Top: Bare ground. Left: Hydroseeded turf area. Above: The finshed product after just three weeks.

In 1986, Carol Davis was hired to be an accountant for a landscaping/hydroseeding firm. After transitions within the company, she found herself in the role of general manager and ultimately, 50 percent owner. When the company dissolved, Davis carried her savvy forward to form Briar Group, a firm that handles numerous residential and commercial landscape hydroseeding projects, in Federal Way, Washington.

Davis? customer base provides a vivid illustration of the wide range in hydroseeding demand in today?s marketplace, from the minimum 1000-square-foot residential properties that she serves to the 145-acre Microsoft campus in Issaquah, Washington. Regardless of whether or not landowners understand hydroseeding, they?ve come to recognize it as a reliable, cost-effective solution for growing healthy turf.

An old saying among business owners is, ?Good work, fast work, cheap work: choose any two.? In the case of hydroseeding, though, it seems that the customer can get the whole package. The growth conditions resulting from hydroseeding mean a quality product. The all-in-one-shot allows the job to be completed more quickly. The time saved by planting in this manner results in less overhead for the contractor, and these savings can be passed on to the customer.

Essentially, the practice of hydroseeding involves mixing a slurry of seed, mulch, lime and other amendments into a large tank, and then spraying this concoction onto a prepared soil surface. Spraying at a rate of 46 lbs per 1000 square feet will mean grass germination in one to two weeks in most situations, according to the Hydro Turf Planters Association (HTPA), and for those willing to wait those few weeks, the economics can be quite attractive.

Time is of the essence
Why should you, as a landscape contractor, look closely at hydroseeding? One of the most attractive benefits ? from both the company?s and the customer?s standpoints ? is the time saved, as fewer employees are able to accomplish more in a shorter span of hours. At the same time, the soil/seed conditions that result from hydroseeding are closer to perfection than is normally the case with manual seeding. So, chances are pretty good that the job will be done right the first time.

Says Tim Brinkman, president of Advanced Hydroseeding & Sprinkler in Fargo, North Dakota, ?Most people who try drill seeding or broadcast seeding find that they will have no grass growing where gutters empty from buildings or anywhere else that water may run. Wind will also blow the seed away and birds really enjoy a good drill-seeded or broadcasted lawn (free meal). The other big bonus is that fertilizer, seed and mulch can be applied in one pass which greatly reduces labor cost.?

A modest amount of experience can extend this margin even further. Davis, for example, says her hydroseeding crew can install a 1000-square-foot lawn in about 15 minutes, so the company is able to schedule several of these projects on the same day.

?Hydroseeding,? says Sabrina Beretta, owner of Jobrina?s Hydroseeding in Port Orchard, Washington, ?is the best way to establish grass or other vegetation because of the environment created by the wood mulch in the hydroseeding mixture. It allows the seeds to stay moist and warm, yet still get air for a perfect germination climate. The cost of hydroseeding is less than half that of sod, and you get more than twice the germination by hydroseeding as opposed to hand-seeding.?

Also, seed depth is ideal in a hydroseeded landscape, says Joe Carpenter, Sr., of Superior Seeding in Gastonia, North Carolina. The splash effect of the process embeds seeds a bit deeper into the soil than is the case with broadcast seeding, and gives good conditions for germination.

Easing access issues
?In my business,? says Carpen-ter, ?I couldn?t do without the hydroseeder. We seed so many slope areas that are inaccessible with traditional equipment.? In terms of these areas that are so difficult to reach with other methods, hydroseeding makes life a bit easier.

Banks along waterways or highways and sites in hilly terrain can be obvious challenges, plus there?s the added burden of seed lost to runoff. The high-pressured nature of hydroseeding can minimize this obstacle, since the contractor is able to park at the top or bottom of a slope and seed it effectively.

?With steep slopes, the majority of them are not so long that you can?t reach them from the bottom, using the gun and spraying up the hillside,? explains Bob Jones, sales manager with Bowie Industries in Texas. ?Sometimes, this is not the case. Some slopes are longer, and consequently, you have to run hoses up the hill and try to pump uphill... Having access to the top of a slope is by far an advantage, but that?s not always possible.?

Jones estimates that some hydroseeders can spray 200 to 250 feet up a slope from the gun, and he says it isn?t unheard of to pump slurry 400 to 500 feet uphill by running hoses.
To address the problem of seeds lost to wind or water erosion on these sloped lands, the contractor can keep his work in place by adding a tackifier to the mix. ?The tackifier,? says Brinkman, ?bonds the hydroseeded slurry to the ground. It?s kind of like a glue. It makes the slurry stick, and it prevents erosion of the seed, as well as of the dirt itself.?

