Part I: Increasing profitability-Improve your efficiency with strategic chemical use

Most grounds-care professionals are aware of the advantages that chemicals bring to an operation. In fact, it's hard to imagine what grounds management would be like without fertilizers and pesticides. Their ability to save labor and improve the quality of turf and landscapes is indisputable. Further, no viable substitute is available for certain materials. For example, how could you economically control dandelions without herbicides? Thus, many of the advantages of chemicals are "no-brainers." These products don't just allow you to do things better, they allow you to do things you otherwise couldn't do at all.

However, you can increase the efficiency of your grounds-care operation with chemicals in ways that may not be so apparent. Some products with great potential to save time and money remain underused in the industry despite their benefits. Other products, though widely used, may be useful in ways you haven't thought of. This is truer today than 10 or 20 years ago because of some important product developments. In many cases, you can achieve the same, or better, results than you've been getting, but for less money and time.

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Using pesticides preventively * Grub controls. A basic precept of integrated pest management (IPM) has been that you shouldn't use pesticides unless you need to. Thus, authorities often frown on preventive applications and recommend monitoring to confirm an infestation before you decide whether to apply pesticides.

In many situations, this is sound advice. However, some new insecticides are changing that way of thinking. Two significant new grub-control products have characteristics that justify their preventive use. Imidacloprid (Bayer's Merit) and halofenozide (Rohmid's Mach 2) have sufficient residual effects for spring applications to provide excellent grub control of the summer generation of grubs. Thus, they are effective as preventive products. The residual of these products also reduces the need for precise timing. Many applicators complain that it is difficult to be sure about the best time to apply traditional grub-control products. The relatively wide application window for these products eases the pressure to use precise timing.

Though some experts are uncomfortable promoting preventive use-they fear it may encourage unnecessary applications-good reasons exist why it is a sound practice for these products. Their rates of active ingredient are significantly lower than those of most traditional grub controls (see table, page XX). Thus, a spring application of one of these products not only controls grubs, it does so with significantly less active ingredient than you would use with a later application of traditional products. Plus, it helps reduce the damage that larger grubs can cause before you get a chance to treat for them. For example, animals foraging for grubs can cause significant damage to turf.

Further, both of these products have relatively specific pesticidal activity. For instance, the physiological site of activity for Merit ensures that it will have little effect against non-target organisms, even many other insects. And Mach 2 disrupts insect molting, a process that non-insect organisms do not undergo. Thus, they are not susceptible to Mach 2's mode of action. For these reasons, these new products possess minimal potential for negative environmental effects.

Of course, you ought to have some reasonable justification to use these (or any) products. It would make no sense to apply them to a site that has no history of grub problems. However, for problematic sites where you can predict with reasonable certainty that grub infestations will occur, an ounce of prevention can literally be worth a pound of cure. * Crabgrass controls. In many regions, it is a given that crabgrass will infest turf if you don't apply a pre-emergent. Moreover, once an infestation occurs, it takes a lot more effort to eliminate it than to maintain the site weed-free. That's why using pre-emergents has been an accepted weed-control strategy for decades, and why applying "crabgrass preventers" is one of the major maintenance tasks of turf managers each season.

Many applicators pay close attention to application timing, assuming that an application as close as possible to the time of crabgrass germination provides the maximum possible effectiveness. One problem with this approach, however, is that pre-emergent applications timed in this manner may occur when maintenance professionals are busiest: spring.

Is there a better way to time pre-emergents? Several studies performed at universities in the last few years suggest that there is. Researchers-noting that some landscapers were successfully using fall pre-emergent applications to reduce their spring work load-have been testing this strategy. Mostly, the results have been positive and demonstrate that fall applications still can provide adequate residual for good crabgrass control the following summer (see tables, page 16).

As Dr. Jack Fry, at Kansas State University, explained in his article Control crabgrass with fall-applied pre-emergents in the July 1997 issue of Grounds Maintenance, one reason for this longevity is that little degradation occurs during the winter, when environmental factors do not favor chemical degradation. Thus, a fall application-between mid-October and mid-November-can ease the pressure considerably during the spring "push." "Because spring is such a busy time for landscape managers, many are eager to broaden their pre-emergence-herbicide application window to free up time for other spring activities," says Fry.

