Hydroseeding: A Versatile Alternative
Contractors discuss equipment, seed, fertilizers, and leasing versus renting.
By Carol Brzozowski
As a method of erosion control and aesthetics, hydroseeding is becoming more common in the commercial and municipal sectors, thanks in part to tightening federal restrictions on erosion control.
Hydroseeding contractors who service the residential sector are seeing a rise in the number of homeowners opting for hydroseeding, but they note that one of the driving factors might be heightened competition in the industry due to the increased availability of smaller machines.
Bruce Crouse of Quik Turf in Marietta, GA, began hydroseeding as a start-up venture following another career; his work background included construction. He had been developing some properties in North Carolina when he realized he needed a hydroseeding machine for erosion control work. That eventually led him to finding small machines that would accommodate the need to hydroseed a smaller tract of land.
He purchased a machine from TurfMaker and established a business for hydroseeding residential lawns and commercial tracts for developers who need grass planted as an alternative to sod, temporary grassing, or other erosion control methods during the construction process.
Kip Jordan, a foreman with Grondin & Sons in Goreham, ME, has 20 years of experience in hydroseeding and says it's become a generally accepted practice over the years. His company uses a Reinco machine and a hay mulcher in the process.
Grondin & Sons usually does commercial and governmental hydroseeding work, and Jordan especially enjoys hydroseeding ball fields. He notes that within the athletic community, debates have ranged over which is better for play performance and prevention of injuries: artificial turf or true grass.
Shannon Steiner, president of Kodiak Development in Colorado Springs, CO, does a lot of work for the Colorado Department of Transportation and is on a mission to promote hydroseeding as a preferable method of erosion control. "We prefer the hydromulch method to the dry mulch method because it's much less labor-intensive," Steiner says. "It may take a little bit longer to get germination, but it works really well."
The company had done a hydroseeding project in Vail, CO, to address a "messy" situation around bridges that occurs after each winter when the city applies a great deal of salt in response to the snowfall, Steiner says. The company also has used hydroseeding at a Superfund site: Summitville Mine.
Each project calls for a different approach based on engineering specifications, Steiner says. Sometimes it might be hydroseeding. Sometimes hydroseed and hydromulch are shot together simultaneously, "which is what those machines were intended to do," she points out.
Kodiak uses several different machines. "Probably 75% of what I still do in this state is drill-seeding, which is a dry method," Steiner says. "That's usually called for by the engineers on the project. The State of Colorado has not come up to speed on hydromulch as much as we would like it to because it's a much nicer, easier process than having to drill-seed."
Other government work is being done by such hydroseeding experts as Bob Law with Law's Nursery in Lisbon Falls, ME. About 70% of Law's business is hydroseeding. He uses Reinco equipment, which he says gives him the ability to hydroseed up to 3 ac. per load.
Law works primarily with the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority. His company also does work for industrial sites.
Accessing Tough-to-Reach Spots
When a site presents a challenge, hydroseeding practitioners find their method is an efficient, cost-effective way to address it. One of the most challenging jobs Law's company has encountered was at a job site for the Maine Turnpike Authority, which relocated a stream.
"We had to get in and seed and fiber mulch it," he says. Accessibility was poor, and Law's company ended up using a lot of hose to tackle the project. Doing so took about six more hours than it normally would have, Law notes.
"As they were building the interchange, they kept clearing, and we got close enough so we could finally reach it with the hoses, and that's how we did it," he explains. "Originally they weren't going to do anything to the stream, but they had some problems with erosion, and they stepped in and decided that they wanted to seed it."
Steiner says her biggest challenge to date has been the Vail job because of its difficult access. "[Hydroseeding] got us in there where normally we would not [have been] able to get in with any of our equipment. They insisted we use straw in the middle and hydroseeding before and after. That was probably the most challenging. But it looked great, and it's still there after being down on the ground for almost two months. We don't expect germination until the spring because the high elevations don't germinate a lot until spring thaw, and the snow actually helps that happen."
