March 1 2001 12:00 AM

If a potential customer calls, in need of a quick-greening turf at the lowest possible price, what would you tell her?

What if she wanted a full stand of grass in about six weeks (or less), with minimal weeds and maintenance? If you were one of the growing numbers of landscape contractors that has caught onto one of the industry?s hottest trends, you?d tell her about hydro turf planting.
Although hydroseeding or hydromulching equipment has been around for quite a few years, a whole new discipline is growing up around it. Starting slowly as part of the erosion control industry, hydro turf planting now seems to be on a fast track. Usually done by a landscape contractor who specializes in quality turf seeding, planting seed by the hydro method requires
a special piece of equipment. Depending on the manufacturer, it is called either a hydroseeder or hydromulcher.

About two years ago, a few landscape contractors who specialize in hydro turf planting formed the Hydro Turf Planters Association (HTPA). The mission of this new association is to help educate those contractors who are interested in developing this segment of their business.
?As confidence grows with the general public, more people are using hydromulching,? says Glenn Young, first vice president of HTPA.

The terms ?hydromulching? and ?hydroseeding? are often interchanged, but, as Kenny Kay, owner of Longview, Texas-based Custom Erosion Control and Hydroseeding, and vice president of technology for the HTPA, notes: ?Hydroseeding (more seed and less mulch) and hydromulching (less seed and more mulch) are very closely related and require the contractor to have the knowledge to perform each process when needed.?

This knowledge, combined with ever-improving equipment, is allowing many to enter the hydroseeding service niche. ?Today, with new seed and additives, and improved machinery, the contractor has an arsenal of weapons with which to re-vegetate,? says Sean Gassman, president of Garland, Texas-based Fairway Greens and the HTPA.

Compared to other forms of establishing turf, such as hand seeding, hydroseeding is an easy sell, based on convenient maintenance and upkeep for the homeowner, according to Kay. ?Hand-seeding requires time, persistence, hard work and more than likely continual re-seeding.?

Young agrees, noting that with hydroseeding there is even seed distribution in ?just the right spot for germination,? whereas hand-seeding is often subject to washing out, piling up in low places in the soil, and ending up either on top of the soil or planted too deep, without hope of ever germinating.

Sodding, on the other hand, is seen by some as the Cadillac of all turf installations. Although it?s true that sodding is the fastest way to have established grass, according to Kay, it?s also the most expensive. And given a little bit more time, ?When preparation, cultivation and maintenance are properly performed, you?ll enjoy a lush, thick and green lawn as if it were farm-grown sod for about a third of the cost of mature grass,? says Kay.

Young says that the larger the turf area, the more money saved. He recalls hydroseeding for wealthy customers in the past, saving one person $40,000 over sodding his large yard.
Even without the obvious cost consideration, there are other benefits of hydroseeding versus sodding, found under the surface. Gassman explains that hydroseeding produces better turf due to the layering of soils that?s usually associated with sodding. ?If the sod has a different soil type than the property, you?ll be layering your soils, which causes watering and fertilizing problems. A lawn without layered soils will saturate almost immediately, thus reducing watering time and the possibility of water waste.?

Also, if buying sod from a different region, it may take a considerable amount of time for it to recover from the stress of climate change of its new location.

Another way a contractor can pass along the savings is by labor reduction.

?You can put all your ingredients together; therefore, you don?t have to make numerous trips over the site,? says Shirley Morrow, a consultant with Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City, Missouri, and president of the Great Rivers U.S. chapter of the International Erosion Control Association. ?[Hand-seeding] takes three different applications; whereas with hydromulch you can do it as one application.?

The slurry mixture consists primarily of grass seed, fiber mulch, fertilizer, water, and a binding agent, or tackifier. The tackifier not only binds the other ingredients together in the holding tank, it allows the slurry to ?stick? to the soil when applied. The result is ?an ideal micro-environment for germinating seed,? says Rick Hardy, owner of Nature?s Way Hydroseeding in Phoenix, Arizona, who specializes in residential lawns and averages two to five jobs daily during his busy season. ?Hydromulch insulates the seed and holds it in close proximity to the soil. It holds 10 to 15 times its weight in water to help keep the right amount of moisture around the seed.?

Another plus in using tackifier is the cast-like consistency it forms once applied.

?Hydromulching stays where you put it,? says Hardy. ?It dries to a tough, chunky cardboard-like crust that keeps the birds from eating the seed and prevents it from washing away or blowing away.?

