Special 20th Anniversary Section

This month, Turf is celebrating our 20th Anniversary! To commemorate this milestone, we’ve asked some of the industry’s top writers to take us back 20 years in the green industry and give us a sneak peak to where we might be going.

Zero-Turn Riders

by Dexter Ewing

Riding mowers are the bread-and-butter machines of this industry. They handle hills well, are relatively maneuverable, and have the capability and power to run attachments for year-round versatility. Snowplowing, aeration and leaf collection are a few of the tasks these mowers can do, with the proper attachments, in addition to mowing. When cutting decks were mounted in between the wheels, some tasks were a bit difficult, such as trimming underneath low-lying bushes and trees and underneath fences.

This is where front-mount riding mowers come into play. Front-mount mowers place the cutting deck in front of the tractor portion to cut grass before it gets run over by the wheels. This gives the mower more reach to get under obstacles and eliminate secondary trimming operations in these areas. These front mounts, such as Jacobsen’s Turfcat and John Deere’s F700 and F900 series, also have attachments for projects other than just mowing. The front deck-mount/rear steer-type riding mower provided speed and stability for open areas and hills, but with precise trimability with their front-mount deck and rear-steer configuration, which made these types of riding mowers popular with commercial landscapers, municipalities and universities. The liquid-cooled gas or diesel engines added to the durability and longevity of the units.

Enter the zero-turn riding mower. Hustler Turf Equipment is credited with inventing the first zero-turn riding mower back in 1964. It was crude by today’s standards, but was state-of-the-art back then with its front-mounted cutting deck, steering levers instead of a steering wheel, and the steering levers governed the speed and direction of each drive wheel. The zero-turn mower’s advantage over garden tractors and front-mount/rear-steer units is the ability to mow around highly landscaped yards and tight areas with definite ease, without having to shift and reverse and shift again to turn the mower around. Hustler and Dixon were prime examples of companies who primarily produced zero-turn riding mowers. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the zero-turn mower began to take over as the riding mower of choice among professional landscapers. Front-mount zero-turns, such as Grasshopper and Walker mowers, combine the zero-turning radius ability with an out-front cutting deck to offer the ultimate in wide area mowing and precision trimming. The mid-mount zero-turns position the cutting deck between the front and rear wheels. Some popular manufacturers of mid-mount zero-turn riders include BOB-CAT, Exmark, Toro and Scag.  

Riding mowers have progressed over the years not only in design and function, but also durability. Better and more fuel-efficient engines, heavy-duty chassis, high-capacity hydraulic systems and reinforced cutting decks keep these mowers in the field, and out of the repair shop.

Labor Woes

by John Fech

In the mid-’80s, due to various economic factors and other issues, jobs in the green industry tended to be hard to come by. In most sectors of the industry, you had to have your degree, some experience and “know someone” at the company to get your foot in the door.

Summer jobs were no different. The frustration for college kids looking for seasonal work was that you needed experience to get a job, and you needed a job to get experience.

Now, employer after employer talks about the difficulty of finding qualified workers for jobs. They simply can’t find anyone who wants to work. One owner of a midsized lawn and landscape business has said, “I put an ad in the newspaper for a landscaper or grounds maintenance help, at a good wage for this area, and I get maybe one or, at the most, two responses. About half of the time, they don’t show up for the interview, or when they do they aren’t qualified. If I do hire someone, after about a week or so they start coming in late or missing days with flimsy excuses, such as the cat is sick or they have to leave early for someone’s party.”

He went on to say, “It’s taught me to really treat my current employees right. I do all sorts of things: pizza Fridays, lots of pats on the back, employee of the month and so on.”

In many locations, Hispanic labor has filled up the gap. This has led to communication problems, where the supervisors have to learn Spanish to communicate with the workers, and vice versa. Scott Lennemann, assistant superintendent of the Missoula Country Club in Missoula, Mont., says, “I need to be bi-lingual … not necessarily fluent, but to be able to carry on a simple conversation in Spanish, and communicate basic instructions clearly.”

In response, several communication products have become available specific to the green industry for employers of Hispanic workers and employees alike.

Of course, not every prospective employee of European American heritage is lazy or poorly motivated, and not every person of Latin heritage is an enthusiastic hard worker. However, during the mid-1980s in most U.S. communities other than in Texas and the Southwest, having a Hispanic person on your crew was abnormal; now it’s customary.