Kodiak employees reached the site by backing into the area as closely as possible, attaching all of the hoses to the boom and reeling them out. "Because it was pretty heavy, it took four guys to carry the hose all the way down to the area so we could shoot and start backing it up as we backed our way out of those areas," Steiner notes.
Rick Hardy is with Nature's Way Hydroseeding in Phoenix, AZ, a company that specializes in hydroseeding residential lawns. He says he normally won't hydroseed an area larger than an acre, but a recent challenging job that came his way called for him to cap a 120,000-ft.2 pile of contaminated dirt with mulch and a large quantity of tackifier to prevent contaminated dirt or dust from spreading until the property owners were able to directly address the contaminant situation of jet aircraft fuel and pesticides.
"The customer couldn't find a hazardous waste dump that would take the jet aircraft fuel." There is only a hazardous-waste dump that will take pesticides," he says. "So until they can figure out what to do with it, they asked me to cap it with a very thick layer of mulch."
Tighter Regulations Equal More Job Opportunities
The trend toward more hydroseeding translates into greater career opportunities as regulations become stricter, requiring developers to maintain cover and provide erosion control, Crouse says. "For the most part, that was a criterion that was also motivating me to consider doing this," he says. And while he hasn't noticed an increased demand in the residential sector, Crouse sees hydroseeding as a way to save homeowners money.
"They are normally electing to put in sod and believe there is no other choice because that is the quality of grass that they're looking for," he says. "This offers them that alternative."
Steiner isn't seeing a greater trend toward hydroseeding yet in Colorado. "Engineers here aren't really fond of the hydroseeding theory, and we're trying to change them over." Even so, work is plentiful now, she notes.
"Reclamation in the Colorado Front Range area is getting hotter all the time," she says. "Phase II [of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] didn't do a whole lot when it came down, but when it started to be enforced in March, my phone started ringing like crazy. EPA has been out in the state of Colorado handing out fines; the US Army Corps of Engineers have, too. I used to do 80% government work, 20% private. I'm easily 50/50 now." The entities are concerned about stormwater management and erosion control, and as a Colorado State Certified Erosion Control Supervisor, Steiner can perform their inspections.
Hardy is one hydroseeding professional who is noticing more competition in the field now, but he's concerned about it diminishing the image of the industry. "I don't know what it is about the hydroseeding industry within the landscaping industry; people seem to think that owning a pickup truck in order to pull [a tank] around is enough," he says. "Whatever happened to a little knowledge about turfgrass? These people buy the wrong equipment and don't do the appropriate research before they get into it. They wind up getting their experience at the expense of their customers and along the way convince a lot of people that hydroseeding doesn't work."
The Right Equipment for the Job
Those who are experts at hydroseeding know the foundation for success lies in the proper equipment. When it comes to choosing equipment, seeding pros look for options that offer them flexibility.
Crouse's TurfMaker machine, for example, features a mechanically agitated drum. The variety of application rates—from a light application of mulch slurry to a heavy application of mulch slurry, giving a sod-quality result—offers Crouse the ability to be more flexible in his pricing structure, depending on the budget requirements for the job, he notes.
"Within those spectrums is a variety of price structures, from a few cents a square foot up to 15 or 20 cents a square foot. It also gives me the capability to apply a bonded fiber matrix, which is a very heavy erosion control blanket that is sprayed and is competitively priced to other hillside erosion control methods currently on the market."
Crouse prefers to buy rather than lease because he has not been able to find what he considers an appropriate piece of equipment to match his needs in the leasing market. He also prefers buying over being tied to continuous leasing payments, he adds.
For Steiner, the equipment choice was narrowed down after she realized that every job her company did involved a tackifier with a mulch tracer in it. "We had a smaller machine we had bought used, and we decided we were going to have to get a bigger machine that would handle the capability," she says.
