Lawn & Landscape
January 6, 2021
Pink snow mold, spotted in the image above, is one of several winter turf diseases to monitor when your crews hit the field again this spring.
Photo courtesy of Paul Koch
Turfgrass experts say most winter turfgrass diseases won’t be catastrophic this year – particularly the various type of snow mold that spring up when 2021 rolls around.
And while proper prevention methods are the best ways to tackle turfgrass diseases, there are some ways to keep lawns healthy even after temperatures rise again.
“By the time we get to January, there’s not a lot we’re doing to prevent those diseases, so now we’re at the point where we’re trying to recover as quickly as we can,” says Paul Koch, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Koch says the winter diseases can really be defined by whether or not there’s snow cover in that particular region of the country. Where there is snow, the snow molds – speckled, gray and pink – are all more likely to pop up. In areas of the country where there isn’t much snow, contractors could deal with more leafspot or large patch diseases.
“If we get snow down here, it’s generally here today and gone tomorrow,” says Clint Waltz, an extension specialist at University of Georgia Extension. “It’s more wet conditions than anything else, and then compound that with possible drying conditions, that generally doesn’t facilitate disease when it gets dry.”
“It always helps to know what you’re dealing with...You want to make sure that you have an accurate diagnosis.”
Paul Koch, associate professor with the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Identifying the diseases.
By the time landscapers start encouraging turf growth in the spring, Koch says plants usually are recovering from their dormant periods.
The issue with finding the right treatment is that many of the diseases look similar at first glance, particularly snow molds. They all produce circular patches about one to three feet in diameter, though pink snow mold contains a reddish ring around the outside while gray snow mold produces structures called sclerotia, which survive in dead leaf tissue. These look like red pebbles or sand granules. Meanwhile, speckled snow mold simply looks like somebody sprinkled pepper on the turf.
Other cool-season turf diseases found up north or in colder parts of the western United States are Pythium blight, which produces slick, brownish blotches in the turf, and powdery mildew, a more serious issue that leaves the turf looking like it’s been sprayed with white dust.
Koch says leaf spot can affect both cool- and warm-season turf, though it seems to be a little more common in areas that don’t experience much snowfall. These can be identified by finding spots on leaves as the name implies.
Diseases like large patch, meanwhile, are also a little easier to decide because the issue is obviously spread right across the turf. These are often found on St. Augustine, zoysiagrass, centipede and Bermudagrass turfs. Dollar spot and brown patch are also issues for these types of turf.
But Koch also says talking with an extension specialist, particularly locally, can help contractors best navigate these winter diseases. It’s easy to get one disease confused for another, and treatments can vary. He recommends treating and monitoring the infected areas for about a month before then reaching out for help to see if someone knows what to do.
“It always helps to know what you’re dealing with,” Koch says. “You may think the issue that you had was snow mold, but it may be something else. You want to make sure that you have an accurate diagnosis.”
Gray snow mold, found here on a bluegrass lawn, is often mixed up with pink or speckled snow molds.
Photo courtesy of Paul Koch
A year-round affair.
In areas with warmer climates, turf disease is an ongoing fight, though wintertime actually provides some much-needed reprieve.
Waltz says most warm-season grasses are more susceptible to diseases during transition seasons like fall and winter. There are some exceptions, he notes, but generally, this time of year actually slows down diseases for folks down south. In fact, if contractors are just noticing winter turfgrass diseases during the winter months, chances are strong that they’re seeing the remnants of a fall disease, Waltz says.
“It’s not going to get better over the wintertime,” Waltz says. “If you had patch over October, that spot didn’t disappear in December or January. Because it was there in the fall, it still will be there in the spring.
The issue is knowing when to apply product – it’s easier to go too early in places where it’s relatively warm all the time. Waltz recommends waiting until temperatures are a little more consistent. To be specific, he says soil temperatures four inches deep in the ground should be about 65 degrees or higher.
Fertilizing too soon will only invite turfgrass diseases to come in during the spring, Waltz says.
“Disease doesn’t go to zero, but it certainly slows down this time of year for us,” he says.
Ways to constantly combat turfgrass diseases include raking off leaves and debris from the turf constantly. Allowing the turf to retain all the moisture from beneath the leaves over an extended period of time is often what causes the diseases in the first place.
