How to get the Most Out of Your Mowing Crews

A WELL-MAINTAINED LAWN IS a source of great pride for the property owner. It also sends a message to all who pass by about the quality of a well kept property. By the same token, the landscape professional who maintains that property has the same pride—the pride of a job well done, not just now, but on a regular basis.

Most property owners and developers don’t understand the labor intensive process behind maintaining a well-manicured lawn. More often than not, they are only concerned with the end result. For landscape maintenance professionals, that process is of the utmost importance.

There are no official rules for turf maintenance. No regulations or stipulations contractors are forced to follow in caring for a lawn.

However, after speaking to a number of professionals in the field, it became clear that they all abide by a set of unwritten rules. Maybe it is more accurate to call these rules “guiding principals.” Regardless of what you choose to call them, following them will guarantee you get the most out of your mowing crews. However, it is important that you start at the beginning, and one of those fundamental areas is mowing techniques. The improper use of a lawn mower can cause damage to the turf in a number of ways. One common mistake made by some contractors is cutting a lawn too short; scalping increases the likelihood that the turf will become susceptible to disease and insect problems. It also tends to overexpose grass to sunlight, which can result in the turf equivalent of a third-degree sunburn.

“Scalping is a problem that can easily be avoided,” says Bruce Hellerick, senior horticultural specialist at the Brickman Group in Longhorne, Pennsylvania. He recommends removing no more than 1/3 of the total length of a piece of grass. “If a blade of grass is three inches long, good horticultural practice says to remove no more than one inch of that grass. This is a good rule to remember because it helps keep the lawn healthy while also maintaining a nice uniform appearance.” It is also important not to rush when mowing a lawn. If the area is mowed too fast, lawns are more likely to get scarred or torn up. “It’s really obvious when guys are rushing,” says Don Schlander of ISS Grounds Control in Phoenix, Arizona. “We like to set mow rates,” he continued. “That way, guys know the speed at which they should be running to reduce the likelihood of the lawn being damaged or torn.”

Crews need to pay close attention to how they’re overlapping. If you’re overlapping too much, you’ll end up with uneven mowing patterns. If you don’t overlap enough there is a danger that large strips of grass won’t get mowed. In addition, crews should be certain that they are changing the direction they mow on a weekly basis. This reduces the likelihood that ruts occur in the grass and underlying soil. Another reason to change direction is because if you cut in the same direction each week, you train the grass to grow that way. By changing direction, the grass should always stand up straight.

Using mowers on hills and other sloped surfaces can be really tricky. Turf on hillsides often gets torn up because it is mowed the same as if it were on flat ground. There is an easy fix for this. “Just remember to go side to side,” says Hellerick. “This is going to give you better control of the mower than if you were going up and down. It also increases safety and decreases the likelihood that you’re going to chew up the turf.”

A mowing crew that is well trained in technique is a great first step. But technique will not make a lick of difference if the equipment being used is not properly maintained. “It behooves any contractor to send out well-maintained machinery,” says Allen Chariton of Tierra Verde Landscape, Inc., Huntington Beach, California. “Poorly kept equipment can destroy a beautiful turf area. Deflated wheels, unsharpened blades—all this stuff is going to give you a bad cut. It’s not going to take a property owner long to see that something is wrong.”

Perhaps nothing is worse for a lawn than dull mower blades. Sharp blades are important for both a lawn’s health and appearance. “Keeping blades sharp is very important,” says Bill Leuenberger of Chalet in the Chicago, Illinois area. “When grasses are cut with dull blades, the tips of the grass turn brown. Then the whole lawn is going to look brown, which is exactly what you don’t want. Basically, all the hard work you’ve done is wasted.”

7_3.jpgPoorly maintained equipment will damage more than just the lawns you take care of. It can also damage your business. “If your equipment goes down, and you’re not able to use it, you’re sunk,” says Chariton. Preventative maintenance is a really valuable asset to landscape maintenance contractors. It can keep small problems from becoming big, expensive ones. Many larger landscape companies hire in-house mechanics to keep an eye on their equipment. For smaller operators, this luxury is not an option. But if it’s in your budget, it’s worth finding a capable mechanic to maintain your equipment.

If even that’s not a possibility, there are other ways to make sure your tools stay healthy. Key items such as the engine and tires should be checked on a daily basis. To make sure this happens, many owners or managers recommend creating a daily checklist for your crews. This way, your equipment is much more likely to get the daily maintenance it needs.

A well-trained crew, using properly-maintained equipment, is a great way to ensure that jobs are being done in a fast, efficient manner. However, it’s important to remember that speed does not always equal efficiency. Sometimes being efficient means taking the extra time to ensure the job gets done right. “If someone is looking for something cheap, and people don’t care, that’s fine. But shortcuts catch up with you and cause problems, and that’s going to lead to a higher client turnover rate. From a business perspective, it just makes sense to take the time to do it right,” says Leuenberger.

