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Fert...Fertilize...Fertigate...Fertigation

RICHARD LENTI | Fertilizer
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In a world of one-stop shopping, more and more landscape contractors are discovering that it is extremely profitable to offer add-on services to many of the projects they complete. Jobs that were once sub-contracted out, such as landscape maintenance, are now being seen as additional sources of revenue.

For many design/build contractors, taking on these new services is not only a perfect fit, but it makes total sense. Using these add-on features and service contracts can help to smooth out the economic peaks and valleys that are inherent in the world of construction, by ensuring a steady cash flow. And since you’re already familiar with the property, you have an advantage over any outsider.

Photo Courtesy: Fertigator

Of all the services you can provide, landscape maintenance offers the greatest opportunity of ancillary profits. Beyond mowing lawns, sprinklers need to be maintained, trees need to be trimmed, pests and weeds controlled. Yet of all the work you do, it’s that lush, green turf in your care that is your greatest calling card. Because it more than likely dominates the landscape, how goes the lawn, so goes your repeat business.

But maintaining a client’s lawn doesn’t have to be a challenge. How you fertilize the turf will determine how well it prospers. What you do, and don’t do, translates into either success or failure. Since failure is not an option, knowing how and when to fertilize a lawn is essential. While the tried and true method of spreading granular fertilizers can achieve the desired goal, another option that’s been around for years is starting to take hold among landscape contractors. It’s called fertigation.

If you’re not familiar with the term fertigation, the process itself is simple enough. It’s the application of fertilizers through an irrigation system. For more than 30 years, farmers have taken advantage of its benefits. Then it caught on with golf course groundskeepers. Over the past decade, its popularity in the commercial and residential landscape market has skyrocketed to an annual growth rate of 30%.

Yet despite that growth, some are reluctant to test the fertigation waters. “When people are used to doing things a certain way,” says Dave Cross of FertiGator in St. Charles, Missouri, “it’s hard to change them. But like anything else, almost all great technologies started very slowly with a high level of resistance. But when the benefits become known to a lot of people, it becomes the accepted way of doing things. Just look at the internet.”

A fertigation system is, in essence, an automatic fertilizer injection system that attaches to any in-ground sprinkler system, providing a precise amount of fertilizer over a specific period of time. The key word here is automatic. Once the injector is installed, it takes the guesswork out of fertilization. You don’t have to worry about overfeeding or underfeeding the turf. All you do is refill a cartridge on an average of every four to six weeks.


Because fertigation allows you to control the flow of fertilizer into the irrigation system, you can change the mix to reflect the seasonal or nutritional needs of that specific parcel. Many fertigation manufacturers have their own line of fertilizers, eliminating the guess work involved when choosing the right formula for your specific needs. Companies that just sell fertigation systems have specific recommendations for what fertilizers work best under what conditions. When in doubt, just ask the manufacturer.

The very nature of the process eliminates the need for most applications of fertilizer with a hand-held or walk-behind spreader. If you’re not careful, the monthly fertilization of turf can subject it to a cycle of over-feeding, followed by weeks of near-starvation until the next application. Time-released dry granular fertilizers are designed to help avoid that problem.

By using an irrigation system to supply lawns and plants with small amounts of fertilizer on a frequent basis -- spoon feeding if you will -- it allows them to thrive in a nutrient-rich environment. Because nitrogen and other necessary nutrients are consumed quickly, fertigation supplies these much-needed nutrients on a regular, consistent basis, spreading it out over six weeks versus one application. The end result is a healthy, vibrant, lush, trouble-free lawn. And a healthy lawn is the best defense against the weeds and disease that often plague turf.

There’s also this to consider -- according to Dan Gilmore, of EZ-FLO Fertilizing Systems in Loomis, California, you’ll use up to 80% less fertilizer; and the plants and lawns absorb 90% of the fertilizer that’s delivered by fertigation, resulting in stronger root growth and better plant health.

And if a beautiful lawn doesn’t make your clients happy, this will—fertigation will also save them money by cutting down on water usage by as much as 35%. “With fertigation,” says Gilmore, “you’re utilizing water more efficiently at the plant level by developing a stronger, deeper root base capable of taking advantage of all the water that’s delivered.”
Before
Photo Courtesy: EZ-Flo
After
Photo Courtesy: EZ-Flo

With concerns over water conservation growing, another benefit is the ability to fertilize through a drip system. By their very nature, drip systems would not supply enough water to dissolve dry material that the plants can utilize. You could spray the plants with water to activate the dry fertilizer, but that defeats the whole point of using a drip system in the first place. Some fertigation systems feature a micro-dosing capability that allows you to apply nitrogen and other nutrients well below the clean water act maximums

“The initial reason why we came up with our injector about 15 years ago,” says Tom Strong, of Strong Enterprises in Roseville, California, “was because we were very much interested in drip irrigation and the conservation of water. And the only way you could fertilize with the drip irrigation system, unless you had micro-sprays, was to have fertilizer in with the water.”

