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Growth Regulators: Trimming Costs with BioScience

ROBIN WESTMILLER | Landscape Maintenance

How much time do you spend shaving every morning? No matter if you use an electric or straight-edge razor, or how close the cut, you have to shave again the next day and the next, and the next.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could slow down hair growth so you would only have to shave every other day, or once a week, or even once a month? Imagine the amount of extra time you’d have to do other things.

Landscape maintenance is a lot like shaving. Your crew mows a property on Monday, but the grass doesn’t stop growing. Depending on the time of year and weather conditions, your crew will return to that same site the following Monday, and the next and the next.

Even if the grass has not grown that much, it still needs to be gone over for that neat, trim look. Although the shrubs and other plant material may not grow as quickly, they too need trimming or pruning in order to keep that property looking its best.

Welcome to the world of plant growth regulators (PGRs). PGRs have been around for quite a few years and have become an important tool in the landscape service provider’s toolbox for a myriad of reasons.

If you could slow down plant growth so that your crew only needed to visit a site every other week, or even once a month, imagine the savings . . . especially in the current environment. The squeeze has been on for landscape maintenance companies to lower their prices or cut back on services because their clients were tightening their belts as well. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the price of fuel skyrocket, and that puts additional pressure on service providers.

While science hasn’t yet invented a quick and easy growth regulator for hair, the bioscience industry has developed a wide range of growth regulators for plants.

By using PGRs, you could cut back your weekly visits. This would give your crews extra time to service other properties and allow you to add new clients.

“One of the functions of a plant growth regulator is to inhibit the growth of stems and leaves,” says Brian E. Corr, Ph.D., product development manager, Valent Bio- Sciences Corporation, Libertyville, Illinois. “PGRs work by interfering with meristems—the actively dividing group of cells in the crowns, rhizomes and stolons of grass plants that are responsible for most growth and development, while not interfering with the plant’s respiration, photosynthesis, or other internal functions.”


In addition to mowing and trimming lawns, plant growth regulators can also help minimize the cost and labor associated with pruning shrubs and bushes.


Or, in simpler terms, PGRs slow down the growth of a plant without killing it. The result is that the landscape stays alive and vibrant, and will still need to be mowed and trimmed, only not nearly as often.

It doesn’t take a biochemist to figure out that if you can cut down on the number of visits your crews need to make to a site, it will free them to service other properties. This will enable you to add more clients without having to increase your number of workers. Slowing the growth of turf is only one benefit of using a PGR.

“We use PGRs for many different reasons besides reducing mowing,” says Ken Wentland, client representative for KEI Enterprises, Oak

Creek, Wisconsin. “We find that PGRs are a huge advantage on smaller areas where the crews need to use a string trimmer. String trimming, hand trimming and edging are some of the most laborintensive tasks involved in landscape maintenance, especially during the times of the year when the turf growth rate is very high.

“Applying a PGR can eliminate up to two-thirds of the trimming required to keep edges neat around obstacles such as curbs, irrigation sprinkler heads, trees, fences, and walkways. By applying a PGR, our crews finish the job and don’t have to return to trim again, sometimes for weeks.”

There’s also the labor savings involved with using a PGR. Some companies will have one crewman per site in charge of string trimming. While you’re waiting for the grass to grow to a height where it needs to be trimmed, that crewman can be moved to another job. This type of rotation helps train crews in more than one task and helps reduce the need to hire additional staff.

In addition to mowing and trimming lawns, plant growth regulators can also help minimize the cost and labor associated with pruning shrubs and bushes.

“There are PGRs specifically for shrubs and ground covers,” says Todd Bunnell, turf and ornamental research manager for SePRO in Carmel, Indiana. “When the right PGR is applied, it can last up to three months, reducing the amount of labor involved in trimming the shrubs. In addition, less trimming means fewer clippings, and fewer clippings mean lower costs associated with hauling debris away from the jobsite.”

PGR use on shrubs and bushes will also inhibit the growth of leaves. Plants that have fewer—or smaller—leaves use less water, which is an added benefit in areas where water conservation is mandated and irrigation is heavily regulated. PGRs can also improve the overall health and vigor of the turf, resulting in better color, improved stress tolerance and better root development.