We all know that cutting corners does not pay off. This is especially true when it comes to fertilizing a lawn. It is important to remember that all turf is not created equal. Different grass in different areas is going to have different needs. For example, fertilizer with weed controls should only be used on turf that is growing in sunny areas. Most weeds cannot thrive unless they’re exposed to ample sunlight, and products that contain weed deterrents can significantly damage lawns. This is why it is essential to use these products only where they are absolutely needed. However, fertilizer with weed controls often ends up on turf where it is not needed.

“I see a lot of people using weed controls where they don’t have to because it’s easier,” Leuenberger said. “But it really doesn‘t make sense. It may take more time to use two or three products; however, in the long run it’s going to pay off if you’re using the right product in the right place. You’re just going to get better results, which is going to keep your customers happy.”

It’s also worth taking the time to do a soil test prior to fertilizing. It may take a little time and cost a little money, but soil tests are the only way to be sure that you’re giving a lawn exactly what it needs.

“For example, if test results come back and they show ample nitrogen, there is no need to use a nitrogen-based fertilizer,” says Chariton. “If you give the turf nitrogen when it doesn’t need it, you’re wasting money. There is also the potential that the grass will grow too fast. Then you’ve created more work for yourself because you have more grass to mow in a shorter period of time. Soil tests are the best way to avoid this kind of problem.”

Doing a job right doesn’t mean it has to take forever to complete. There are several simple ways to do jobs quickly without sacrificing quality. It’s important to make sure you’re getting the most out of your personnel and equipment. Sometimes mowers are not used to their full potential. If you’re mowing the turf using a 36" mower, it’s important that all 36" are being used to cut the grass. If this is not the case, the lawn is taking more time to cut than is necessary, which is ultimately going to cost you money. Visiting a jobsite before you begin working there is another way to be sure you’re getting the most out of your crew. For Dale Micetic of ISS Grounds Control, Phoenix, Arizona, this is just smart business. “Always do a walk-through of a new property. Find out what equipment you’ll need for that job. Figure out how many guys it’s going to take to do the job right. That way when you start, you know the right equipment to send to the site. You never want to tie up equipment or personnel you could be using somewhere else. It just doesn’t make sense.”

As an owner, it is very important that you’re aware of your company’s limitations. “Know the jobs you’re capable of doing, and do them well,” says Chariton. “If you’re a small operation, you’re probably not going to have the equipment that allows you to do big jobs in an efficient way. If you take a big five-acre job, and don’t do it in the proper way, you could get a bad reputation. And there is nothing worse than a bad reputation.”

But Chariton believes there are ways for small companies to do big jobs. “If you want to get into bigger jobs, find a company that you could sub out the mowing to. It's not going to be totally cost effective, but remember, it costs money to make money, and that’s how you’ll start to get into bigger jobs. Eventually, you’ll have enough big jobs where it makes sense for you to buy your own equipment. This is one of the best ways to get to the next level.”

The size of the job will not matter if the crew working it is not safety conscious. Of all the lawn maintenance professionals I spoke with, the first thing each one stressed was safety. A safe crew is an efficient crew. But there is a bigger issue at hand. “Safety has got to be a number-one priority,” Micetic says. “As responsible business operators, we want to make sure guys aren’t going to create hazards to themselves or the client.”

However, accidents do happen for a variety of reasons. One common cause of injury is a lack of familiarity with the equipment being used. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to this problem. “A lot of times, manufacturers will provide videos or DVDs that show proper operation techniques. Show your guys these videos and test them before you send them into the field,” says Micetic. “It may sound silly or like it’s a waste of time, but if you don’t do it, how are you going to defend yourself when things go wrong? You have to be able to demonstrate that you took the responsible action. But really it’s more about protecting people.”

Chariton believes that experience is the best teacher. He suggests pairing more seasoned guys with newcomers. “We have certain guys in the company that have been doing this for a long time and we know they’re good teachers,” says Chariton. Many of the crew chiefs that work for his company are designated trainers. Doing this allows new guys to receive on-the-job training. “This is really the most time-efficient, cost-efficient way to get guys up to speed.”

Many times, what you do off the turf is as important as what you do on the turf. For Leuenberger, good customer service is a key component to a successful business. “Ask your customers if they have questions. Let them know you’re open to criticism and never be afraid to go the extra mile. For example, if there is a newspaper out there, your guys should be bringing it up to the front porch. People notice these things. It makes them happy.”

Leuenberger may be onto something. Because ultimately, that’s what this business is about: keeping people happy.