Everyone from home site builders and contractors to the golf course owner wants nice-looking turf, and they want it yesterday. Sod is not in their budget, so what is the quickest way to go from barely there topsoil to a healthy and beautiful-looking lawn?

Hydroseeding is the process where seed, fertilizer, mulch, and water are mixed together to form a slurry mixture that is sprayed, under pressure, onto topsoil, transforming the dirt into a grassy lawn, a play park, or ball field in seven to 14 days.

Other ingredients can be added to the primary formula, including hormones, water absorbent gels, lime for pH balance, growth stimulants, synthetic fibers, enzymes, sprigs, sod, pre-germinated seed and a tackifier (bonding agent). A host of new products appear annually on manufacturers? shelves.

?The rapid growth in residential and commercial building and the interstate highway system precipitated the practice of hydroseeding as a faster way to grow grass,? according to Sean Gassman, president, Fairway Greens Landscape Services, Garland, Texas, and president of the Hydro Turf Planters Association. ?The benefits of hydroseeding are: quick coverage, no layering of soil (as when sod is laid), erosion control, lower installation costs, resulting in lower customer cost, and no weed seed introduced into the lawn. Most hydroseeded lawns are healthier and greener than sod for the first year or two.?

The mantra of the hydroseeder should be ?fit the machine to the job.? Contractors whose main business is not hydroseeding but who want to offer full-service to their customers normally use the smaller machines. On the other end you have the big boys of hydroseeding, weighing in at 3,000 gallon machines used by contractors who serve cities, cemeteries, and land reclamation projects.

There are a number of manufacturers of hydroseeding equipment. What differentiates the competition is the form of agitation used to spray the slurry mixture. The jet agitation machines use jet-propelled water bursts to mix the slurry substance. The mechanical agitation machines are equipped with paddles that break up the materials.

The big-three companies that make paddle agitation machines are the Finn Corporation with its trademarked Hydroseeder, Bowie Industries with its Hydromulcher, and Reinco with the Hydrograsser and power mulchers.
With today?s technology, small and large areas of ground can quickly and effectively be seeded with hydroseeding, including difficult to reach sloping highway sidings and landfill areas that are particularly susceptible to erosion.

Gassman says, ?This is my eleventh season and I am still finding new ways to do things. We started out as hydro planting contractors but with the limited season in Texas, we soon started offering additional services. Today, hydroseeding is 45 percent of our business, but in the growing season, it?s about 60 percent.?

Although hydroseeding equipment is available from a number of rental companies throughout the country, Gassman advises against this practice. ?Contractors looking into hydroseeding should instead seek out a professional hydro-planting contractor, and not rent the equipment,? cautioned Gassman. ?There is more to hydroseeding than just the equipment. A contractor, who rents the equipment without the knowledge, may be saving some money at first, but when problems arise, that contractor may lose money and end up with a dissatisfied customer.?
In addition to being cautious about renting equipment, Gassman noted, ?In areas with strict erosion control laws, the inexperienced contractor renting the machine may also set himself up for legal troubles. Erosion control should only be undertaken by an experienced contractor.?

Another consideration for contractors is cost of the job. Every job is different and the cost can vary depending on location. ?With wood mulches applied at 2,000 pounds per acre with a tackifier, your materials alone are over $0.02 per foot, without accounting for labor, gas, wear and tear of equipment and overhead,? commented Gassman. ?Contractors often forget the actual cost of doing the job, and instead tend to look just at the cost of materials, which has been a problem in the hydroseeding field for years.?

Gassman says that when contractors reduce their application rates to less than 1,000 pounds of mulch per acre to reduce material costs, it can actually cost them more in the long run, due to re-sprays, upset customers, and the increased chances of failure to produce a viable end product, grass.

?If you?re spraying a flat area with good soil and drainage, then the application rates may be low, but I?ve never seen this type of job,? says Gassman. ?Mulch rates should almost never be applied below 2,000 pounds per acre, and are often applied at 3,000 pounds per acre, by experienced and quality conscious contractors.?

?Erosion control is the most prevalent reason for using hydroseeding,? says Chuck Austin, president, Great Circle International, LLC, Hygiene, Colorado. ?Hydro-seeding holds moisture and protects against erosion from wind, rain, sun and the loss of seed to birds.?

?Soil preparation is an extremely important step to good results from hydroseeding. Good soil makes the grass grow better,? added Austin. ?Hydroseeding is another form of farming, and a farmer would never plant his crops in a compacted and nutrient-deficient environment and expect to succeed at crop production. It?s no different with hydroseeding.?