“Once you’ve started using PGRs, you may notice that the color of the turf has changed,” says Corr. “Lawns will become darker and more vibrant because the leaf tissue becomes more compacted and fills with greater amounts of chlorophyll per unit leaf area, which causes the dark green color.”

With all the advantages of using plant growth regulators, you would think that their use would be part of every landscape service program. However, while the application and use of growth regulators may appear simple on the surface, you can’t just walk into your local distributor and grab a plant growth regulator the way you can a sack of fertilizer.

“All growth regulators are regulated as pesticides, which means that anyone who wants to use a PGR must have a pesticide license,” says Bunnell. “Any manufacturer who claims that their product regulates turf has to go through the same regulatory requirements as a pesticide, including being registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and any state regulatory agency. For landscape contractors who don’t apply pesticides, they might not want to get a license just to be able to use a PGR.”

Even though the EPA says that PGRs are pesticides, essentially, plant growth regulators are very safe. Unlike pesticides which kill insects, or herbicides that kill weeds, or fungicides that control disease, PGRs aren’t designed to kill anything. However, as with any federally regulated product, it is essential that you read the label to make sure you’re using PGRs correctly.

For example, SePRO manufactures a granular growth regulator for outdoor perennial landscape ornamental plants that contains the active ingredient flurprimidol, while Syngenta’s PRIMO is specifically made to manage growth of warm- and cool-season turfgrasses and contains the active ingredient trinexapac-ethyl.

It seems there are just as many different plant growth regulators as there are different types of plants, so you can see how important it is that you take the necessary training and become familiar with what you need to use and where you need to use it, if you’re going to add a PGR program. The next step is knowing when to apply PGRs. Just like pre- and postemergent weed controls, pesticides and fertilizers, PGRs will only be fully effective when they’re applied at the correct time of the year.

“The best time to apply a PGR is mid-to-late spring,” says Wentland. “You have to let the grass mature, so I’d suggest applying it after your second or third mowing. You can also do a second application in the late summer or early fall. It’s important to remember that the grass can’t be in any kind of drought stress; it needs to be actively growing for the PGR to work properly.”

Pre-stress conditioning is another benefit to using a PGR. Dean Mosdell, Ph.D., technical manager for Syngenta, says that the purpose of pre-stress conditioning is to prepare turfgrass for extreme conditions before they hit. “Implementing a program which includes an application of a plant growth regulator prior to the onset of stresses like heat, drought, disease and traffic can strengthen the turf and, therefore, allow it to withstand ongoing stresses throughout the season,” Mosdell said.

Plant growth regulators are typically packaged in either a liquid or granular form. Liquid PGRs are labeled for use with a hand-held or backpack sprayer, although boom sprayers may be permitted for larger areas.

Whether you use a liquid or granular PGR, you have to be extremely careful to spread the product uniformly over the area. “If you put more on one side than the other, you’ll get a lot more growth suppression. Whoever makes the application needs to make sure they spread the material equally,” said Wentland.


Most plant growth regulators are absorbed through the leaf surface, so only the grass or the shrubs that are sprayed will be affected.


If you’re using a spray applicator, a good method is to walk in a straight line with the sprayer to the side. As you spray, try to catch the light glistening off the freshly sprayed grass. If you can see the glistening grass from only one direction, try walking backward on the return trip.

You can also use a grass-marking dye. These dyes are mixed directly into your spray solution and will indicate where you have sprayed and if you missed any areas.

Most plant growth regulators are absorbed through the leaf surface, so only the grass that is sprayed will be affected. Any grass that is missed will remain unaffected and will likely produce uneven grass growth. Do not spray any material on a windy day.


Plants are living material and playing Mother Nature takes an enormous amount of scientific study and research to make certain that regulating growth is done safely and carefully. If you are looking into starting a PGR program, do the research. Make sure you choose the right products for the right job. If you don’t, you could end up doing a lot more harm than good.

Remember, there is a cost to purchasing plant growth regulators.

To successfully integrate PGRs into your maintenance program, it’s important to carefully balance the cost with the anticipated savings. As the cost of labor and fuel rise, PGRs are becoming a more economical choice.

While you can’t always control the growth of the economy, a good PGR program may help you control the growth of your business.

 
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