10 things lawn services won’t tell you

1. “How did I learn to take care of your lawn? Mowing my own lawn.”

An estimated 85 million American households, or 72%, do some work in their yards, whether cutting the lawn, planting a garden, or otherwise tending to their outdoor space, according to the National Gardening Association.

But a growing number also hire someone to make their lawns look good. Nearly 27 million of those households also used lawn services and landscapers in 2012, according to the National Gardening Association, up a whopping 20% from 22 million in 2010, when belts were still tight from the Great Recession. The Professional Landcare Network, an industry group also known as Planet, found that Americans who turned to outsiders on average expected to spend $700 on mowing, edging and leaf cleanup last year and another $400 on lawn care, such as fertilizers and weed control.

Here’s the thing: Starting a lawn- and landscape-maintenance service — a business that can do as little as mow the grass or as much as fertilize and prune shrubs and trees — requires little more than a mower and business license. There is almost no required training. So how can consumers feel confident that the person turning their lawn green knows his or her stuff?

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Kathryn Hahne, who runs the SmartScape landscape water conservation and education program in the Tucson, Ariz., area, says homeowners should press their lawn service about certifications, whether from a national industry group or state and local programs. Even though that doesn’t guarantee quality, it does show some education in the field. Some states require those who apply pesticides and fertilizers to have some kind of training as well.

Homeowners should also check that the firm has a business license and is insured, so that the homeowner isn’t liable for injuries or damages, says Katherine Hutt, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau. The BBB has seen a steady rise in the number of complaints about lawn services in recent years, but there’s also been a big jump in the number of people checking the BBB’s national database, which suggests consumers also are doing their homework.

Master Gardeners and county extension agents are another resource homeowners can tap before hiring a lawn service. While they won’t give recommendations about individual firms, many extension agents offer tips about lawn care and about hiring a lawn company.

2. “The more often you use us, the more often you need us.”

Golf-course putting greens are cut every day to keep the grass at a mere eighth of an inch and are spoon-fed fertilizers and weed killers. Your lawn, however, is not a golf course, and trying to keep it looking like one will cost more than most want to spend.

Lawn services tend to mow too frequently, critics say. And they tend to keep grass on the short side. That’s bad for several reasons: It lets sun reach weeds, helping them grow; it can stress and kill your lawn; the grass grows unevenly; and it can make the lawn grow faster, adding to the number of mowings that a consumer pays for.

Shorter grass is an invitation to weeds because the lawn isn’t as lush, says Andrew Ziehler, the owner and president of Ziehler Lawn and Tree Care in Centerville, Ohio, and the chair of Planet’s lawn-care specialty group.

Whether you do it yourself or rely on a lawn service, says Barbara Bromley, a horticulturist based in central New Jersey who is part of Rutgers University’s cooperative extension program, never cut more than a third of the length of the grass. Those who prefer to keep grass at 1 inch need to cut when it’s 1½ inches high. But cutting cool-weather grass, which grows in northern climes, back to 3 inches (her rule of thumb) means there’s no need to mow until it reaches 4½ inches. (Warm-season grasses in the South should be cut to 2 inches.) To get the right height, put your lawnmower height on its highest setting.

Ziehler says that while most lawn companies around him mow by the same guidelines that Bromley and others advocate, customers sometimes want it cut shorter. “Homeowners like to have their lawn cut short,” he says. “They see it on TV.”

3. “You pay more than your neighbor does”

This time of year, mailboxes are filling up with offers from lawn-care companies dangling a special deal or boasting that they won’t be undersold.

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Homeowners have plenty to consider, and where they live certainly plays a role. The biggest factor in the price, of course, is the size of the lawn. (That’s after the pool, the big flower bed and other items that reduce the amount of grass, and that may make one yard not quite the same as a neighbor’s.) But consumers who know what to ask for can get deals that ease the sting.