She investigated three brands and chose a Kincaid Equipment Manufacturing machine based on its having a mechanical pump versus a hydraulic one. "With hydraulics, there is a centrifugal pump, and with that you get a good distance of about 180 feet from the boom, but you lose your distance from the hose. I have to run an area like I did in Vail where I have to use 350 feet of hose just to get us there, and we have maybe 12 feet off of the hose," she says.
"If you have a mechanical pump, it's not that difficult to work on," she adds. "If it breaks, my guys can take it apart, [as opposed to] hydraulic, which my guys don't know anything about. I just did 50 feet at the end of 300 feet of hose when I had to get down there, and then they have about 125 feet off the boom. So if you can't get there from the boom, you can always get there from the hose. And it has an automatic recoil on the hose, so it was really easy to use."
Although Steiner considered leasing the equipment, she bought it when interest rates were favorable.
Hardy uses two machines: an 800-gal. Bowie and a new 300-gal. Finn T-30. "I do a relatively high volume of small jobs, so my machines are set up to be light on their feet and fast as I go from job to job," he says. "I've got the Finn equipped with a hose reel so that I can unreel it quickly, stretch it out to the job quickly, and then put it back on the trailer quickly."
Though some companies do only hydroseeding and do not combine it with other methods, others take a different approach, depending on the circumstances.
"Every job is different," Steiner points out. "It depends on the engineer, the project, and the county overseeing it. Hydroseeding always fits in toward the end of the project."
Steiner generally chooses hydroseeding for slopes because she says it's much easier. Although clients have asked for slopes to be drill-seeded, that becomes a challenge for anything greater than a 3:1 slope, she says.
"Even with the bigger tractors, it's difficult at times to get a good germination. The hydroseeding machine has been very successful for us. Private developers are talking with engineers and saying, 'Let us try this and see if it works.' It cuts our labor time almost in half on a project when we hydroseed and mulch versus drill-seed."
Steiner's company employs a variety of erosion control techniques continuously throughout projects. "When I get done seeding a slope, at the base of the slope I put up a silt fence. Probably at least 50% of the time we use it in combination with other erosion control methods."
Law often combines hydroseeding with other erosion control and revegetation techniques, such as laying erosion control blankets or mats. A job he recently did required 24,000 yd.2 of matting; another one required 15,000 yd.2.
"We also use a lot of hay mulch, which is a big thing up here," he adds. Because he must operate according to specifications given to him, Law often doesn't have much latitude in his approach.
"In a hot season, I prefer hay mulch simply because it holds moisture in a little bit longer than the fiber mulch would," Law says. "Some of the things we would look at are the lay of the land and the severity of the slope - if it's a two-to-one slope, certainly hay holds better than fiber would."
Jerry McQueen of McQueen Landscaping in Mason, MI, does nearly 90% of his hydroseeding work for new houses and residential developments and the remainder for commercial sites. He uses a 900-gal. Finn T-90 HydroSeeder. He frequently combines hydroseeding with other erosion control and revegetation techniques.
"If it's a steep slope, we'll put erosion blankets down," he says. "No matter what, if you get something that's really steep—even if you put tack in it—and if you get a lot of rain, you're going to get some washout."
McQueen switched the type of fertilizer he uses in the seed mix. He previously used a 12-12-12 mixture and has switched to a 30-9-9 one, which he finds releases nitrogen more slowly.
"Instead of getting that initial spark and then all the nitrogen's gone, it's a slower release over a longer period, and the lawns are looking a lot better," McQueen says. "We also mix in a little more seed than [the process] calls for. We mix our seed heavier, and we don't seem to have to go back as many times in order to do spot-seeding."
Crouse uses a mulch material as a binder to hold the seeds and combines it with fertilizer and other nutrients. "The bonded fiber matrix is basically a heavy mulch application with special additives to provide for better adhesion to the soil and better stability, and it gives the grass a much better chance to generate under an adverse condition and control water erosion at the same time," he says.
