertical attachments and independent vertical mowers allow operators to cut only in that motion. Because they must replace existing cutting units with the vertical option, they are not achieving a “two-in-one” cut, so to speak.

Groomers, on the other hand, attach in front of fairway mowers, so the machine cuts horizontally and vertically in one pass, three dimensional mowing in effect. Again, this attachment conditions turf and it isn't as damaging. This makes it possible for operators to use groomers for the simultaneous cut.

Vertical mowers are sturdy machines, and the capital investment pays off for landscape contractors who sell the service as an add-on. The rough-and-ready equipment piece is reliable, slow and steady. And for turf care specialists who manage properties with fairway mowers, having a vertical mower attachment on hand takes little space and little time for the change-out.

BETTER FOR BUSINESS

Verticutting benefits turf and also can boost business. The remedial process is a rare offering on most landscape contractors' service menus.

The practice is highly underutilized and not widely sold to residential or commercial clients. Meanwhile, it represents profit potential and is simply a turf health-minded move. Because it is a well-kept secret, those who offer the service can market the value and charge accordingly, securing generous profit margins.

Landscape contractors can incorporate the turf restoration technique into customers' comprehensive lawn care programs, and the offering can separate a quality-minded service provider from the next fly-by-night operation. Verticutting is another value-added option contractors can add to their service menus.

Explain to customers the value of verticutting in the spring to jumpstart turf growth and why light, mid-season verticutting can dethatch turf and ensure fertilizer applications are reaching into soil.

Adding a vertical cut to customers' lawn care programs is a matter of service smarts. The beneficial boost sets a precedent for high-quality turf before the season starts, and it closes by preparing turfgrass to withstand winter.

Larry Jones is product manager for Jacobsen's golf and fine turf division (Charlotte, N.C.). As product manager, Jones is responsible for several brands including Cushman, Ryan and Jacobsen.

A HEALTHY HABIT

Vertical mowing delivers a bevy of benefits to turfgrass, such as:

  1. Clears out thatch and removes excess turf growth
  2. Provides channels for water infiltration
  3. Opens turf canopy so sunlight and nutrients can settle into soil
  4. Promotes new, healthy turf growth
  5. Prepares seedbed for overseeding

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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