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Pre-paying for the entire lawn-care program before the start of the season is one way to cut the bill. Sometimes a lawn firm will offer special pricing to every lawn owner in a given neighborhood, figuring it can pick up extra business that more than offsets the lowered group rate, Ziehler says. And then there are the spring specials, coupons and bonuses; many offer free services for new customers. (When signing up though, consumers should be aware of any automatic renewal clauses, warns the Better Business Bureau’s Hutt.)

Plus, there can be bundling discounts. Depending on the firm, signing up for both mowing and fertilizing can sometimes land customers a discount, he says. That’s less likely to happen, however, with winter snow removal, since it’s usually sold separately. And signing on for a smaller number of fertilizer applications won’t necessarily lower your bill either, he says.

4. “We don’t test well.”

Soil tests can help homeowners and their lawns enormously, by doing everything from determining whether the land is alkaline or acidic to what nutrients are lacking in the soil. Bromley, the New Jersey horticulturalist, says homeowners should get their soil tested every three to five years. Waiting for a problem to appear before testing, she says, is a mistake.

But most lawn services don’t routinely do these tests, says James Murphy, a specialist in turf management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Instead, “they sort of guess at what needs to be applied in terms of fertilizer,” he says.

In his industry’s defense, Ziehler says tests don’t need to be done on every customer’s lawn, because lawn services can often draw conclusions based on the soil in the area. In a new neighborhood, for example, the soil is likely to be similar throughout. “We don’t sell tests as a service we’re trying to get everyone to do,” he says.

What’s more, he says, price-sensitive customers often initially resist the cost because they don’t see the value in shelling out the $20 to $40 — or more — that a test can cost. That thinking changes when a lawn isn’t staying green until the next round of fertilizer or is showing some other problem, Ziehler says. In such cases, a soil test can pinpoint the cause. Another important time to test, he points out, is before reseeding, to ensure that a germinating seed has all the nutrition it needs.

5. “We’re super-sizing your fertilizer order…”

There’s a running debate over how much fertilizer people should be putting on their lawns — and what that fertilizer should consist of. Excess fertilizer can make its way into storm drains, streams and lakes, promoting the growth of algae and depleting oxygen for plants and fish. Indeed, concerns about the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay prompted Maryland to eliminate phosphorus and reduce the nitrogen content in almost all lawn fertilizers and to ban the use of fertilizer between Nov. 15 and March 1 each year.

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The mandate is impacting other parts of the country as well: Scotts, the world’s largest marketer of branded consumer lawn and garden products, says it has decided to remove phosphorus from almost all of its lawn-maintenance products, after its own Chesapeake-related research found that most home lawns have adequate phosphorus levels.

Environmentalists point to examples like this to say there’s a scientific argument for keeping fertilizer use to a minimum. But lawn services tend to err on the side of more. And they, too, say science is on their side. Many of their lawn-care programs call for fertilizing four or five times a year, and Ziehler says the total amount of fertilizer typically used reflects recommendations from state universities. Scotts, whose products are aimed at the do-it-yourself consumer, also cites university recommendations.

The industry’s critics say four or five times a year is too much. Mike McGrath, a former editor-in-chief of “Organic Gardening” magazine and the host of a weekly syndicated show on National Public Radio on organic gardening called “You Bet Your Garden,” says the number should be no more than two. Overfeeding a lawn — or feeding it at the wrong time — encourages weeds, he says. And too much chemical fertilizer can lead to a thick layer of thatch — dead and living shoots between the soil and the growing grass. While some thatch is normal, too much restricts the flow of air and water to the roots and can harbor fungi that cause disease.

For cool-climate lawns, he recommends one feeding in the fall and perhaps a lighter one in the spring. (Warm-climate lawns such as zoysia and Bermuda should get two equal-sized summer feedings.) “Lawns don’t need chemicals,” says McGrath. “But if you hire someone to take care of your lawn, they’re going to put as much of that down as possible.”

