An Alternative for Quality Turf...

Most landscape contractors are familiar with the technique, whether they offer the service to their customers or not. But before a contractor branches out into this lucrative sideline of landscaping, he should be knowledgeable about the difference between using this technique for erosion control or to create a sod-quality lawn. Why? If the contractor is well-informed, he can then convince the homeowner that for a fraction of the cost of sod, he can have a good quality lawn within four to six weeks.

To the average homeowner, the mention of hydroseeding or hydromulching brings visions of large highway department trucks spraying green stuff along the roadways for erosion control. This type of hydroseeding usually has about a 75% germination rate. But to produce a quality lawn, the germination rate must be higher. This procedure, in some circles, is referred to as hydromulching. However, these terms are often interchanged. So how does a landscape contractor get around this obstacle when trying to sell hydroseeding/ hydromulching to a prospective customer, and is it lucrative enough to make it worth the effort?

The answer to the first question is easy: informed salesmanship, maintaining a good reputation, and making a professional presentation with pictures of previous jobs and letters of recommendation from these customers. In answer to the second question, yes, in the majority of cases, it is worth the effort to add this lucrative sideline to your list of services offered.

For the homeowner, hydro-seeding/hydromulching is less expensive than putting down sod, with a savings of up to 50% in some situations. For the contractor, hydroseeding/hydromulching is less labor intensive, requiring less manpower, and the average job can be completed in less than a day. The required watering schedules are almost the same.

Lawns that are hydroseeded/ hydromulched have the advantage of germinating and growing in the native soil. If raked properly prior to spraying, the lawn has a smoother appearance and texture.

Finally, the homeowner is able to receive the exact mixture of grass that he desires when using the hydroseeding/hydromulching method. A reputable contractor will always pay extra to use certified seed that has the least weed content.

The majority of the contractors interviewed use hydroseeding/ hydromulching as part of their landscape design package. However, first they evaluate the landscape they are working with, the budget the homeowner has given them, and the homeowner?s patience factor. Then if, in their professional opinion, hydroseeding/hydromulching is the way to go for this particular homeowner, the contractor will present two proposals, one using sod, and the other using hydroseeding/ hydromulching. The homeowner will, more often than not, choose hydroseeding/hydromulching over sod simply because of the cost factor. Occasionally, a landscape contractor will be hired to hydroseed/hydromulch a lawn that is not part of a landscaping project, or it may be a sub-contracting job for another landscape contractor that does not have equipment. In either case, no matter the size of the job, the contractor will usually set a minimum fee of at least $500. A contractor booking three or four of these jobs a day could certainly justify buying the equipment, and smile all the way to the bank.

The burning question in my mind when interviewing landscape contractors was this: How do you contend with weed control when using the hydroseeding/hydromulching technique, and again, is it worth the effort? Answers varied and were dependent on what part of the country the contractor worked in.

Before hydroseeding/hydromulching became an option in the residential landscaping business, the two choices a homeowner had for a lawn were seed or sod, seed being the less expensive, of course. However, you still had to contend with more weeds from the disturbed soil.

Sod was expensive, but in some cases when the ground beneath was not disturbed, weed control was not a major issue. If the ground was disturbed, the weeds were dealt with prior to laying the sod.

With hydroseeding/hydromulching, weed control is a problem, but for the difference in cost, customers will choose this process.

In some areas of the country, there is a trend to give the homeowner the option of being an active participant in the process. They are given specific instructions on how to prepare the area to be hydroseeded/hydromulched.

The contractor comes in, hydroseeds/hydromulches the yard, again giving the homeowner specific watering and care instructions, and in three to four weeks there is a nice stand of grass. The contractor will then come back, and if everything looks as expected, the homeowner is advised on how to take care of any broadleaf weeds that may have emerged, and the job is complete. If the homeowner prefers, the contractor will take care of all the preparation and fertilization, but the homeowner is still responsible for seeing that his irrigation system is providing the required water for proper seed germination.

Weed control with hydroseeding/hydromulching a lawn seems to be a problem only if the ground is disturbed, but this problem can be dealt with using the same techniques as when seeding. Often, the mulch will smother most weed seeds, and those that do survive will be crowded out by the grass or treated with an herbicide.

There are some contractors who will go a step further to assure that weeds do not become a problem. After the two applications of an herbicide, the ground is rototilled, organic amendments are added, and the area is raked until level and smooth. Fertilizer is applied and the area is watered for two weeks, giving weed seeds a chance to germinate and grow. Another application of herbicides is then applied to the area. These additional steps add more expense to the job, but if it?s in an area of the country where the soil is poor, or an area that began as nothing but weeds, it?s worth it. Many landscape contractors prefer taking these extra steps anyway to ensure 100% success for their customer.

