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Fertigation: Tap into the Benefits

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Simply put, fertigation is the combination of fertilization with irrigation. It uses the irrigation system to deliver a slow, steady supply of nutrients to the entire landscape. Organic and synthetic fertilizers are both commonly used in fertigation, and in some cases, other enhancements are added as well. There are several benefits to this method of fertilization.

Healthier plants. A fertigation system provides continuous feeding of nutrients at levels that encourage optimal plant health. This slow, steady delivery of nutrients can result in hardier plants that are less susceptible to drought and disease.

Labor savings. With fertigation, the irrigation system does the work. The only labor required is replenishing the supply of fertilizer in the system, monitoring plant health, and making any adjustments as needed.

2_6.jpgLess waste. With fertigation, nutrients are immediately available to plants in quantities they need. Therefore, a smaller amount of product is needed overall to do the job.

Reduced runoff. Because smaller concentrations of fertilizer are applied and delivered at a rate that can be readily absorbed by plants, there is less of it available for pollution from runoff.

Water savings. Plants that are given a continuous supply of nutrients tend to develop stronger root systems that are able to take in water more effectively so they stay green and healthy with less water. Perhaps the most important of these advantages lies with plant health. "?With traditional fertilization, you offer a 'feast or famine' cycle," says Tom Patton, president of EZ-FLO Fertilizing Systems. "You get an initial surge of green that dies back over time. The kind of fertigation we practice, known as 'controlled micro-dosing,' does the opposite. It delivers a very small but very even amount of fertilizer every time you water. You're providing a nutrient-rich environment all the time." All of this can mean greener landscapes that are less dependent on chemicals and excess water. "There's also obviously a huge reduction in labor," says Dan O'Very, vice president of sales and marketing for Fertile Earth, a Utah-based manufacturer of fertigation systems and plant foods.

"The number-one cost for the contractor is labor. If they can reduce the twenty to thirty minutes they spend walking a property to two or three minutes to change a fertilizer cartridge, that's something to get excited about."

With these benefits, it's no wonder that fertigation is catching on quickly with both irrigation and landscape contractors who are looking for better ways to set their companies apart.

"We see this as a way to add quality to our service," says Dan O?Neil, owner of BelleCreeke Landscape Company, a full-service landscaping firm based in Butte and Missoula, Montana. "Our customers are very responsive to it. Many of our clients are well educated on various aspects of lawn and garden care. They understand the importance of developing a better root system."

Roger Waters, owner of Roger Waters Environments based in Woodacre, California, agrees. "Homeowners really 'get it' when you talk to them," he says. "I haven't had anyone turn me down yet." True to his name, staying on top of the best systems for water management has always been a top priority for Waters, whose company offers landscape design, irrigation installation, and a number of specialty landscape services. He found fertigation to be an excellent fit with his service offerings. "This is a crucial component of a good irrigation system," he says. "My customers love it. It takes all of the work out of fertilization."

Environmental considerations are another reason Waters became a fan of this technology. "Our company has a very strong sustainability base," he says. "With fertigation, we're able to provide high quality fertilizer, and I know we're not flushing chemicals into the creek. I feel much better about it."

"I like the way it presents my company to the customer," says Steve Frech, owner of Pacifico Services, a Las Vegas-based pool and landscape maintenance company.

"Fertigation offers nothing but pluses. Installing the system is another way for my company to make money while providing an extra service to the customer. It's also environmentally friendly. You don't have to over-fertilize lawns anymore to get good results. And plants are able to use less water and still look good. That's a big plus for the customer, too."

Eric Zima, owner of New England Irrigation, started offering fertigation two years ago. It was a natural extension of services for his Massachusetts and Connecticut-based company, which specialized in irrigation and landscape lighting. Zima's years of experience in the landscape industry helped him recognize the horticultural advantages of providing nutrients through the irrigation system. His business expertise helped him recognize a quality service when he saw it. "When irrigation people can manage the irrigation system and deliver nutrients at the same time, that's a good thing. By providing fertigation, we're able to offer a continual service. I look at it as another way to offer a whole palette of services in order to attract and hold good customers."