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6. “…and your lawn may be fine with little or none.”

Why pay a lawn-care service several hundred dollars a year to fertilize your lawn when you can do it yourself for free? McGrath urges homeowners to leave cut-up lawn clippings in the grass as a way to return nutrients to the soil, rather than bagging them and leaving them on the curb. The clippings will supply half the food the lawn needs a year, McGrath says: “The perfect food for an American lawn is 10% nitrogen. Your lawn clippings are 10% nitrogen. There is no more perfect food for the lawn than the lawn itself.”

Many organic gardening experts are also advocates of compost, which can be made for free from as little as a mix of leaves (like the ones that homeowners pay lawn services to blow to the curb every fall) and coffee grounds. Compost can also be bought from commercial companies and independent nurseries, and some municipalities even make and give away compost to their residents. Another form of compost is mushroom soil, also known as spent mushroom compost, which is a byproduct of the mushroom-growing industry. Compost should look like rich black soil, and be raked into a lawn a half-inch deep.

Compost releases its nutrients into the soil more slowly than fertilizer does, so it needs to be added less frequently, making it less costly, says Leanne Spaulding, the membership director at the U.S. Composting Council, an industry trade group. It also makes the soil and the plants that grow in them more drought-resistant, so they need to be watered less. However, experts say, it may not be easy to find a lawn service that applies compost instead of fertilizer.

Ziehler says lawn services save consumers money because they know the right amount of fertilizer a lawn needs. Do it yourself, he adds, and you may use too much or too little, and not get the desired results. “Sometimes when you cut items out, you cost yourself more in the long run,” he adds.

7. “Chemicals can cost you in other ways.”

Lawn services can offer a dizzying array of services besides mowing and fertilizing. Herbicide-based weed control is a common service, but lawn services can also spray preventative fungicide treatments and other special herbicides, as well as add lime to counter an overly acidic soil.

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But sometimes the quick fix isn’t the way to go. When homeowners see brown spots on their lawn, many automatically think disease, says Murphy, the Rutgers turfgrass specialist. He says people should consider holding the spray, at least for a while. “A good contactor will get on their hands and knees with their face in the lawn trying to figure out what’s going on out there,” he says.

Another good reason to not be too aggressive with chemicals: They can have unintended consequences. DuPont began selling a weed killer known as Imprelis in August 2010 and the following spring started hearing from customers that it was damaging trees, mostly by turning needles brown on conifers. It paid to have some trees removed, and said others could return to health given time. In August 2011, it voluntarily suspended sales and in 2013 reached a settlement with customers and others whose trees were damaged by Imprelis (including some neighbors of Imprelis users) over a class-action lawsuit in U.S. district court in Philadelphia. It estimates it will pay out $1.175 billion over the herbicide. “Had we anticipated it, DuPont would not have marketed or recommended Imprelis like we did,” DuPont spokesman Gregg Schmidt says.

8. “Our ‘organic’ lawn care features pesticides.”

What is organic, anyway? In the lawn business, there’s no real definition. And that can mean confusion for customers, especially those who assume that “organic” means “pesticide-free.”

For lawn professionals who offer an organic option, “it just means, in most cases, pesticides are the last resort, rather than ‘we’ll just grab a bucket of something and spray it,’” Bromley, the New Jersey-based horticulturalist, says. On the other hand, even some seemingly “natural” pest- and weed-control approaches still get labeled as pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency. Examples include corn gluten meal — a corn byproduct that is a natural preemergence (used before seedlings emerge) herbicide — and citronella.

What lawn services increasingly offer is “integrated pest management” (or IPM), which evaluates whether a pest or weed can be tolerated or combatted, and then by what means. While some lawn services might resist using chemicals, others may decide that if ladybugs don’t work to control pests, a chemical spray is next, says Bromley.

