Prepare for takeoff

October 22, 2014 -  By
Christina Kobland

Christina Kobland

A grass seed product that produces turf requiring little to no maintenance is probably not a good fit for a landscape maintenance company that makes its bread and butter from mowing. But for landscape or lawn care companies that service municipalities, airfields or other areas seeking to reduce mowing and deter wildlife, there’s a product that’s proving to be effective.

Brian O’Neil, owner of Weeds Inc., an industrial weed control company headquartered in Aston, Pa., with additional offices in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, has found the installation of FlightTurf to be excellent for embankments or hard-to-maintain areas, particularly around storm basins, within areas of parks or around ponds.

The product is a proprietary blend of fine fescues carefully selected for their tolerance to full sun and wildlife deterrence. O’Neil has installed the product for two state departments of transportation, one of which is testing it on a larger scale. He’s also worked with builders on new construction and currently is doing a major installation for a solar panel facility since it’s impossible to mow underneath the panels.

“This is a low-growing grass, so it eliminates a tremendous amount of mowing,” O’Neil says, adding it’s easy to sell new FlightTurf installations because it’s “just the cost of the product.” It’s a more complicated sale when it involves replacing existing turf.

“That being said, those that have a lot to gain from reduced mowing, such as airports, municipalities or the department of transportation, are willing to make the investment,” he says.

This turfgrass is also a good fit for airports because it’s a natural deterrent to wildlife like deer and geese, which are an aircraft strike hazard.
FlightTurf was developed by Christina Kobland, co-owner of Native Return, a company with offices in Philadelphia and Santa Cruz, Calif., which specializes in returning ground cover to native plant species. FlightTurf, which originated in Oregon, has a method-based patent with several other patents pending.

Kobland says she got the idea for this turfgrass while working on a meadow assignment for the Philadelphia Division of Aviation. She saw how often the airfield had to be mowed—practically around the clock. That realization, coupled with a talk with the local game commissioner, got her wheels turning. The game commissioner explained how the airfield had to enlist sharpshooters to kill wildlife that wandered into the area. This solution didn’t sit well with Kobland, a conservationist.

“Why not plant grass that doesn’t require mowing and deters wildlife in the first place?” Kobland says. “That established the idea in my mind, and one thing led to another. The grass has already worked well in Philadelphia, and we’ve since been working with other airports as well as transportation authorities. We’re currently looking at roadside use.”

Making the conversion

Clients that have a lot to gain from reducing maintenance costs (such as airports) are ideal prospects for a new low-growing fine  fescue blend. photo: Native Return

Clients that have a lot to gain from reducing maintenance costs (such as airports) are ideal prospects for a new low-growing fine
fescue blend. photo: Native Return

Installation entails killing off the existing grass with a herbicide, mowing it down and then slit seeding the property with FlightTurf. It typically starts growing in within two to three weeks.

Native Return sells the turfseed blend to other companies, but it also offers installation, maintenance and consulting.

“Part of the reason behind the slow growth of this specialized grass has to do with our particular methodology of seeding and establishment,” Kobland says. Proper site preparation, installation and weed control in the first two to three years are key to a successful installation. As such, Native Return walks contractors through the turf establishment and maintenance processes to promote success. The grass seed sells for $5.50 per pound; contractors can buy directly from Native Return on FlightTurf’s website.

The seed performs well in the upper two-thirds of the U.S. in the cool and transition growing zones, Kobland says. It’s not a good fit in the far South, but Native Return currently is developing a blend that works well where warm-season grasses thrive.

Some airports already are finding success. Officials at Erie International Airport in Pennsylvania installed about 95 acres of FlightTurf. Though it cost about $90,000 more than traditional turfgrass, the cost savings on mowing and maintenance alone can be more than $800 per acre each year.

The opportunity could go beyond airports and municipal applications. For example, design/build and installation contractors may consider offering this type of turf for any client who requests a low-maintenance landscape and wants to eliminate regular mowing, Kobland says.

“Some only mow it once a year, but for a residential client who really wants to maintain that manicured look, it would probably be mowed three or four times a season,” Kobland says.

Payton is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

Updated 10/29/14

About the Author:

Payton is a freelance writer with eight years of experience writing about the landscape industry.

4 Comments on "Prepare for takeoff"

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  1. Ben Bowen says:

    Interesting article, interesting product. There is a line of “eco-lawn” products by Hobb’s and Hopkins here in Portland that appeals to homeowners who want low maintenance lawns. I am curious how this compares. What are the water requirements for this product, for example?

    • Wes Frey says:

      FlightTurf® requires about 25 inches of rain per year to survive without irrigation. I looked up Eco-lawn by Hobbs and Hopkins and I came to Pro Time Lawn Seed
      http://www.protimelawnseed.com/collections/eco-and-alternative-lawns. They have some interesting options, however they are more suited to the creation of wildlife habitat so it’s difficult to compare them with FlightTurf. We use fine fescue grasses, and varieties of them chosen specifically to grow well in sunny and shady areas. We’ve selected varieties which are less attractive to wildlife as well, which is of particular benefit to airports, commercial zones, roadsides, etc. Hope this helps.