“I think getting that off can help mitigate disease as much as anything,” Waltz says. Regarding raking, Koch adds that it increases the temperature of the grass, fending off any further damage from the disease.
“It’s going to have sunlight penetrate deeper into the canopy and increase oxygen flow in the area,” Koch says.
There's always next year.
As far as turfgrass diseases go, Koch says the best way to avoid them is simply taking preventative measures. Applying nitrogen products, for instance, should stop by the end of September or end of October.
“When we get later in the fall, you’re stimulating growth when it really should be slowing down,” Koch says, adding that the plants are trying to shut themselves down to protect themselves during the winter.
Improving drainage around the turf also helps prevent diseases, as water or other moisture that pools up together in one spot is often a culprit for turf issues. Plus, Koch says once a diseased spot is found, landscapers should avoid walking through it, spreading the disease from one spot to another.
And, of course, mowing at an appropriate height during the season also helps keep the turf healthy. This helps keep conditions bad for fungal growths and good for proper turf growth at the same time. For most types of grasses, keeping lawns at a three-inch height is about right, though this is just the recommended mowing height. It could vary based on the situation or even the type of turf.
“(Treatment is) a matter of changing the environment again to make it less suitable for disease to grow,” Koch says. “If things aren’t healing, you need to reach out to an expert. It’s a case-by-case basis with an extension specialist.”
Biden’s potential impact
EPA could become less receptive to industry input on benefits when evaluating pesticides.
Biden may roll back some EPA decisions that may make lawn care practices increasingly burdensome.
The environmentalist anti-pesticide community that fundamentally opposes some of the practices and tools the lawn care industry uses will have strong influence inside the EPA and the White House.
In addition to our primary issues, we anticipate Biden pushing forward with a bold agenda on COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus; infrastructure; health care; and employment protections.
But President Biden’s ability to pass a bold agenda will hinge on his ability to work with a Congress that, like the country, is divided along partisan lines with razor-thin majorities.
All of this will unfold in the following weeks and months but there will certainly be opportunities and challenges ahead for the landscape industry as we turn the page on 2020 and begin 2021 with the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and the 117th Congress.
Editor’s note: This article was written by NALP Government Affairs Department on Dec. 4, 2020. You can contact Bray at email@example.com for the most current information.
Downturn to domination
Features - Cover Story
Jena and Rudy Larsen started Lawn Butler during the Great Recession, but still have grown it by 50% every year.
January 6, 2021
Photo courtesy of Lawn Butler
In 2007, “everything was collapsing,” says Rudy Larsen, CEO of Lawn Butler in Centerville, Utah, of the economy. But while talking to potential customers, they beefed about getting landscape guys to call them back or deliver bids. They told him, “We can’t get anyone to do what they said they were going to do.”
Larsen thought, “I can do that.”
“There were enough landscape companies out there that were not concerned about taking care of their customers,” he says, jumping ahead to today and his $18-million firm, which has grown an average of 57% every year during the last decade.
Larsen started his business that year with his wife, Jena. Then, Larsen was fresh out of high school and determined to grow his mowing side gig into a legitimate, profitable business.
Larsen maxed out credit cards, purposely broke a bank covenant, barely made payroll and questioned whether he should be in this business. He hired the wrong people, completed jobs that weren’t profitable and stayed up worrying if he would make payroll. In other words, his experience is “like any true entrepreneurial story” in many ways, he says.
But he focused. And, he refocused, recognizing that “the single push on the flywheel” that his favorite author Jim Collins writes about in Good to Great, was adopting a guiding principle – this idea of a family culture. Certainly, labor keeps most owners in the landscape industry up at night. But for Larsen, his concern is about “making sure people are happy.”
“I don’t want people to feel left out or like they are not important,” he says. “If I lose my people, I lose my business.”
Here is how he grew Lawn Butler to be attractive enough to sell and continue to grow.
“We weren’t making any money. We didn’t know our pricing structure, we didn’t know how to bid. But I had a desire to take care of customers, so we were growing.”
Rudy Larsen, CEO of Lawn Butler
The first five years.
“We weren’t making any money,” Larsen says. “We didn’t know our pricing structure, we didn’t know how to bid. But I had a desire to take care of customers, so we were growing.”