“A lot of people have started to go the IPM route,” but what that means varies by company, Ziehler says. His firm offers an organic lawn-care treatment that doesn’t use a preemergent, weed control or insect control. It costs 60% more than the firm’s traditional package, though, and perhaps 1% of customers sign up for it, he says. A middle option, which uses 100% biodegradable fertilizer as well as weed control and insect control as needed, costs 40% more than the traditional package. Another 3% take that. “We don’t get a lot of interest, but when we do, the cost turns them off,” he says.

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As an alternative, some experts recommend fighting weeds the natural way: Aerate the soil — in the spring in warmer climes, in the fall for cool-season grasses, McGrath says. A core aerator pulls out short plugs of soil that are left on the ground to break down, and creates space for grass to spread out on the lawn.

9. “Our mulch has a shaky pedigree…”

Mulch, whether in black or another color, seems to be everywhere, and lawn companies can do the spreading for homeowners. The Mulch and Soil Council, an industry trade group, estimates Americans put down 20 million to 22 million cubic yards of the bagged stuff each year and another 30 million to 40 million cubic yards of wood mulch bought in bulk, excluding any road and highway projects. Growth is running at 5% to 8% a year.

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While many see mulch as merely enhancing a garden’s look, a layer of mulch also helps conserve water by retaining moisture in the soil as well as preventing weeds. But it’s also an unregulated product—and, as industry insiders and organic-gardening advocates alike point out, it can contain more than just tree trunks and branches. It can contain pesticide-treated wood as well as old railroad ties and telephone poles that bring contaminants into your yard. Noticing straight edges or square corners in your mulch? Those aren’t virgin materials and instead could be ground-up plywood or laminate, says Robert LaGasse, the Mulch and Soil Council’s executive director. Keep an eye out for foreign matter and paint chips as well.

Stay away from so-called mulch gypsies who offer a “great deal” on a truckload of mulch, and always ask where a bulk load of compost was made or purchased, he says. Some treated wood can have 3,000 to 4,000 parts per million of arsenic, well above EPA recommended levels of 40 parts per million, he says. And that’s not something you want kids and pets around. “It may hurt your dog or cat more than the plant,” he adds.

How to find quality mulch? The Mulch and Soil Council has a program that certifies safe mulch. (Look for a symbol on the bag, usually on the back.) But participation — by manufacturers as well as retailers — is voluntary, and bags that don’t carry the symbol aren’t necessarily bad. The trade group is adding a new program this year for makers of bulk mulch, which isn’t sold in bags and often can be bought at nurseries. But it doesn’t certify the actual mulch, only whether the manufacturers have the proper permits, training and business operations in place to produce a quality product, he says.

10. “…and we use way too much of it.”

Lawn companies often pile on the mulch, surrounding tree trunks with so much of the stuff that the look is known in the industry as “mulch volcanoes”. That raises the ire of master gardeners as well as industry folks like LaGasse, who says that’s the wrong way to use mulch. “My worry is that if lawn-service employees don’t understand that, what else don’t they know?” he asks.

Among the issues, these volcanoes give animals such as voles a place to tunnel and then nibble at the bark, which damages the tree, particularly if it is young. A thick layer of mulch can also keep rainwater from seeping through to the plant’s roots, which is particularly harmful during the growing season, she says. And if it’s up against a house, mulch creates a cool spot for termites to use to reach your foundations, LaGasse says.

Ziehler says that mulch misuse is “a problem we see every year” and one that professional gardeners typically avoid. Indeed, the Mulch and Soil Council recommends a layer of mulch between 2 inches and 4 inches thick and urges homeowners to take mulch out to the edge of the tree canopy, where roots are most active in absorbing water.

McGrath cautions against piling on more than two inches of mulch, or a plant could die of dehydration. Nor should mulch be put within 20 feet to 40 feet of a light-colored house or car because a fungus can emerge that shoots tar-like balls. That kind of cosmetic damage may not be covered by homeowner insurance, he adds.

View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/10-things-lawn-services-wont-tell-you-2014-03-14

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