3_2.jpgTapping in

There are a number of ways irrigation and maintenance contractors can add fertigation to their business. At the most basic level, contractors can simply install fertigation systems when they install or upgrade an existing irrigation system. This offers an attractive upsell to many clients. Some contractors offer two or more different brands and models. This way they can market systems with features and price points to suit different customers.

In addition to installing the system, many contractors also provide the ongoing supply of fertilizers. Some also refill and monitor the system, depending on how involved the client wants to be. Because of the substantial reduction in labor costs, some maintenance contractors don't charge customers for the fertigation unit itself. Instead, they include it as part of their standard contracted maintenance services.

Because of the big savings in labor, the units quickly pay for themselves, allowing workers to make better use of their time on the property. "Instead of having to come out and push a spreader, they simply take a few minutes to re-fill the system," says Patton. "It's like having a gardener tending it all the time. They can then spend their time doing other valuable things to make the property look great."

Frech installs fertigation systems and services them, depending on customer needs. "We sell three to five units per week," says Frech. "We either give customers the option of filling their own tanks, or we provide that service. They like how easy it is to use."

Some contractors offer traditional fertilizer applications as well as fertigation. "This might depend on seasonal variations in climate," says Patton. "They may put down granular fertilizer in spring when irrigation isn't needed and then let the irrigation system do it the rest of the year. It's just one more tool in the arsenal of the maintenance contractor."

O'Neill offers both fertigation and traditional granular fertilizer application. He recommends fertigation systems whenever it seems to make sense for his clients. "We identify why we think fertigation might be the best system for them and give them that option. We make money on the installation and show them how to use it. The technology goes hand-in-hand with drip irrigation. It's our biggest upsell for those systems."

Many contractors find fertigation easy to market because the results speak volumes. One of the reasons Waters got involved was due to his discovery of Planet Food, an organic plant food he had used in the past with excellent results. He wanted to use it more, and fertigation made the application much easier. "I had been using it for three or four years before and we'd seen great results," says Waters. "My customers wanted to use it themselves and this made it much easier. Now that people are seeing the incredible results, it will just keep selling itself."

It's not just for breakfast anymore

Fertigation is not just about nutrition. These systems are also being used to deliver a variety of soil enhancers and environmentally-benign pest repellents as well. "Pestigation -- organic pest control products, recently helped us develop a blend of all-natural oil that repels hundreds of the worst insect pests, but is safe for kids and pets."

Fertigator's Mojo, billed as an all-in-one formula, contains not only fertilizers but also an organic soil bio-stimulant and soil conditioners to enhance water flow and absorption. Also included in this multipurpose formula is GatorGuard, a blend of all-natural pest deterrents designed to chase away mosquitoes, fire ants, moles, gophers, and even deer.

3_11.jpgGetting started

When choosing systems, keep in mind your own business plan and the needs of your clients. Will you be filling the unit yourself or will homeowners be doing it? How easy is the system to fill and how often does it require filling? What kind of maintenance is required? Do you want to use a particular brand of fertilizer?

There are a wide variety of fertigation systems available. Some require solutions that are pre-diluted. In others, the system does the measuring and diluting. Some systems accept any solution, while others require one of their own proprietary formulas. Systems that use their own formulas usually offer many options, each adapted to different soil types and nutrition needs. Some systems can be '?dialed up or down' to tailor growth to desired levels. The FertiGator Pro is programmable by zone to provide varying levels of fertilizer to different zones or to shut off fertilizer to particular zones.

Your success with fertigation depends not only on your knowledge of appropriate marketing strategies, but also on your knowledge of basic horticulture. "Educate yourself on this," says Zima. "I absolutely believe that there is a great market for fertigation and a great need for it. But success boils down to the education of the people who install it and service it. Understanding plant science and soil health is a big part of this. You need to be able to recognize a plant that is undernourished or over-nourished. You also need to educate your customers on what they should expect from their system."

Manufacturers offer a number of programs to help contractors learn more about fertigation. EZ-FLO offers an Authorized Installer Program delivered live via the web. Among other things, it covers soil and plant health, water conservation, and ways to effectively integrate fertigation into your business. Information on fertigation is also available through local extension agencies, water districts, and through various sources on the Internet.

 
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