1_4.jpgThe concept is simple. Start with the right amount of quality ingredients, including seed, mulch, fertilizer, and water. Add a tackifier to make sure things stick. Mix together to create your hydroseeding slurry, then spray.

Viola! You have the perfect recipe for a robust lawn, a quickly stabilized slope, a wildflower field, or any other seeding project.

Okay, so there's more to it than that. There are several important steps that quality hydroseeding contractors take to ensure success. But with a little knowledge and the right equipment, hydroseeding can be a simple and very profitable addition to your business.

Hydroseeding is a much more economical option than sod and is far less labor intensive than dry seeding. If done correctly, it can also be more successful, because the seed/fertilizer/mulch mixture provides the perfect moist environment for germination.

Part of the beauty of hydroseeding is its versatility. By changing the slurry ingredients, you can tailor the recipe to meet the needs of a variety of different projects, from a residential lawn to a golf course to a native roadside planting. Various amendments can also be added to improve the soil or to provide further stabilization in erosion control situations.

Hydroseeding is especially useful for areas where other methods aren't practical, such as large expanses and steep slopes. "Hydroseeding offers such a wide range of application possibilities. You can use it for just about any condition you encounter," says Jerry Haupt, owner of Lakeland Landscape Service of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a thirty-three-year-old landscaping firm started by Haupt's father. Lakeland added hydroseeding twenty-five years ago, after the Haupts did some research on the process and saw it being used successfully in other areas. Impressed by what they saw, they decided to purchase their own machine, and have never looked back. In order to meet increasing demand, the company recently upgraded from a small Easy Lawn model to a larger, more versatile machine from the same manufacturer.

"Hydroseeding fits in really well for us because lawn installations were already a large portion of our business," says Haupt. "It has been easy to market. People know about it and understand the advantages."

Because of its lower cost, hydroseeding can give contractors a way to expand their customer base to include clients who wouldn't ordinarily opt for a professionally installed lawn. These customers are often likely to add other landscaping services as well.

"This is simply a great way to offer a premium product with very little labor that will produce excellent results," says Pat Holubetz, director of sales for Finn Corporation, an Ohio-based manufacturer of hydroseeding equipment. "For contractors who already install sod or work with seed and straw, this is an excellent value added service that will enable them to reach a wider market."

2_4.jpg"We still install a lot of sod, and that's a good choice for many customers," says Haupt. "But hydroseeding gives us a chance to offer customers another option at a different price. It doesn't provide the instant results that sod does but it's more affordable and results are much quicker than with dry seeding. Because the mulch holds moisture in the soil, germination and overall development is quicker. Our customers are typically out there mowing a lot sooner than they would be with dry seed applications."

Get growing There are many ways for contractors to get started with hydroseeding. Some opt to contract the service out to a company that specializes in the process. This can be a good option when seeding is not a major portion of your business but is requested occasionally.

When contracting out, it pays to be picky. The key is to form a partnership with a reliable, reputable service with a proven history of successful projects.

Hydro-Plant Inc., in San Marcos, California, has been offering hydroseeding and erosion control services for more than 25 years. Working with landscape contractors is a big part of their job. "For many contractors, seeding is a small percent of projected business," says Rob McGann of Hydro-Plant. "Working with a service like ours that specializes in hydroseeding gives them a chance to offer the service, benefit from our experience, and use the latest hydroseeding technology without having to purchase and maintain their own equipment."

Other contractors get started by renting equipment. This is one way to add the service while trying out hydroseeders to see what fits best with your operation. This can also help you determine whether it makes financial sense to purchase your own unit.

For many contractors, purchasing their own equipment makes the most sense and is the best way to reap the rewards of this growing market. To determine if you're ready to buy, it helps to do some research. "We have an estimated profit sheet that breaks down gross profit per thousand square feet," says Bob Lisle, president of Easy Lawn, Greenwood, Delaware. "This helps contractors determine whether they'll save if they purchase their own machine. In many cases, they can save enough to pay for the machine in six months, sometimes longer. A six-month payback is a very good investment. If they can't save enough to pay for it in eighteen months, it may not be a good investment for them at this time."

When making these decisions, it behooves contractors to think ahead and factor in the increased business they are likely to add. Most find that demand increases dramatically when they start using their equipment. This happens in part because of the good results their customers see and because seeding starts to become a much more lucrative aspect of their business.

