Personally, I don’t like to shop. It must be a guy thing but I would rather stay home and do the dishes than spend time in a big box store that gives me a case of claustrophobia. But recently I did find myself in exactly the kind of place that I hate and couldn’t help but notice that (a foot and a half of snow notwithstanding) the lawn and garden section is filled to the brim with lawn fertilizer, grass seed and pesticides already. I’m sure that they have their logistical challenges getting all of that product into the store and on the shelves in time for the spring rush.
But is all that stuff good? Let me explore this subject a little bit for you from the perspective of someone who does it for a living.
If you don't read directions, hire a professional. Better yet, hire Lawn Dawg.
You were probably thinking that there would be a sales pitch in here somewhere and I wouldn’t dare disappoint my audience. Snark aside, if used as directed, the fertilizers and pesticides available in lawn and garden centers will enhance the ability of the lawn to act as an environmental filter of pollutants. The key phrase here is, "if used as directed." Just as it is with prescription medications, if you take what the doctor ordered, you’ll most likely be just fine. Take too much, too little or in a sequence contrary to what your doctor prescribes you’ll be in trouble.
In the case of a professional, the key phrase is changed to when used as directed. The fact of the matter is that lawn care companies are motivated by profit. Fertilizers and pesticides are expensive; therefore in order to be successful we need to find the most effective and most economical way to achieve customer satisfaction with the least amount of product possible. More is not better; in fact more is often worse and environmentally irresponsible. It takes a lot of time and effort on our part to research, design and implement our program. Just buying a few bags of whatever off the shelf can’t compete with that.
If you are going to buy lawn products, separate hype from information.
Lawn products are like any other consumer good, manufacturers need to differentiate themselves from the competition by being bigger, better and more flashy. Some products make claims that are misleading or may be completely false. What I would recommend is to ignore all of the flash and hype. The information that you’re looking for is in the fine print.
Reading the label, the entire label, is so important. It’s the most boring reading you can possibly imagine but if you’ve made the decision to buy a fertilizer or a pesticide you have the responsibility to use them properly. You can really do a lot of damage to your landscape by using products incorrectly. Keeping fertilizers and pesticides on the lawn and away from anywhere else is important as well. A product that lands on your street, driveway, walkway or any other impervious surface has an unimpeded pathway to groundwater – exactly where we do not want it to go. Use the defection shield on your fertilizer spreader to keep things neat. A leaf blower does a great job of blowing fertilizer prills back on to the lawn.
This is where independent information becomes important. A little bit of homework will go a long way to ensure that you purchase the right materials and avoid using them incorrectly. There are many websites operated by Cooperative Extension Services throughout the country that are a wealth of primary source information. Choose a website that is relatively close to where you live, or at least has a similar climate.
For instance, someone that lives in Florida will not glean very much useful information from the UMass turf website or vice versa. There are a multitude of excellent turfgrass research programs across the country that make it their business to evaluate the products that are used on lawns, as well as establishing best management practices that will help you maximize both turfgrass quality and environmental responsibility.
But, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to do your homework on the subject, hire a professional to manage your lawn care. We get paid to do this stuff for you!
Here’s an example of a lawn and garden center doing something that a qualified professional would never do. Take a look at the photograph – nothing wrong here, right? Now consider what the two products are: on the left is grass seed and on the right a preemergent crabgrass control. The preemergent crabgrass control works by means of a vapor to kill seedlings and therefore is never stored in proximity to grass seed when warehoused. This is an industry standard precaution that we take when storing our products.
“Bee” responsible with insecticides.
There are many insects in your landscape that are pollinators, insects that we depend on for many different foods. Insecticides are designed to kill insects, and while they are not uniform in their toxicity to bees and other pollinators, you need to pay attention and follow label directions when using insecticides on your lawn.
First, just because you discover an insect feeding on your lawn does not mean that an insecticide is necessary. Lawns can tolerate quite a few chinch bugs and white grubs without you ever knowing that they’re there. A vigorous stand of turfgrass that is both properly fed and maintained can outgrow many infestations.
The simple principle to follow is to keep the insecticide and the bees away from each other. Turfgrasses do not require the services of pollinators to reproduce, but many of the weeds in your lawn do. If you do need to use an insecticide, make sure that the weed flowers are mowed off prior to application. Also, a granular version of the insecticide is more environmentally friendly than one that is sprayed; the granules will drop to the soil surface quickly and be out of reach of pollinators.
Insecticide label directions are particularly important in this regard. Many new products have special areas on the labels called Bee Boxes that describe precautions that you must take as an applicator to avoid harming bees. Take the time to read and follow these important instructions.
Just because you can use a pesticide doesn’t mean you should.
It would shock you to know how much time I spend talking people out of using pesticides; you’d assume the opposite, but it’s true. Pesticides are simply tools that we use to control (not eradicate) pests. If the lawn is not healthy in the first place, pesticide use will only suppress a problem in the short term. The goal is to encourage a vigorous, dense stand of turfgrass that naturally withstands a host of pests without you even noticing.
Certainly, there are products that make sense to use; a preemergent crabgrass control applied in the early spring is a better management practice than trying to kill older crabgrass plants during the middle of the summer, for instance. But, if you have a yard that is primarily shaded and doesn’t have a history of crabgrass, you can easily bypass the preemergent application without ill effect. Again, referencing the local Cooperative Extension website will help you in making this decision.
There’s no doubt that there are many excellent products to choose from at lawn and garden centers, many of which are manufactured by the same suppliers that professionals rely upon. The difference is the level of expertise that you bring to the situation. I can buy the same woodworking tools as Norm Abram uses on TV, but that doesn’t mean that I can build furniture.
When it comes to fertilizer & pesticide equipment, you get what you pay for.
Let’s not forget about the equipment used to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Here at Lawn Dawg, our beautiful, high-tech, stainless steel fertilizer spreaders cost us $600 each wholesale. You don’t need something that expensive or durable for use a couple of times a year but neither should you buy something substandard. Avoid mild steel at all costs; both fertilizers and pesticides can be corrosive. Stainless steel or a robust plastic are much more durable materials. Drop spreaders are only useful for applying grass seed in tight areas. The damage that you can cause trying to spread fertilizer evenly with a drop spreader is both embarrassing and tough to remediate. A broadcast spreader is a much better choice. Some manufacturers are smart and build equipment that is specifically designed to apply their specific products, taking a lot of the guesswork out of the equation.
Hopefully this information is helpful in your quest to buy the right products for your lawn. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes with growing a crop of turfgrass and doing it right, and planning for the spring to come helps keep us sane while the snow is still deep.
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about the products you should or should not be using on your lawn.
You can also read these 5 Benefits of Hiring a Professional Lawn Care Company.
- Bob Mann, Agronomist