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Gas for Grass: Does There Have to be a Tradeoff?

AMANDA RICHTER | Landscape Maintenance

You`re cruising down the highway, and you notice that the needle on your fuel gauge leans toward the empty mark. You pull into the nearest gas station and hop out of your truck. Shielding your eyes from the sun, you scan the large sign that broadcasts the prices for regular, plus, premium and diesel.

Suddenly your throat constricts. Three dollars and eighty-seven cents for a gallon of regular? Wasn’t it just $3.79 two days ago? And $3.45 only a few months before that? What’s going on? Are we the target of some kind of gas-price Russian roulette?

Every day the price of crude oil seems to skyrocket to new records. Some experts predict prices will go as high as $200 per barrel before the bubble bursts and global consumption drops low enough to send gas prices back down. But trying to make predictions about the oil market is as tricky as trying to forecast the weather or the outcome of the Super Bowl. Time was that those same experts said $3 per gallon was the limit to what consumers would pay. By today’s standards, $3 per gallon sounds like a real bargain.

High prices at the pump are here to stay, and with the traditionally heavy driving summer months still ahead, it appears they’ll get worse before they get any better. One of the more recent reasons for the spike was federal legislation that called for incorporating more ethanol into transportation fuels. The goal is to reduce our daily oil imports by 1.5 million barrels by 2017. This has caused refineries to fall behind in ethanol production and import more oil to meet demand, adding to the increase in price. If you’re a maintenance contractor, you suffer additional headaches brought on by increasing gas prices. Not only are you worried about getting your crews to the jobsite, you’re also facing the cost of powering lawn mowers and equipment once they get there.

To deal with the situation, some contractors have tried using surcharges based on gas prices. If prices top a predetermined amount, a small surcharge will be implemented based on the service. Another way to turn a profit is to raise the prices of your services each year in smaller increments. However, an inadvertent consequence of both approaches is that clients may decide that they don’t need professional lawn maintenance and will take over such duties on their own.

Does there have to be a tradeoff between gas and grass? Is there any way to grow your business and avoid being sucked down by off-the-chart gas prices?

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The role of plant and turf growth regulators

One way to navigate this conundrum may include the use of plant growth regulators (PGRs) and turf growth regulators to manage vegetative growth and reduce maintenance expenses. Today’s PGRs, which are available under various trade names, include trinexapacethyl (TE), paclobutrazol (PA), flurprimidol (FL), mefluidide (ME) and ethephon (E). Although PGRs debuted with a bad reputation for phytotoxicity, increased susceptibility to weeds and reduced recuperative potential, advances have made them effective for suppressing growth and clippings. Depending on the product, frequency of mowing can be reduced by about 50% for three to four weeks. PGRs may have an even longer lasting effect on shrubs and ornamentals, with growth being suppressed for several months. Most PGRs are not restricted use products, although some states may have special conditions.

According to Dr. Dennis Shepard, a regional technical manager with Syngenta in Franklin, Tennessee, “PGRs work by affecting one or more plant hormones that play a role in cell elongation, cell division or ethylene production.”

Bob Yarborough, a marketing and sales manager for Advan LLC in Roswell, Georgia, adds, “PGRs can affect the formation of hormones called gibberellic acids that cause cells to elongate. So when gibberellic acid formation is inhibited, plants respond by reducing their vegetative growth.” These types of PGRs are called Type I growth regulators. Type II growth regulators work in a different way, explains Roger Storey, vice president, turf and ornamental business, for SePRO Corporation in Carmel, Indiana. “Type II growth regulators inhibit cell division in the plant’s meristematic tips.”

Similar to other products, PGRs can be absorbed either through the foliage or the roots. Foliar uptake products may act faster, but there is the potential for foliage injury to occur. Also, the application must be consistent to be effective. PGRs that work via root uptake, on the other hand, must be irrigated so that product can move into the soil. Given that there are a range of soil types, the amount of water needed can vary. Moreover, PGRs that are absorbed in this way can take more time to start slowing growth. However, some root-absorbed products remain effective for longer. Repeated PGR applications will cause turf density to increase dueto enhanced production of stolons, rhizomes and tillers. Trees and turf will become fortified against disease and more tolerant of foot traffic and weather extremes. Some PGRs will also improve overseeding establishment, and others may enhance flowering on many species of landscape ornamentals.

