Landscape Management Practices
Questions You Should Ask & Answers You Should Get
Do you have a current copy of your Landscape contractors license through the Board for Contractors, pesticide licenses (pesticide applicators certificate-valid for two years and pesticide business license-renewed yearly), and a certificate of insurance provided by your insurance company?
Everyone providing landscaping services should have a contractor’s license with a company specific verifiable identification number. This will allow you to obtain information about the company, such as filed complaints and lawsuits. Any use of pesticides by a company for hire necessitates a license from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Education and training requirements must be met to obtain a license and continuing education courses have to be taken to maintain it. Having someone on-site that has up-to-date insurance for their company and employees protects you, the contractor, and their employees. Certificates of insurance should be requested before any work begins.
Does your company operate from a business plan or at least have the means to monitor and control growth so I can expect consistent and quality service?
Companies need some kind of plan to manage growth and maintain good customer service. A business plan forces them to evaluate all levels of performance. Someone should be able to explain the basics of their operations that impact the management of your property. Quality service should be apparent from the beginning and should not fluctuate throughout the terms of the contract. However, typically a company starts off doing a great job, but as they grow, their one-on-one ability and overall quality drops. This problem is due to the misconception by many contractors that adding accounts will always positively impact company performance. They want as many accounts as possible and little if any planning is involved. The importance of developing good working relationships with customers, where high levels of customer satisfaction are in balance with company quality standards and the ability to realize a reasonable profit, is not the basis for growth. It really is the quality of accounts, for both parties, not the quantity that should matter.
What resources (extension specialists, university professors, trade associations, journals, etc.) do you have access to in order to stay current with changes that might effect or benifit the management of my property?
Having a company that is active in and educated about the green industry will positively impact their management strategies and your property. Virginia is home to several seminars and conferences throughout the year that offer training and provide current information (legislation, compliance issues, new and/or restricted chemicals) on the green industry. State extension specialists and testing facilities are available for the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of disease and insect problems. Formal education in horticulture and related fields (entomology, plant physiology, biology, etc.) by company employees ensures they are trained in areas that directly impact the performance and appearance of your landscape. It also creates a connection to individuals and an institution involved in the advancement of horticulture. There are several trade associations and journals that provide information related to landscape management products and issues.
Will there be someone on-site that I know on a first name basis, that knows my property, and to whom I can address any questions and/or concerns?
Knowing a property and the client positively impacts a crew’s performance. It also allows you to seek out a crew leader or member regarding issues related to the management of your property. The best case senerio is to have the owner of the company visiting the property to see first hand that adequate service levels are be provided.
Contract and Service Information
What is the basis for the price you quoted in your contract proposal?
The services may vary from company to company, however, the basis for costing should be uniform and fair to you. One of the best ways to ensure accuracy is measuring turf and bed square footage. This information will allow them to determine how long each contractual service (mowing, trimming, blowing, aeration, etc.) will take and at what frequency during the course of the contract. Material requirements (pounds of fertilizer, gallons of specific control chemicals, etc.) can also be determined. Hopefully if a contractor knows how many acres of turf they are contractually obligated to provide services for then they may not to take on more accounts than they can handle.
Can you provide a list, an explanation, and an itemized cost of each of the services you will provide during the course of a year?
Having a list of services to be performed allows you to monitor and hold your service provider to a measurable standard. It also allows you to compare their landscape management program against other service providers. Having an itemized list of costs shows they have taken the time to look at your property and think through how they will complete each task (time and material) and at the same time make a fair profit. Having this kind of information enables you to seek the opinion of experts like county extension agents or college professors to evaluate their landscape management programs. Virginia Tech and John Tyler are in state and have horticulture programs that offer these services. You can do your own research on-line by way of university horticulture and turfgrass web sites.
What other services can you provide outside the scope of the contract?
More and more companies are able to provide total landscape management. Your property is a complex ecosystem. Fertility, water, and pruning needs vary from plant to plant and site to site. The more you can look to one company, to one phone call, the less time and frustration for you and the more accountable one individual and/or company must be.
Do you take soil samples for turf and bed areas and what do you do with the results?
Soil tests should be part of every landscape management program. The test provides a basis for identifying, correcting, and managing soil fertility (CEC, micro and macro nutrient levels, etc.) and pH levels. They should be taken when companies begin managing a new property and periodically from that point forward. The importance of this one landscape management item cannot be overstressed. Balancing soil chemistry is the foundation for all plant management.
What are the components that make up your turfgrass management program?
A sound turfgrass management program has a lot to do with timing and precise application of various turf products. A good starting point, and subsequent monitoring tool, is a soil test. It should be the basis for your soil fertility program. Individual components, listed below, of a successful program include fertilization, monitoring/adjusting soil pH, weed control (pre-emergent and post emergent), aeration, maintenance (mowing, leaf removal, and irrigation), and monitoring/controlling disease and/or insect levels.