While many people want "champagne on a beer budget," Crouse says if budget is not a consideration, the way he applies seed and fertilizer "will provide the most optimum guarantee of high-quality turf generation, [as long as] the site owner or whoever else is responsible for the property provides adequate watering to maintain the moisture level so the seed can germinate.
"Even though it's a fully mature grass, sod still requires a lot of water in the initial phase to reestablish rooting, whereas the mulch application also requires watering, but the primary difference is—because the grass has grown on the site and [has] not [been] transported to the site—you get a much healthier, much more resilient strand of grass when it is established."
Jordan normally doesn't combine hydroseeding with any other methods. "I think a lot of the blankets they use don't get good soil-to-seed contact, which is important in getting seeds to germinate," he says. "With hydroseeding, you're spraying right on the surface. If it's not perfectly level, the erosion control blanket doesn't lay down on the ground very well. With hydroseeding, you can use it on the slopes pretty easily, and it gets applied quite evenly."
Educating the Customer
In the end, as McQueen points out, a hydroseeding contractor can do his best, but unless the surface is properly maintained, it can be for naught. Sometimes he'll encounter resistance from a homeowner who had a previous negative experience with hydroseeding, which McQueen attributes to the person's lack of upkeep.
"What people don't understand is you can do the best hydroseeding job in the world, but if they don't water it, it's not going to grow. It's the same with sod or if you hand-seed it - it's the care you put into it that results in how good a lawn you have."
McQueen educates customers with a one-page flyer that details watering and other instructions. "We also put sprinkler systems in, which we push so people don't have to worry about their watering themselves because the most important thing is keeping the seed moist the first couple of months so that the yard comes in and it's not spotty. A lot of these houses now have pretty good-sized lawns, and to try to go out there and cover [those lawns] with the average garden sprinkler is pretty tough."
Hardy also employs educational methods. He says to retain the customer base he has in this competitive arena, he must be a stickler for quality. "I'm not interested in doing jobs for customers who aren't willing to follow my watering instructions," he says. "I have enjoyed a callback ratio of less than one out of 100 for many years. Part of that is my customer base. I don't like working for contractors because generally they won't follow the instructions. Homeowners, on the other hand, will."
Hardy's typical customer has been living in his or her house for two years, has made indoor upgrades to the home, has expressed a concern about dust and dirt entering the house from the backyard, and therefore wants to install a lawn.
"My average customer is someone who put in his own sprinkler system and who goes for hydromulching rather than sod because it's less expensive. Fortunately the newer grasses that have been recently released are knocking the socks off of the older, vegetative varieties of hybrid Bermudas."
To help them keep the grass in tiptop shape, Hardy gives his customers a 20-page instruction booklet with information on how to nurture the seed into a lush lawn.
"It's a combination of not skimping on materials and making sure that the customers are educated. The majority of my work comes from word-of-mouth referrals."
Staying Ahead of the Weather
For some hydroseeding practitioners throughout the United States, extreme weather fluctuations mean they must turn to other sources of income, such as snowplowing, or spend the downtime repairing equipment. Some rely on landscaping-related work, such as irrigation installation or landscape lighting.
McQueen adds to his bottom line by networking with others, including landscapers who don't do hydroseeding.
Since Grondin & Sons is a diversified operation, the company directs its efforts to other endeavors when inclement weather prevents successful hydroseeding. "You could [hydroseed] on top of snow, but we really don't do too much of it because the equipment usually freezes up," Jordan says. "If it's rainy, you're probably better off waiting until it dries up a bit because a lot of times, if you're spraying water, it's going to cause things to puddle up or even wash out if it's on a slope. That could be a deterrent."
Other seeding pros work nearly 12 months a year but make adjustments in the type of seed being applied.
Crouse utilizes two primary types of grasses to accommodate the warm- and cold-weather fluctuations in Georgia. "Here it's primarily Bermuda of various types, centipede, and zoysia," he says. "We plant the warm-season grasses in the early spring and summer months, and then toward November we're into the cool-season grasses. There are seasonal-type grasses, which are the ryegrasses in the fall and the winter for temporary grassing, that can be mixed with various seed types that will germinate when the warm weather returns in the spring.