Although turfgrass will become healthier, it may be affected in terms of color. Because the chlorophyll will be more concentrated, turf may become darker green. The results will vary according to the species. Yarborough says, “Bentgrass, for example, will become greener, while others such as annual bluegrass will experience discoloration. However, since PGRs are generally used at low rates, the potential for discoloration is fairly low.”

“If PGRs had a negative effect on the appearance of plants, no one would use them,” says Richard Wills, general manager of Lawnscape Systems in Montclair, California. “In fact, today’s PGRs seem to produce superior-looking plants.”

Without much tailoring, fertilizer programs can accommodate PGR use. PGRs will simply help plants make more efficient use of their nutrients. The two chemicals will affect different areas of a plant and work together. Storey says that “immediate-release fertilizers containing high nitrogen will stimulate lush growth. This type of fertilizer application, in conjunction with a PGR application, is like driving a car and pushing on both the brake and gas pedal at the same time. PGRs can be used very effectively with a fertilizer program that provides the plant’s needed nutrients but can reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphate necessary to gain the desired plant color and quality.”

According to Shepard, another benefit associated with trinexapacethyl is water savings. Good news, since water, like gas, is a precious resource these days. With increased lateral turf growth, the leaves may become smaller and more compact, meaning that there is less surface area for transpiration and evaporation. Shepard adds, “The increased number of roots will have access to deeper soil moisture. And as gibberellic acid levels decrease, abscisic acid (ABA) levels increase. ABA aids in stomatal closure and water conservation.” However, he cautions that no one PGR will provide all of these benefits. Each works best on certain plants and types of turfgrass. Therefore, it’s important for any user to focus on the intended result before honing in on a certain product.

Although PGRs may be mixed and applied with fertilizers and fungicides, a common mistake is to assume that each product will work as well as if it had been applied separately. Follow the mixing sequence dictated on the product’s label and test the mix on a small area and evaluate the results before applying to an entire lawn or field. Herbicides should be applied separately.

Shepard instructs users to begin PGR application only if turf is healthy and actively growing. For warm-season turf, early summer is a good time to begin because turf will have recovered from dormancy and will have been mowed a couple of times. For cool-season turf, spring is the target date. In both cases, the slight risk for phytotoxicity can be offset by adding nitrogen (or iron for cool-season turfgrass) to the tank. As the season progresses and the turf becomes vigorous, higher PGR rates may be necessary to maintain growth suppression.

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“For landscaped ornamentals,” says Storey, “contractors should apply in the spring before the plants start growing aggressively. Then reapply every three to four months in the South and every six months in the North.”

Lanny Dixon, a certified pest control operator for Broward County Public Schools in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, cautions that PGRs should not be applied to areas with weed infestations. “The weeds will grow faster than the turf,” Dixon explains. Contractors should be aware of products that have strong odors and “avoid using them in areas where odors may be objectionable.” Nonetheless, Dixon is a fan of PGRs and is looking for ways to incorporate them into the district’s turf and landscape management program. “It helps maintain our athletic fields with a dense stand of turf that we can reduce our mowing efforts on, suppresses seedhead production and helps us get through the heavy summer rains when we can’t get back to an area for 21 days.”

All it takes is a little math to see the potential cost savings. If an operator burns about two gallons of fuel per hour while mowing, multiply two by the number of mowers you have in operation and the current cost of fuel in your area. Then factor in the average mileage per gallon of your fleet and you’ll quickly see how much money stands to be saved by cutting the number of mowing jobs in half or better. This figure doesn’t even account for decreased wear and tear to your equipment and the reduction in labor. The initial cost of PGRs may be higher, but if you are able to reduce the amount of mowings or take on more customers, the return on investment has definite potential.

As we coast into the summer months ahead, plant and turf growth regulators may offer significant benefits for landscape contractors—including a little relief from soaring gas prices. You might not have to drop clients or charge more for your services. Just because the days of double digit gas prices are gone doesn’t mean your days of making money from lawn maintenance have to be, too.

 
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