Topdressing gaining favor with LCOs

Old Tom Morris would be pleased. The venerable greenskeeper of early St. Andrews days was a pioneer in the use of topdressing for golf greens. Now, the practice is increasingly being used on all kinds of turf, including residential and commercial lawns.

Topdressing introduces new soil or other materials to existing turf. It levels the turf and helps decompose thatch, which in turn promotes turf health. Adding organic matter improves the soil's ability to hold water and fertility, and generally improves overall soil quality. You also may use special topdress mixtures to improve soil drainage and stimulate growth.

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"Topdressing with compost is a great benefit to early spring grass growth," says Roch Gaussoin, extension turfgrass specialist at the University of Nebraska. "The best way is to aerate the turf first, then apply about 0.25 inch of a fine compost mix or comparable soil amendment. The typical dark color of compost absorbs early spring sun and actually warms the soil faster to get grass off to a better start."

Gaussoin says the process not only helps break down thatch, but also helps grass respond to fertilizer applications.

Topdressing takes special equipment Golf-course superintendents have practiced topdressing for years, and the equipment to handle the procedure has developed accordingly. Now, superintendents and other turf managers are expanding topdressing practices to do more than level greens.

Commercial topdressing equipment is versatile. Turf managers use them for other chores, such as overseeding, spreading grass clippings, applying lime and even spreading soil amendments such as crumb rubber.

Equipment for golf courses and other large areas is built with capacity and speed as primary considerations. Large units carry several cubic yards of material and are either truck-mounted or tractor-towed. Some units are mounted or hitched to turf trucks.

Smaller topdressers suitable for home lawns are not as numerous, though a few are available. The units must be narrow enough to fit through gates and operate in confined areas such as residential back yards.

Some overseeders and push spreaders are capable of applying topdressing, but their small capacity means you have to refill them many times for larger lawns.

Bringing it home John Guzman, an Atlanta contractor, has spent the past three years developing specific topdressing techniques for home lawns and now plans to franchise his topdressing program to other lawn care firms.

Guzman was a professional golfer until the early 1990s when he got into the lawn-maintenance business in the Atlanta area. His contact with golf-course superintendents provided helpful insights into maintaining manicured lawns for his customers. It also made him well aware of the benefits of topdressing. His lawn-care firm began offering topdressing in 1992.

"It continued to grow until it became a major part of our business," he says. "Now, we're sub-contracting our topdressing service to other contractors who don't want to make the big investments in specialized equipment."

Three years ago, Guzman created a separate entity for his topdressing operation called "Sand Squad." He has developed a specialized technique that uses self-propelled topdressers to apply topdressing material to lawns. The compact Turfco units originally were built for golf-course use, and Guzman has adapted them for use on home and commercial lawns.

"They are small enough that we can get through 48-inch yard gates with them, and they have a low center of gravity so we can get up and down hills with them, even when they're loaded."

Topdressing benefits Guzman says sand topdressing works in his area because lawns are watered regularly. In fact, topdressing with a sand-and-compost mix or an organic material enhances the growth of microbes that feed on thatch and break down thatch layers. Eliminating thatch removes habitat for lawn pests such as sod webworms and promotes better retention of water and plant nutrients. Reducing thatch also decreases chances of fungal diseases.

Topdressing materials may also include peat moss, composted municipal sludge, screened topsoil and sifted compost made from organic materials like grass clippings and leaves.

For about half its accounts Sand Squad applies a special compost blend made of peanut shells and processed sludge, followed up with a light application of river sand. The remaining accounts typically are topdressed with dark-colored river sand.

Topdressing helps level lawn surfaces, much as it levels the playing surface on golf greens. Uneven turf is more subject to scalping during mowing, especially when grass is cut short. It also may be unpleasant to walk on. Leveling the yard with topdressing smoothes the surface so you can cut grass can with a more even, finished appearance.

Developing a topdressing business John Guzman started offering topdressing to please his residential lawn-care customers. Some of his clients wanted their bermudagrass lawns cut short like golf-course fairways. He was cutting them with walk-behind 25-inch reel mowers, but the mowers scalped the high spots. Guzman turned to a superintendent friend for advice. The answer: Topdress to even the turf. It worked, and soon other homeowners were asking for the same look.

"More and more of our customers decided they really liked the fairway look, with their lawns cut short," says Guzman. "To accomplish that effectively, we had to sell them on the idea of topdressing, too.

"We have gone from more than 200 lawn-maintenance accounts and four maintenance crews to about 30 upscale accounts and one maintenance crew. We now have two crews devoted to topdressing. It takes a major investment to get into topdressing and do it efficiently."

Sand Squad prices its topdressing services by thousand-square-feet increments. Guzman says the average residential job is "around $700."

The typical steps are core aerification; topdressing with sand, compost, a sand-and-compost mix or sometimes just topsoil; and dragging the turf to incorporate the topdressing and aeration cores. The crew pulls drag mats over the turf with riding mowers.

"Either we ask the lawn owner to cut his grass short-1 inch or less for bermuda or zoysia-or we cut it short with the mowers and pick up the clippings before we aerate. Then, the drag mat really smoothes out the topdress material and cores to fill in the low GMspots. Over a season or so, the turf really gets smoothed out and level, so it has that 'fairway look' when it's cut short."

Nowadays, Guzman says his usual crew trailer is equipped with two or three topdressers, a riding mower and one or two walk-behind aerators.

Guzman usually mows bermuda or zoysia lawns with walk-behind reel mowers, but he sometimes uses riding rotaries because they can cut fairly low and leave a manicured look. Some owners use rotary mowers to cut their own grass. "Once the turf has been topdressed and dragged, it usually is smooth enough that the owner can cut it himself without scalping."

About 80 percent of the lawns Guzman maintains are bermuda. Most of the rest are zoysia. However, some backyards are seeded to fescue. Fescue lawns are usually maintained at 3 to 4 inches, and they also respond well to topdressing.

"We cut them short, then aerify, overseed to thicken the turf and then topdress," says Guzman. "We usually use compost topdressing. It improves seed germination of the new grass and reduces the amount of water and fertilizer required."

Sand Squad's web site-www.sandsquad.com-describes the benefits of topdressing and their processes for cool- and warm-season grasses.

Guzman cautions those thinking about getting into the topdressing business. "You can topdress warm-season grasses from about mid-February through September. And, you can topdress fescue lawns into October and November. But you will still have a 3- to 4-month period when the topdressing business is not generating any income."

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Neb.

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