Rx for Turf

When diagnosing turf for possible renovation, you need to recognize the difference between renovation and re-establishment. Renovation usually involves removing the existing turf entirely and starting over from scratch with a new lawn. Re-establishment involves working with the existing turf to improve the health of the plant while mitigating undesirable elements, such as weeds, disease and insect-damaged plants. While both approaches are valid, there are factors involved in each method that you should evaluate carefully before proceeding.

First and foremost, it's always a good idea to have clear communication with your clients about their expectations, as well as their budgets. If this is a planned project, the client should be able to give you budget parameters that will guide your decision. If the project is unexpected, the client will be looking for you to educate him or her not only on the costs, but also on all of the options. Here, it can be helpful to apply the Q-T-C Rule (Quality-Time-Cost) to help your client decide what's best for the property. Of these three elements of any project, the client can choose two. Assuming they always want the best quality, if they need results in a hurry, then the budget will be on the higher side. If they want top quality but are willing to wait a season or two, you can opt for a less expensive method of turf improvement. Or, if they absolutely want it “cheap and fast,” then they need to be willing to sacrifice on quality. But when it comes to turf, does anyone really want to sacrifice quality?

No matter which factors you have to work with, in order to diagnose and plan a successful turf improvement project, you must first understand what makes up good turf. While there are many types of turf for many climates, no matter what zone you are in, there are basic factors that contribute to healthy looking turf.

Diagnosis: What Caused the Problem?

There are many pathologic reasons for turf to fail. Before you can determine a course of action, you must first determine why turf failed in the first place. Bruce Hellerick, senior horticulturist for Brickman's Penn Jersey Division, shares some of the most common reasons for turf failure:

  • Species of grass out of balance

    While many lawns benefit from a mix of different species, they need to be compatible for long-term success. When determining a good mix, look at matching textures.

  • Improper grasses originally planted

    The grasses should be adapted to the soil, growing zone and local site conditions (such as sun or shade).

  • Weeds have infested the lawn

    Ahhh … but what kind of weed, and what will kill it? White clover and red sorrel are among the two most common weeds in the northeast. Check with your local county extension service for specific information on treating weeds common to your area. And don't forget: Along with weeds often comes soil compaction.

  • Disease and insects out of control

    As with weeds, you must identify the particular pest and strategize how to remove it from the site. Consider disease-resistant varieties as well as entophytic grasses to help reduce insects. Again, check with your county extension service for specific information on diseases and insects in your area.

  • Other causes of turf failure

    These causes can vary from thatch development and accumulation to mechanical damage from snow plowing or driving on frozen turf. Chemical damage from leaks, spills or even misapplication of turf chemicals also comes into play, as does neglect or abuse, especially in the case of overused ball fields.

How Bad Is It, Doc?

So, now that you know what the problem is, let's find out just how bad it is. Joe Ketterer, production specialist for Brickman's Mid-Atlantic Division, has seen a lot of renovation projects in his 20-plus years in the field. No matter what the chosen method of renovation, he advises starting with a comprehensive soil test. Most experts agree that the optimal soil pH for healthy turf is 6 to 7. Depending on the result, you may have to amend the soil.

Now assess how much of the turf area is affected. This may help you determine an obvious course of action. Hellerick uses a simple 50/50 rule. If less than 50 percent of the turf is affected, he leans toward re-establishment; more than 50 percent, chances are a total renovation is in order. If the property is more or less 50/50, remember the Q-T-C rule and present your client with details and costs for both options.

Re-establishment is normally the less expensive option. It involves weed control, fertilization, aeration and overseeding. This process takes longer and uses a combination of chemical and cultural treatments (such as adjusting mowing height) to cultivate the healthy plants and discourage or eliminate the undesirable elements, like weeds and inappropriate grass varieties.

Renovation usually involves killing off all vegetation, completely stripping the site, then aerating and using a slit seeder to slice the ground and drop in the seed. This is normally followed by topdressing with mulch or a soil/compost mix. And, if your client is in a hurry and budget is not an obstacle, you may even consider hydroseeding to get things going quickly.

There are pluses and minuses to both approaches:

Re-establishment (the “T” in Q-T-C)

  • Takes less labor (though over a longer period of time)

  • The turf will tolerate some traffic during the “convalescent” period

  • No topdressing required

  • Usually costs less than total renovation

Renovation (the big “C” in Q-T-C)

  • Takes less time (though more labor)
  • The end product is a more consistent look
  • There will be fewer stones and weeds
  • Less competition between weeds and lawn

Prescription: How Do You Fix the Problem?

