ill’s landscape has been looking better than ever. His neighbors, some of whom spend many hours on their landscapes, know Bill doesn’t have much of a green thumb. He still uses the same landscaping service he’s had for many years, yet something is different. The lawn is greener, the flowers healthy and perkier. What’s the secret? Fertigation.

“Fertigation, in the simplest terms, is a method of delivering fertilizer through an irrigation system,” explains Ned Lips, owner of Fertigator, Inc., in St Louis, Missouri. The key, however, is in micro feeding, which is the process of delivering equal amounts of fertilizer in small doses every time the system operates. Delivering a month’s worth of fertilizer all at once with dry fertilizer, or in a few cycles via an irrigation system, defeats most of the purposes of fertilizing.

“Just as humans wouldn’t take a month’s supply of multivitamins on the first day of each month, but rather in daily increments, so does a landscape do better with small doses dispensed every time the system operates,” explains Chris Galindo, owner of BioGreen of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The agricultural industry has used fertigation for decades. Golf courses adopted the technology because of the labor and equipment savings, as well as to correct the feast or famine issue of plant nutrition. However, both agriculture and golf courses are homogeneous plant situations, unlike residential properties.

According to Lips, “The main reason the demand in the residential market has been mediocre until now is due to the lack of product with the capabilities to solve the problems these properties present. These include complex, varied landscapes with gardens, turf, shrubs, and trees intermixed.”
A properly-designed sprinkler system isolates each of these landscape elements to allow the property owner or professional the ability to adjust the amount of water each different kind of plant-type might need. Historically, fertigation systems have delivered different amounts of fertilizer according to the amount of water flowing through the system. The watering needs and the fertilizing needs of the plants don’t, however, vary proportionately.

“The mechanics of fertigation are very straightforward. When the irrigation system opens a valve, it pulls the desired amount of fertilizer,” explains Darin Brasch, vice president of BioGreen. “Our system has an adjustable feed ratio, ranging from a maximum of two teaspoons of fertilizer per gallon of water to a minimum of an eighth of a teaspoon per gallon. As each valve opens, each zone is spoon-fed.”

Lips explained that an injector installed on the irrigation system’s main line, using water pressure, pulses each time the fertigation controller sends it a signal. Every pulse injects about one milliliter of fertilizer into the mainline.

The contractor wires the fertigation controller into the irrigation controller. When the controller turns on zone one, the fertigation controller sends a signal to the injector telling it how often to pulse to deliver the amount of fertilizer mandated to zone one. Each zone can be set to deliver different amounts of fertilizer for the requirements of the landscape element located there.
Generally, the fertigation equipment consists of injectors, a controller and plug-in transformer.

Fertigation can be used in any part of the country, in any application that has an irrigation system. Steve Frech, partner in Pacifico Services LLC, in Las Vegas, Nevada, points out that in Las Vegas, it seldom rains, so most of his clients have irrigation but they’re drip systems, making it difficult to schedule spreading granular fertilizer, given that the grass should be damp before spreading. Since he added installation of fertigation systems to his lawn maintenance business, he doesn’t offer granular fertilization.

With fertigation, the plant is fed each time it’s watered, receiving necessary nutrients to last between waterings. This leads to a healthier plant, eliminating the lush growth spurts and fading back waiting for the next application of fertilizer.

“Additionally,” says Lips, “fertigation dramatically increases root length and density, enhancing the effectiveness of less-frequent watering.” As water enters the soil, it carries the fertilizer throughout the root zone. Rather than higher concentrations near the surface, the fertilizer disperses deeper into the ground reaching the natural root zone. The roots grow down to the water and nutrients. Over time, less material is used because the root zone is more densely populated, and nutrient efficiency is significantly improved, which reduces waste.

“There are immediate results with flowers; the turf greens up fairly quickly and you’ll see a significant result in trees and shrubs within a year,” says Frech. “I’m pleased with the way the landscapes of my clients with fertigation have developed; its good advertising for my business.”
Another advantage fertigation has over granular is in runoff. According to Brasch, fertigation gets up to ninety percent absorption, where granular fertilizers typically get ten to forty percent absorption.

Tracy Shields, a salesperson for DBC Irrigation Supply in Greeley, Colorado, says it’s an easy, inexpensive upsell to the homeowner, and it helps on the warranty end of plant material. Not only does the homeowner like the concept from the horticultural viewpoint, he also likes the idea of not having to worry about manually feeding his flowers; he either refills or replaces his tank every four to six weeks.

“Before I became a salesperson, I was a contractor,” Shields said. “I didn’t have much trouble selling the systems. It’s a great add-on service for the maintenance contractors; they also sell the refills and route the refill service along with their normal maintenance work.”
Every landscaping job Galindo installs has a fertigation system. They take less than an hour to install, and they eliminate transplant shock. Just covering the warranty period for the plant material pays for itself.

Galindo says it’s like a billboard in a neighborhood — great word of mouth advertising. He’s had ladies tell him their roses bloom longer than ever before, and last longer, even as cut flowers in vases. In new developments, the trees double in size in a year, where others without fertigation take longer to establish.

He suggests that a contractor who is contemplating adding fertigation to his business should try it on his own home first. There are really no downsides to adding this as a sideline to your business. It’s cost effective, the labor savings are significant and you can use your workforce in other areas. The horticultural benefits are evident.

“One of the biggest advantages,” adds Galindo, “is that unlike other sidelines of irrigation and landscaping, you can expand your business without buying any new equipment. The contractor has an open door to the end-user. During the slow season, when there isn’t the pressure, the systems can be sold to existing customers.

“Once you start talking about them, be ready to install them. They aren’t that expensive and the customers love them,” he emphasizes.

Rich Angelo, president and operations manager of Stay Green, Inc., in Canyon Country, California, installs fertigation applications on commercial properties he services. Angelo and Michael Frilot, manager of his Plant Health Care Department, are currently testing fertigation equipment, in an effort to develop their own system on a commercial level that’s the most efficient and cost-effective.

Commercial clients differ from homeowners, yet their landscaping needs are similar. Developers don’t maintain the property after it is built, so they are not willing to invest in fertigation. It takes dollars off their bottom line.

Consequently, fertigation is seldom installed on a commercial job. Angelo and Frilot are trying to change this.

Their intentions are to find injectors that, after installed, will work on a commercial level, are environmentally safe and cost-effective. Then they’ll install them on every job. Golf course units are priced out of range for the commercial application.

“We don’t charge the client when we buy a spreader to put down granular fertilizer, and eventually we won’t charge for the fertigator equipment,” says Angelo. “It will be built into the initial package as overhead. The amount saved on the warranty on plant material, and the labor saved spreading fertilizer has the equipment paying for itself.”

Basch says, “We only have one world; it’s so important for the green industry to become environmentally friendly. In addition to all its other benefits, fertigation is a way to do this by reducing fertilizer bulk and runoff.”

“It’s difficult to break from what you’ve always done; it’s ingrained,” Lips added. But technological ad-vancements occur. The successful company leads the way, causing all others to try to play catch up. Fertigation isn’t a new idea; it’s been tested and proven true. Perhaps it’s time you picked up the ball.

February 2002