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Fertile Ground: Biologicals and controlled-release fertilizers

April 10, 2020 -  By
Fertilizer spreader 9Photo: BanksPhotos/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Photo: BanksPhotos/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Taking a natural approach to lawn care typically gets met with two concerns: results and cost. But, by looking closer at biologicals and controlled-release fertilizers, lawn care operators (LCOs) may be surprised by the benefits and available alternatives.

Making the switch

When David H. Throndsen, owner of Bio Green Ohio in Dublin, Ohio, started his business in 2005, he followed the traditional NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) approach with synthetic fertilizer.

However, after hearing about the concern with waterways and the environment associated with using traditional products, he says he started looking for a natural approach. He decided to test a bio-based product line that he says was more environmentally friendly on 30 of his customers’ lawns to see how the results compared to his usual program.

“I liked what I saw in terms of color and overall health of the lawn, so I decided to switch all of the customers over to the more natural approach,” Throndsen says.

His customers are about 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial. The company has nearly $500,000 in annual revenue and provides lawn care, pest control and tree/shrub care. Throndsen says the products the company now uses are comparable in price with synthetic fertilizers.

Another important component of his process has been communicating with his customers.

“We try and inform our customers of what we are doing with our programs. They understand that it is teamwork between them and us,” Throndsen says. “They may do something unwittingly that is stressing their lawn. We help guide them to correct the behavior.”

Creative solutions

Beyond the products, taking a greener approach to lawn care also can include finding alternative ways to treat common turf issues. John Perry, president of Greene County Fertilizer Co. in Greensboro, Ga., offered some creative solutions to turf problems during this year’s Lawncology event in Athens, Ga.

Those included soil testing, balancing out nutrient loads, identifying deficiencies based on weeds present and showing the importance of organic matter and carbon in the soil structure. Perry says creative fertility solutions can solve most common turf issues.

“Aside from invasive vectors, many lawn problems start with a lack of proper care and nutrition,” he says. “A balanced ‘soil first’ program will encourage natural defenses and allow for greater strength in the canopy and root zone to ward off weeds, as well as insects, when the plant is functioning at its peak performance.”

Biological products are another alternative that help aid in that process.

“Biologicals are easier and easier to find and are being incorporated at a higher rate than ever,” Perry says. “So, many LCOs have seen their competitors incorporate products that make lawns stand out.”

He defines a biological product as anything, apart from a fertilizer, that enhances a plant’s or soil’s function when applied. The reaction, he says, is one of triggering greater soil mineralization, greater plant nutrient uptake and reduced stresses.

“Just by defining the term, doesn’t it make you think that all LCOs would want to use a material that makes their lawns look better and weather the seasonal challenges easier?” Perry asks.

Those benefits come, in part, because of how biologicals work, says Chuck Barber, vice president of customer accounts for specialty markets at Anuvia Plant Nutrients in Sarasota, Fla.

“Traditional fertilizers feed the plant, but not the soil,” Barber says. “Bio-based fertilizers that have attributes of soil-building properties are beneficial to turfgrass plants because they feed the soil and get more microbial activity that’s beneficial to the soil and plants.”

What’s in the bag

Slow- or controlled-release products are a good addition for many operators, as well, Perry says.

“We have found that through enhanced soil fertility and increased organic matter in the soil, fewer controlled-release products are needed as the soil is functioning at a greater capacity,” Perry says.

These products have mainly been used for golf course and sports turf applications in the past, Barber says, in part, because of the cost. However, with the increasing interest in sustainable strategies, nutrient efficiency and changing regulations, lawn care operators are looking for products that address the market needs.

Slow-release and bio-based technologies provide a consistent feeding, which can help the turf better endure diseases, recover faster and have deeper rooting, Barber says.

“You’ll have an overall healthier plant that can withstand these conditions and resist stresses,” Barber says.

Before choosing one of these technologies, Barber says it’s important for LCOs to understand what they are purchasing. They need to look at what’s in the bag, including the analysis and nitrogen source. Homogenized fertilizers have all the nutrients on each granule, which allows for the even spread of nutrients across the turf compared to traditional fertilizer blends. Even spreading will lead to increased turf performance.

Beyond product selection, educating customers on these value-added benefits is essential because these products will cost more than conventional products with only quick-release nitrogen sources and are more susceptible to loss into the environment.

To help with those conversations, most manufacturers offer marketing materials that LCOs can use to show customers why they are moving away from products that aren’t as environmentally friendly, Barber says.

Ultimately, selecting a value-added, controlled-release or bio-based fertilizer is about LCOs finding the best product that fits their application intervals, their turf and their company’s objectives.

“It’s about balancing their application program with the technology that’s able to give the turf nutrition from the time of application to the next time of application,” Barber says. “There are choices in today’s market that provide additional agronomic value to deliver the performance that meet your clients’ expectations and your business goals.”

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor. She can be reached at swebb@northcoastmedia.net.

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