"The cool-weather or the seasonal grass dies, and the Bermuda grass, for example, takes hold in the spring. There's this migratory transition between the two: One dies away, the other one starts growing. So you have a continuous coverage of vegetation throughout the whole year until the one can establish itself, and then it becomes a dormant ground cover in the winter. The grass turns brown, but it still provides an erosion control."
Regarding seasonal application work, Crouse notes, "You're going to have to mix your application types between aesthetic lawn planting and temporary grassing for developments because there's always going to be construction year-round, and there's going to be the need for some type of temporary grassing for erosion control. Seasonal grasses—ryegrasses and millets in the summer—can provide for those kinds of temporary applications. Those can all be adequately and professionally installed with hydroseeding."
Aside from that, Crouse will only experience downtime during a flood. "It's feast or famine," he says of the work. "You either have too much or don't have enough."
In Arizona, Hardy encounters temperatures that rise above 100°F. The hot, dry weather necessitates that the mulch be laid on rather thick.
"I primarily use wood-fiber mulch," Hardy says. "Mostly I use 70% wood and 30% paper because if I used straight paper, it would smother the seed at the thicknesses I put it on. My average application rate is about 3,000 pounds of mulch per acre. I put it on very thick by hydromulching standards."
Most of the people interviewed agree that hydroseeding is generally less expensive than other revegetation methods. Steiner compares it to a straw blanket application, "which is the cheapest blanket application we'll use." But she points out that the price gap is starting to close.
"I look into hydroseeding versus the drill-seeding application as far as seeding goes, and the costs are almost comparable now," Steiner says. "The suppliers in the Colorado area have gotten to the point where they're competitive with straw, and that helps me tremendously. It's about the same cost for me to hydroseed as to drill-seed and blow straw."
Although the state's Department of Transportation still requires a double application rate on seed, the cost remains comparable, Steiner says. "I'd still prefer to hydroseed than drill-seed," she says. "I've had success with both. Hydroseed seems to take a little bit longer out here to germinate. I've been a supervisor on a couple of different projects where it was down for almost nine months before it took, but when it took, it had excellent coverage versus drill-seeding."
Steiner believes that a wet method can germinate immediately, though she hasn't found that to pan out in her experience. "But when it does, you've got full coverage," she notes.
Hydroseeding is the more economical way to cover large areas, says Jordan, adding that, costwise, smaller areas under a half an acre are better off having it done by hand.
Law points out that the biggest variable in cost is the type of seed specified. "They can get into some exotic mixtures, especially if you're getting into ball fields. They want something that's going to stand the wear and tear. And some of the wetland seeding is very expensive."
Law also uses wood-fiber mulch, but the majority of the work is done with hay because of its availability in his part of the country and, in contrast, because it's less expensive than fiber mulch. "Depending on what [a job is] calling for, normally we're putting on between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of hay per acre," he says.
Hardy prices his jobs according to a list he established years ago. The size of the job dictates the price, "although some of these newer varieties of grass can be very pricey in terms of the cost to seed," he says. "For instance, my standard grass is one called Black Jack. The best grass we have is Riviera. I can buy 10 pounds of Black Jack seed for what 1 pound of Riviera seed costs. Half of the weight of the bag is the coating. Basically I could buy 12 pounds of raw seed with Black Jack for what 1 pound of raw Riviera would cost, so Riviera ends up being an extra 6 cents a square foot. I can't shoot it for the same money."
Hardy believes that those new to the industry would do well by joining a trade association, such as the Hydro Turf Planters Association. "That's their best shot of getting information that is unbiased," he says. "It's pretty inexpensive, and it's a chance to find out what it's all about before they jump into it."
Journalist Carol Brzozowski writes on erosion control and technology.