Feb. 16 2016 12:02 AM

When I was growing up in Vermont, May always brought hordes of dandelions sprouting from local fields. In my family, we referred to them as 'millions of dan-dillions', and their advent was a sure sign that spring as in full swing. Those yellows swaths would then turn white, and when the last of their warm snow had spun from the air, then summer was well and truly upon us. It was just as idyllic as it sounds.

That description would no doubt elicit some steely-eyed disapproval from suburban property owners. They, who fight constantly to keep the dreaded yellow scourge off their lawns, revile the sloppy neighbor who lets them bloom. Providing dandelions safe harbor invites retribution in the form of sharply worded letters, snubs at bake sales, and possibly even punitive action from the HOA.

This goes to show one of the universal truths of lawn care—that a weed is just a plant that’s growing in the wrong place. Standards of beauty are different from community to community, but every region has at least a few invasive plants that are an unsightly menace to local landscapes.

When these undesirables spring up on a client’s lawn, it’s the landscape contractor who gets an earful.

Customers want their lawns to be pristine, and if they see weeds, you’ll be the first to hear about it. Weeds are a part of life, but there are some effective ways to fight them off, and even prevent them from popping up in the first place.

To get a sense of the role weed control plays in lawn maintenance, I talked with Steven Davis, business manager for ONE Grounds Management in Caldwell, Idaho. He says that it’s a big part of managing commercial properties, because of the end results. “On the business side, if I don’t have a good looking property, I don’t have a client.”

A healthy lawn is a handsome lawn, so keeping your clients’ turf hale and hearty is key to retaining your accounts and growing your business. “Weed control is part of maintaining plant health,” Davis says, “because if you have a lot of weeds, it hurts your other plants.”

Weeds are competitors, elbowing everything else out of the way to take as much sunlight, water and nutrients as they can. If the weeds start to edge out the grasses, then any attempts to feed and water the lawn only serve to give more resources to the invaders.

So if you’re managing a lawn on the back foot, losing to invasive competition, how can you help the plants you want without providing aid and comfort to the enemy? You cheat. You take out the unwelcome plants at the knees, giving the ones you want time to grow strong enough that they can defend themselves.

Ideally, this means spraying a chemical herbicide that is designed to kill the nuisance plants while leaving the native foliage intact. As you might guess, any chemical ending in “cide” requires thoughtful and skilled handling and application. Even if you use the right herbicide, over-spraying, under-spraying, or spraying at the wrong time can be worse for a landscape than not spraying at all.

That’s why it’s important to do your homework. Many states have major environmental concerns, and restrict the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. For Davis, that means that the company’s technicians all have to undergo certification. It doesn’t end there, either.

“Our guys are constantly going back for reeducation,” he said. “You get the certification and then you have to maintain it, by going and getting continuing education credits.”

I spoke with one of those certified applicators, Marco Pantaleon, operations manager at ONE, about the ins-and-outs of spraying. According to him, one of their chief concerns is chemical resistance. “If you’re spraying weeds growing from the cracks in a parking lot, they’ll build up a major resistance to chemicals, so they’ll be harder to kill,” he said.

Herbicides are poisons for plants, but that doesn’t make your spray applicator a magic wand of death. If the weed is too hardy, or doesn’t take enough of the poison in, it will survive, and may become immune to future sprayings. For these die-hards, Pantaleon has a trick up his sleeve— or rather, in his trailer.

“One of the best ways to get rid of a tough plant is to hit it with a string trimmer, then spray it,” he said. The open wounds provide more entry points for the material, helping it get deeper into the roots. The cuts also consume energy as the weed tries to heal itself.

According to Pantaleon, the best way to give your lawn the upper hand is to use a pre-emergent control. “It’s a very concentrated powder or granular chemical which will be diluted with the rain, or with the night’s dew,” he said. “It’ll just create a layer of herbicide under the ground, and won’t let the weeds grow through.” Properly applied during the spring, pre-emergent controls can end the fight before it begins.

There are some important caveats to be aware of, though. Timing can be an issue, because once you see the weeds, it’s too late. The application period is determined by temperature, and guessing the weather is a notoriously difficult task.

Also, you should never aerate turf where you’ve just applied a pre-emergent control. Aeration will punch great big holes in that nice chemical blanket you just put down, and weeds will rush right up through the gaps.

With some forethought, strong preventative measures can yield some pretty fantastic results. “Using a pre-emergent to reduce the germination and seeding, keeping the cracks sealed on parking lots and using weedblock on planter beds reduces weeds by about 80 percent,” said Pantaleon.