“We also discovered that if you have an overhead or pop-up sprinkler system for your turf, that fertigation worked equally as well. The benefits, especially with a drip system, are that not only do you now have a delivery system, but you’re going to save on fertilizer because you’re not spreading it throughout the entire area where you have plantings. The fertilizer is being directed to each individual plant.”

Micro-nutrients and surfactants are also easily introduced to the lawn and plants, making them healthier and more resistant to pests and weeds. “We include an all-organic bio-stimulant in our fertilizer,” says Kary Burns of FertileEarth Corporation in Sandy, Utah, “which is designed to stimulate microbial activity in the soil. The fertilizer feeds the plant, but the bio-stimulant activates the soil’s natural eco-system by extracting nutrients from dead and dying organisms and plant material in the soil. So it’s not just injecting fertilizer, but turning on the soil system.”

Even without considering the merits of fertigation for the turf, there’s a basic marketing strategy to be gained by including it in your services. By offering your clients the option of fertigation, you will set yourself apart from all the other landscape contractors who don’t.

“We all know that landscaping, maintenance, lawn care, fertilization, and irrigation are generally me-too type services,” says Cross. “Everyone offers the same basic package of services and products. You like to think you have something unique about your company, but generally it’s hard to separate yourself. When you’re competing in an apples-to-apples comparison, then price becomes a huge factor. If you can offer a unique, different service, it’s going to have an advantage for you and your clients.”

Once you install a fertigation system, then you can offer an add-on service contract where you maintain that system. In fact, with all the benefits and savings it provides the client, the system will sell itself. All that’s left for you is to decide what system is best for the job at hand.

Basically, the process of fertigation is accomplished by using either an electronic-or water-driven injection pump, or a manual proportioning system (aspiration device) that uses water flow to introduce the fertilizer to the irrigation system.

Manual systems (water-driven pumps, injectors and aspiration devices) do not require an electronic controller, there are no wires, making them easy to install. They generally have few or no moving parts, require little maintenance, and can be installed in about half an hour. Electronic pumps and controllers require current to operate and will take a little longer to install.

Small and medium-sized lawns are effectively maintained by all types of systems. Larger lawns can also be properly maintained with manual devices, but can be limited by the tank size of the fertilizer or system. You may need an electronically-driven system if the property has complex landscape needs. But unlike other sidelines of irrigation and landscaping, fertigation allows you to expand your business without buying any new equipment.

With all the benefits it can offer, fertigation should be an easy sell. Still, you may encounter some resistance from your clients. That’s where success on other jobs comes into play. Once you begin installing these systems, you will have a resume of healthy lawns and happy clients. Take advantage of that track record.

You might want to consider trying a fertigation system on your own home. It gives you hands-on experience before you start selling it to your clients. And once the horticultural benefits begin manifesting themselves, your lawn will serve as a billboard. The system will sell itself.

Another approach that will ensure repeat business is to offer fertigation as part of a service plan with no up-front costs to your clients. “Depending on the service package,” says Cross, “you can offer a one-or-two year agreement that lets the client own the unit, or gives him free use. Kind of like leasing a cable modem box from their cable company. Or like a satellite dish, where you get it free, but you have to purchase a two-year agreement.”

What that does is open the size of your market, because many consumers are put off by large, up-front cash expenditures, compared to a monthly fee. “It will make it very attractive to your clients,” says Cross. “Then the conversion rate of clients that will buy the service will go up dramatically.”

Adding fertigation to your service offerings also gives you more chances to upgrade the services you provide a client and the property you’re maintaining. “There’s not a better opportunity to upsell the existing customer base that you’re already providing with services,” says Burns. “Do you want me to tune up your irrigation system? Do you want me to upgrade your timer? Would you like me to install a water feature?”

“We really stress that this is just a great business tool,” adds Cross. “It’s not a means of taking away your fertilizer business, but adding to it. It’s no different than a motorized spreader, or something else that helps apply the fertilizer more quickly.”

For the landscape contractor, fertigation is like having an employee caring for that property every day. It’s a cost-effective, labor-saving service that allows you to utilize your workforce in other areas. For your clients, it’s a trouble-free system that saves them money while making their landscape look better than ever. Roses will bloom longer; newly planted trees will grow faster and establish themselves more quickly. For everyone involved, it’s the start of a beautiful relationship.

 
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