Safety Becomes Sophisticated

by Barbara Mulhern

Imagine a time when landscape and horticultural services weren’t being targeted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as one of the highest hazard industries in the United States. Or, a time when OSHA wasn’t paying special attention to the safety of Hispanic/Latino workers—in large part because they weren’t yet a major part of the work force.

These are among the many safety-related changes that have occurred within our industry over the last 20 years.

• OSHA targets our industry. Several years ago, landscape contractors, professional lawn care companies and related employers were surprised to learn that OSHA had identified the landscaping industry as one of the top seven highest hazard industries in the United States. This was followed by inspections in many parts of the country—inspections for which employers in our industry were not always prepared. OSHA regulations have been in existence for more than 35 years, but it wasn’t until the last few years that green industry companies have understood that they must always be prepared for a surprise OSHA inspection.

• Safety of Hispanic/Latino workers. As Hispanic/Latino workers continue to become a growing part of our industry’s work force, employers have had to learn to work around potential  language, cultural and literacy level barriers, which can inhibit effective safety communication. OSHA inspectors now have the resources to interview workers in Spanish, and with or without the threat of OSHA, it’s important to understand such cultural issues as a fear of institutions, lack of direct eye contact, and risk-taking often being the norm. Note: OSHA recently reiterated that training native Spanish-speaking workers in Spanish is not enough. Employers must also train them in a manner they will understand.

• The use of modern equipment. The extensive use in our industry of such equipment as zero-turn mowers, which have dramatically gained in popularity in recent years, has made work much quicker and easier than it was 20 years ago. Yet, this and other modern equipment has also resulted in new safety hazards, such as the potential for death due to a rollover on a steep slope or next to water, especially if a rollover protective structure (ROPS) isn’t used.

• Wider selection of protective equipment. Gone are the days when workers can get away with saying they aren’t wearing their safety glasses because they don’t like the look. The proliferation of safety supply companies throughout the United States has resulted in a much wider selection of personal protective equipment (PPE) than in the past. A few examples: You can now purchase safety glasses with clear, tinted gray or smoke-tinted lenses, as well as more mod safety eyewear such as Harley-Davidson safety glasses with silver mirror lenses. Hearing protection these days is no longer just the standard earplugs or earmuffs. Workers can use earmuffs with built-in AM/FM radios and even digital earmuffs with push-button controls.

• Safety training resources. Popularized by the construction industry a number of years back, oral tailgate safety training has now become common among companies in our industry. A proliferation of English-Spanish training resources has significantly helped employers get safety messages across to all workers. Among the many training resources available today are the Internet (both materials on various Web sites and the use of Webcasts), CDs and DVDs, and even self-directed computerized training that can be done at a worker’s own pace. Many insurers also have video lending libraries, hazard inspection checklists and other resources that can be used. The long (and sometimes very dull) safety lecture in a large classroom is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  

Pest Control

by John Fech

Cygon, Dursban, Oftanol—three of the most used tools in just about any lawn care or landscape company’s normal routine. These products, and others like them, have been replaced with newer materials, but it’s not just a matter of simple replacement.

The philosophy of pest control is the major difference. In the days when Turf was cranking out its first edition, the prevalent protocol was “spray and pray.” This approach involved loading up the spray rig with a mixture of insecticides and fungicides, rolling up to the customer’s property and spraying it on every tree and shrub in sight. In most cases, the plants didn’t have any actual pests, or even a history of pest damage. With this method, applications were made without regard to timing or level of pest damage.

In some situations, a pest such as scale or apple scab actually was a threat to the health of the customer’s plant, but the application was made two months before the proper time, so the results were not satisfactory.

In addition, the protocol was usually characterized by “one size fits all,” where every customer received the exact same pesticide and fertilizer products, regardless of effectiveness.

The concept of prescription landscape care is now gaining acceptance. The major differences between the two are regular landscape and turfgrass plant inspections instead of random curative applications, an emphasis on creating a more favorable growing environment for the plants and consideration of low-toxicity treatment methods.

