Best practices for selecting a fertilizer

Man fertilizing (Photo: iStock.com/jamievanbuskirk )
Photo: iStock.com/jamievanbuskirk
Man fertilizing (Photo: iStock.com/jamievanbuskirk)
Customized care Lawn care operators should assess each lawn individually to determine what type of fertilizer should be used. (Photo: iStock.com/jamievanbuskirk)

Ask customers what they expect from their lawn care company, and one of the top answers is probably “results.” That means companies are tasked with keeping their clients’ turf green and healthy — and to do that, they will need the right general fertilizer for the job.

Finding the most well-suited fertilizer can come down to the price, quality, turf type, conditions, product capabilities and operator preferences. To help sort out all of those different factors and concerns, several industry professionals share their insights on purchasing trends and how to select the best fertilizer.

Limit fillers

No matter the property’s location, condition, type or issues, there are two factors that remain true: Lawn care operators (LCOs) should want to provide a quality product and service. That goal encompasses everything from how and when they apply products to the actual products themselves.

So, when it comes to choosing the right general fertilizers for lawn care services, Chris Sherrington, technical director at Lawn Doctor, a lawn care franchise based in Holmdel, N.J., says his company looks to purchase quality fertilizer that’s blended and formulated to the highest standard. For Lawn Doctor, that means finding a product that has a uniform pearl size, less filler in the bag and controlled-release technology.

“The price does come into play, but I feel like a lot of our Lawn Doctor owners will pay that extra to get a good quality material,” Sherrington says.

Lawn Doctor services mainly residential properties — about 90 percent of its customers — as well as commercial properties. The firm provides lawn care, ornamental tree/shrub care and outdoor pest control services in 40 states. Lawn Doctor had $130 million in sales last year and has 222 franchises across the country.

Ask what’s in the bag

For many others in the industry, the price per bag is still one of the top deciding factors when it comes to purchasing fertilizers, says Chris Derrick, Koch Turf & Ornamental field sales agronomist. But after customers ask about the price, he says another common concern is the nitrogen level of the product.

“The next question we see many consider is the amount of slow-release nitrogen that is in the bag,” says Derrick, who adds that the interest in the amount of slow-release has become more important to LCOs in recent years.

Like the name suggests, slow-release fertilizers provide a steady amount of nutrients that break down during a period of time. While slow-release fertilizers generally cost more, the number of applications are fewer, helping to offset some of the overall cost.

Stock up

To reduce some of the cost and stress of finding new products between applications, Sherrington says he’s also seeing more Lawn Doctor franchise owners buying fertilizer in bulk to last for two to three rounds of applications.

“They find a good product they can use early, midseason and in the fall,” he says. “It’s also comforting to find a product that works and performs well — and meets the customer’s expectations.”

Customers care about results, and if they can see those with the current product being used, they will feel more comfortable going forward with that same substance on their lawn. It’s easier to sell them on a product that’s already proven to work.

Think locally

While product quality is an important factor to consider when purchasing fertilizer, even the highest grade will fall short if it isn’t the right fit for a lawn and its needs. LCOs need to assess each property separately, even though there will be some similarities with other sites in the same area.

Some of the deciding factors that affect which fertilizer an LCO should use include whether it’s warm- or cool-season turf, the number of weeds and type of application approach. Lawns with an overgrowth of weeds may require a general fertilizer that will speed up turf growth so the grass outgrows the weeds. For a steadier approach, operators may consider an extended-release fertilizer for continuous nutrition.

Besides the lawn’s current state, LCOs also have to consider local conditions and ordinances. For example, LCOs in Florida can’t apply fertilizer that contains nitrogen and phosphorus between June and September. So, operators in areas with specific laws have to find fertilizers that will provide nutrition regardless of the restrictions.

Consider steady growth

One way to deliver a steady level of nutrients is by using an enhanced efficiency fertilizer (EEF).

“A lot of folks industrywide are using more enhanced efficiency fertilizer technology with applications,” Sherrington says. “You’re not seeing that drop off, but instead, you’re seeing more of a uniform feeding.”

EEF products are gaining ground throughout the industry, Derrick adds, but operators need to understand exactly what they are before choosing one. He says it’s important for LCOs to educate themselves and better define what type of enhanced efficiency fertilizer will work best for their properties and services.

There are three main types to choose from: stabilized nitrogen, slow-release nitrogen and controlled-release nitrogen. Derrick says LCOs can extend a fertilizer’s longevity up to 26 weeks and produce a healthier turfgrass for their customers by using EEF technology.

“We are also encouraging LCOs to question what is in the bag of the general fertilizers they purchase — paying more attention to the analysis and understanding how the analysis can affect things like the amount of product used or handling required,” Derrick says. “Having a larger percentage of EEFs in the analysis allows for increased performance and less potential of nitrogen loss, making EEFs a sound economical choice.”

Lawn care professionals also should look at how their current fertilizer blends may contain high amounts of filler, which offers little to no nutritional value, Derrick says. Using a blend with a higher amount of EEF technology can be a better solution for LCOs, he adds.

Maximize efficiency

Beyond EEF technology, LCOs are looking to boost their efficiency — and level of convenience — in other ways when applying the fertilizer.

“They prefer a product with high nutritional value, so there are fewer fertilizer applications, freeing time for their crews to complete other tasks, more efficient nutrient delivery and reduced storage and handling of fertilizer bags,” Derrick says. “Spending less time at each property means more properties each day, which equates to increased revenue.”

Lawn care companies are also in search of fertilizers that can meet the needs of all of their customers’ properties. That means the need to change the analysis, rates and calibration settings is minimized, Derrick says.

“I think the needs of many LCOs will continue to evolve as they gain greater experience in operating their businesses more efficiently,” Derrick says. “The green industry, as a whole, needs to keep emphasizing the importance of understanding what it is that is being applied.”

Ultimately, LCOs need to determine what they value and need from a general fertilizer and then choose the type and brand that best meets those requirements.

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