How likely is it that homeowners will be satisfied with a hydroseeded turf? Some contractors, like Joe Sullivan, manager of Jobrina?s Hydroseeding in Anchorage, Alaska, are confident enough to offer a guarantee of a full stand of grass in 30 days. Sullivan says that his company stays busy all season long, ?and all we do is hydroseeding.?

Hardy promises his customers that their lawn will be more deeply rooted and healthier than their neighbor?s sodded lawn 12 weeks after it?s hydroseeded. And that?s achieved with less preparation, less money and even less water.

?Hydroseeding expands the normal realm of services that you can draw from,? says Larry Dickinson, owner of Dickinson Lawn Seeding in San Antonio, Texas. ?You can offer an alternative that?s not as expensive as other turf applications, and you can offer various types of turf that maybe you couldn?t offer before.?

For Sullivan, an enduring stand of turf depends mostly on the type of grass seed used, as well as the soil preparation. For best results, Kay suggests learning as much as possible about the type of soil you?re planting in, and lists the following five steps to perfect preparation:

1 All areas should be stripped of excess grass and weeds with a sod remover or spade shovel.
2 An herbicide should then be used to kill existing weeds and prior grasses.
3 In one week, the soil should be roto-tilled to relieve compaction.
4 Run a pH test to determine if the soil needs to be balanced.
5 Finally, re-grade with screened loam and any soil amendments.

Kay also advises learning about the different applications for different slurry mixtures. ?In today?s hydroseeding industry there are over 900 varieties [of slurry ingredients], which when blended together can produce turf for varying site conditions.? At his company, various amounts of virgin wood fiber, fertilizer, tackifier, and a special ingredient that aids in early establishment and germination is used.

But there?s more to it than just pointing and spraying, insists Gassman. He believes education holds the key to successful hydroseeding, and it starts with the slurry.
?The hydromulch mixture is the most difficult part of the process to master,? says Gassman. ?Many machine manufacturers will sell a machine, show the buyer how to fill it up, how to operate the machine, and then turn him loose. For contractors entering the market, the biggest investment is in education.?

However, acquiring such knowledge won?t happen overnight, according to Hardy. ?At the end of my first year I thought I knew everything I needed to know about hydroseeding,? says Hardy. ?By the end of my second year I realized I was just fooling myself. After almost a decade I still have an awful lot to learn. It took years to learn how to adjust the ratio of seed, mulch, water and other additives to give my customers a sod-quality lawn.?

With growing awareness of this service, more contractors are filling up the sprayer tanks and lifting the spray nozzles. However, a word of caution: don?t skimp on the material you put down. There?s a good profit margin to begin with. There are always a few in the bunch who try to squeeze additional profits from a job. It?s easy to do in hydroseeding, just cut down the mix. Of course, the job will look it, and there lies the problem. Consequently, hydroseeding gets a black eye.

?One thing I?ve seen is too light of an application,? observes Morrow. ?To me it ?shatters out? and you don?t get the percent coverage. It?s supposed to be a blanket, but there are very few times I?ve seen hydromulching as an actual blanket. There can be a number of reasons: it?s being applied on too windy a day; you may not have a good mix; or the person applying it isn?t qualified to do so.?

This last reason is what Gassman believes threatens this industry. He notes that some contractors don?t adhere to specifications, they utilize inferior products, ?and thus the end result is oftentimes not what the customer has paid for.? The quality aspects of hydroseeding are compromised.

Probably the toughest decision you?ll have to make after you decide to enter this segment of the landscape business is what kind of equipment you should purchase.

When deciding which machine to purchase, understand the jobs you?ll be performing, and the frequency the machine will be used. More and more hydroseeding machines are coming on the market, and the best purchase is an informed purchase?users and manufacturers suggest first trying them out, or at least requesting a demonstration. Quiz the different manufacturers to get a solid understanding of which machines can best handle your intended applications.

Rob Lisle, technical advisor at Bridgeville, Delaware-based Easy Lawn, advises considering the mulch capacity of hydroseeders, and making a purchase decision based on how much mulch a tank can hold, as well as mix time. Ease of use is another important factor.

Whatever your preference, the machine you choose should meet all your requirements. It?s time to offer hydroseeding as one of your premier services. Just remember that only turf that results in many referrals will pay for your investment, and grasping some basic hydro turf planting knowledge is a must before jumping in.

Mar 2001