Larsen can count a good 15 times when Lawn Butler should have gone out of business.
One of those was after a struggle to make payroll. Larsen was driving his truck on Utah’s I-250 and he wanted to quit. Just forget it all and move on. “I thought, ‘I need to be done and just do something different. I’m not making any money, and this is going nowhere.’”
He kept driving.
He kept thinking, too.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make the decision right now to never consider quitting, ever again,'” he says. “That was a moment of ‘passing through,’ and once I passed through, I never went through that again. I was determined to make my business work and to stop worrying about whether I should or shouldn’t.”
This was 2010, and the business was only three years old. The moment changed Larsen’s mindset. With a full-boar attitude, Lawn Butler grew from $30,000 in 2007 to $2.5 million in 2012.
Early on with his fledgling company, Rudy Larsen told himself he’d never consider quitting. Since that moment, Lawn Butler has only rapidly grown.
Photo courtesy of Lawn Butler
Getting there was a grind. The company began to dig into its bidding process and finetune pricing. In 2009, Larsen’s wife who was working as a dental hygienist and doing the books off-hours – came into the business full-time to focus on production processes. She also began focusing on team-building.
Jena says, “Rudy is good at the big picture and the vision, and I’m good at the details of how to make his vision happen."
Organizing field labor and keeping an eye on expenses positioned Lawn Butler to support its growing customer base. The team had grown to about 20 with five trucks in the fleet by 2011 when Dario Benitez joined the company. He had been working as a junior accountant and ran into his high school friend – Larsen – only to learn his buddy was still in the landscaping business. “I told him I was contemplating a career change and he told me about his business and the opportunity,” Benitez says.
At Lawn Butler, there is a formal Culture of Family philosophy, and though it wasn’t written down in a core values format at that time, Larsen had been operating that way since the beginning. It was just in a more casual way. “Rudy painted this picture and shared the goals he had for the business, and knowing him, I trusted that. Whenever he says he will do something, he accomplishes it. So, that is why I made the leap,” Benitez recalls.
Benitez came on board as operations manager and soon evolved into an account manager role, focused on sales as Lawn Butler aimed to increase its commercial maintenance business.
Today, Benitez manages a team of 12 account managers and two estimators as vice president of sales. And, Lawn Butler is primarily commercial maintenance, servicing retail sites, HOAs, commercial offices and industrial facilities. In ramp-up mode, Larsen recognized how much capital his business required to keep up with growth.
“Free cash flow is a great way to grow, and a lot of businesses do that,” he says. “There are plenty of articles out there about, ‘Why I never took out a truck loan,’ or ‘Why I have no debt.’ It’s slower and safer to grow with cash. But I can’t go slow. I can’t.”
Toughing it out. Larsen says there were 15 times his company should have shut down, but he made a promise to himself to never quit.
The second five years.
Larsen wanted to grow fast. “I wanted to build something timely,” he says. He and Jena considered bringing on a minority investor, but losing control of the business was a concern. “A lot of investors have a horizon,” he says. “They want to invest for five years, and after that, they want to sell and get their money back. You might be able to pick your first investor, but you likely will not be able to pick the second one. You may hate their guts, but you’re stuck.”
With private equity or an outside investor, “You share the risk – but you share the returns,” Larsen says.
“We think we can do this on our own,” the Larsens concluded.
Well, that is – they could do it with the bank. Deciding that cash-only was too slow and an outside investor would be too overbearing, the only reasonable third option was debt.
“Debt is an accelerator – for better and for worse,” Larsen says. “We had to get good at managing the business and growing our company because with debt, you’re on the hook. You have to perform and deliver.”
Lawn Butler did just that.
Larsen describes the company’s financial approach as “offensive,” so banks never had to ask him to provide statements or stay compliant. “We approached the banks and negotiated lines of credit – and we approached them with the perspective that we wanted to continue to grow,” Larsen says.
Larsen fine-tuned Lawn Butler’s financial best practices, committing to detailed month-end reporting and meetings with managers to discuss performance. “Our average growth over the last 10 years has been 57%, so we had to produce 57% more working capital every year and service that debt,” he explains, adding that, “if you don’t know where you are financially, how can you make good decisions when it comes to debt?”