Whether you have decided to renovate or re-establish, your first step should be amending soil to bring the pH up to a healthy level. “In renovating turf, you can do everything right and still have a failed project if your soil pH is off,” warns Ketterer. “Without the proper pH, the nutrients in that soil can't be absorbed by the plant.”

Hellerick suggests the following considerations in designing a turf improvement project:

  • Location, location, location

    Select the right turf for the right location. This includes mixing or blending plants of matching textures that will complement each other under varying conditions. When selecting seed, consider not only the growing zone, but local conditions, such as soil types and sun exposure.

  • Intended use

    This is a big factor in the selection of seed. You want to be sure the grass will not only look attractive, but will hold up under the expected use. Is this a home lawn? An industrial site? Recreational or athletic field? Roadside? There are a variety of grasses whose characteristics will lend themselves to different uses. If you are unsure which to select, contact your local extension agent for specific recommendations.

  • Intended maintenance practices

    It's not enough to install a lawn that looks beautiful. You want to make sure the planned maintenance will support the health of the turf, or, on the flip side, you want to make sure the turf can survive under the intended maintenance schedule.

Deciding the right course of action to take to fix your client's turf is not something that should be taken lightly. The wrong path could lead to wasted money and time, not to mention poor quality. As a doctor examines his patient and listens to the symptoms, listen to your clients' needs and do your research on the existing turf before making a diagnosis.

Margie Holly is communications manager with The Brickman Group, Ltd. (Gaithersburg, Md.).

Total Renovation

Because every turf renovation project is unique, going over every option would fill a book, let alone the pages of this magazine. But here is a look at a turf renovation completed by Brickman in Maryland. Branch Manager Brad Johns shares this success story.

  • Diagnosis

    The property featured a beautiful pond that had unfortunately been taken over by geese. While the geese didn't damage the turf beyond repair, the area had been neglected because the previous maintenance company didn't want to spray chemicals that would seep into the pond and upset the ecosystem (not to mention fight off the geese!).

  • How bad Is it?

    As the client didn't make this area a high priority, it pretty much went without any remedial care until the turf had almost completely died out and been taken over by an aquatic weed that was very herbicide-resistant.

  • Prescription: Total renovation

    First they identified the areas to be renovated, including any turf that could be salvaged with re-establishment practices. Then they sprayed everything in the renovation area with Round-Up (glyphosate), and razed off the dead plant material with mowers set as low as possible. They used push mowers for this so that they could set the decks to scalp. They followed this with thorough aeration to mitigate compaction, and used a verticut seeder to slice the soil and drop the seed. They then topdressed the area with a rich compro/soil mix with lots of amendments, to a 0.5- to 1-inch depth. Finally, as this particular client was in a hurry, and budget was not an issue, they hydroseeded the area to kick start the new green.

  • Other options considered

    Due to the extensive damage, the only other option would have been to strip off the old turf and install sod. “We opted against that right away,” explains Johns. “Sodding would have cost 40 to 50 percent more. While we wanted to solve the problem, we still wanted to offer our client the best value.”

  • Continuing care

    The entire renovation took about three weeks, from initial application of Round-Up to beautiful green turf. Johns and his team also took steps to mitigate the original cause of the problem: the goose population. They installed a simple goose fence, to keep them from jumping out of the pond for a stroll on the grass.

pH Testing

You can determine soil pH with one of several types of soil tests. However, not all soil tests provide accurate information about how much lime or acidifier you should apply. Test kits using dyes, pH pens or pH paper determine pH rapidly in the field. The least accurate means of determining soil pH is with pH paper, but it can be useful in obtaining an approximate value. While each of these tests can provide a fair indication of soil pH and tell you if you need lime, they do not provide accurate information on how much lime you should apply. These figures are only approximate — consult a soil lab before undertaking pH modifications.

Commercial and university testing labs accurately determine pH values for soils over a range of pH values. They also provide meaningful lime recommendations for acid soils. They base their lime recommendation on a lime-requirement test that tells you how much lime is necessary to bring the soil to an optimum pH. The lime requirement is based on the buffering capacity of a soil, or buffer pH. Regarding pH amendments, buffer pH is more important than active pH.

Each lab bases its lime recommendations on what they consider to be optimal pH for the turf or ornamentals you're growing there. Before submitting your soil samples, realize that differences exist among labs regarding what they consider to be the optimum pH ranges for turfgrasses and ornamentals. This is why lime recommendations vary from one lab to another. The best way to deal with this problem is to choose a lab that provides recommendations that make sense to you and then stick with that lab for future testing to maintain consistency.

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