By The Wall Street Journal
In some parts of the country, patches of lawn are peeking through mounds of snow. So we're preparing for one rite of spring: The quest to turn some noticeable brown spots into lush lawn.
For this task, we turned to professional lawn care companies -- both national and local -- to hear their plans for our yard. We were looking for personal attention and a customized plan to treat a few problem spots in our yard. We also wanted to explore options for organic lawn-care products.
About 25% of Americans pay for professional lawn care services, according to Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Association. These companies specialize in periodic fertilizer applications, along with weed and pest control. Some also offer things like tree pruning, snow removal, mowing and gardening.
Many companies offer organic options to lawn care, but it can be confusing as to what that means. Organic fertilizers are available, but it can be more expensive. The options are fewer for organic weed and insect controls, so some lawn-care customers request a partially organic approach, with organic fertilizers and minimal amounts of synthetic weed and pest controls.
The five companies we contacted -- TruGreen, Lawn Doctor, Scotts LawnService, SavaTree and Second Nature -- said this is a good time for homeowners to do their research, because the first treatments in the Northeast are usually applied in late March or early April. Mr. Butterfield of the gardening association advised us to find a company that looks at the "lawn system" holistically, instead of "just doing the treatment, coming back in six weeks, and doing it again." So that's what we set out to do.
First we contacted TruGreen, a company we've used at our Connecticut home for the past seven years. The company has been responsive when we've had particular problems -- like those annoying brown spots, but technicians haven't suggested organic options or customized lawn care tailored to our problem areas. This year, our annual contract arrived in the mail with an option to prepay and get a discount. It was a nice option, but we would have liked some personal contact.
TruGreen is a national professional lawn care company based in Memphis, Tenn., with 278 locations across the country -- and more than 3.4 million residential and commercial customers. For our lawn, we were quoted a rate of $71.69 each for six fertilizer applications a year. The annual treatment plan also recommends grub and insect prevention, aeration and seeding to promote new growth, for an additional $448.26. In our area, TruGreen says, the application fee for its organic option is the same as for the non-organic blend, but that in other parts of the country, the organic option can cost as much as 60% more.
The TruGreen spokeswoman said fewer than 5% of its customers use their organic program nationally. "We're beginning to be able to communicate more with our customers on options for lawn care," she added.
The next national professional lawn care chain, Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts LawnService, gave us a proposal over the phone without seeing the property. A Scotts spokeswoman later explained that technicians typically don't visit a home to give quotes for seasonal applications, since the lot-size information is "easily calculated" using Google Earth and other online tools.
Based on Scotts' estimates, our professional lawn care treatment plan would consist of a first fertilizer treatment at $59.95, then four more at $97, plus a grub preventive at $205. Like TruGreen, Scotts has organic options, but we had to ask about them. Organic fertilizer treatments would start at $59.95, just like the fertilizers with weed control, but then would cost either $170.90 each (which includes pest control) or $143.40 (without pest control) for the four remaining treatments. The company says grub control is a non-organic treatment.
Overall, the company representatives were friendly and seemed informed about local conditions, but the process felt a bit bureaucratic, rather than personal.
The third national professional lawn care chain we spoke with, Lawn Doctor, offered the best combination of service and pricing of all the services we tested. The assistant general manager who came to our house was attentive and promised that his brother would be our technician. He stressed that the company was able to customize its products based on our lawn type and said it could use organic fertilizers for four of the six treatments. (The first two treatments are only partially organic because they include a weed killer.) He also said the treatments would specifically target problem areas for weeds and insects. The price: $70.55 each for six basic fertilizer treatments, with free service calls.
In our region, SavaTree, with 20 branches in eight states along the East Coast, has made a name for being green. Greg Huse, an arborist, came to our home and explained that his company offers fully organic and partially organic treatment plans -- in addition to traditional treatments that use weed and insect controls. Mr. Huse was the only lawn-care person we met who specifically raised the idea of treating different parts of our yard differently, pointing out that we should have "shade seeding" under a white pine in our backyard.
SavaTree's proposal was far more expensive than TruGreen's and Scotts', with an application costing $134. Add $476 a year for the aeration and overseeding treatment. But we really liked the personal attention. Mr. Huse also said he would take a free soil sample if we signed up with his company, which would help the company further refine our treatment plan.
Another call went to Stamford, Conn.-based Second Nature. This company's approach initially felt similar to SavaTree's, though they seemed particularly eager to provide a broader range of services, and stressed their scientific approach to the biology of the lawn. The company uses "synthetic control products" -- again non-organic weed and insect controls -- if the homeowner wants them. But the company says its emphasis is on making sure the lawn is healthy down to the roots and not just green on the top. To that end, technicians apply a special "compost tea" that is used to feed the lawn, says company President Jeffrey Thrasher.
We wound up requesting a proposal for Second Nature's basic professional lawn care service, as well as its property-management program, which includes everything from lawn care to snow blowing. The fertilizer applications came in at $116 each, less than SavaTree but significantly higher than the national chains. The lawn aeration and overseeding treatment came in at $735.
In the end, we were disappointed with the limited options for a truly organic lawn. And we were equally dismayed that no one who came to look at our lawn took a soil sample before giving us a proposal -- something Mr. Butterfield says would help lawn-care companies figure out what really should be put down on each lawn. Still, two of the companies -- Second Nature and SavaTree -- said technicians always take soil samples before starting to treat lawns. And Lawn Doctor said it takes soil samples when the customer requests it -- or when the lawn looks off to the salesperson or the technician.
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Friday, July 17, 2009
By The Wall Street Journal