emember when Mom used to yell at you for gobbling down your food and guzzling your beverage? We heard arguments as kids that this kind of eating and drinking, in addition to not being very attractive, was not a healthy way to live. While the jury may still be out when it comes to people, would you believe that Mom?s advice really does work for plants and turf?

Yep, it?s true. And getting your customer?s landscape to sip its water and nibble its food will make their vegetation happier and stronger, save water, prevent groundwater pollution, and, best of all, put additional money in your pocket.

So, how do you go about putting your lawns on a diet? The buzz-word is fertigation and, though it?s been a popular concept in the agricultural arena for quite some time, the word is taking longer to spread in other landscaping circles.

While there are a variety of fertigation equipment manufacturers, and their technology or methods differ somewhat, the basic idea is that very small amounts of fertilizer are delivered to plants on a continual basis. Ideally, the water given to the turf and plants is decreased as well, so that though you?re fertilizing almost all the time, the amount of food and water is much less than normal.

Actually, the common ideas about feeding a landscape are completely backward, if you look at the discoveries that fertigation experts are making. Ellie Moore, marketing director for Turf Feeding Systems in Houston, Texas, likens the typical approach to a small, skinny kid dreaming of becoming a football linebacker.

?I put eight glasses of water in front of you,? she says, ?and I want you to drink those down all day long, but don?t eat!? Then, to bulk him up properly, you feed him one huge meal every couple of months.

Even sillier is how we tend to react to seeing our lawns doing poorly in the middle of summer. ?People have this tendency,? Moore continues, ?when they see their turf just start falling off, and it looks brown and wilted, they say, ?Hurry! Turn the water up.??

Fertigation studies have shown the error of our ways. Daily feeding, even in the miniscule amounts provided during fertigation, causes plants to become more resilient and resistant to pests and disease. They have stronger roots, more buds, and richer colors.

Of course, even with this knowledge, a homeowner or landscape professional would find it impractical to apply it. Michael Chaplinsky, owner of Turf Feeding Systems, points out that spoon-feeding your turf or your landscape on a daily basis is just not economical from a time or money perspective. Whether you try to do it yourself or hire a chemical lawn care company, the approach turns out to be more like an athlete on anabolic steroids.

?Generally, the way fertilizing is done is to throw a ton of fertilizer down on a landscape,? says Chaplinsky, ?whether it?s granular fertilizer or spraying it all at once. It grows really fast?artificially fast ? for the first few weeks after you fertilize. This is the traditional way of fertilizing. So, then you come back every other month and spray again, and it restarts that process . . . you get highs and lows.?

Different mousetraps

To address this problem and provide food in the tiny, continual, doses that are necessary for an optimal feeding schedule, fertigation manufacturers have developed equipment that can be installed right into the irrigation system. On commercial properties, many of these units can tie into the irrigation controller. But there has also been a major push for residential fertigation units, which are attached to the water spigot coming out of the house.

While the philosophy and goals of fertigation are consistent among these manufacturers, the approach and design of the units differ from company to company.

Turf Feeding Systems has been in the fertigation game the longest (1986) and has built a strong reputation, especially in the golf course market. In addition to several models for that market segment, the company has made strides in the commercial landscape, sports turf and residential markets. While their current residential offerings are geared only for homes that have irrigation systems installed, they have a new product for the home market currently in development.

Chaplinsky, the founder, is a big believer in durability, and much of the company?s offerings differ from the rest of the industry in the use of stainless steel parts. The sites that the products are designed for can be pretty heavy-duty as well. The golf course models can inject nutrients from up to three different nutrient tanks to sites that span more than 200 acres. The systems also allow you to tweak the nutrient ratios to achieve optimum results.

Another company that offers an injector model is FertiGator Inc., located in St. Louis, Missouri. Dave Cross, the company?s president, and his partner, Tom Fouch, bought the company last year, after having been in the chemical lawn care industry themselves. They have two models of FertiGator ? the FertiPro, designed for the commercial and residential markets, and the simpler version ? the FertiFlo.

FertiGator designed the FertiPro to give users the capability to easily program their controller for up to eight different zones. With these zones, you can designate just how much fertilizer is being sent to a particular area of the landscape. That allows for extra fertilization where it is needed. ?In some areas,? says Cross, ?you don?t want any fertilizer, because it?s growing too fast, or it?s a steep hill and you don?t want to have to mow very often . . . we can turn that zone off for the fertigator, so it will water without fertilizer.?

EZ-Flo, Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, takes a different approach to their fertigation equipment, touting a unit with no moving parts. The units, which are sold in various sizes, can accommodate very, very low water pressures that are prevalent in many residential environments, according to the company?s chief operations officer, Tom Patton. And the further you move from a house, maintains Patton, the further the pressure drops.

EZ-Flo products aim at getting a precise mix of fertilizer into the water, even at the low pressures, ?so you don?t burn the plant material by over-fertilizing it or starve it by under-nourishing it,? says Patton. What the system does is ?bypass a little water from the intake, dropping on the tank top, and forces the liquid fertilizer at the bottom of the tank to flow out in the same proportion that it comes in. It operates off the static pressure of the line.?

So, what?s on the menu?

Once you determine the best delivery source for your customer?s fertigation, there is the fertilizer itself to think about. Most manufacturers of fertigation systems have their own blends of fertilizers, most of which are in liquid form. However, while you might be gauging the type of fertilizer to the plants or turf you will be addressing, the real determining factor is the soil, according to these experts.

Turf Feeding Systems has developed six varieties of its own organic blends. Moore says you will need one high in nitrogen if you need to ?correct? a soil, while a good soil would have a more balanced (between nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) blend. Turf Feeding Systems and other companies also sell early season, mid-summer, and late summer blends.

If you would rather choose your own fertilizer, Patton says that EZ-Flo is rather ?agnostic? on fertilizer. Although his company does market fertilizer blends for their units, theirs are some of the only products that will accommodate the use of other fertilizers ? even granular. ?The exception,? he says, ?to using your own is that there are some fertilizers that have salts that can clog sprinkler heads. Some are acidic and can eat away at metal.?

Macro-dollars from micro-feeding

Landscape and irrigation professionals who want to break into the fertigation arena can certainly create additional income by selling and installing the fertigation devices. All industry experts agree that, because the process achieves such astounding results ? and saves water, effort and money, as well ? the idea is going to catch on fast once consumers are educated about it.

However, Cross maintains that the real income potential is the ongoing service business. ?The best revenue for the contractor,? he says, ?will come from providing fertilizer to those consumers on an annual or repeating basis. You become their delivery service for providing and refilling the container, if need be. That is what most mimics what the chemical lawn care does, and why they are the most profitable segment of the green industry.?

Lawn care companies, Cross says, ?get many customers who are geographically close, and build a route-based business, where they provide a repetitive service to the homeowner.? Fertigation allows you to ?build the kind of business that competes with the traditional lawn care company.?

March 2004