The time it takes to complete a hydroseeding/hydromulching job
is dependent on the size of equipment the contractor has chosen, and the abilities of the operator. Hydroseeding/hydromulching has been described as a form of art similar to that of an airbrush artist. Before an operator can be turned loose on a job, he must be properly trained and practice is required. There are a variety of nozzles from which to choose, and knowledge about flow control is a big factor in the precision of the spray. When hydroseeding/hydromulching an established landscape, care must be exercised to avoid overspray in shrub beds, etc. This is where experience plays a big factor.

Every contractor has his or her own secret recipe for the mixture of "slurry." It?s at this point that you learn the "technical" difference between the terms hydroseeding and hydromulching.

The basic ingredients are water, seed, fertilizer, and mulch. Some add lime and all have a "secret ingredient," usually their choice of a bio-stimulant. There are two types of mulches, one made from recycled paper, the other from shredded wood. Some contractors mix the two types of mulches. However, wood mulch alone cannot be used in all hydroseeding equipment so be aware of what your machinery is capable of. A tackifier is also added.

There is a science to creating the correct mixture to grow a quality lawn. The unfortunate fact is that in the early ?60s and ?70s, when hydroseeding became popular as a less expensive way to have a quality lawn, many contractors who owned the equipment followed the same basic recipe. But then, as competition set in, contractors began to undercut each other. As the bids became more competitive, the quality of the "recipe" went down. Shortcuts were taken that involved decreasing the amount of mulch and seed that was used. The success rate plummeted, as did the confidence of the property owner.

Partially due to this development, today it is up to the contractor to convince the customer that he can create a quality lawn with good coverage using the hydromulching technique at a lesser price than it would cost to lay sod. The secret to being successful is making sure the mulch is heavy enough, thus the term hydromulching replaces hydroseeding by some experts in the field.

There are various opinions as to which mulch is superior, paper, or wood. Wood mulch "breathes" while paper mulch forms a cardboard-like crust. This can be considered advantageous in that it seals in dust and mud. Whichever the contractor chooses to be best suited for a particular area, they both have the same basic concept.

The fibers surround the seed and keep it close to the ground where it is insulated from sun scorch, protected from washing away and the scratching around by birds. The mulch will hold up to 10 times its weight in water, creating a near perfect environment for germination. With the right temperature and moisture conditions, this can occur within three to four days but the normal germination rate is seven to 14 days. The mulch eventually biodegrades and acts as a fertilizer.

While the major use of the hydroseeding/hydromulching equipment by contractors is for lawns, they also use it for planting large areas of wildflowers. The contractor who earns a reputation as being a talented hydroseeder/hydromulcher will begin to be contacted by other landscape contractors who do not own their own equipment to sub-contract out a hydroseeding/ hydromulching job. This can be a lucrative side of the business. Golf courses are another source of revenue for the contractor who does quality hydromulching.

The origins of hydroseeding are somewhat vague. The first company to develop and manufacture the equipment for commercial use was Finn Corporation in Fairfield, Ohio, followed by Bowie and Reinco. Today, several other manufacturers have joined the ranks, designing and building their own version of hydroseeding/hydromulching equipment.

Some use plastic as opposed to steel tanks and are operated by a jet agitator with a centrifugal pump, as opposed to the mechanical paddle agitator. There are pros and cons to both types and it is up to the contractor to decide which best suits his or her needs and budget. Lower end prices start at $4000 and go on up, depending on what features the contractor requires, the estimated usage, the ability of the contractor to service the equipment, and most importantly, the cost.

If another avenue of revenue is interesting to you, you might want to investigate hydromulching. Find out how many other contractors own and operate hydroseeding/hydromulching equipment in your area, and what their customers? response has been. Also, take the time to study the various types of equipment available. Don?t overbuy, but don?t cut yourself short either. If it takes 900 gallons of mixture to cover 10,000 square feet, take into consideration what your average size property is. It is much easier to complete the job with one full tank, rather than having to calculate a partial mixture to finish the job. Ask questions about the care of the equipment--the better care you take of the equipment the longer life it will have.

Will hydroseeding eventually replace sod, making it obsolete? No, because there will always be situations when installing sod is the more advantageous way to go and there will always be property owners who will only be satisfied with the "instant gratification" that sod offers. For the homeowner who doesn?t mind waiting four to six weeks for a beautiful lawn, and can contend with weeds at the onset, dollar for dollar hydroseeding/hydromulching would be a wise choice.

Editor?s Note: Special thanks to the following for their time and input into this story: Top Lawn, Sumter, SC; Custom Gardens, Yorktown, VA; Quality Hydroseeding, San Diego, CA; HydroPlant, San Marcos, CA; TurboTurf, Beaver Falls, PA; TGMI, Cincinnati, OH; Kenny Bowie Industry, TX; and Erosion Technology, NJ.