Power Water is a vitamin-fortified, pastel-colored container of H20 that is shiny packaged, and name-branded. Equally as important, it is beginning to catch the consumer’s eye. Without the glitz and high powered Madison Avenue advertising, liquid fertilizer, like Power Water is available to irrigated plants, but without the artificial flavor.

Putting nutrients into the drinking water of plants is called fertigation. It’s a process of automatically fertilizing the landscape through irrigation.

Widespread in agriculture for many years, fertigation is only recently gaining traction in the residential and commercial landscape arena. And while power water products haven’t really caught on yet as a means for people to get their daily vitamins, fertigation’s benefits for the landscape are starting to be realized by more landscape contractors and homeowners as well.

The old method of fertilization applied large amounts of dry fertilizer in a time-released form to an area, leaving the chemicals on the soil to be activated by water. This newer method involves a liquid application in micro-doses, applied on a regular schedule.

Fertigation should appeal to landscape contractors, especially if they are already providing turf care –on a regular basis. If you have a customer on your route, after installing a fertigation system, service is often as simple as replacing a cartridge or refilling a tank on schedule. It also lowers the cost of fertilizing a property.

As an add-on service, fertigation doesn’t require a huge capital outlay. A basic unit costs little, but “The numbers we run show that the costs are offset in a few months,” says Dan Gilmore, chairman of EZ-Flo in Loomis, California.

Photo courtesy: FertiGator

If you’re contemplating adding a fertigation service to your maintenance business, here are a couple of positive things to think about. It saves labor, and is safer than having a crew handling mass amounts of chemicals on the jobsite. Also, the mechanically-regulated dispersal of chemicals is controlled, allowing the job cost estimates to be forecast more precisely.
By removing the human element from the physical act of applying treatments, there is little human error to overcome, reducing incidents of misapplication and damage to the landscape, or runoff of excessive chemicals.

It seems that fertigation seeps between the cracks of maintenance and installation jobs, but it really works for both. For the “one-and-done” installation business owners, they can gain recurring revenue from a client they already have; and for maintenance providers, they can add a service that increases their work efficiency and the landscapes’ performance … all by pumping up the water with nutrients.

“The whole green industry is now geared toward using water more efficiently. Fertigation makes the water more efficient,” says Craig Lashmet, CEO of FertiGator Technologies of St. Charles, Missouri. Plants need less water if the water they have is better for them, he says. “Users report a 30-50% overall reduction in water use,” notes Lashmet. “That’s a phenomenal savings.” Especially in regions where there already are water restrictions.

Enriching plants’ water makes sense to Tom Strong of Strong Enterprises, a fertigation system-maker in Roseville, California. “Plants are similar to people. We can survive on water alone, but we won’t thrive,” he says.

Photo courtesy: EZ Flo

“With fertigation, nutrients are delivered in small amounts continually,” says Gilmore, “as opposed to dry fertilizer which comes in a big batch, all at once.” That slow and steady uptake builds a stronger root base, making the plants better water absorbers and users.” Thriving plants require less care and fewer chemical applications.

The landscape contractor applies fewer chemicals because the plant gets what it needs steadily, rather than all at once from chemicals sitting on the soil waiting to be either eventually taken up into the plant’s system, or washed away in the next pounding rain.

That dry fertilizer compound must steep in some water before its nutrients can percolate into the soil. With time-released fertilizer compounds, if rain hits harder than the landscape’s sprinkler settings, the fertilizer washes away before its long-term benefits are maximized. “The rest runs off into streets and gutters, and then lakes and streams, and no one wants that,” Lashmet said.

Not only does fertigation make water better for plants, but some mixtures make soil better for water. Wetting agents make soil more absorbent and bio-stimulants make soil a better nutrient delivery system for plants. Compare that to the traditional method of fertilizing and its possible negative effects, says Strong. “Continuous use of dry fertilizer creates a mineral buildup on the surface of the soil, and in some cases that can burn grasses. With fertigation, we find 90% of the nutrient gets into the plant,” Lashmet adds. “Traditionally, 30-40% of the nutrient gets into the plant with the dry fertilizer method.”

On the other hand, prolonged application of fertigation’s turbo-charged water can save plants. You have the ability to formulate specialized additives to the fertilizer. “In greenhouses, they’re adding a shot of vitamin B1 into the injectors to prevent shock,” Strong says. In addition, the nutrients getting to the plants can be adjusted; you can add micro nutrients and a myriad of other products.

“With drip irrigation and fertigation,” explains Strong, “if you cut back on nutrients and on water, you can control the growth of your plant.” A lusher lawn means thicker thatch, more trimmings for mulch or waste. Adept fertigation adjustments allow a turf care expert to control the pace of de-thatching intervals, and the amount of trimmings maintenance crews are dumping.

Photo courtesy: FertiGator

One season’s over-abundance of fertilizers could be obvious to regular maintenance personnel at the de-thatching stage, allowing some fine-tuning for the next season. Also, Lashmet says, the increased biotic activity in the soil will break down thatch better and faster, neutralizing that increase. Landscape contractors maintaining a property over time are in a unique position to make those kinds of adjustments.

More than plant food is being delivered via irrigation. Liquid application of gypsum can help with salt buildup, Strong says. EZ-Flo offers an organic animal repellent called Critter Control. The organic formula is used to drive away gophers, moles, deer, rabbits, mice, rats and other plant-eating pests. Fertigator provides a natural plant-based irritant as a pest deterrent in its all-inclusive Mojo mixture, which also deals with pestering mosquitoes and ants. “We’re finding some cases where people have more need for pest repellent than fertilizers,” notes Gilmore. “It’s a food-grade organic chemical that has a smell that animal pests don’t like.”

Lashmet says it sells neighbor by neighbor in Florida where fire ants are a problem. It doesn’t kill them as much as push them next door, he says. “Then the neighbor asks what happened. When they find out, they want the service.”

For someone selling services to keep ants away, it can be a real business advantage to have fire ants going down the block, demonstrating the problem fire ants can be. Of course, organized crime operates protection rackets the same way; but unless the government starts wielding racketeering charges for pest control or passing laws preventing insect run-off, landscape contractors can safely offer a fertigation system and service contract.

Fertigation systems are simply a new technology to improve the traditional service of landscape fertilization. Combined with a good low-flow watering system, plants get the optimum combination of nutrients and water, in an easy-to-maintain, efficient system, resulting in a healthy and green landscape.

And while it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, we can all use a bit of help from time to time, perhaps served up as a power water cocktail.