Taking an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management


Missouri Environment & Garden


Brad S. Fresenburg
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 884-8785

Selecting Lawn Care Services

Brad S. Fresenburg
University of Missouri
(573) 884-8785

Published: March 1, 2011

A lawn is not only nice to look at, but can be good for the environment as well. It will enrich the soil, deter erosion, and cool the environment. Also, it will increase the value of your property. Many people choose to have professionals take care of their lawns for them. However, not all lawn care services provide everything you need. This may require you to seek a mowing service as well. Some lawn care services that do not provide mowing can and sometimes do make recommendations for their preferred mowing service. Some thought and work should be done in order to select the best lawn care company for your specific needs.

First, you need to ask what quality of lawn you want to have and the how much do you wish to spend to get that lawn. If your lawn only needs to be average, the lawn care company will not have to work as much, so it will be cost less. Similarly, a company hired to create and maintain a top quality lawn will not be cheap.

As a homeowner, you must care for your lawn. Proper lawn care includes mowing, fertilizer/pest control, cultivation, irrigation and overseeding. You have the option of doing all these tasks or you may choose to hire any or all of them done.

One benefit of doing so is that you are able to shift some or all of the responsibility to a lawn care service and, in turn, increase your own leisure time.

Lawn care companies provide a service to their customers. The degree of service varies from firm to firm with some offering only fertilizer/pest control and others complete turf maintenance.

Most lawn care companies are more familiar with current developments in fertilizer and pest technology than homeowners. A responsible firm holds in-house training sessions and encourages its employees to attend classes and educational seminars conducted by the University of Missouri Extension and/or a Professional Lawn Care Associations.

When a homeowner chooses a complete lawn care service, a representative from the firm will work on the lawn every week. This normally results in a minimum of problems. A homeowner who selects a program with minimal applications per year can expect insects, diseases and other problems to arise periodically. Various levels of service are available from lawn care companies and each carries with it a certain degree of performance or results.

Lawn care companies cannot perform miracles. Most conflicts between homeowners and companies stem from a miscommunication over services to be provided or unrealistic expectations about the results to be achieved. This is especially true when a homeowner wants a "picture perfect" lawn. We need to instill the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect lawn. An occasional weed here and there should be acceptable.

When a lawn care company is involved, lawn maintenance includes three factors which must work with the others to produce an attractive and functional turf. The homeowner must properly water and mow the turf (if the homeowner chooses to mow). Nature must provide good growing conditions. When temperature, precipitation and humidity fall out of the optimal range, problems may arise. Finally, the lawn care company must properly apply fertilizer, diagnose insect and disease problems and control weeds.

With lawn care services, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. This does not necessarily mean that the most expensive firm is the best, but you must consider that quality materials and trained employees do not come without expense. If a quoted price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The average "do-it yourself" homeowner spends $100-$150 per year on basic lawn maintenance products (i.e. fertilizer and pest control products). This figure doesn't include the cost of a lawn mower, fertilizer spreader, watering equipment or the labor to service the lawn. A reasonable price for lawn care would range between $300 and $500 a year, depending on size of lawn, the level of service provided (i.e. is grub control included, number of applications etc.), and the expectations of the homeowner. This estimate is based on product applications only and does not include other services such as mowing or snow removal.

Pesticides used properly, when needed, can help protect you and the environment—especially surface and ground waters. The correct balance of cultural practices (such as proper mowing, watering, fertilization, and aeration) with lawn care products will promote healthy, attractive lawns. Make an informed choice if you decide to use a lawn care service, or if you choose to apply lawn care chemicals yourself be sure to read the labels and follow the directions exactly.

Look to the information below as you evaluate mowing practices provided by a lawn care service or mowing service. Be sure they follow the highlighted guidelines. Mowing is the most frequent cultural practice we provide in lawn maintenance. It can make or break a lawn in a single season.

Mowing Guidelines:
Turfgrass plants mowed shorter than their optimal height of cut are, in general, under more stress and more susceptible to weeds, diseases and insects. Optimal cutting heights for cool-season grasses, such as blends of turf-type tall fescues, should range from 3.0 to 4.0 inches. Warm-season grasses, like zoysia, can range between 2 and 3 inches.

Seasonal variation in mowing height was once thought to be highly beneficial and is still considered beneficial by some. We know that mowing cool-season grasses a little taller in the summer months can have benefits through summer stress periods (deeper roots, better cooling effect). Taller grasses will also conserve moisture, giving some reduction in irrigation requirements. We also know that cool-season grasses mowed a little taller in the spring and fall compete more successfully against weeds (up to 80% control of annual weeds). Therefore, select the tallest, acceptable mowing height for your species of grass and maintain that height during the entire season. This provides benefits throughout the season—competition against weeds as well as reduced summer stress.

