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What to Look for in a Lawn Care Service

HYG-4025-88
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Date: 
11/09/2021
Revised 2021: Edward J. Nangle, Assistant Professor, Interim Program Coordinator – Turfgrass Management, Ohio State University Extension, Wooster
Revised 2021: David S. Gardner, Agronomist, Horticulture and Crop Science, Ohio State University Extension
Revised 2021: David J. Shetlar, Professor Emeritus, Entomology, The Ohio State University
Original authors: John R. Street, Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, Ohio State University Extension; and Anthony J. Koski

All lawn care companies are not the same. Lawn care programs offered by companies will vary not only in cost, but in the range and variety of services offered to the homeowner. The homeowner will be most successful at choosing a company by first deciding what they desire in a lawn, and what personal limitations that they may have concerning the fertilizers and other chemicals typically used to achieve a high-quality, weed-free, and pest-free lawn.Grass-level view of man on a riding lawn mower cutting a homeowner’s front lawn.

Consider the following:

  1. What is the desired outcome from the contracted company—does the home lawn need to be immaculate or just have functional grass cover?
  2. What is the annual cost for a company's standard program?
  3. What are all the services included as part of the standard program?
  4. What are the “add-ons” or additional services available, and what are the costs for these optional services?

Before contracting for lawn care services, it is best to contact and compare two to three (or more) reputable companies (including asking for references and/or addresses of lawns under their care). The following series of questions and answers should serve as a guide for the homeowner during the process of selecting a lawn care company.

What Types of Services are Included in the Standard Program?

Fertilization is a standard part of any lawn care program. Most companies will offer preemergence (for crabgrass) and postemergence (for broadleaf weeds) weed control as part of their standard package, although these may be offered as options by some companies. Many lawn care programs will include control of surface-feeding insects (e.g., chinch bug, bluegrass billbug, sod webworm) as part of their standard program, but grub control is often offered at an additional cost. Some companies will offer no insect control at all, while others may provide it only as an extra-cost option. Disease control is generally not offered in a standard lawn care program but is offered as an optional service by most lawn care companies. Some lawn care companies have merged with landscape companies or may be part of a larger landscape company, thus, it is possible to look at a company that may provide lawn and landscape maintenance if that is preferred.

How Much Fertilizer is Applied During the Year?

Nitrogen is the key nutrient in turf fertilization programs. Reputable lawn care companies will supply Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, fine fescue, or tall fescue lawns with 3 to 4.5 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn per year. Potassium (potash, K) is sometimes supplied with the standard fertilizer program. Applications of K can help during stressful weather conditions and is actually recommended where the homeowner consistently removes grass clippings during mowing. Phosphorus has been removed from almost all fertility applications due to concerns about its environmental impact. The only period that a phosphorous application is recommended is during lawn establishment, but this should be made following a soil test result. The actual requirement for potassium and phosphorus will vary from one lawn to the next due to differences in soil type, previous use patterns and fertility practices and the need is best determined through soil testing.

What are the Types of Nitrogen Fertilizers Used?

Nitrogen fertilizers can vary in the types of plant growth and color responses that they elicit. For simplicity, nitrogen fertilizers can be categorized as supplying quickly-available or slowly-available nitrogen (N). Quickly-available N promotes rapid grass growth and dark green turf color relatively soon after application. The promotion of excessive growth through overuse of quickly-available N sources is undesirable from both the standpoint of increased mowing requirements and because grass hardiness and health may be reduced. Slowly-available N sources provide a slower, more uniform growth and greening response from the turf. Quickly-available nitrogen is acceptable for use during the fall and early spring months. Slowly- available nitrogen is excellent for use in the late-spring and summer months. It is important to note that slowly-available nitrogen can be supplied to turf with equal success in the liquid (sprayable) form, as well as the dry (granular) form. Sources of the slowly-available nitrogen now include processed animal manure and some of these products may have also obtained an organic classification depending on how they were produced. There is a need to be aware that the slowly-available sources are dependent on soil temperatures and moisture for release which is why quickly-available sources of nitrogen are recommended for early spring. Thus, a dry summer or a cool spring/early summer may reduce their rate of release and patience may be required before seeing a response.

What About Late-Season Nitrogen Fertilization?

University research has shown late-season nitrogen fertilization to be a very desirable option for Ohio and other midwestern states. This type of program, which emphasizes fertilization during the September–November period (northern Ohio application is recommended early fall while southern Ohio application can be later in the fall), is reported to enhance winter turf color, quicken spring green-up, reduce lawn disease problems, and improve grass hardiness during the summer months. Such a program reduces the amount of spring and summer nitrogen required to maintain a healthy, green lawn. When a large amount of nitrogen is applied during spring, mowing frequency is increased as is the incidence of disease while tolerance to heat and drought can be reduced.