A drawback for some operators is that contracts often run from January to January. "You gain no advantage by providing a customer with season-long crabgrass protection for the following year unless you have a firm commitment they'll remain a customer," acknowledges Fry. "However, operations that don't work on calendar-year contracts may be well-suited to fall pre-emergence herbicide applications."

In a slightly different twist to this strategy, Fry recently conducted preliminary research on using split applications of pendimethalin-a relatively short-lived herbicide-at one-half the label rate in November and May. "Pendimethalin was effective in this situation, and more research should be done to evaluate this more carefully," states Fry. "This would correspond with fertilization times, which might work well for a weed-and-feed [product]."

Fertilizers To achieve good spring turf quality, many turf managers apply fertilizer just when turf is growing fastest. Thus, they increase the need for mowing at a time when it already is straining most operations to the limit. However, as with pre-emergents, you can apply fertilizers in the fall and delay your spring application. This reduces your spring mowing burden while maintaining good spring turf quality.

Agronomically, fall fertilization is a good practice in its own right for increasing winter hardiness. In fact, it is probably the most important single fertilizer application of the season. In addition, however, "Late-fall nitrogen reduces the need for early spring nitrogen (which only enhances growth and mowing requirements at a time of year when growth is likely to be rapid anyway)," explains Dr. Paul Rieke of Michigan State University. In his August 1998 article, Cool-season turf benefits from fall fertilization, Rieke writes, "Many turf managers do not fertilize again until just before Memorial Day because the residual effects from fall and late fall applications provide good color and density without the spring growth flush caused by early spring applications." By avoiding an early spring fertilizer application, you prevent an even more vigorous growth flush, which is exactly what you don't need in the spring mowing season.

As with fall pre-emergents, "Some lawn-care companies cannot justify the cost of late-fall nitrogen for customers who may not continue with their services the next year," admits Rieke. "Nevertheless, for continuing customers, turf quality the next spring should be excellent about the time spring sales begin. This may encourage customers to stay with your service."

Reducing plant growth Because much of the maintenance that landscapes demand directly results from the growth of plants, it should be obvious that less plant growth means less maintenance. For this reason, plant growth regulators (PGRs) have great potential to increase maintenance efficiency. Despite this, PGRs remain an underutilized tool. * PGRs that reduce pruning. PGRs are highly suited for use on ornamentals (see table, page 53, for a list of turf and ornamental PGRs). Not only do they keep plants looking well-manicured longer and reduce pruning, they ease the tasks of cleaning up and disposing of trimmings. In addition, products exist for eliminating unwanted fruit (such as olive and sweet-gum fruit) as well as suppressing sucker growth.

Keith Reid, owner of Bioscape (Virginia Beach, Va.), is an applicator experienced with the use of PGRs on ornamentals. Much of Reid's business comes from maintenance contractors who subcontract with Reid to reduce their pruning costs, although he is often hired by in-house operations, as well as his own residential customers. "I can eliminate four or five prunings a year with PGRs," states Reid. "In-house operations really like that," he explains, "but contractors also benefit because they can save some money and also pass some of the savings on to their customers."

Reid typically makes two applications of dikegulac-sodium a year to shrubs, in spring and in fall. Application timing is critical and must follow pruning. "You have to wait a week or two for some regrowth to occur before application. [If the timing is correct], this gives you a compact plant that stays that way for 2 or 3 months."

Reid does limited work with turf PGRs, using trinexapac-ethyl and dikegulac-sodium to suppress Poa annua and reduce turf encroachment into beds. In addition, he occasionally treats ground covers such as ivy and vinca and has begun experimenting with ethephon to eliminate sweet-gum fruit. However, the main demand for PGRs comes from clients seeking to reduce pruning on trimming-intensive species such as euonymus, photinia, barberry and Russian olive.