The concept of making money on IPM (integrated pest management) and PHC (plant health care) has been a long time coming. Instead of being paid for the amount of product that can be sprayed on a tree or lawn, the profit comes from time spent monitoring plant health and determining a need for fertilizer, mulch, compost, aeration, insecticides, fungicides or any other treatment. Yet, way too many companies still need to change to make a significant difference. “Unfortunately, it’s still a spray to get paid business. The concept is there for most owners of lawn care companies, but the actual usage or implementation has not caught on to the degree that we would like, or would have envisioned when we introduced it in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” says Dr. Donald Lewis, professor of entomology at Iowa State University.

In addition to the discontinuance of most organophosphates and carbamates, the synthetic pyrethroids, horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps and other low-toxicity materials are applied in a plant health care format. These applications are made as needed to plants with a history of damage.

The customer has changed as well. In fact, if a customer complained that ants, grubs or aphids weren’t dying fast enough, the best response used to be to spray the entire property with malathion. When applied, malathion produces a strong odor; most customers associated a strong smell with effective results.

Some of your clients may actually feel the same way today, but more and more, a desire for environmental sensitivity is being adopted.

Design Choices

by John Fech

The phrases “curb appeal,” “escrow flowers,” and “location, location, location” have their origins in the ’80s. Each of these emphasizes the importance of looking good as the first priority, rather sustainability.

Who could argue with this approach? Everyone loves a landscape with color. Surveys conducted during the 1980s indicated that color in every season (and lots of it) was the most important issue among clients of landscape firms. Garden center and nursery shoppers were much the same, if not more insistent on color and beauty over function and stewardship.

What’s changed?

In the ’90s, the concept of xeriscaping, once banished only to the desert Southwest, became the “chic” landscape style. True xeriscaping is a great model; its seven steps are common-sense considerations for landscape. However, regardless of how much they were persuaded, snowbirds from the North and southerners alike couldn’t get past the false perception of rocks and cactus that arose in their minds when the term xeriscape was mentioned.

In response, instead of a packaged, seven-part concept, individual components began being touted. Right plant, right place became a catch phrase, and several books were written with the idea of placing specimens in the landscape with sun/shade, soil moisture, size, pH, winter color, landscape debris and pest resistance in mind.

We’ve learned the value of a good site assessment. Landscape design firms now routinely perform a two-part procedure with clients. First, they walk the property, jotting down notes. Then, they place value judgments and diagnostic possibilities for the condition of the existing landscape. These are combined with the client’s desires to create a sustainable landscape that addresses the needs of the site and the client. The client may still wish primarily for color, but instead of focusing only on beauty, other site factors are taken into consideration as well. The principles of separation of turf and ornamentals and mass/void have eased their way into the industry and made it possible to create landscapes that are eco-friendly, yet are pleasant to look at. “There is an ongoing awareness of the environment  and our effect on it, and a willingness and openness to a living green life style. It is reflected with current landscape design and is shown by the use of native plants, trees and shrubs. While the 1980s landscape philosophy placed a high importance on curb appeal, today that approach is still true, but we have added to it landscape sustainability. It is important to design a landscape that fits with the house and surroundings and also to compliment Mother Nature by working with her and not against her, designing for both aesthetic and functional reasons,” says Michaela Fortina Forst, principal of Fortina Forst Landscape Design in Omaha, Neb.

The plant evaluation networks (All America Selections, National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, etc.), pack trials and consumer demand have encouraged the development of newer and better plants—more disease resistant, drought tolerant, longer season of bloom and hardier to a greater number of plant zones.

In 2008, nearly every manufacturer (cars, clothes, soft drinks, etc.), as well as energy companies, have gone to great lengths to tout how “green” they are. Planting projects (green roofs, reforestation, roadside plantings, various school projects) to cure the ills created by 100 years of hedonism are commonplace. These projects are welcome, of course, but most horticulturists wish that the efforts were altruistic, rather than just good business decisions.

Water, Water Everywhere

by John Fech

Twenty years ago, for most of the country, water was an inexpensive, abundant and high-quality natural resource. Because of this, turf managers made sure that every plant that they grew had plenty, whether they needed it or not. It was considered a sort of insurance. When new, residential developments or golf courses were planned, it was just assumed that there would be adequate water for the turf and landscape. I have a friend that grew up in a small town where residential water usage was not metered; customers simply received a monthly flat rate bill. But, no more.

In this decade, the demand of some cities has outgrown supply. Limited water supplies have led to a change in the way just about everyone thinks about water.