There was a point when Lawn Butler broke a debt covenant. “And, we were the first ones to tell the bank we broke it,” Larsen says. The company purchased a bunch of equipment from a different bank than the one that held its existing credit lines. “So, we had two banks,” he continues. “We went to the second bank and said, ‘We are going to break this covenant for about 90 days. Here are our projections. Here is what we are doing. We want you to know we are in total control of the situation and we are making a good decision.’”
“Every one of our processes has been developed because we learned the hard way. We started the business from nothing, and whenever we encountered a roadblock, we solved it by creating a process to bypass that situation.”
Jena Larsen, Lawn Butler co-founder
Within 90 days, Lawn Butler went from breaking that covenant to dropping its debt to far below the required 3-to-1 ratio. After taking on the second loan, the company’s debt ratio was 5-to-1, higher than allowed. Post-90 days, its debt ratio was 1.8-to-1. The company had cut its debt to one-third of the total requirement.
Businesses need to think of debt as a responsibility to generate income, he says. “We weren’t just adding debt, we could service it with our customers because we understood that every customer generates X dollars, and every bit of debt is Y,” Larsen says. “(When) we increased our customer base, the X would outweigh the Y and we would be compliant.”
To further manage processes, Lawn Butler adopted Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. “We started tracking everything so we could review production data and performance numbers,” Larsen says.
Jena adds, “Every one of our processes has been developed because we learned the hard way. We started the business from nothing, and whenever we encountered a roadblock, we solved it by creating a process to bypass that situation.”
Larsen calls this five-year period of time in the business, “the years when we started making money."
Meanwhile, people were always central to Lawn Butler’s operation – and just as the company evolved its financial and production processes, it also paid close attention to how people were given opportunities to thrive.
As Vice President of Operations Clayton Phillips, who joined the team in 2011, describes: “Because we are like a family, we can be more open and direct with each other. As managers, we focus on a ‘sandwich system,’ which is to compliment something they are doing well, address the issues we need to talk about, and remind them we support them and want to see them succeed.”
Developing Culture of Family is a work in progress. “We always have to adapt and make changes as we grow,” Phillips says.
On the hook. The Larsens decided they wanted to grow fast, so they took on debt with the confidence that they'd pay it back.
All about people.
The biggest change Larsen names is Lawn Butler’s intentional focus on people and doing what’s right for the team – even if that means doing things that would make a typical HR manager cringe.
Case in point: Lawn Butler does not have a PTO policy and never has.
“Our policy is, you take the time you need for your family and we expect you to show up and work and create a successful company – to do your part and carry your weight,” Larsen says. “And if you don’t, you won’t work here.”
To determine whether employees are “carrying their weight,” each crew member and manager is assigned a production goal that is measured monthly, quarterly and annually through the ERP system. If a team member is not meeting his or her goal, a manager will hold a meeting to find out what’s going on. “Sometimes, they have a good reason why – and we ask, ‘How can we help?’” Larsen says.
You’ll always have people who abuse freedom. Lawn Butler has a “slow, managed exit process” in those cases, where the company gives a team member who is underperforming a few chances to meet goals. Because production goals are based on specific job production times that have been tested and tweaked, they are realistic.
By managing performance and giving people the time they need when they need it, Larsen says 90% of the time team members make the right decisions on their own. “You empower people when you say, ‘I trust you to make the right decision.’”
Operating in Utah, where winters can demand long hours through the night for snow and ice removal, Larsen also expects that employees will give to the company. “We expect you to work with the company if we need you and it’s snowing at 2 a.m.,” Larsen says. “But when you need that same courtesy when it comes to time off, we will be there for you as well.”
Another key component of Lawn Butler’s Culture of Family philosophy is treating employees the same as customers. Twice a year, the company gives customers gifts like calendars or mugs, pens. “We decided we were going to buy the same things for our employees – our team is just as important as our customers,” Larsen says.
Every year, Lawn Butler hosts a family barbecue, a company swim party and multiple team-building events – axe-throwing, going to the movies, etc. Employees look forward to the annual holiday party. “These little things quantify into something much bigger,” Larsen says. “We hope it shows people we care about them – we genuinely care about them.”