Greg Croteau is another operator saving labor with ornamental PGRs. Croteau, a grounds manager at the Portland (Ore.) International Airport, maintains extensive ground-cover plantings of Cotoneaster dammeri and ivy. "We need approximately 350 to 400 hours to prune these plantings, and we needed to do that about three times a year for it to look presentable. We didn't really have the manpower to do a good job of it...it's a pretty arduous job," says Croteau. With PGRs, Croteau gets by with just one pruning each year. "We trim in the fall to keep it looking neat in the winter. Then in April, we spray [with dikegulac-sodium] when we see growth coming on. We spray again in late June or early July, and this carries us through to October or November, when we trim again." In this case, two applications replace two prunings. However, it's not hard to see that this is a good trade off. It costs Croteau $1,200 to $1,500 for the chemical for one application vs. an estimated $11,000 for the labor required for one pruning. He also doesn't have to disrupt ongoing operations by diverting large amounts of labor from other tasks. * Turf PGRs on golf courses. Superintendents often use PGRs for specific goals, such as seedhead suppression or overseeding establishment. However, superintendents also know that PGRs simply reduce mowing, saving large amounts of time and money. This is especially true as higher standards increase the pressure to collect clippings on fairways. Dr. Tom Watschke of the Pennsylvania State University noted in his October 1996 Grounds Maintenance article, Saving money with plant growth regulators, that, "The labor associated with mowing fairways has increased dramatically in the past several years. Consequently, the use of PGRs to slow growth and reduce clipping production has increased significantly. Superintendents can reduce clippings by as much as 50 percent, which translates into considerable savings. In addition, less clippings reduces the storage capacity needed for disposal." Reduced clippings may even allow you to leave clippings in place, instead of collecting them, without detracting from appearance or playability.

Watschke cautions that PGRs can suppress some turfgrasses more than others, so the use of a growth regulator can alter turf's appearance, depending on the composition of your turf. However, one of the most important uses of PGRs on golf courses is the reduction of mowing in difficult roughs and on steep slopes. In these areas, turfgrass quality is not as critical, so even if you are not satisfied with PGRs on your fairways, they may be useful in these difficult sites. PGRs also improve course efficiency in other ways. Trimming can be a major task on courses-around bunkers, trees, fences, markers and other objects. PGRs can dramatically reduce the need to trim around these objects. * Turf PGRs for lawn-care contractors. The usefulness of turf PGRs is a bit less obvious when it comes to lawn-care contractors. Is there a place for PGRs in contract operations? Actually, yes, depending on the type of contracts you use. While those that mainly use fee-per-mowing contracts may be hard-pressed to justify using a product that reduces the service for which they charge, PGRs can fit nicely with other types of contracts.

PGRs are especially advantageous for seasonal contracts. Earl Adamson, owner of Adamson Lawn Care (Battle Creek, Mich.), has begun to use trinexapac-ethyl on some of his maintenance accounts. Adamson notes that the primary value he's derived from using PGRs is not as a marketing tool. Rather, it simply makes his operations more efficient. "The biggest advantage is that it reduces the amount of clippings," says Adamson. "It also cuts down a lot on trimming, especially along and underneath fences, such as split-rail fences." For his seasonal maintenance contracts, this is a great advantage. However, this may create the need for some customer education, admits Adamson. "They start thinking that the lawn doesn't need to be mowed as often, but they forget it's costing you money to apply the PGR."

In many cases, customers often hire applicators to apply fertilizers and chemicals but still perform their own mowing. PGRs are not a difficult sell to such homeowners, particularly those growing weary of the mowing that a vigorous lawn can require.

Combining applications One strategy with which many lawn-care operators are familiar is tank mixing-combining a pesticide with a soluble fertilizer (or other pesticide). This allows applicators to make one pass that delivers several products for multiple purposes. Always consider this strategy when possible-the efficiency of combining two or more combinations into one is self-evident. Manufacturers apply the same principle to granular products, combining pesticides with granular fertilizer to make a product you can apply with a spreader as you would fertilizer alone.

It is true that such combinations-granular or liquid tank mixes-may not always be the best fit for your needs. However, many applicators tend to approach tasks singly, neglecting to look at the bigger picture of their overall maintenance plan. With a more comprehensive view of your cultural program, you may find that you're overlooking opportunities to combine applications. Take a broader look at your cultural practices and review some of the available combination products. Manufacturers offer a large variety of such products, some of which you may not be aware. If you're not taking advantage of combined applications, you're missing a great way to save money, labor and time.

Although the strategies and products I've discussed here require some foresight and advance planning, they can save an operation large amounts of labor and money. Instead of reacting to what is happening in the landscape, be proactive. Apply PGRs before shrubs grow; apply pesticides before pests get out of hand; take advantage of fall fertilization to increase turf quality in spring without exaggerating the spring growth flush. In today's competitive market, fine-tuning your operation with steps like these can make the difference between profit and loss.

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