Your yard is their business

Many lawn-care firms aim for helping their clients grow healthy turf without heaps of chemicals

In the Garden

October 17, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

October may seem a peculiar time to ponder lawn maintenance -- like snow shovels in June. But it's actually the perfect time. For one thing, if you have a lawn service (for growth and health, not necessarily mowing), fall is a good time to assess and renew, or drop, the contract. For another, lawn chores are far less time-critical than in midspring.

"If you want to choose a lawn-care company, the best time ... is very early spring or fall," says Joe Pinelli, marketing manager for ChemLawn in Baltimore.

The quest for a beautiful lawn has been around a long time. But it sprouted in a major way after World War II when the suburbs blossomed and, with them, the crabgrass. Early on, people got rid of weeds with the harshest chemicals they could find. But as we learned more about the disastrous environmental effects of chemical runoff, we sought (and legislatively demanded) lower-impact alternatives. We also broadened our perspectives.

"A perfect green, weed- and insect-free lawn is a myth," insists Melissa Fore-man, marketing and public relations coordinator of NaturaLawn of America in Frederick.

Legitimate lawn-maintenance companies are licensed and inspected annually by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and must conform to pesticide guidelines. But within those guidelines, services range from chemical-reliant to pesticide-free. Before choosing one, you need to consider what kind of lawn you want and need.

"Some people expect the perfect image," says Neil Cariello, president of Pro-Grass in Timonium, "but most are realistic."

"Realistic" means forgoing the botanical equivalent of AstroTurf and striving instead for healthy. Several things affect lawn health, including rainfall, shade, heat, soil and type of grass. The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service recommends tall fescue for Maryland lawns, a turf grass that is resistant to grub and heat damage here.

"If [a lawn is] high-maintenance bluegrass or sodded, it could have insect problems," notes Cariello.

Even with an infestation, there are different options available, depending upon cost, result, the individual environmental philosophy of both client and service, and lawn use. For example, NaturaLawn of America has two main programs. Both use integrated pest management (IPM), which includes feeding and biological controls, such as milky spore for Japanese beetles. But one also uses spot-spraying of individual weeds with herbicide. Its other program, for people whose children and / or pets play on, roll in, and even occasionally eat the grass (and the dirt it grows in), is chemical-free.

"Some people are sensitive to chemicals," says Foreman. "Our Natural Alternative program is 100 percent chemical-free. We use strictly organic products and do not even spot spray [for weeds]."

However, even organics can be unsafe for ingestion -- there are plenty of natural poisons. So a lawn-maintenance company must post a yellow sign to notify passers-by after any pesticide or herbicide application. In addition, re-entry information (how soon a living thing can walk on the lawn) must be conveyed.

"By Maryland law, we are required to give out label safety information on any pesticide we use," says Mark Schlossberg, agronomist and president of Pro-Lawn-Plus in Baltimore.

Some lawns require more initial attention than others.

"If you're dealing with an old property that hasn't been touched for 30 years, then it may need more at first," says Cariello. "When it's in manageable shape, you back off."

Before applying anything, every reputable company will do a soil test.

"All your nutrient management is determined from soil testing to determine how many applications of what kind of nutrient are needed," explains Cariello.



2205 Greenspring Dr.

Timonium, MD 21093



1406 Shoemaker Rd.

Baltimore, MD 21209


NaturaLawn of America

Finksburg, MD



880 Kelso Dr.

Baltimore, MD 21221



Looking for a lawn company?

When choosing a lawn-service provider, ask questions:

Is the service licensed? Seeing is believing.

"The small guys working without an EPA number on the side of their trucks don't have a license," warns Neil Cariello of Pro-Grass.

What exactly is included in the program? Spring and fall fertilizer applications? Monitoring? Major work? Some are cheaper, others more expensive.

"If they are expensive, ask why," advises Mark Schlossberg of Pro-Lawn-Plus. "Usually it will be some kind of follow-up to give better service."

Do they have references? If so, check them. If not, forget them.

"I always give addresses of people we do in a potential client's neighborhood," says Schlossberg.

What products does the company use?

"You may not know what they are talking about, but take notes," advises Schlossberg. "There's a lot of information that you can check on the Internet."

Finally, ask about guarantees.

"Some of the big guys offer money back for your last treatment if you're not satisfied," says Schlossberg. "I can't do that. We're a small, local company with 18 employees. But I work hard to make things right."

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