Now, instead of “water everything wall to wall,” water management means water zones, reclaimed water, low water plants, municipal output ordinances and limits on development. Water has become such a huge issue that one state bringing suit against another over water rights is news, but not surprising news by any stretch of the imagination.

Turf and landscape managers have been encouraged to maintain properties more efficiently. A variety of methods have been developed, including evapotranspiration measurements, irrigation system audits and installing low-water-usage areas. Brian Faye of BF Landscaping, Inc., in Santa Barbara, Calif., says, “it used to be that when you designed a new project, you just assumed that there would be plenty of high-quality water available. Now, not only is it scarce in some locales, you have to really make sure that your delivery system is as efficient as possible by running regular performance checks.”

These efforts to increase efficiency have been both frustrating and welcome. For example, after a good, hard look, a superintendent may be able to identify areas of turf that they’ve been irrigating similarly to tees and fairways. Other than being a green space, they have no real function or purpose, and in most cases can get by on natural rainfall. On the other hand, the greens and other high-importance sections of the course must have adequate supplies of non-contaminated water to maintain quality. Some superintendents and property managers have had to supplement with reclaimed water, which has led to turf damage on occasion.

Many factors have led to the guiding principle of watering to the depth of the root system (plus an inch or so to encourage deeper rooting), but no more. More is wasteful, and less is inadequate for the plant’s needs.

The cost of water and the equipment is rising along with all other green industry materials. Water audits have become popular, or even mandatory, in some areas.

In addition to supply and demand, research and observations by university researchers have led to a change in considerations for disease control as well. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the recommendation for watering was “deep and infrequent.” Dr. Joe Vargas of the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation (and others) began realizing that if turf was infected with summer patch, a disease that causes many of the plant roots to soften and die, the deep and infrequent routine didn’t make sense. If the roots were shallow and thin, they would dry out after a couple of days under this protocol, adding more stress to the plant.

Observations made in underground root monitoring chambers affirmed this shift and, coupled with the long-known phenomenon of the cyclical nature of cool-season grasses, recommendations changed. Now the approach is to measure the moisture content of the soil, document the most recent water losses from the leaves and anticipate the demand on a daily or frequent basis.

Walk-Behind Mowers

by Dexter Ewing

Walk-behind mowers are versatile performers, and are currently available in cutting widths from 21 inches to 61 inches. For many years, gear-drive transmissions for intermediate walk-behinds were used. They were ruggedly constructed and could withstand many hours of use and the rigors associated with commercial mowing. Later, the dual hydro-drive became popular, as it offered more maneuverability and control over gear-drive walk-behinds. The operator of a hydro unit has the capability to not only have independent control over each drive wheel, but also reverse a drive wheel, making zero-degree turns possible, depending on turf conditions. Controlling the speed and direction of fluid moving through the wheel motors via the pumps, dual hydro-drive units offered dynamic control over gear drives.

The cutting decks of walk-behind mowers were beefed up to withstand the punishment that commercial mowing applications are capable of dishing out. Toro’s Turbo Force, Scag’s Velocity Plus, John Deere’s 7 Iron II and Hustler’s XR-7 cutting decks are examples of the companies outfitting the decks to meet the demands of commercial cutter, which are able to withstand punishment and produce a better quality of cut at a faster ground speed due to well-designed airflow and a higher velocity of clipping discharge with no clumping or windrowing.  

Perhaps the most popular accessory for walk-behind mowers, besides a grass catcher, is a riding sulky. The sulky converts the walk-behind mower into a riding mower. Its main function is to reduce operator fatigue from not having to physically walk behind the mower. Wright Manufacturing’s Velke and Velke x2, Jungle Jim’s Jungle Wheels and SS Sulkies and Novae’s Proslide can universally fit any brand of walk-behind, and some manufacturers offer sulkies that fit only their own mowers, like Toro’s Tru-Trak and Better Outdoor Products’ Step Saver.  

A recent innovation in intermediate walk-behinds is the transition to ergonomic controls, moving away from traditional pistol grip controls that have been known to cause repetitive motion injuries. These ergonomic controls reduce the common pressure points on the user’s hands. Toro was the first company to experiment with non-pistol grip controls with the introduction of their T-bar controls in 1984.  In addition to the T-bar, they have introduced the split T-bar controls for their dual-hydro walk-behind series.  Other companies have followed suit with their own ergonomic controls like Exmark’s ECS, Scag’s Pro V and BOB-CAT’s Z Control.