Tighter budgets encouraged both homeowners and commercial property managers to skimp on services like aeration over the past few years. But many lawn renovation pros are seeing a comeback this year—and are feeling even better about their prospects going forward.
"When it comes to aeration, you don't necessarily see the results, so it's a tougher service to sell," says Shane Bell of Indiana-based L.T. Rich, a manufacturer of aerators and sprayers. "Unfortunately, because a lot of people don't understand how important it is to aerate, it's often one of the first services to get cut."
Fremont, CA, contractor Tom Del Conte of Del Conte's Landscaping will attest to that. He says he saw a big drop in lawn renovation services in 2008. But now the business is starting to come back.
"We're seeing the purse strings loosen again," Del Conte relates. "So we're really stressing what it will take to get that premium landscape curb appeal back. About 20% of our commercial customers have added renovation services back this year, and we're expecting another 20% or more to add them back next year."
This year's early spring has also helped spur a lawn renovation comeback. "The early spring had homeowners wanting to get their yards fixed up earlier," says Jay Baudhuin, product manager for the Classen and Ryan brands of turf care and renovation equipment. "Last year, on the other hand, was quite cold and wet across much of the U.S."
Scott Kinkead, executive vice president of Turfco, another equipment manufacturer, agrees that the early spring has had an impact. "Contractors weren't as pressed on their timeline to get things done. People needed services sooner."
Bad weather also helps
As is often the case in the landscape maintenance business, adverse weather conditions can also lead to a surge in demand for certain services.
"Our renovation business has continued to remain strong, even over the past few years," says Jeff Roth, fleet manager for Bluegrass Lawncare in Bridgeton, MO. "It's all driven by the weather. When lawns get beat up all spring and summer, homeowners need to put them back together in the fall."
"Where conditions are severe, meaning drought or flooding, the turf renovation business is typically strong," Baudhuin adds. As of late-July, roughly 80% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing drought conditions, compared to just 37% one year ago. Furthermore, roughly 46% was experiencing conditions classified as "severe."
Lawn renovation, namely aerating, helps make turf more tolerable to heat and prolonged drought. Additionally, Baudhuin points out, it can help property owners conserve water, since properly aerated lawns help water get down to the root zone better. This can be an important selling point in areas where watering restrictions exist.
On the flip side, excessive rain can damage turf and cause soil to compact. "In these regions, contractors should make customers aware of how compacted soil increases water runoff and risk of flooding," Baudhuin says. Although few areas of the country have been faced with excessive rainfall so far this year, Baudhuin cautions that things can change in a blink. "The weather since last fall has been a little chaotic in most areas."
Overall lawn health an education in progress
In any event, it needs to be communicated to customers that lawn renovation services play an intricate role in the overall management and health of a lawn. According to Pierre Pereira, vice president of sales and marketing at equipment maker Billy Goat Industries, contractors are doing a much better job of educating customers about the benefits.
"An aerated, overseeded and power-raked lawn results in a more drought-resistant, attractive and healthy lawn," Pereira says. "This drives demand from additional customers who see these results at their neighbors."
Since the recession, some homeowners have cancelled their basic lawn mowing and/or fertilizing services to begin doing the work themselves. However, lawn care tasks like aerating are typically immune from this trend—which is good news for contractors.
"Lawn renovation is usually something homeowners are not familiar with," Kinkead says. "Plus, it's a hassle for them. It requires them to rent and transport equipment. So it's a valuable, profitable service that a contractor can provide."
More productive, more profitable
Advancements in product design have made it even more profitable. "Contractors are asking how they can expand their businesses without having to add people," Kinkead says. "They can do that by adding better equipment. They need sturdy, durable equipment."
"Product innovation is improving to help contractors get the job done faster with less fatigue," Pereira adds, while offering the following examples:
- More ergonomic designs
- Hydrostatic drives in aerators, dethatchers and overseeders
- Elimination of the conventional yet cumbersome filling of the center drum, as well as bulky steel weights found on some units
- Fold-down handles for easier transport
- Tilt-up serviceability
- Easy tine disengagement
- Attachments for zero-turn mowers
Contractor Tom Del Conte has taken a real liking to his mower-mounted Grasshopper Aera-vator. "It's very productive for wide-open areas," he says. "Then we use our Ryan walk-behinds for the nooks and crannies. You can't neglect those areas, although some contractors think it's OK to."
Contractor Jeff Roth is also a fan of the Ryan brand. As of late, though, he's developed a fondness for the L.T. Rich ride-on aerator. "This is the first year we've used it—and we've been thoroughly impressed," he shares. "It's a workhorse, and is very versatile. What's nice is that you can also mount a spreader to it. That lets me schedule one guy to do the work of a two-man crew."
The future of lawn renovation
Like the equipment used to provide the services, the lawn renovation business itself has come a long way. Now the question is: Where is it going?
"We are anticipating continued modest growth as homeowners continue to become more educated on the benefits of aeration, dethatching and overseeding," Baudhuin says. "Contractors should stress the importance of these services in both the spring and fall because nobody can predict what the summer will ultimately bring."
"As erratic weather patterns become more of a challenge, the need for renovation will remain on the rise," Pereira reminds. "Lawn care pros are not only pressed to provide lawn renovation services, but are embracing the opportunity to boost their bottom line."
Speaking of lawn care, emerging trends in that business are also creating more opportunity for contractors to cash in on renovation services. "For contractors looking at newer grass varieties and/or shifting to more organic-based lawn care programs, aeration is a huge part of maintaining a successful program," Kinkead points out.
Finally, things like aeration are no longer viewed as just off-season side services. "Turf renovation services are often coupled together to combat a specific problem or to enhance the end result of an application," Baudhuin explains. "In the north, fall has been the traditional time of year to dethatch and aerate. In the south, spring has been favored.
"However, overseeding coupled with aeration has proven to be a successful recipe for enhancing seed germination to thicken turf. Since overseeding is in high demand throughout the entire grass-growing season, the demand for aeration services is up—and the traditional season of application has been expanded."