Clippings should be uniformly distributed rather than deposited in clumps. Mowing the lawn when the grass is dry and using a properly sharpened mower blade will spread clippings evenly. If some areas produce excess clippings, simply mulch those in with a second passing of the mower.

Mowing creates wounds through which fungi can enter the plant and infect it. Leaf cuts made by a sharp mower blade are cleaner and heal faster than the tearing and shredding caused by a dull mower blade. A dull mower blade inflicts more and bigger wounds that increase potential for infection by turfgrass diseases. Having a sharp, spare mower blade allows you to switch blades when needed and prevents delays in mowing when getting your mower blade sharpened.

Observe leaf tips or grass clippings collected on your mower deck immediately after a mowing to determine the quality of cut. Use this as an indicator of when to sharpen mower blades.

During hot summer months it is best to mow later in the day to minimize additional stresses on your grass.

It is also best to change directions of mowing each time you mow.

Frequency of cut should be determined by the "one-third rule" of mowing. You should make sure that no more than one-third of the leaf growth is removed during a single mowing. During the spring and fall, cool-season grasses can be mowed every 5 to 6 days when properly fertilized.

Many homeowners believe grass clippings need to be removed to have a healthy, vigorous lawn. By following the steps in the "Don't Bag It" lawn care program, you can have a beautiful lawn without collecting your grass clippings (MU Guide G6959 – "Don't Bag It" Lawn Care: How to Recycle Your Grass Clippings, Leaves and Branches). Returning grass clippings can return as much as 30 percent nitrogen and 50 percent potassium. Grass clippings also contribute to the organic matter levels of your soil improving the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil.

When is it OK to bag clippings? 1) When delayed in mowing due to rain; 2) When you wish to make compost (Refer to: MU Guide G6956 – Making and Using Compost & G6958 – Grass Clippings, Compost and Mulch: Questions and Answers); and 3) When preparing for aeration and over-seeding in late summer to early fall. Avoid using grass clippings in compost when chemically treated.

A word of caution about weed-eating: Weed-eaters typically scalp turfgrasses when edging along sidewalks, curbs, and driveways. This promotes weeds! Best edging practices include a power edger or weed-eater (rotated) with a vertical blade preventing any scalping of turfgrasses.

Most problems or disputes between the homeowner and the lawn care company can be prevented by each party fulfilling their responsibility and understanding the role that nature plays in producing a satisfactory turfgrass.

When problems arise, contact the service manager of the lawn care company. State the problem as clearly as possible and ask how soon a technical representative can investigate the situation.

Ultimately, you are responsible for the maintenance of your lawn. Lawn care companies can perform some of the necessary tasks but you shouldn't expect miracles from companies. Good communication between the homeowner and the company is essential for proper turf management.

Acknowledgements go to the University of Nebraska and Virginia Tech University for some of the information provided within this newsletter.

When Choosing a Lawn Care Company, Consider the Following Guidelines
  • Know what lawn or landscape care services you want provided. Ask several companies what services they offer and ask friends and neighbors for recommendations.
  • Select a company that is willing to listen to your concerns about your lawn or landscape and can provide effective and acceptable solutions to your problems. Ask how much training and experience the company's consulting employees have with lawns in your area.
  • Obtain a written service agreement. Ask if the service is automatically renewed each year (if so, request an annual written confirmation), and ask if there are any penalties if you decide to cancel your service agreement.
  • Ask a company representative to visit your property to determine problems, level of maintenance, and pricing. Do not simply accept service over the telephone without other contact with the company.
  • Ask if the company is licensed and insured. Do not be afraid to ask for proof. IN MISSOURI, PERSONS OR FIRMS THAT APPLY PESTICIDES FOR HIRE MUST HAVE A VALID PESTICIDE APPLICATORS LICENSE, ISSUED BY THE MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE - Bureau of Pesticide Control. They must also have proof of insurance on file with the state office.
  • Be sure the person applying the pesticides has been trained in the proper use of pesticides. Ask if the person(s) applying the pesticides to your lawn will be a Certified Pesticide Applicator(s). In Missouri, ALL PERSONS who use pesticides for HIRE are considered commercial applicators and, as such, must be certified as either a Commercial Applicator or a Certified Technician.
  • Ask if the company is a member of a trade association. This is an indication of the company's dedication and of being informed of the latest technical information.
  • Ask the company to tell you what lawn care products it plans to apply and why.
  • Be sure the company always provides advance notice of chemical applications in case anything needs to be moved before the treatment. The company should also tell you how long to stay off the lawn after the treatment.
  • Ask if the company puts up notification signs for the chemical applications.
  • Ask the company for detailed instructions on the maintenance you will need to perform (mowing, irrigation, etc.).
  • Check on the company throughout the entire time service is provided. Let them know of any compliments as well as complaints.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau to see what types of complaints, if any, have been filed against the company. Ask the company for references from local customers.

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REVISED: June 13, 2012