Seed choices can also make a difference when faced with erosion pressures, and with hydroseeding, the contractor has numerous options. ?The benefit for our customers in using hydroseeding is the low cost as compared to sod, and the ability to let the customer choose an almost unlimited variety of seed mixes,? Beretta says. ?We do spray a lot of the standard Northwest lawn mix, but we also offer a shade mix, turf-type fescue mix, wildflower mixes and erosion control seed mixes.? Thus, the savvy contractor is able to make species decisions based on the site?s susceptibility to erosion, shade or other influences.

Enlisting a hydroseeding component
No matter if you?re looking at the purchase of a hydroseeding unit yourself or thinking instead of entering a contractual agreement with an experienced hydroseeding company, there are certain things you?ll want to keep in mind, not the least of which is the capacity of the unit you?ll be utilizing in a specific situation. Equipment size will be largely dependent upon water supplies and the average size of property on which you?ll be working.

Carpenter currently uses two 1700-gallon Finn hydroseeders, but explains that, had he been based in another part of the country, he would most likely have opted for larger capacity units. In his region, though, water is readily available via streams or other sources, so he didn?t see a need for 3000-gallon machines.

Some companies that rely totally upon large governmental clients view smaller, residential jobs as cost-prohibitive, but with efficient scheduling, these too can pay off. Davis, who has a company policy of ?There?s no job too little or too big,? says, ?When we do a 1000-square-foot lawn or a 5000-square-foot lawn, we do those in succession. Monday, we did nine of them. We just fill our tank, and go to one area, then on to another area and another area. . . . So, we?re in and out, and we?re on to the next job.?

Beyond size, equipment is classified by the method of agitation that it uses. With jet-agitated machines, jacuzzi-like streams of water are what breaks up the materials, and because such units have fewer maintenance and mechanical requirements, they?re usually preferred by the contractor on a tight budget or those handling occasional and small projects. However, some professionals dislike the inconsistency of the jet-agitated mix, which, says Brinkman, can sometimes result in clogged hoses.

Mechanical agitation hydroseeders, by contrast, utilize a ?beater? that breaks apart anything that?s tossed in, and, says Jones, these allow the contractor to work with denser slurries. According to Brinkman, the jet agitation units limit mulching options to paper alone, while mechanical agitation allows a percentage of wood mulch as well. Mechanical agitation machines can be subdivided according to the type of beater, allowing the buyer to opt for either chain-driven or hydraulic models.

Mulch ratios should be determined according to the climatic conditions in which you?re working, and the contractor?s expertise will certainly be useful in making this judgment. ?You?ll find out with hydroseeding that your success depends on using proper amounts of mulch to hold water and keep the seed hydrated and protected,? says Brinkman. Nine times out of ten, warmer and drier weather means more mulch goes into the slurry.

Another element that comes into play in the success of any hydroseeding project is soil preparation. Obviously, seed will be more apt to germinate when the site has been adequately graded, tilled and drained. As Jones says, ?The better the soil preparation, the better the stand of grass you?re going to get and the better overall turf you?re going to have.?

And, of course, there will be those times when sod is a better option. Weeds, for instance, are more of an issue when hydroseeding is the route of choice. Simply stated, loose soil and fertilizer are almost always going to encourage the livelihood of undesirables, and until the chosen grass can get enough of a head start to outcompete the weeds, the contractor or homeowner will have to mow the natural regenerators down. If the client is either unable or unwilling to deal with weeds while the grass is becoming established, sod may be a better way to go.

Hydroseeding is not the only way to establish a lawn, nor is it intended to be. What it is, however, is an attractive seeding option that falls between sod and broadcast seeding in terms of cost, and having access to this technique has the potential to bring the contractor into an entirely new clientele bracket.

?I have always offered hydro-seeding, because it?s something that people in our area recognize as a quality alternative to sod and drill seeding,? says Brinkman. ?Most people don?t really know what hydroseeding is, but they?ve heard of it and know that it?s a good way to plant a new lawn. Most people think it?s a new thing, but it?s been around a long time. Improvements in mulch and tackifier have really made it a great way to get ?the quality of sod at the cost of seed,? and that is guaranteed by my company.?

If something could mean more business and less work for your company, wouldn?t you want to learn as much as possible? By many accounts, hydroseeding fits perfectly into that category.

July 2002