This culture goes a long way toward attracting labor in a tough market. Specifically, Lawn Butler shows invested, hard-working individuals who are H-2B workers or interested in a work visa that the company cares by sponsoring their journey toward citizenship. It costs about $10,000 per permanent resident card. They move to the U.S. with their families and essentially take a loan from Lawn Butler to pay back some of the initial housing and setup expenses over time.
“It’s a long-term investment,” Larsen says of this project and recruiting, in general.
Take time for you. Lawn Butler doesn’t have a set PTO policy, but as long as production goals are met, schedules remain flexible.
The last three years.
Just as wise debt is a growth accelerator for Lawn Butler, so is smart technology. After starting Smart Rain in 2012, an irrigation platform to help scale the company’s remote irrigation management business, Larsen began exploring other tech options.
Recently, Lawn Butler introduced a custom-built mobile app. It tracks photos and infield work, progress on jobs and prevents “time theft.” Previously, the company relied on paper time sheets that crewmembers filled out. The pay-per-day sheet had a significant human error risk, though. If an employee forgot to fill it out, he or she would not get paid. In addition, there was a risk to the business, too, if a team member wasn’t completely accurate since Lawn Butler is so focused on managing production time.
“When we implemented the mobile tracking app, we figured our guys would hate it, but they came back and said, ‘We like the app better!’” Larsen says. “I asked, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We don’t have to spend time filling out paper day sheets.’ And, they are getting paid like clockwork because the recording is happening like clockwork.”
As for in-field technology, Lawn Butler invested $100,000 in a pilot robotics program and hired a dedicated employee to manage it. The company has a few commercial-grade mowers that also perform sidewalk clearing in winter. So far, customers are receptive.
“Everything we have figured from a dollar-savings perspective tells us this makes sense, and we are always looking at ways to reduce production times,” Larsen says. “We are looking at how we might be able to replace an individual for a task like mowing and use that person for another aspect of the business that generates more profit.”
All the hard worked paid off for the Larsens and their employees and has set the company up for even more growth. In April of 2020, Lawn Butler was acquired by Outworx Group, a facility services management company that’s part of the New York-based Mill Point Capital portfolio. Larsen will still be involved with Lawn Butler and has no plans of leaving anytime soon.
“I plan to stay engaged in helping them grow my company and their company into a successful industry leader,” he says. “I chose to partner with them because I felt at the time, and still do, that together we are much better than we are apart. We can do more and accomplish more in a shorter time then we could apart.”
Hitting the right buttons
January 6, 2021
All images: © bestpixels | Adobe Stock
Practicing strong search engine optimization is like tending to a landscape: There’s multiple important components that make up the whole.
That’s how Jack Jostes likens it to his clients in the green industry. He’s the president and CEO of Ramblin’ Jackson, a digital marketing agency based in Boulder, Colorado. Between getting strong Google reviews and properly listing your company’s contact information online, Jostes says there’s not one clear-cut path to strong SEO.
“There are multiple components that need to work together to get found online,” Jostes says. “There isn't any one single thing that you do, just like there isn't any one single thing you're going to do if you're in a landscape.”
While there’s no secret formula to finding success online, SEO experts say there’s certainly several steps that convert website users into leads. And here’s the positive: Chris Darnell with The Harvest Group believes there’s very little competition online because landscapers simply haven’t put in the time as an industry to learn about SEO.
“I would say if somebody would spend four or five hours a month on it, they’d be ahead of 90% of the other competitors,” Darnell says. “It takes very little to move the needle in our industry because people don’t take advantage of digital marketing.”
Two (green) thumbs up.
Getting strong reviews online is among the first things landscapers can do to improve their SEO. Jostes says clients look at the reviews online before deciding to invest money in a company, and three out of five stars doesn’t look good when someone else has five out of five.
So, Jostes recommends asking for an online review while building that relationship with the client. He’s told companies to make it a part of their process, where managers will ask clients for a Google review before final walkthrough of the property. Others can secure the review months in advance by getting an agreement that they’ll leave their feedback at the end of the process.
Jostes says it’s important to get Google reviews, but it’s also important to give clients options in the event they don’t have a Google account. Put a reviews section on the company website where people can write firsthand feedback without needing to create an account. Reviews on social media also factor into the SEO equation, so he says landscapers can’t ignore those, either.