Lamentably, there are no courses to sign up for, or schools to attend to learn the fine art of hydroseeding. ?The only school provided is the school of hard knocks,? says Austin. ?Or the knowledge of experienced contractors passed along to new contractors.?

According to Austin, hydroseeding is more popular in areas of the country with plenty of moisture or rainfall from natural sources. ?It?s becoming more popular even in our arid mountain states and the desert southwest.?

The economic benefits of hydroseeding topsoil, ?depends on the product used and the difficulty of installation,? says Jay Michels, Minnesota Erosion Control Association, Lake Elmo, Minnesota. ?It?s about $0.65 to over $2.00 a square yard. You can get into the business of hydroseeding for about $15,000 but can spend up to $200,000 for the equipment.?

According to Michels, there are any number of different mulches on the market today. ?The mulch starts out with recycled newspaper, which works fine for flat residential installations. One step up is a combination of recycled paper and wood fiber, usually a 50/50 blend or 70 percent wood fiber and 30 percent paper. This is not appropriate for erosion control. The next step is 100 percent wood fiber mulch, which is the lower level of erosion control. The top of the line mulch is the bonded fiber matrix, with longer strand wood fiber mixed with proprietary bonding agents. This is the best hydroseeding product on the market for erosion control.?

?The major benefit of hydroseeding is simply manpower,? says Michels. ?Three men can do what it would take six workers to accomplish in the same amount of time using erosion blankets or sod.?

Finn Corporation, a pioneer in the hydroseeding process, makes a machine for every application, job size, and range, offering seven models of the Hydroseeder. The larger machines accommodate large mine reclamation projects, highways, golf courses and commercial sites, while the smaller machines are a good choice for ball fields, condominiums, homes, and parks.

?Our machines start at $8,000 and are the mainstay of the company,? says John Imm, sales manager, Finn Corporation, Fairfield, Ohio. ?With every machine we sell, we include a start-up training course for the operator that covers the function of the machine, the application of the slurry and the mulch mix.?

?In addition, we supply an additive line and soil treatment/seed starter that helps free microbial bonding. Hydroseeding is part art and part science. The art is the application,? says Imm.

It is imperative that the soil be prepared ahead of time. ?Every time the ground is opened up, it is subject to erosion,? added Imm. ?Soil preparation, as well as application of a thick hydromulch slurry, are two vital elements to preventing erosion and ensuring successful turf establishment.?

Regarding seed germination, Bob Jones, sales manager, Bowie Industries, Inc., Bowie, Texas, says that when an area is hydroseeded the seed stays in place, insulated from extreme temperatures, and the mulch retains the moisture longer at the point of germination.

?We have 300 to 3,000 gallon hydroseeding machines to fit specific applications,? says Jones. ?There is a machine size and design to fit every contractor?s requirements. The machines we sell run from $8,000 to $50,000 depending on how you have them equipped, the size and the options.?

Along with the purchase of a hydroseeding machine, Bowie includes an instruction manual and a one-day orientation that covers maintenance and application techniques. ?We are just one of the old-line manufacturers, one of the big three. This industry is still growing, and we want to continue to be a part of it.?

?We opted to make jet agitation machines because they?re easier to maintain and operate,? says Bob Lisle, president of Easy Lawn, Inc., Bridgeville, Delaware. ?What makes our machine different is higher pump pressure, which gives more agitation to the tank. Our machines range in price up to $30,000, based on size and performance. We expect to add a larger unit in the Spring of 2002.?

According to Lisle, one man can seed one to one-and-a-half acres per day with a small hydroseeding machine. ?Our machines are designed to be very accurate with spray and we can hold our spray pattern within one inch. Hydro-seeding is the most efficient way to plant grass and the least expensive.?

?Having a water source is a very critical part of the hydroseeding process, because water is the medium that conveys the seed onto the ground,? added Lisle. ?Water is one of the factors we use to determine what size machine a customer should purchase. If water is readily available from lakes, fire hydrants, streams or ponds, then water will not be a problem and the contractor can use a smaller hydroseeding unit. When water is not so readily available, then we suggest purchasing a larger tank.?

Lisle says it takes roughly 75 gallons of water to hydroseed a 1,000-square-foot area. Hauling water any distance costs time and money, and it is ultimately cheaper to have water brought to the seeding site. ?Hydro-seeding is the most efficient way to plant grass. It?s also less expensive than conventional seeding.?

?I firmly believe that with the increased demand on labor and labor costs, hydroseeding is the wave of the future,? says Michels.

August 2001