However, current research indicates that late season fertilization, if applied incorrectly, can cause environmental issues. A current approach is to use quickly available nitrogen ahead of the first heavy freeze (temperatures below 32°F) to ensure that the grass plants are capable of utilizing all of the nitrogen applied. A different approach is to use a slowly-available nitrogen source which would be less prone to leaching or volatilization through the winter period and be available for the grass plants in the spring. The critical component is the timing of the application. Current accepted research shows that, from an environmental standpoint, fertility applications should be made earlier rather than later in the fall. This is because excess nitrogen levels in leaf tissue is a known contributor to winter disease issues, which means that applications higher than ½–1 lb. of nitrogen could be problematic for the development of turfgrass diseases such as pink snow mold, Microdochium nivale.

What About Liquid (Spray) Versus Dry (Granular) Lawn Care Products?

To date, university research has not found any major agronomic differences between liquid and dry fertilizers. The bottom line is that both can accomplish the same goal—a high-quality lawn. The residual effect from a granular fertilizer may differ from the liquid application but that is dependent upon the type of fertilizer source used (slowly-available versus quickly-available nitrogen).

What Can a Lawn Care Service Guarantee?

Lawn quality will vary from year to year due to variations in weather. It is impossible for a lawn care company to guarantee that no problems will occur. If you contract lawn care services, be suspicious of one that claims that there will be no problems! The company should ask you about any previous problems that you are aware of at your property as well as investigating previous issues in the neighborhood. Reputable lawn care companies will make every effort to satisfy their customers. Many companies will provide corrective applications as a free service if the customer is not satisfied. Some are staffed with sales/service representatives to handle service calls. They may visit the home lawn if a problem cannot be diagnosed or resolved over the telephone. Do not be afraid to request a home visit—a reputable company is aware of the need to provide this type of service.

What About Educational Service to the Homeowner?

Established lawn care companies have long recognized that the most successful lawn care program is dependent upon some cooperation from, and education of, the homeowner. The homeowner generally performs several cultural practices, such as mowing and watering, which have a substantial effect on lawn quality. Some companies will provide the homeowners with seasonal information on proper lawn care. They may also provide specific information when they make an application with regard to special watering or mowing requirements for the next day or two following their visit to the lawn. It is recommended to listen closely to what the company is telling you—they want you to succeed in helping them cultivate a healthy lawn that they can maintain, and your family can enjoy.

Can the Company Offer Flexibility in Servicing?

Some homeowners may wish to have fertilizer, but no herbicides or insecticides, applied to their lawns. Some like to apply fertilizer themselves but would rather have a lawn care service apply the appropriate controls for weed, insect, or disease problems. Individual lawn service companies may be unable to offer such specialized types of programs because of how they purchase or mix their fertilizers and pest control products. Others may charge extra for such a specialized program because of the expense and time involved in providing a non-standard service. Shop around for a lawn care service that provides this flexibility when initially choosing a company.

Organic and Other Alternative Lawn Care Services

Many lawn care companies offer an organic option for customers that desire organic, slow-release fertilizers and limited or no weed or pest treatments. Pay particular attention to how weeds will be managed, if at all.  In many cases, companies may need to use standard weed control products (for crabgrass or broadleaf weeds) for customers who can’t tolerate these weedy plants. While there are a few organic weed control products available, most are very expensive and only marginally effective. Likewise, if an insect pest occurs, there are few organic insecticides and useful biological controls available. If they are available, they are much more expensive than traditional insecticides. In some cases, organic lawn care companies will offer to plant resistant turfgrasses to repair any damage caused by insect pests.

Does Cost Equate with Quality?

Lawn care companies offer agronomic expertise and a convenient, time-saving service at a reasonable cost, even when compared with the do-it-yourself options. In a competitive market, prices for similar lawn care programs may differ little from company to company. A company that appears more expensive that the other may offer some services as part of its standard program which are usually designated as optional (extra- cost) services (see list below) by less expensive companies. Be wary of the company that claims to offer services similar to those of other companies at a much lower price and seems too good to be true—-it probably is. Also avoid companies that do not provide a contract detailing their services and your obligations as a customer.

Desirable services offered as options by many lawn service companies:

  • Mowing
  • Fertilizer applications
  • Grub control
  • Disease control
  • Soil cultivation: Coring/aerification, dethatching
  • Spot re-seeding/re-sodding or total lawn renovation
  • Soil testing
  • Lime application
  • Irrigation services
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