"Work normally doubles or triples in the first year," says Lisle. "Because of the high labor involved with conventional seeding, we find that if they don't hydroseed, many contractors practice seeding only marginally -- often only when they have other landscaping business on the site. But with hydroseeding, one man can seed one to two acres per day by himself. Conventionally, it would take four to five people to do the same amount. Suddenly his costs are lower, he's using less labor, getting better results and making more money per job. Now he's going to start eagerly looking for more seeding work rather than avoiding it."

When choosing equipment it's important to match the machine to your business in order to maximize profits. "We do a great deal of information gathering with landscape contractors to help with decision making," says Lisle. "Key questions are: How much seeding are you currently doing? What size lots? What type of seeding do you do: residential lots, commercial contracts, tract homes, erosion control projects, highway right-of-ways?"

It's critical to match performance and size to the needs of the company and the types of projects you take on. A smaller, entry-level machine can obviously cost less up-front but it could hinder productivity if it's not up to the amount of seeding work you do and the lot sizes you encounter. Stopping too often to refill the tank will quickly eat into profits.

"The reason you buy more performance in a machine is time," says Lisle. "You have to look at the overall cycle time: how long it takes to fill, mix, and spray. This will determine how much work you can do in a day. When you are only doing small amounts, cycle time is not as critical. If you save fifteen minutes per job and you're only doing ten acres a year, that's not a lot of time. But if you save fifteen minutes per job and you do two hundred jobs per year, that's another story."

In addition to size, the type of agitation used is another consideration. Machines can be jet-agitated or mechanically-agitated. Jet-agitated machines use water action to mix the slurry, while mechanically-agitated ones use rotating paddles. Jet-agitated units may have lower initial costs and have fewer moving parts to troubleshoot and maintain. However, they may not be as versatile for some businesses because they aren?t as good at handling the thickest slurries -- those that include one hundred percent wood mulch or bonded fiber matrix.

The complexity of the machine and ease of operation should also be weighed against your company's capabilities. Consider who is going to operate your machine. Will it be handled primarily by short-term laborers? If so, you may want a unit that doesn't require extensive training.

"The more moving parts, the more maintenance is required," says Lisle. "For a company that has its own shop, this isn'?t a problem. But a smaller contractor without a shop is usually better off with a simple, low maintenance machine."

Reliability is always a critical consideration when making new equipment purchases. "You're going to live with that machine for ten to twenty years," says Lisle. "How is it going to hold up? What's it going to cost to maintain? How much maintenance will you have to do over the life of the machine?"

The best products, the right mix

No matter what type of machine you choose, profitable hydroseeding starts with doing a high quality job. This means using the right products in the right amounts.

Holubetz identifies three factors that are absolutely critical for success: "You have to determine your coverage correctly, calibrate your materials correctly, and use high quality materials. In just about every case where I've come across projects that failed, it was for one of these three reasons."

Any good slurry starts with quality ingredients. "All seed is not created equal," says Holubetz. "You want to use one that has high purity and germination. The quality of your fertilizer, mulch, and tackifier is also important."

Determining coverage and calibrating materials correctly is another important part of the equation that's often overlooked, according to Holubetz. "Calculating correctly impacts not only the success of your project but also your bottom line, because you will use the right amount of materials necessary, not more or less than you need."

Calibration is an easy but necessary step. Holubetz offers an example to illustrate how changing one factor can make a big difference. "Mulch manufacturers recommend putting down a minimum of 1,500 lbs. of mulch per acre. This is adequate in some situations but as a general rule, I recommend 2,000 lbs. per acre. This will change the other amounts in your slurry. In a 900-gallon tank, the mulch capacity is 400 lbs. If you apply 2,000 lbs. of mulch per acre, each tank will do one-fifth of an acre. But if you use only 1,600 lbs. of mulch per acre, the load will go further. You have to recalibrate seed and other materials to match. People don't always take the time to do this," says Holubetz.

"More often than not, they're not using enough product to cover adequately. But using too much is also a problem. They're not bidding jobs correctly or not getting the profit they should from each job."

Hydroseeding equipment manufacturers go out of their way to make sure contractors understand and use these concepts. Finn Corporation's website has many useful tools for calculating coverage and materials for various kinds of applications. Hydroseeding has been around long enough to demonstrate that it works. It offers customers a quick, economical route to lush vegetation. It offers contractors a low labor, high profit way to grow their business. Contractors who learn how to provide high-quality hydroseeding services are well-positioned to take advantage of this green market.