“The clients who are not getting strong results from the internet don't have reviews yet,” Jostes says. “They all say that word of mouth is their number one source of business. Online reviews is still word of mouth.”
Ask for feedback. Getting strong reviews online is among the first things landscapers can do to improve their SEO.
A work in progress.
Chad Diller says it’s easy for companies to forget that people – not computers – are on the other end of a Google search. Real, live humans are the ones viewing a website, so the site should be as user-friendly as possible.
“Every move that I’ve seen in Google over the last 10 years has been rewarding websites that provide a meaningful, valuable user experience,” Diller says. “If a person finds your website and they stay there…that is a big, big indicator to Google that things are going good.”
Diller is the director of client success at Landscape Leadership, which focuses on improving marketing and sales for companies in the green industry. He tells his clients to ensure their websites look good on both desktop and mobile devices, plus warns them to watch for slow loading times.
He also urges companies to consider what’s on their website. Don’t just tell people what services you offer – tell them how their solutions will help them get what they want. For example, the writing is often something like, “we provide mowing” when it should be, “we’re giving you your weekends back.”
“(The best sites) are writing for a human. It’s actually funny or clever or meaningful,” Diller says. “This looks different than the 12 other lawn care websites we went to.”
“I would say if somebody would spend four or five hours a month on (SEO), they’d be ahead of 90% of the other competitors.”
Chris Darnell, The Harvest Group
Tone is not the only important factor to consider when evaluating a website’s content. Darnell says it’s important, and for a prime example of why, landscapers should look at Apple’s website. They’re not posting photos of the latest chip that goes in their phone; they post photos of people dancing and having a good time.
But he also reminds landscapers that creating original, unique content is vital to success online. Darnell says SEO is like your digital reputation, and creating a strong reputation means doing and saying the right things over a period of time to establish yourself online. Showing off how many awards your company has won or that you can take nice photographs in front of a truck is not enough – potential clients want to see expertise.
“The misconception is that you want to talk about yourself a lot. You don’t,” Darnell says. “You want to identify the issue, the solution and basically why you’re the best choice to provide that solution.”
There are some elements to SEO that can’t really be changed: Search location proximity factors into what people search, so a landscaper in Ohio is always going to show up higher than a landscaper in Hawaii if that Google user is searching “landscapers.” But Jostes says creating several web pages on a website helps build up SEO and including relevant links and keywords like the city names or services that the company offers will help. A four-page website won’t stand up against a 50-page website, especially if the pages on the latter are relevant.
Developed pages answer questions a client might have and provide education, while underdeveloped pages focus simply on why that company is so great – a marketing pitch.
“If you don't mention the individual cities and pages, you're not going to stand out online,” Jostes says. “And you could, because most landscapers have a very thin, weak website with no content. If you build out the content, you will rank (and get) those leads.”
Don’t just tell people what services you offer – tell them how their solutions will help them get what they want. For example, the writing is often something like, “we provide mowing” when it should be, “we’re giving you your weekends back.”
Chad Diller, director of client success, Landscape Leadership
Diller urges landscapers to remember that SEO work is never really done. Not all a company’s problems will disappear if they reach the coveted top landing spot for when someone searches “landscapers near me.” He reminds companies that the goal is to get quality leads, not simply to get views.
“I think companies are looking for shortcuts,” Diller says. “They want someone to do this for them. They don’t want to be tied up with it.”
There are other search engines out there but Diller says landscapers should max out what they can do with Google first since it’s king. Plus, if they do find success on Google, landscapers will likely inherently find success on the other search engines.
Monitoring the changes in algorithms can be complicated, Darnell admits, but using tools like Google My Business, Moz and Search Engine Journal will help. Constantly reading about what Google uses in its algorithms helps people stay ahead of the curve in SEO.
Jostes compares SEO to a “tree of good fortune” – you can go out and buy fruit, but if you grow it instead, it’ll be plentiful and more productive in the long run.
“It takes more work to get started and it takes time,” Jostes says. “But once you plant it and nurture it, every season you're generating those leads, but not necessarily paying as much as you did to build it and plant it.”
Points of entry
Features - Franchise Roundup
The green industry has a number of franchise options if you want to break into landscaping or expand your service offerings.