- Fertilization: should occur in the Fall and total amounts of applied Nitrogen should be between 3 and 4 pounds/1,000 square feet and should not exceed 1 pound/1,000/application. Turf should be green all winter long, assuming it is a cool season grass, when proper Nitrogen levels are maintained. Many properties in the Richmond area brown out simply because someone did not fertilize.
- Lime Application: needs to occur only if soil test results indicate a pH lower than appropriate for growing turf type tall fescue (target pH is between 6 and 6.5) and individual applications should not exceed 50 pounds/1,000 square feet.
- Weed Control: should target eliminating existing and preventing potential weed populations. Pre-emergent herbicides prevent annual grasses and certain broad leaf weeds from establishing in turfgrass. Timing is important. Chemicals need to be in the soil profile before the soil warms to 55 degrees for 5 consecutive days. Perennial and annual weeds (summer and winter) are controlled with 2 applications of post emergent herbicides and should be timed according to targeted weed seed germination (early spring and late fall).
- Aeration: of all turf areas should occur at least once a year. If the area receives heavy traffic then several visits should be scheduled. Soil compaction should be an area of major concern for every turfgrass manager. Turf performs poorly under oxygen deprived conditions, the major problem resulting from compaction.
- Maintenance: ultimately means maintaining a healthy stand of turfgrass. Proper mowing techniques include removing no more than one-third of the leaf blade at one time, using sharp and balanced blades, and keeping mowing heights between 3 and 4 inches depending on site and current environmental factors (increase height with high temperatures, decreased water availability, and low light conditions). Monitoring and adjusting irrigation scheduling should be part of every maintenance program. Supplemental irrigation needs of turf will vary based on several factors including temperature, available soil moisture, soil type, slope, and competition (with trees and ornamentals). A good program will match water needs with current site conditions.
- Pest Management: includes insect and disease control. An environmentally sound program will be founded on current research related to integrated pest management. This approach is based on first identifying the problem (specific disease/insect), accessing the current and potential threat, determining the most effective and sound treatment (ranges from no action to application of pest specific chemicals based on defined pest populations and damage thresholds), and appropriate timing and rate of control product(s). However, there are a lot of companies that still rely on calendar spraying. This approach is based on the application of certain chemicals at certain times of the year with little regard for pest populations and seasonal (average temperature, moisture levels, etc.) variations.
How do you care for ornamental plants in the landscape?
There are similarities in how turf and ornamentals are managed (please see last question and answer) in terms of fertilization, monitoring/adjusting pH, weed control, and disease/insect management. These and proper pruning techniques are discussed below.
- Fertilization: should be based on soil test results for all nutrients other than nitrogen. Management of nitrogen is based on rate and timing. Rates will vary depending on which objective (establishment, growth, or maintenance) is appropriate for your property.
- establishment – (1 to 5 years after planting) the focus is related to root growth. High Nitrogen promotes shoot growth and suppresses root growth so a low rate of Nitrogen (1 pound/1,000 square feet/year) is recommended.
- growth – is once the plant is established but has not reached the desired size or form. Specific rates of Nitrogen will vary and are plant dependent. General recommendations on nitrogen application rates are between 2 to 4 pounds/1,000 square feet/year. However, individual applications should not exceed 2 pounds/1,000 because of the potential leaching and volatilization of Nitrogen.
- maintenance – means the plant has reached an adequate or desired size (may not be full-grown, but has filled the desired space). Nitrogen recommendations decrease to 1 pound/1,000 square feet every 2 to 4 years.
- Soil pH: should be monitored and adjusted as needed based on soil test results (acidic, neutral, alkaline) and individual plant requirements.
- Weed Control: has come a long way in the last few years in terms of available products and control options. There are now pre-emergent herbicides that control over 250 weeds before they become established. This means that there really is not a good excuse for having weeds in the beds after more than a six month period of bed management. During that period of time established perennials can be controlled and the life cycle of summer or winter weeds will be complete. This provides adequate time to apply and activate the control products before targeted weed seed germination.
- Disease and Insect Management: is essentially the same as with turf but different diseases and insects are more common to ornamentals. There are thousands of different types of plants and each has its specific problems and requirements. However, a healthy plant (right location, good fertility, correct watering and pruning, etc.) is always your best defense against disease and insects. They are usually secondary to some other problem like having a plant that likes full shade and moist soil planted in a nonirrigated bed in full sun.
- Pruning: can greatly impact how a plant looks and performs in the landscape. All pruning should be timed with season of bloom (azaleas are pruned after blooming in Spring and crepe myrtles should not be pruned mid to late season because flower buds are set on current growing season wood) and accomplished without the removal of all new growth. Basically what that means is you have to allow for some new growth each season. A plant cannot be maintained (healthy) at the same size each year. There are techniques for dealing with plants that get too large for the space they occupy. Maintaining the size and shape of a plant with the appropriate type of pruning tool before this occurs is preferred. One last note relates to balling and hedging everything. There is a place for formal hedges and geometric shapes, however, the natural growth form and true aesthetic appeal of most plants is lost when this occurs. Retraining a plant by way of corrective pruning allows for the diversity that should occur in the landscape and often costs less to manage if allowed to maintain natural growth form.