Of course, new customers don’t wait for the most convenient season to buy maintenance or lawn care services, and they may not be willing to pay for pre-emergent controls. Davis often finds his hands tied by the constraints of big commercial contracts. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘You’re gonna do this many chemical applications for fertilizing, and this many for weed control.’” When the clients know what they’re talking about, and are simply being particular about their standards, that’s one thing. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and contracts designed to scrape by on the bare minimum inevitably cause disasters down the road. “They don’t want to spend the money on it, but later on they get a bill for twice as much as it would’ve cost them to just pay for the maintenance,” Davis said.

In the worst-case scenario, an anemic treatment plan can result in a whole landscape full of chemically-resistant weeds. Then, the only recourse is to physically pull those weeds out of the ground and cart them away. It’s a labor-intensive, physically demanding process, and considerably more expensive than a comprehensive lawn maintenance plan.

Larger companies are more likely to take the long view when it comes to their landscapes. Their budgets are probably not going to be flexible, but if you can show them what a difference regular, consistent maintenance will make, they may be willing to change how they spend their dollars.

Ideally, a client will take advantage of your expertise, and ask what you consider to be optimal upkeep. This is where having done your homework will make all the difference. Being able to give chapter and verse on his particular problem plants, what you could use to kill them, and what you think the best options are, will lend your proposal a lot of weight.

Mark Tavares is the co-owner of Project Green, a landscape company based out of Richmond, Virginia. He faces an extra challenge when it comes to proposing weed control. “I run an organic company, so being environmentally friendly is extremely important.” In order to retain his reputation and his business, he has to be able to stand by the ecological effects of any weed control he uses.

You might imagine that an environmentally-friendly herbicide is an oxymoron, and that Tavares is doomed to lengthy and difficult weed pulling. He says he’s found a mineral oil-based herbicide that fits the bill. Civitas WEEDfree is a relatively new product, just recently introduced. “We incorporate it into our spray tanks with our organic products, or spray it by itself, just with water,” said Tavares.

What makes this herbicide so ecogreen? First, it uses a fraction of the typical amount of active ingredient, and relies on improved absorption to get the job done. Secondly, it incorporates an emulsifying agent that turns sprayed areas white for a few minutes after contact. This makes it easier for applicators to see where they have and haven’t covered, reducing spray gaps and overspray.

Taken together, changes like these make a tangible difference in how much extra herbicide is left to dissipate when the spraying is done.

There’s hardly any of the distinctive chemical odor in the air that permeates recently sprayed lawns and the pesticide aisles of big box stores.

Of course, like many environmentally-friendly products, it comes with a higher price tag, but many property owners are willing to pay a premium to be eco-green. Those who have pets or small children are also likely to pay a little more to not have to worry about the potential health effects.

Tavares says that developing background knowledge about any chemicals you’re considering is pivotal to effective weed control. “You really want to make sure you’re spraying at the right time of year, and that you’re choosing the right product for the weeds you’re trying to control,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re not being very effective, and you’re spraying unnecessarily.”

When searching for this information, the most important stuff is usually found on the container itself. A thorough reading of all the labels will give you a good basis, but that’s just the start. “Go to the company’s website; you’ll find all the information you could ever want about the product on there,” Tavares said. “And you have to constantly be looking for the articles on new products.”

Building that body of knowledge will not just make you a more effective and efficient applicator, it will also allow you to educate property owners about why one particular chemical might be better for their situation than another. In this sense, lawn care is a lot like health care.

You’re the doctor, trying to convince an HMO that its patient needs treatment. If the patient hadn’t been malnourished, he might have been healthy enough to fight off the infection. If the HMO had allowed you to give him a flu shot earlier in the year, he might have been just fine. Now, however, he needs your help, and the better you know your craft, the more you’ll be able to persuade the property owner to let you nurse their lawn back to health.

And that’s the main takeaway here—health. A vibrant, growing lawn is more than just beautiful, it’s therapeutic. It provides an oasis of calm, safe, green life that viscerally reminds us that we are part of a vast and living world. Many of us spend all our time in manufactured boxes, and forget how much of a difference it makes to our mental and emotional well-being to take a break, and simply bask in the sun and the grass.

By healing lawns, and helping them stay vibrant and gorgeous, you are enticing your customers to break out of their ‘box’. You are speaking to their inner child staring wistfully out the window, dreaming of running around outside for the sheer joy of it.

If you could sway them towards getting up to take a walk, and away from turning their heads back to their computer screen, just by making their lawns a little more weedfree and inviting, isn’t that a worthy goal?